By Valdi Stefanson
It’s a crying shame!
Here we had an upstart snowmobile manufacturer with such promise, such innovative design and such a following after showing off many prototypes, handing out glossy sales brochures and t-shirts, along with all of the media hype.
This is the sad legacy of the Redline snowmobile. Many of you recall the heady days of the late 1990’s – when several companies attempted to join the four established snowmobile manufacturers. There were the Karpik brothers in Eveleth, Minnesota and their Fast BLADE. A new Scorpion was prototyped, called the TKX (I saw a running prototype at Hay Days.) There was also the AD Boivin SnowHawk, the precursor to today’s snow bikes.
The fourth potential, and perhaps the most anticipated of all, was the REDLINE snowmobile. Above all else, the Redline had all beat with its styling, showing off voluptuous curves and sexy lines, looking fast even when standing still. It created mental horsepower just by looking at it. Everyone wanted to try it. It was a subject of lust and desire.
With exciting demonstrations and various prototypes, the Redlines were shown for consecutive years at regional events and fall convention center shows. The sled magazines featured several articles and regular updates on the Redline. It seemed that everyone knew what was coming. Some say that the four manufacturers were nervous, what with Redline’s external chromoly tubular frame and mega suspension travel. And, it just plain looked HOT. It had succeeded in the marketing end of creating excitement and demand, but after a while the potential buyers started to get anxious and tired of waiting. And, so did the investors.
Plans were made to assemble the component parts for assembly in West Fargo, North Dakota. A dealer network was established. Orders were placed by some 51 multi-line dealerships that would offer the Redline as a high-end customer opportunity. The magazines spoke of their anxious wait to test-drive the production units.
Then the promotion seemingly stopped. No more articles, no more exposure. Something changed, something was happening. But what?
Fledgling Redline finally went to production. Unbelievably, the plant doors were locked almost as soon as they had opened as the company fell into bankruptcy and receivership. A grand total of some 57 sleds were built. They were shipped way behind schedule to waiting dealerships. Most were crated incomplete, missing components like exhaust and skis. But a few complete units did survive – and I have one of them.
How could this have happened? Well, this is my understanding of how things unraveled for Redline. I’ve talked to several key players in this drama. Each has a slightly different perspective on their experience and the root causes of the corporate failure. I will not be mentioning any names in this Redline obituary, but as far as I can see, no postscript to this saga has been published. So, here goes…
Believe it or not, the Redline concept was born in Southern California, near San Diego. A couple of individuals with off-road truck racing experience surmised that suspension techniques and technologies used in desert/sand vehicles could be transferred into an over-the-snow vehicle. One of the key players was a snowmobiler and had even applied for an engineering position at Polaris (but was not hired).
Such a vehicle would be a technological leap for the snowmobile industry. Well, big talk matured into concept drawings and prototypes. One person told me about test-driving such a prototype on Southern California sand dunes. It was equipped with ATV tires up front and a lube system for the rear skid. The guy was test torturing the round tube chrome molybdenum frame, and his work helped validate the final design.
Simultaneously, the marketing hype ramped up. Perhaps Redline’s greatest asset was their self promotion. Management prioritized hype, excitement and sizzle. At Minnesota’s Hay Days, as early as 1998, Redline perennially had a full-on professional display of components and prototypes. Crowds gathered – literally. One year, they had a display with their suspension compressed and expanded to demonstrate some 22” of suspension travel! I, for one, watched the suspension cycle up and down as my head followed in unison – just like a bobble head on the dashboard. Mesmerized, I signed up on the spot to a waiting list of “interested future customers”. Yes, this Redline was expected to retail at some $ 2,000 – $ 2,800 higher than anything from the mainline manufacturers. However, the promise was a technologically advanced, prestigious ride. Purchasers would pay a premium for technical innovation, design, styling and brand. A purchase of this would be equivalent to driving a Ferrari on the trail. Or, so we thought.
The hype continued. One winter, I received a Christmas card from California. The image was a prototype Redline, surrounded by 16 individuals. Inside, the card was signed by some twelve individuals on the “design team”.
Moreover, their professional display traveled to snowbelt snowmobile events from east to west coasts. Another year at Hay Days, Redline demonstrated a running prototype with a 4-stroke V-twin motorcycle engine and a model with a triple 2-stroke.
Mention was made of Redline in Money Week and it was so sexy it made it into Playboy magazine. In fact, the sled was mentioned in about 150 articles.
