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Polaris Snowmobiles

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1964 Polaris sales brochure. From “Pamphlets relating to snowmobiles and snow cruisers, 1939–.” Pamphlets collection (TL234), Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.

1964 Polaris sales brochure. From “Pamphlets relating to snowmobiles and snow cruisers, 1939–.” Pamphlets collection (TL234), Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.

Polaris Industries of Roseau, Minnesota, manufactured its first snowmobiles in 1956. In the years since then, it has remained an industry leader in production, sales, and innovation, even as it has diversified into other, more lucrative product lines.

Minnesota’s snowmobile industry was born in January 1956, when a mechanic named David Johnson assembled a prototype of a snow-going vehicle in the garage of Polaris Industries, a small machine shop in Roseau. Johnson based his design loosely on an early snow machine called the motor toboggan, built by Wisconsin inventor Carl Eliason. But Johnson’s invention was smaller, lighter, and more nimble than Eliason’s. By the end of 1956, Johnson and his Polaris business partners, brothers Edgar and Allan Hetteen, had refined the machine’s design and named it the Sno-Traveler.

Over the next several years, Johnson and the Hetteen brothers slowly ramped up Sno-Traveler production and assembled of network of dealers. An early breakthrough came in March 1960, when Edgar Hetteen led a caravan of three Sno-Travelers on a 1,200-mile trek across Alaska. The successful journey proved the machine’s ruggedness and reliability, and helped convince skeptics that the snowmobile was a viable consumer product. By 1962, Sno-Traveler sales were approaching $800,000 a year and accounting for 85 percent of the company’s annual revenues.

In 1963, Polaris introduced the Comet, a light, front-engine sled designed to compete directly with the Ski-Doo, manufactured by Polaris’s main rival, Bombardier of Valcourt, Quebec. But the Comet suffered from multiple design flaws that emerged only after it hit the market. The subsequent customer backlash nearly bankrupted the company. The following year, Polaris unveiled a new line of snowmobiles including the user-friendly Mustang. The new sleds were hits with consumers and led the company into a sustained period of growth. Polaris’s improved performance attracted corporate suitors, and in 1968, the Rhode Island-based conglomerate Textron acquired it for about $11 million.

Polaris sold a record 30,000 snowmobiles during the 1970–71 season, but business fell off sharply after that. The 1973 OPEC oil embargo and the ensuing energy crisis turned snowmobiling into a luxury activity that many Americans could no longer afford. Sales plummeted. More than a dozen snowmobile manufacturers got out of the business. Polaris survived by cutting production and slashing its workforce.

The company won accolades in 1979, when it introduced the TX-L Indy, the industry’s first consumer snowmobile with race-tested independent front suspension (IFS). But the path to recovery remained difficult. In 1981, when a group of managers bought Polaris from Textron, the company’s production plant in Roseau employed just twelve people. In 1983, industry-wide snowmobile sales dipped to historic lows. Polaris responded, in part, by diversifying into new product lines including all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), which it introduced in 1985.

Polaris continued to manufacture snowmobiles and introduce breakthrough technologies like electronic fuel injection (1989) and long-travel rear suspension (1994), but it gradually deemphasized the business through which it came to prominence. In 1996, for the first time, Polaris produced more ATVs than snowmobiles. By 2018, snowmobiles accounted for just 6 percent of the company’s sales.

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Dapper, Michael. Illustrated Polaris Snowmobile Buyer’s Guide. Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1993.

“End 1,200 Mile Sno-Traveler Trip thru Alaskan Wilds.” Roseau Times Region, March 31, 1960.

“Polaris IFS Technology Pays Off in 1980 TX-L Indy.” Roseau Times Region, November 29, 1979.

Polaris Industries, Inc. Form 10-K, 2018. https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/931015/000162828019001394/pii-12312018x10xk.htm

“Polaris Shows Big Value to Roseau.” Roseau Times Region, May 17, 1956.

