harold-hamilton

Harold Hamilton in his tricked-out 1951 Tucker 443

Harold Hamilton rolled his 1951 Tucker 443 out of the shop in Scapoose, Oregon just in time for the Cat’s Meow Jamboree on Mount Hood.

“It’s the first time this machine has moved under its own power in about 35 years,” Hamilton reported from the cat’s groovy pink and black interior. “Its maiden voyage on the snow was today. We had a nut come off the steering, had to fix that. But it did all right.”

“It’s got a 1963 Buick 215 for an engine - all aluminum. So it’s got some pop. This thing weighs 300 pounds and makes 215 horsepower.”

Forsythe and other snow cat enthusiasts gathered at Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood last week for a lively festival celebrating the history of the machines used to explore and groom vast expanses of snow from Antarctica to Alaska. There were dozens of cats on exhibition by the lodge, including the famous Tucker Cat that nearly fell into a crevasse on an expedition to Antarctica and emerged to complete a 2,000-mile journey in 1957.

The Jamboree featured a talk by Peter Fuchs, the son of explorer Sir Dr. Vivian Fuchs, leader of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Four types of snow cats set out on that epic adventure, and only the made-in-Oregon Tuckers made it.

'Just an engineer who needed a toy at home'

A few cats down the line from Hamilton’s tricked-out Tucker, Jeff Edfast was revving up his 1961 Sno Trac ST4B, powered by a Volkswagen 1600-cc air-cooled engine. “it uses a Volkswagen transmission with variable speed pulleys, so I can steer with a steering wheel,” he said. “It rides like a sports car. A lot of these machines are big and heavy. This one is not. You can drive it in and out of tree wells.”

Edfast is from Duvall, Washington, “just an engineer who needed a toy at home.” His cat is the same model you see in one of the scenes from The Shining shot at Timberline — where Jack Nicholson is told it’s “as easy to drive as a car.” The machine came out of a factory from Sweden, served the Canadian telephone company, and was transported down from the Yukon Territory by Lyndon Strother, who sold it to Edfast.

Strother has owned 13 of these exact models and 4 more of the wide-track version. “This was one of the most aggressive snow cats ever built,” Strother said as he helped Edfast with some tinkering. “Not much power for grooming or pulling a trailer, but it can walk like a spider up anything, and it puts less ground pressure than snowshoes or skis.”

Strother is a VW guy who once pulled an engine with a friend in a minute and forty seconds. So ever since he learned about the Swedish snow-cat with the VW engine inside, he has been buying them up and fixing them up and building up his parts collection. He bought his first Sno Trac at an auto body shop in La Pine, Oregon and went on to restore more than 30 of them. He buys them up in Canada and Alaska,  fixes them with parts from his collection and sells them wherever he can find someone who wants one.

'It’s an all-consuming passion'

“Every one of these machines has a story to it,” says Jinn Marie Davis, “and sometimes the story is worth more than the snow cat is.”

Davis grew up in Sun Valley, Idaho, where her father commuted to work in a snow cat, and she has always been fascinated with the machines. Everyone I spoke with at the Cat's Meow agreed that she is a genius at repairing, preserving and restoring old Snow Cats, and I can personally attest to her skills as a driver as well, because riding up Mount Hood with Davis in a 1959 Tucker Cat with pontoon skis on the front and treads on the back was definitely one of the highlights of reporting from Mount Hood.

“It’s an all-consuming passion,” Davis said of her love for Snow Cats as she revved noisily up the mountain. “I don’t make money off of it. It’s just for fun.”

'I was the first Tucker to get back in and drive it'

Jeff McNeil shares Davis’s passion for snow cats, but for him there is also a money component, because it is the family business. McNeil grew up at the Tucker factory in Medford, Oregon, and he still works there as a third generation Tucker.

“I’ve been in the shop since I was probably 6, maybe 5,” McNeil said. “I started working there when I was 14. I’m not a certified welder so I don’t do the frame work, but other than that, I’ve done pretty much everything there… I love what I do, and now getting out here with generations of machines, this is just great.”

McNeil pointed to the famous Tucker with the British flag mounted to commemorate the British-led Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

“This machine here, Scott [Russell] and Jinn took the engine apart, cleaned it all out, went through the gears and the tranny and the transfer cases, put it back together with some grease and fired it up. And I was the first Tucker to get back in and drive it. There's a lot of history in that machine."

The history of the Snow Cat goes back even further, to the ski troopers of the 10th Mountain Division and their Mighty Weasel, but that is another story for another time.

Click through the gallery below for more images from the 2015 Cat's Meow at Timberline. Let's hope these awesome wing-nuts return for future events, because they are a lively bunch of folks, and their machines fit in nicely with the scene at Timberline Lodge.

A 1959 Tucker

 

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