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The Incredible Story of the "Antarctic Cruiser"

Updated: Aug 8, 2022

In 1939, America’s Snow Cruiser was designed to tackle the intense and treacherous conditions of Antarctica—and to this day, it is still missing. It remains one of history’s greatest engineering legends. But what went wrong?

In the run up to WWII, declaring and staking large chunks of the unclaimed continent had become something of a sport for decadent adventurers. Designed by physicist and explorer Thomas C. Poulter and constructed by the Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago, the Snow Cruiser was staggeringly large, and incredibly impressive.

Even by modern standards, the vehicle was a force to be reckoned with—measuring some 17 meters in length, 6 meters in width, and 5 meters in height, while standing atop impossibly large pneumatic tires. Boasting a price tag of $150,000 in 1938 (which would be $2.8 million today, after accounting for inflation), the Snow Cruiser was a hefty investment. To accommodate its journey, most roads were even closed ahead of its arrival.

A week after leaving Chicago, the Snow Cruiser arrived in Ohio and encountered many problems within the state. Near the town of Gomer, on the Lincoln Highway, the steering system broke down—resulting in it driving off the bridge and into a stream. To retrieve it, hydraulic jacks incorporated into the machine’s bodywork partially lifted the Snow Cruiser off the ground, where timbers could then be placed under the wheels. These timbers acted as a ramp, and the Cruiser was back on the road.

On November 15, 1939, the cruiser was preparing to set sail for Little America, in the Bay of Whales, in Antarctica. Frustratingly, the Snow Cruiser’s actual problems had barely begun in early January 1940, disaster almost struck as the crew tried to disembark from North Star. While descending a timber ramp, about two-thirds of the way down, the front left wheel of the Cruiser plunged straight through the wooden structure.

Finally, the Cruiser arrived at its destination, where the supportive shouts of those watching were loud and jubilant. However, the cheers trailed off quickly, watching as the smooth tires could not navigate, or even move through the snow and ice. This anticlimactic arrival meant the Snow Cruiser sat on the sand, with a contact area of only nine square feet per tire. The sand had helped the vehicle in the frozen north. However, it was nowhere near as mobile as initially hoped. To the surprise of the Cruiser’s operators, driving in reverse seemed to work best, notably improving its grip. One of the machine’s longest trips driven backwards was a whopping 92 miles.

Eventually, it was decided that the Snow Cruiser would have to be abandoned, and the team was to come home. The last time the Snow Cruiser could be found in action was during the 1930s and 1940s Antarctic exploration. Today, geologists suggest the Snow Cruiser may have sunk to the bottom of the ocean after a significant chunk of the Ross Ice Shelf broke off in the mid-1960s. It’s speculated that the eastern barrier section of this shelf was home to the Snow Cruiser’s berth, and may have separated, or sunk, as the break tore across 'Little America' — the former US exploration base.

What do you think?

  • What is the reason for the lack of success of "Antarctic Cruiser"?

  • What could’ve been done better for this "incredible" project?

  • Analyzing this case from a Lean Manufacturing point of view, what was the cause for its lack of success?

Source: Ethan GILLIAN CARMOODIE, 2019, “The Incredible Story Of America's Lost 1939 Antarctic Snow Cruiser”, Motorious.

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