“Polaris Stockholders to Vote July 31 on Sale of Roseau Firm to Textron.” Roseau Times Region, July 25, 1968.

Rodengen, Jeffrey L., and Richard F. Hubbard. The Legend of Polaris. Fort Lauderdale, FL: Write Stuff Enterprises, 2003.

“Roseau Product Gets Recognition.” Roseau Times Region, February 7, 1957.

“The Success of the Community Featured at the Roseau Civic and Commerce Banquet.” Roseau Times Region, January 19, 1996.

Related Images

1964 Polaris sales brochure. From “Pamphlets relating to snowmobiles and snow cruisers, 1939–.” Pamphlets collection (TL234), Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
1964 Polaris sales brochure. From “Pamphlets relating to snowmobiles and snow cruisers, 1939–.” Pamphlets collection (TL234), Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
Polaris sales brochure produced after Edgar Hetteen’s pivotal Alaska-proving trek, ca. 1960. From “Pamphlets relating to snowmobiles and snow cruisers, 1939–.” Pamphlets collection (TL234), Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
Polaris sales brochure produced after Edgar Hetteen’s pivotal Alaska-proving trek, ca. 1960. From “Pamphlets relating to snowmobiles and snow cruisers, 1939–.” Pamphlets collection (TL234), Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
1961 Polaris Sno-Traveler. This snowmobile was originally painted red and was decorated with white stenciling, decals, and pinstripes.
1961 Polaris Sno-Traveler. This snowmobile was originally painted red and was decorated with white stenciling, decals, and pinstripes.
One of the earliest known Polaris newspaper advertisements. Bemidji Pioneer, February 2, 1957.
One of the earliest known Polaris newspaper advertisements. Bemidji Pioneer, February 2, 1957.
1963 Polaris Sno-Traveler at a show-and-swap meet in Maple Lake, Minnesota, August 2017. Photograph by Flickr user Greg Gjerdingen. CC BY 2.0.
1963 Polaris Sno-Traveler at a show-and-swap meet in Maple Lake, Minnesota, August 2017. Photograph by Flickr user Greg Gjerdingen. CC BY 2.0.
Polaris sleds dominated the 1967 St. Paul Winter Carnival “500” snowmobile race. From envelope titled “Snowmobile race, January 1967, trans returned,” box 612 of the Minneapolis and St. Paul Newspaper Negatives Collection (1936–1987), Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
Polaris sleds dominated the 1967 St. Paul Winter Carnival “500” snowmobile race. From envelope titled “Snowmobile race, January 1967, trans returned,” box 612 of the Minneapolis and St. Paul Newspaper Negatives Collection (1936–1987), Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
: Sales brochure featuring the 1969 Polaris Mustang. From “Pamphlets relating to snowmobiles and snow cruisers, 1939–.” Pamphlets collection (TL234), Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
: Sales brochure featuring the 1969 Polaris Mustang. From “Pamphlets relating to snowmobiles and snow cruisers, 1939–.” Pamphlets collection (TL234), Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
Publicity photo of the 1969 Polaris Voyager.
Publicity photo of the 1969 Polaris Voyager.
Publicity photo of the 1969 Polaris Charger.
Publicity photo of the 1969 Polaris Charger.
Photograph Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul Description: Publicity photo of the 1969 Polaris Colt.
Photograph Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul Description: Publicity photo of the 1969 Polaris Colt.
Promotional photo of the 1969 Polaris Playmate, including wheel kit.
Promotional photo of the 1969 Polaris Playmate, including wheel kit.
The cover of this 1970 sales brochure featured Polaris’s full snowmobile line. From “Pamphlets relating to snowmobiles and snow cruisers, 1939–.” Pamphlets collection (TL234), Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
The cover of this 1970 sales brochure featured Polaris’s full snowmobile line. From “Pamphlets relating to snowmobiles and snow cruisers, 1939–.” Pamphlets collection (TL234), Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
1996 Polaris sales catalog. From Polaris 1996 Snowmobiles (Minneapolis: Polaris, 1995). Available at the Minnesota Historical Society library as TL234.2 P64 1995.
1996 Polaris sales catalog. From Polaris 1996 Snowmobiles (Minneapolis: Polaris, 1995). Available at the Minnesota Historical Society library as TL234.2 P64 1995.
Polaris RMK series snowmobile. Introduced in 1996, the RMK series of snowmobiles Polaris’s entry into the deep snow mountain sled market. Photograph taken in Island Park, Idaho, by Flickr user MotoWebMistress. CC BY 2.0.
Polaris RMK series snowmobile. Introduced in 1996, the RMK series of snowmobiles Polaris’s entry into the deep snow mountain sled market. Photograph taken in Island Park, Idaho, by Flickr user MotoWebMistress. CC BY 2.0.
Polaris 500 Indy Classic snowmobile at Jay Cooke State Park, Minnesota. Photograph by Flickr user Tony Webster. CC BY 2.0.
Polaris 500 Indy Classic snowmobile at Jay Cooke State Park, Minnesota. Photograph by Flickr user Tony Webster. CC BY 2.0.
Governor Karl Rolvaag with St. Paul Winter Carnival Queen of the Snows Jean Williams and Minneapolis Aquatennial Queen of the Lakes Karen Erlandson, riding a Polaris Colt on the grounds of the Minnesota State Capitol, 1967. From box 3 of the Karl F. Rolvaag papers (Government Records Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul).
Governor Karl Rolvaag with St. Paul Winter Carnival Queen of the Snows Jean Williams and Minneapolis Aquatennial Queen of the Lakes Karen Erlandson, riding a Polaris Colt on the grounds of the Minnesota State Capitol, 1967. From box 3 of the Karl F. Rolvaag papers (Government Records Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul).

