Snowmobile Collector

Odd Collections, People, Seasonal, Traditions
on December 16, 2010
Todd Yarington McGuirk starts one of his vintage motorized sleds.

John McGuirk, 67, yanks the starter rope on a shiny, gold-colored 1962 Polaris Autoboggan, and the snowmobile's 10-horsepower, gasoline-powered engine sputters to life. Smiling broadly, McGuirk hops aboard the motorized sled, pushes the throttle stick forward and points the machine's two front skis toward the snow-covered field behind his house in Sidney, Ohio (pop. 20,211).

"He cracks me up," says Jan McGuirk, 67, as she watches her husband gradually accelerate to the snowmobile's top speed of 7 mph. "He's just like a little kid."

The Autoboggan is one of more than 140 antique and vintage snowmobiles that McGuirk has collected—and among 65 that he's lovingly repaired or restored—since 1972. The retired General Motors manager has devoted thousands of hours rebuilding blown engines, sandblasting rusted chassis, and replacing torn vinyl seats, broken rubber tracks and cracked windshields on snowmobile models from the past, such as Big Boss, Double Eagle, Snow Go, Ski-Bird and SnoWolf.

"I get a lot of satisfaction taking something that looks like a piece of junk and bringing it back to its original condition," says McGuirk, president of the Antique Snowmobile Club of America. "That's the fun for me."

Most of McGuirk's snowmobiles, which date from 1960 to 1971, are housed in a 30-by-110-foot metal shed behind his house, and 20 are displayed at the Top of the Lake Snowmobile Museum in Naubinway, Mich. McGuirk and a group of fellow snowmobile enthusiasts founded the museum in 2007 to showcase their vintage and antique machines, and to preserve the history of snowmobiling.

"John does a great job of restoring the old sleds," says Charlie Vallier, 60, the museum's chairman. "He's got one of the largest collections of antique snowmobiles" built in 1968 or earlier.

The McGuirks' love affair with snowmobiles began a few years after they married in 1966. John, who grew up in Paducah, Ky., and moved to Michigan as a teenager to work at General Motors, wasn't particularly fond of the cold, snowy winters of the upper Midwest. That is, until he and Jan discovered the joy of snowmobiling.

"It was something that got us outside in the winter," McGuirk recalls. "And we've been out there ever since."

The McGuirks bought a new Chaparral snowmobile in 1972, and they soon bought a second one so they could snowmobile together. McGuirk fell in love with the machines, and when a neighbor offered to sell him a 1962 Polaris SnoTraveler that same year, he gladly paid $150 for the rundown sled.

"I had to get the motor running, to put in a windshield and seat," he recalls of his first snowmobile restoration. "Fixing it up was fun."

Nowadays, in addition to performing snow machine makeovers, McGuirk enjoys hauling his vintage sleds to winter festivals and snowmobile shows in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, and riding them with other snowmobile enthusiasts.

While McGuirk would love to find and restore a 1950s Bosak Power Toboggan, or own a rare Eliason Motor Toboggan—the first commercial snowmobile designed and built by Carl Eliason, of Sayner, Wis., in 1924—he's content restoring, riding and showing the many classic and uncommon machines already in his collection.

"I'm happy to restore the ones I've got," he says. "I've got enough to keep me busy the rest of my life."