ALLENSTOWN, N.H. - They are noisy, smelly and seemingly able to rattle the marrow right out of your bones. Hardly selling points for a new consumer product.
The product is the snowmobile. And with one crazy stunt 41 years ago, Edgar Hetteen made snowmobiles a must-have item for residents of North America's snow belt, and launched a $9 billion-a-year industry.
There are an estimated 3 million snowmobiles in the United States and Canada. Twenty-six states have snowmobile associations that help maintain 135,000 miles of groomed trails, more than triple the miles in the Interstate Highway System. "It's enormously popular," says Robert Manning, a professor of natural resources at the University of Vermont. "It's changed the way we view winter and gotten a whole lot more people outdoors."
Snowmobiling's history has been preserved at a museum established here in 1985 at Bear Brook State Park, just south of the state capital of Concord. Eighty machines fill the former Civilian Conservation Corps buildings.
Hetteen, who attended the dedication of the New Hampshire museum, smiles when he thinks of the early days.
"People laughed, called me an imbecile," he recalls of the days peddling his brand, Sno-Travelers, to car dealerships and farm equipment shops. "We'd get two orders. One was, `Get out.' The other was, "Stay out.'"
There wasn't a lot to like in those early models with their 10-horsepower engines and top speed of 15 mph. They had no lights, no brakes and a metal seat. "It added to the excitement," says Hetteen. "At night when you didn't have lights you felt - wow - like you were going like the wind."
Hetteen, 80, is quick to note that he did not invent the snowmobile. "We created an acceptance for it, a market for it," he says.
A Wisconsin man, Carl Eliason, received a patent in 1927 for a "motor toboggan," powered by an outboard motor mounted above two skis. His invention went nowhere.
It took a Quebec company to build the first commercially viable snow machine - the B7 - in the mid-1930s for loggers, veterinarians and rural family doctors. It could carry a dozen people.
Hetteen, who owned a farm equipment company in Minnesota, picked up Eliason's concept and improved it, but did no better than his predecessor.
Desperate "to get some ink" and save his tiny company, Hetteen scrounged $3,000 and went to Alaska in 1960 with three friends, determined to drive Sno-Travelers 2,100 miles, from the Bering Sea to Fairbanks.
It was not an easy trip. The crankcases leaked oil. The tank-like "boogie wheels" that drove the machines filled with snow or snapped off. Hetteen spent days in the bush country fussing over fussy engines. Wearing only Army surplus parkas, the four adventurers fought whiteout conditions and temperatures of minus-30 degrees.
Twenty-one days later, they made it to Fairbanks, greeted by headlines larger than the newspaper's name.
"All of the sudden, the thing that people had laughed at had a little more credibility," he says.
People began buying and vendors began looking for ways to build better parts for the machines and warmer clothes for the users.
Hetteen saved his company, which evolved into Polaris Industries, the largest of the world's four snowmobile manufacturers.
But rising sales couldn't mask a major problem: the quirkiness of the two-stroke engine. Automobiles use four-stroke engines - powered by four distinctive piston actions: the piston moves down to allow fuel into to the cylinder; it moves up to compress the fuel; it moves down as the fuel ignites and expands; it moves up to expel the spent vapors.
The snowmobile engine combines the four actions into two strokes.
Instead of getting power on one of four strokes, snowmobile engines get power on every other stroke. While they accelerate faster, they don't burn fuel as efficiently.
Two-stroke engines require a gas and oil mixture for lubrication. Too much oil, and the spark plugs foul; too lean a mixture, and the engine overheats, with disastrous consequences.
The early machines had other problems. Engines lacked the power to cut through deep powder or power up a hill. Suspension systems often broke after bouncing over a rise, and those that didn't break barely protected the rider.
By the mid-1970s, designers had solved many of the suspension problems with hydraulically dampened springs and torsion bars. Hetteen says better suspensions made higher speeds possible, which in turn led to better engines.
Today's models start with the turn of a key and the engine fires with an electronic ignition. Engine valves are self-cleaning. Cylinders require less oil. Better mufflers hold down noise. Models costing $6,000 and up have heated handlebars, cargo racks and Global Positioning System units. They can rocket along trails at 80 mph.
Last year, to mark the 40th anniversary of the Alaska ride, Hetteen repeated it as a fund-raiser to find a cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease.