January 1974, Eagle River Wisconsin. The World Championship flag traditionally drops at 3:00 pm sharp. Giles Villeneuve eased up to the start line with his 650 cc Alouette Super racing against the likes of Factory Polaris riders Bob Eastman and Stan Hayes, Yamaha Sno-Pro team members Wayne Trapp and Ed Schubitzke and Team Arctic legends Larry Coltom, Bob Elsner, Dave Thompson and Tom Marks. To give you an idea on how popular snowmobile racing was back in the 70’s there were (a claimed) 40,000 paid ticket holders lining the track to watch the race. The race was 15 laps around the 1/2 mile oval. The winner is crowned World Champion and snowmobile manufacturers get bragging rights for a year and more importantly an increase in sled sales. Villeneuve won that day taking the lead after the 4th lap and never looked back.
Villeneuve and Alouette burst onto the pro racing scene in 1973. Seemingly out of know where Alouette had built a race sled that was capable of running with the big teams and in the hands of Gilles and Jacques Villeneuve were a legitimate threat in every class they entered.
The Featherweight Corporation was a Montreal based manufacturer of aluminum patio furniture. The company founder Bill Holtzman was looking for a winter product to keep the plant busy. On Christmas day in 1965, Bill’s wife broke her leg skiing. Bill recalls;” I told the wife and kids that their skiing days were over”. The following winter Bill bought a Ski-Doo for the family so they would have something to do in the winter. The more he rode the sled the more he thought he could build a better machine. In 1967 the Alouette was introduced to the market. The popularity of the sled grew and at its peak they built 14,000 sleds /annually. Production at the Montreal facility stopped in 1975. Rupp Industries carried the name for the ’76 season and the Alouette forever disappeared when Rupp stopped making sleds after the 1977 model year.
The Chassis….. The Lighter the Better
Alouette, like most manufacturers in the late 60’s and 70’s, built race-ready sleds which (in the early days) was generally a production sled with a modified engine. The Alouette Villain did not set the race circuit on fire, but when it held together, anything was possible. To compete against their Quebec rivals, Ski-Doo, Alouette engineer Pierre Rouette looked at the revolutionary ’72 Thunder Jet for inspiration and, like Bill Holtzman, knew they could improve on the design. A tunnel was ordered from Texas Industries which at the time was building light aluminum race components for Sno-Jet and Arctic Cat.
The Alouette Super, designed by Morley Smith, was an updated version of the T-Jet chassis. The sled featured an open back tunnel with an external support to stiffen the rear of the tunnel. The open back provided an unrestricted opening for the snow to exit out the back. The traditional close off panel was not designed into the tunnel. The Hood was designed to envelope the front bulkhead and was styled so the ski spindles protruded out stylized “wheel wells”. This design was necessary as the sled did not incorporate a belly pan. This design was unique to the Alouette. The traditional fiberglass pan was eliminated. The T-6 aluminum was fabricated by a master craftsman at Alouette by the name of Paul Daudin. All of the jigs made to form the aluminum were made of oak. The entire front end of each of the sleds were built by hand. The weight? A complete sled ready to race weighed in at a scant 240 pounds!
Where did Gilles Villeneuve fit into the race sled development? Gilles had been hired by Guy Cyr, who had recently moved from Skiroule to Alouette. Cyr was the new Alouette sales manager and had Villeneuve racing Skiroule sleds in Quebec and the eastern USA. “The move to bring Villeneuve to Alouette to assist in the design of the new oval racer cannot be under estimated “explained Morley Smith. Villeneuve brought his mechanical aptitude and race car engineering experience to the small race department. At just 21 years of age his reputation was already well known in Quebec as a born racer and tuner.
Jacques remembers that when his brother came to Alouette the basic sled design was complete. However, his input into the final design before the sleds were shipped was a huge part into the continued evolution of the racer.
Sachs RX Motors
Alouette was using Sachs engines exclusively in their production sleds. So, it was natural that the Sachs RX engine was the choice for the new “Super”. The Sachs RX engines had been used by Skiroule on their ’72 RTX race sleds. Villeneuve had become very comfortable clutching these engines and consequently, their use on the Alouette Super did not come by accident.
The Sachs engines were recognizable by their starburst finned cylinder heads. The RX engines were supplied in three engine sizes; 340cc, 440cc and a three cylinder 650cc. Sachs engine guru “Skiroule Pete” Purych offers this insight in the Sachs RX engines. “The Alouette 340 and 440 engines were supplied with a CDI ignition made by Motoplat Electronico in Spain. After a few DNF’s due to lost spark the Alouette team switched back to the magneto ignition used on the ’72 Skiroule RTX sleds. That ended the ignition problems for the most part”.
The original CDI engines still required a mechanical tachometer made by VDO. The tachometer was also unique in that it ran counterclockwise (see photo).