EA Sports released their SledStorm video game featuring Redline’s design and trademarks. A Redline toy snowmobile appeared. Redline clothing was offered at shows. The Redline was even shown on the Today Show – out on the Plaza with show hosts Lauer, Couric, Roker and Curry. One can only image what kind of strings had to be pulled to make that happen, for sure some very smooth talking at a minimum. It also appeared on the NBC Gravity Games, Ally McBeal, ESPN and Discovery TV. It was to be the future of snowmobiles.
May 2003: A stock market IPO raised some $ 10 million with promise to start production soon. This, after an estimated outlay of some $ 9 million to date, through private capitalization.
Meanwhile, testing continued. Now the focus had shifted to on-snow performance evaluation. I have talked to individuals from two separate testing teams. In one instance, a team including some Arctic Cat testing technicians were hired to evaluate prototypes. They tested in Jackson Hole, WY, Lowville, NY and northern MN. In conclusion, they saw problems and issues and indicated further development and refinement would be necessary before finalizing the specifications. However, by then the stock offering had been sold and the investors, as well as Redline marketing people, were pushing for production – for stockholder results!
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Months later, basically the same thing happened. Management heard the same basic message from a new set of voices. By then a production General Manager had been hired. This was an “outsider” – someone trusted by key investors in the venture. This manager took a new look at the situation with worry. The proprietary Redline engine was independently tested and concerns were raised. A different duo of snowmobile evaluators went to work, driving pre-production prototypes. Clearly, there were issues. The pair reported that the design was flat out not ready for production. Indeed, one tester was of the opinion that the fix would take a year of time and approximately 25% of the components would need to be changed. He stated that there were just too many new components, that the design was deemed an over-reach.
That same evaluator tells the story of a December 2003 weekend media ride with the snowmobile magazine editors. The evening before the unveiling and test-drive, the machine had to be quickly “massaged” to make it through the next day of exposure! The media riders the next day were under-impressed. It didn’t WOW them as promised by all the previous hype. One editor commented that the sled performed miserably. SnowTech wrote, “Functionally, it is a work in progress”, at best giving Redline the benefit of the doubt as they rolled towards full production.
2004 : Manufacturing of the 800 Revolt begins. The goal was a first year build of 600 units, based on 400 pre-orders.
With investors getting anxious, pressure from marketing staff that had over-promised and a dealer network that was plain fed up with waiting, component parts were ordered and delivered to a rented assembly facility in West Fargo, North Dakota. Redline was about to come online. A few finished, or nearly complete Redlines came off the line and were placed into crates. Units arrived at dealerships, many without skis. Only 14 were delivered intact with the under-seat exhaust. You can imagine the frustration amongst their dealers!
Meantime, an emergency third-party team was assembled to quickly and quietly report to upper management and primary investors. This team included the test technicians, a manufacturing engineer and financial advisor. Their report was gloomy. The test technicians wrote, “The engine should be a primary focus (reliability, vibration, cooling and exhaust performance and durability)”. Also mentioned were front suspension and rear suspension deficiencies.
This doomsday report triggered immediate action. The bleeding had to stop. One officer noted that the fix would take another $ 9 – 15 million and another year of development. The writing was on the wall.
Management concluded that additional investments were not prudent. The doors to Redline were closed on May 10, 2004. The company filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy in August 2004, with $6.5 million in debts and $4.2 million in assets. The well had run dry.
What Was So Special?
– Tubular chromoly steel chassis
– T-15 rear suspension with mega vertical travel
– Rear exiting exhaust
– Clutch Isolation System that mounts the drive clutch to the frame and – separate from the engine, using a rubber dampener to reduce vibration and keep clutches in perfect alignment
– Proprietary 800cc two-cycle engine
Accolades — awards and honors:
– Popular Mechanics awarded Redline their “Design and Engineering Award”.
– Popular Science named the Redline Revolution Design one of the “best 100 New Products”.
– Redline’s 800 Revolt was one of the products recognized in Men’s Journal’s 95 “Perfect Things”.
POSTSCRIPT: The Redline concept was deemed by many to simply be too aggressive, trying to incorporate too many innovations in one giant step. Inadequate financing and a lack of resources were the major handicaps. Placing aggressive promotion over engineering substance got them in too deep, too fast, leaving no room to turn the ship around. It also left a legacy of angry investors.
The Redline name however actually continued in the form of a 4 wheeled UTV, which sold in modest numbers through 2009. It used headlights, gauges and brake from the snowmobile venture, sharing the brand identity.
Today, the fifty some snowmobile units are relegated to the hands of collectors. In my case, I am proud to own a running example and share the story through display at snowmobile shows. It still turns heads. Even in its functional form all of the visual appeal remains and still captures the imagination of what could have, or should have, been.