Late last winter I was on a ride with the other snowmobiletrail.com staff members and we stopped at one of our favorite watering holes to take a little break. As I was sitting outside looking at all of the snowmobiles parked in the lot, it struck me how many older style sleds there were (by older style I mean the pre rider forward design). I began wondering why with all of this fantastic new technology available that there were still so many people punishing their bodies on the trail riding old iron.
I saw this same trend back in the eighties as the overwhelming majority of snowmobiles on the trail in that decade were still sleds built in the 1970’s. This is relevant because some of the same forces that were at work in the 80’s are repeating themselves today.
The 80’s were a horrible decade for the snowmobile in general, the trail systems were not well established, the sleds being built weren’t that far off from what had been developed in the seventies, the economy in the northern states wasn’t that good and most important of all snowfall was scarce. It would take a landmark technological advancement to change the face of snowmobiling and launch it into the future, and that technological advance came in the form of Polaris’ Independent Front Suspension.
When Polaris’ IFS sleds hit the market, it quickly became clear to the remaining manufacturers that to survive they had to develop some sort of IFS sled themselves or face certain death. The IFS was so superior in ride quality that it finally put those hordes of 1970’s era sleds and even a huge number of 1980’s sleds out to pasture. Led by Polaris, the snowmobile industry saw a rebirth in the nineties as sales climbed into numbers not seen in over a decade, and the undisputed champion of the era was the Polaris Indy 500. As we passed into the new millennium it seemed that the snowmobile had found its perfect evolution of design and that the real work left to be done was in suspensions and in creating purpose built snowmobiles for the mountains, trail performance, crossovers and touring. But in 2003 Ski-Doo once again shocked the snowmobile world with its introduction of the rider forward designed REV chassis. Once the public experienced the superior ride quality of the rider forward design, the traditional snowmobile designs of the past met a rapid demise. Polaris, Yamaha and Arctic Cat suddenly found themselves scrambling to catch up as Ski-doo captured huge portions of market share.
Now that all of the manufacturers have adopted the rider forward design and the snowmobile of today provides such a superior riding experience to the sleds of the past, then why haven’t those 1990’s era sleds disappeared as readily as snowmobiles from the 70’s and 80’s did when the 1990’s IFS sleds arrived? By the mid-nineties one would be hard pressed to find any remaining 70’s or 80’s sleds left on the trail, but yet here we are, fourteen years after the advent of the REV chassis and still nearly 60% of the snowmobiles on the trails today are still of the old 90’s type design. The reasons for this slow disappearance of 90’s style sleds can be attributed to a number of factors…
1. PRICE: The snowmobiles that are sold today are the best snowmobiles that have ever been manufactured. Their reliability, durability and ride quality are unmatched by anything that has come before but all of these technological advancements come at a price and unfortunately those prices get passed on to consumers. The result of this technology boom are high price tags and in an economy that is in various stages of unstableness, price is a huge limiting factor in new sled purchases. The price of a brand new snowmobile puts many of them out reach for the average consumer so if you want to buy a rider forward sled without buying new your only other option is a very small used rider forward sled market. Not a lot of rider forward sleds come on the used market and when they do they are bought up right away usually at a premium price. Ski-Doo was the first to notice that their early REV chassis sleds were commanding big dollars in the used marketplace which made them introduce the low end TNT with a carbed 600 engine in the REV chassis for a very reasonable price. This gave perspective buyers a better option: instead of paying premium dollars for a used REV sled with loads of miles on it, they could now purchase a new snowmobile with the same technology for less. Arctic Cat picked up on this trend with the introduction of their Sno Pro 500. The huge success of the TNT and Sno Pro helped nudge Polaris into bringing back the legendary Indy nameplate with a 600 fuel injected sled hoping their loyal old Indy riders would take the leap to new technology. Still even with these less expensive new sled alternatives you can still buy a quality 90’s sled for $1,000 or less, sure the ride isn’t as good but it is still respectable and for dads with snowmobiling kids that want their own sled, those reliable 90’s machines are a great way to go to build your family’s snowmobile fleet for not a whole lot of cash.
2. THE PROLIFERATION OF 1990’s SLEDS: In the nineties snowmobile sales saw a huge resurgence. From 1990 to the advent of the rider forward sled in 2003, 2.7 Million snowmobiles were sold. Compare that to the 1.9 million that have been sold since and it is obvious why there are still so many 90’s era sleds still on the trail. This same bubble was seen in the 1980’s. From 1970 through 1979 a staggering 3.4 Million snowmobiles were sold- compare that to 1980 through 1989’s numbers (snowmobiling’s worst decade) of only 1.3 Million and you can see why there was so much 70’s iron on the trail through the 80’s.
3. APPEARANCE: Let’s face it, there were a lot of people turned off by the funky looking rider forward sleds and they are a giant pain in the butt to work on compared to all that room you had under the hood in the 90’s.
4. DURABILITY: Unlike snowmobiles of the 60’s and 70’s which spent as much time getting wrenched on in the garage as they did on the trail, the 1990’s sleds set new standards in reliability and quality and they flat out last. So why buy a new snowmobile when your old one gets the job done with not much more than routine maintenance? Personally it took me blowing up my old Indy and needing major suspension and engine work on a well-worn chassis that finally made me say goodbye to my old sled and join the 21st century. I soon found out, however, that the market for junked Indy 500’s is huge. I literally sold my dead Indy within five minutes of it hitting Craig’s List. This is another factor keeping those 90’s era sleds on the trail- parts for them are plentiful and makes rebuilding engines and suspensions a cost effective alternative.
5. SNOW: Nothing dictates snowmobile sales more than snow. One of the biggest factors that drove the 90’s boom were some really big snow years. For the last few seasons snow has been hard to find. Considering that Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin are responsible for the overwhelming majority of snowmobile sales in the United States, a bad snow year in those three states can put a real damper on new sled sales and three or four bad snow years in a row can be catastrophic. Lack of snow keeps the existing snowmobiles sitting in people’s garages and as a result they don’t wear out, thus no need to buy new. Throw in a few winters of heavy snow and many of those 90’s sleds, like my Indy, will meet their demise. As they say, father time is undefeated. The more snow there is the more of a need there is for snowmobiles. When snow is abundant, the inventory of new sleds can dwindle quickly.
Inevitably the 90’s body style snowmobiles will slowly disappear as more and more people experience the superior ride quality of the new rider forward designs and as the used market continues to offer some of the older rider forward snowmobiles at prices closer to their 90’s era counterparts. One day the 90’s style sleds will be relegated to vintage shows where grandpa will be telling tales of trailing arms and sore backs, much like we speak fondly of bogie wheels and leaf springs of the 70’s. But with the massive amounts of quality snowmobiles sold in the nineties, the availability of parts and that eras sleds level of overall toughness, I don’t think that day will be here any time soon.