The Sachs RX engines all used the same 56mm stroke. The short stroke engines ran at 9500 rpm and delivered power through a Comet 100CF flyweight primary The Sachs motors were much heavier than similar competitor motors. A 440 RX engine weighs 78 pounds, with the crankshaft alone weighing 23 pounds. The cranks were a full circle design to maximize crankcase compression of the fuel through a unique 3rd transfer port.
“Skiroule Pete” Purych explains; “The 3rd port was a cast chimney that split the intake port. The idea was to increase the fuel air mixture turbulence as it entered the intake port to improve combustion.” This porting arrangement was unique to Sachs and was never copied by other engine builders. The crank shaft on the twin cylinder engines used two single-row bearings on the PTO end of the crankshaft, two bearings in the center of the crank and a single double-row bearing on the ignition side. These cranks never had a problem with torsional vibration at high rpm. Chrome-bore cylinders helped dissipate heat and minimize wear. The surface area of the cooling fins were maximized with the starburst cylinder head and crankcase cooling fins that was copied by other engine makers in the years to follow.
The compression ratio of these engines was 13.73:1 with dual rings. A later upgrade kit from Alouette had the original 38mm Mikuni carbs replaced with 44mm Mikunis on the 440 sled and 650 engines. The Sachs motors produced respectable HP for the day. You can bet that the Villeneuve sleds were ported to the ragged edge to squeeze every last pony out of every engine.
Continuous Improvement….. The Gilles Villeneuve Way.
As with all race sleds, continuous improvement is a given as performance and durability issues demand improvements. The Alouette was no exception. Right out of the blocks, Gilles identified that the track and rear suspension would have to be replaced. The original sleds were built with an all rubber involute drive track with a stamped aluminum skid frame which ran directly against the track. No hyfax to reduce friction. Somebody at Alouette had a better idea that did not work on the ice oval tracks that were coming into favor in 1973. A shorter cleated track with internal drivers and a steel slide suspension was the replacement. To improve cornering the right spindle was replaced with one piece forged steel offset spindle. The aluminum race skis featured PACS mechanical friction dampers which were also replaced with Monroe shock absorbers.
Gilles Villeneuve….. The Ferrari Driver on Two skis
Looking back, it was fitting that Gilles Villeneuve burst onto the USSA circuit riding a red machine. After disappointing starts to the ’73 season, Gilles (like so many of the top racers of the era) continued to work out the problems with the sleds’ reliability. Each model (340, 440 and 650) were plenty quick enough, they just didn’t hold together long enough to finish a race. At Eagle River in ’73, he was leading a 440 semi-final when the engine lost spark. The following weekend at Rhinelander, Wisconsin, Gilles was leading the 340 MOD class for five laps until a blown belt ended his day. On the 1/2 mile oval, the Alouette was leading the 650 MOD classes when blown belt problems struck again.
The Milwaukee International PRO/AM held February 11, 1972 would see Gilles’ bad luck finally end when the Alouette out ran Larry Coltom from Team Arctic to win the 440 MOD class. Slowly but surely, with a very limited budget and Gilles ability to identify the source of a problem, the Allouetes were becoming a force to be reckoned with.
At Beausejour, Manitoba the Canadian Power Tobbagon Championships were scheduled for the February 24/25 weekend. Villeneuve arrived in a 1964 red school bus nicknamed “ Big Bertha” as he had done all season. The school bus was the sled transporter and accommodations for the racer and two mechanics. Gilles entered 10 races that weekend. He took nine (9) firsts and one second including the Canadian Championship. He had just crossed the finish line when the belt blew 25 feet after crossing in front of Bob Eastman on a Polaris.
Now at Eagle River for the 1974 running of the World Championship, Gilles was running a refined version of the same 650 Alouette that he had used at Beausejour the previous year. Brother Jacques had been campaigning the single track race sleds while Gilles was racing the radical twin track Alouette. The other factory teams were also campaigning their single track SnoPro sleds all winter and had little time to run their non-SnoPro sleds from the ’73 season. Wearing lucky #13 on his race sled (the same number he raced with on his Formula Atlantic Race Cars) Gilles walked away from the competition and finished the 15 lap final with an average speed of 72 mph in a driving rain.
The Alouette Supers were campaigned by the Villeneuve brothers for the remainder of the ’74 and ’75 seasons. Competing with sleds built in ’73 against the factory PDC SuperMod sleds in 1975, their race budget was coming from out of their own pocket. As a testament to his driving and mechanical ability, Gilles qualified his two-year old 650 Super for the World Championship final to defend his title. The sled broke and the Villeneuve/ Alouette combination became a chapter in the history of snowmobile racing, but a stepping stone to the pinnacle of racing ….. F1 and Ferrari.
From the September 2008 issue of SnowTech
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