50 Years of Arctic Cat
Arctic Cat has written much history from its 1961 beginnings to now
Story by Jerry Bassett, Photography by Jerry Bassett, Aug 04, 2011
Ken and Becky Kranz separate their collection of Arctic Cat memorabilia by clothing styles. They have too, because they have one of the biggest collections of Arctic Cat memorabilia anywhere.
The West Bend, Wis. couple brought their decades worth of Arctic Cat suits, mittens, helmets, boots, oilcans and assorted collectibles to Arctic Cat’s 50th anniversary celebration this past July. People from many parts of the world were on hand in Thief River Falls, Minn. to reminisce and gawk at the Kranz’ elaborate display and the eclectic collections of other Cat enthusiasts whose displays covered two hockey arenas and a large part of the Pennington County fairgrounds.
The Kranz collection was gathered by carefully shopping flea markets, garage sales and swap meets. Becky maintains a list of items that she has and uses it as a reference when searching for new memorabilia so she doesn’t duplicate pieces. Sometimes, when the opportunity arises, she will “pre-shop” garage sales and try to swoop up items before they go out on sale. An experienced collector, she carries a list of key items she wants, which isn’t to say she won’t pick up on something Cat-related that she hasn’t seen before.
The Kranz collection took up about half of the end concourse at the main hockey arena used to display 50 years of Arctic Cat history. You could have spent hours looking at moments in the Kranz’ Arctic Cat history. They have purple fake fur jackets and mitts. There is purple and green clothing everywhere. The plain black suits are from the earliest days of Cat wearables. And there are old oilcans, Cat clocks and so much more.
The weekend of July 29-30th was all about Arctic Cat’s past. Did you know that in 1966 Arctic Cat private-labeled about 200 snowmobiles for catalog retailer J.C.Penney? Called the Foremost the sled had a white cowl with powder blue tunnel. Power came from an 8-hp Kohler single cylinder engine.
Penney’s referred to the sled as offering many new features in “…a lightweight, low cost off highway vehicle.”
Pre-dating that historic Cat sled was a 1963 Model 100 prototype owned by Russ Sutton. A former president of the antique snowmobile association, the Ogilvie, Minn. collector takes special pride in this one-off prototype that was almost single-handedly built by Arctic Cat legend Edgar Hetteen.
Having shown the sled to Hetteen at a vintage sled rally in the late 1990s, Sutton received a letter from the Cat founder. In it Hetteen noted that the sled had been built around 1963 and said, “I did most of the work myself. It could have been all of it.”
What makes this sled impressively unique is, as Hetteen notes: “It was the first U.S. built machine with the motor forward in the general configuration (used) today.”
But it also was the first direct drive sled and didn’t use a jackshaft. The 6-hp Kohler engine just didn’t have the power to make the system work well enough as Hetteen stated in his letter: “…It became apparent that this was not the way to go.”
Of course in later years, John Deere would produce the direct drive Spitfire and Polaris would manufacture a series of Cutlass snowmobiles with direct drive. But Edgar was right. It wouldn’t be the way to go as no direct drive sleds are produced anymore.
While the displays showcased many snowmobiles, the collections recalled Arctic Cat’s pre-1981 past when the company rode high as the Number 1 U.S. manufacturer of snowmobiles and attempted to expand into other recreational lines. There were complete collections of Arctic Cat mini-bikes, the two-wheel sensation of the 1970s.
There were some reminders of products that exited the Arctic Cat product line almost as quickly as they entered it. The Wankel-engined lawnmower was one such collectible. There were purple lawn tractors and even Arctic-branded bicycles.
Some of these products came as a reaction to the oil crisis of the 1970s. That’s the explanation behind a three-wheeled sit-on car-like vehicle. The prototype had two steerable wheels up front and a single drive wheel at the rear. The engine was mid-mounted. The vehicle was an attempt to research high mileage alternatives to normal automobiles. It was an attempt, just not a viable one.
Not everything was old and nostalgic. While there were original early sleds and the first Arctic Cat ATV, the 1996 Bearcat 454 4x4, there were displays of the newest products, including the hot rod 2012 Wildcat with its torque-monster one-liter Cat-built twin. This all-new, low-slung, side-by-side power ride generated a crowd when Arctic Cat rolled two them of out on the fairgrounds at 1PM. Not available until next season, the 2012 Wildcat drew impressive interest from the pro-Arctic Cat onlookers.
Spread out over two-days the 50th anniversary of all things Arctic Cat was as much reunion as it was product showcase. There were glimpses of Arctic Cat history at every turn as you walked among the displays. Veteran Arctic Cat racer Jim Dimmerman strolled nonchalantly along the grounds, looking tanned, fit and ready to once again take an Arctic Cat Sno Pro sled through turn two at the Eagle River derby track. Legendary cross-country ace Brian Nelson was available to sign autographs as were modern Cat stars.
Engineers on hand included R&D legend Roger Skime, who effectively was celebrating nearly a half-century of his own at Arctic Cat, and who modeled his early snowmobile suit during the Arctic Cat fashion show. There was the famous “Z”, Dennis Zuwlaksi, whose nickname “Z” became an Arctic Cat model series.
The event was a gathering of Arctic Cat aficionados and the people who made and continue to make Arctic Cat a power in the snowmobile business. While the products were of interest, it was the mixing with the pioneers, the tinkerers, the people who are Arctic Cat that made the 50th Arctic Cat anniversary memorable. 50 years. That’s an accomplishment!