Turning Point

In January 1956, David Johnson, a mechanic at Polaris Industries in Roseau, builds a prototype snow-going vehicle that establishes Polaris as a perennial leader in the snowmobile industry.

Chronology

1954

Roseau, Minnesota’s Hetteen Hoist & Derrick, a manufacturer of straw cutters and other equipment, is renamed Polaris Industries.

1956

Polaris’s founders, Edgar Hetteen, Allan Hetteen, and David Johnson, build several versions of their first snowmobile, the Sno-Traveler.

1957

Polaris begins selling Sno-Travelers through a small, but growing, network of dealers.

1960

A 1,200-mile trek across Alaska, led by Edgar Hetteen, helps establish the Sno-Traveler as a viable product.

1963

Polaris’s new snowmobile, the Comet, proves to be unreliable and nearly sends the company into bankruptcy.

1964

A new line of snowmobiles, including the Mustang, restores Polaris’s reputation and sets the stage for a sustained period of growth.

1968

Attracted by sales growth in the snowmobile industry, the Rhode Island-based conglomerate Textron purchases Polaris for about $11 million.

1970

Polaris introduces its new “high performance” line of TX Series sleds, which for the first time incorporates design innovations developed through its racing program.

1973

The OPEC oil embargo and resulting energy crisis trigger an industry-wide sales slump that threatens Polaris’s survival.

1979

In a major technological advance, Polaris introduces the TX-L Indy, the industry’s first consumer snowmobile with race-tested independent front suspension (IFS).

1981

A group of Polaris managers buys the company from Textron in a leveraged buyout.

1985

Polaris starts manufacturing all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) in addition to snowmobiles.

1990

After years as a runner-up, Polaris pulls ahead of competitors Arctic Cat, Yamaha, and Bombardier (Ski-Doo) to become the snowmobile industry’s sales leader.

1996

In a sign of Polaris’s shifting priorities, the company for the first time produces more ATVs than snowmobiles.

2018

Snowmobile sales now account for just 6 percent of Polaris’s annual revenues.