Joseph Armand Bombardier
BORN: Valcourt, Quebec • 16 April 1907
DIED: Sherbrooke, Quebec • 18 February 1964
For most of us, the fact that Canada has a northern climate is a tale more for the telling than for the living. Each winter most Canadians hibernate in heated homes, heated cars, and heated shopping malls. Winter is a distraction, a nuisance that displaces our postmodern late-century lifestyles only a little.
For most of us, it is nearly impossible to appreciate just how significant the life of J.-A. Bombardier really was. For though he did not invent the wheel, he may as well have—at least for the millions of people around the globe whose world is white with snow much of the time.
Bombardier’s Ski-Doo revolutionized life in the earth’s most forbidding locales, bringing the twentieth century to places that had never known it. Canada and other cold places would never be the same again.The most remarkable thing about the life of one of Canada’s greatest inventors is that he never realized his biggest dream.
Growing up in the early moments of the mass trans¬ portation era in off-the-beaten-path rural Quebec, Bombardier envisioned a huge, family-sized vehicle that would end the isolation of the long winter months in villages and towns. In the horse and buggy period, but also in the dawning motor-car age, snow made most routes in Quebec impassable.
Horse- drawn sleighs were slow, inefficient substitutes. Bombardier imagined a people-mover that could glide across snow and mud. He first tried a jet propeller for power, then later a track drive with front-mounted skis for steering. He was the best kind of inventor: he built everything himself, testing and retesting components in a modest workshop.
In 1936 the first snowmobile was ready for the showroom.By any measure it was a monster. Resembling nothing more than a futuristic tank on skis, the new Bombardier company’s first offering was fully enclosed and featured room for ten or twelve men.
The inventor clearly had commercial markets in mind, and soon the lumbering track- driven machines were a not uncommon sight on the winter highways of Quebec. Bombardier continued to perfect his invention and adapted some models for Canadian govern¬ ment wartime use.
But even after the debut of what the inventor viewed as his masterpiece, the mammoth twenty- five-passenger C-18, sales were sluggish. When the Quebec government announced a commitment in 1947 to keep all major roads clear of snow every winter, the day of the giant Bombardier snowmobile was done.
But if Bombardier’s dream of a mass transit revolution in Quebec was over, his biggest influence was still to come. A compact version of the earliest vehicles was designed almost as an afterthought; certainly, Bombardier viewed the toylike rendering of his invention with near disdain.
Modelled more on a motorcycle than a bus, the Ski-Doo, first sold in 1959, used a new, reliable two-cycle engine.Clearly, it is no exaggeration to suggest that the one- and two-seater Ski-Doos became a way of life almost overnight in the Canadian North. Entire communities that had been accessible only by air suddenly were in touch year round.
The most remote Inuit nations were suddenly made closer. Indeed, the new vehicle changed the lives of native commu¬ nities across northern Canada, rapidly altering hunting and migration patterns.While it was becoming a vital transportation tool, the Bombardier snowmobile also virtually invented a new winter sport in the 1960s.
The new product appeared just as the postwar consumer appetite for big, expensive thrills was growing, and soon thousands of city folks were discovering the joys of rocketing down snow-packed paths in Ski-Doos. Before long the company was offering machines with aerody¬ namic stylings, racing suspensions, and even on-board stereos.
Though the inventor died in 1964, his company took his product around the world. By the 1990s over 2 million had been sold. The family-owned Bombardier Inc. is today Canada’s most important transportation conglomerate, with worldwide manufacturing interests in airplanes, trains, and public transportation systems. And it still sells the one- and two-passenger Ski-Doos that are as important to many of their owners today as they were nearly forty years ago.