The Other Major Minnesota Snowmobile Manufacturer
By Hal Armstrong
The history of snowmobiling is littered with memories of brands that have faded away like melting snow. There are however certain brands that were major players for three decades until they closed their doors in the early 80’s.
Scorpion was a major player in the industry in the 70’s and, like Polaris and Arctic Cat, was built in the state of Minnesota.
Scorpion originally entered the market as Trail-A-Sled Inc. and built propeller-driven air sleds. This was long before the first tracked vehicles started to become popular. The company had become a major supplier of fiberglass components for a company called Polaris, supplying body parts in 1963. A spinoff company known as Rubber Drives Inc. had also been started by a co-founder and was the first manufacturer of a continuous rubber track in the United States.
The company soon realized that the snowmobile was on the verge of exploding across the North American Snow Belt. Trail-A Sled, just like Ski-Doo, was able to manufacture the majority of its own components, which gave it a huge cost and quality advantage over its competitors. With the in-house capability to build a snowmobile, the company built their first sleds for the 1964 season and the name “Scorpion” was born!
The Scorpion brand quickly exploded on to the winter landscape and by 1969 was building 20,000 sleds annually. Scorpion would continue to innovate with the Para-Rail track suspension and the Power Thrust primary clutch. Two-stroke engines built in Germany by Sachs, Hirth and JLO were the predominant engine suppliers to the entire snowmobile industry. Scorpion had become partial to using JLO engines in a number of its models over the years. Japanese engines started to become more popular as the main sled builders looked for exclusive engine suppliers (Kawasaki for Arctic Cat, Fuji for Polaris, etc.) in the early 70’s. The Scorpion management team began talks with JLO parent company Rockwell to purchase the JLO engine division. The entire JLO manufacturing machinery was moved to Crosby, Minnesota. While not the first domestic two-stroke engine builder, they did beat their Minnesota rivals Polaris and Arctic Cat to the punch. Polaris would not have this capability until 1997 and Arctic Cat most recently in 2014.
Scorpion would attract many of the top motor engineers from its competitors including Gerry Reese, designer of the first American-made liquid cooled two-strokes from Brutanza Engineering. The new made-in-America engine was known as the “Cuyuna” and they would build primarily fan-cooled twins from 300cc to 440cc, but also a 340cc rotary induction liquid cooled twin.
The company management team seemed to be using the motto, “Go Big or Go Home” as they continued to grow through key acquisitions in the industry. This homework was setting them setting them up for a clean sheet of paper snowmobile called the “Whip”
1975 Scorpion Whip – the Shape of Things to Go
Back in 1975 the consumer still had around 20 snowmobile manufactures to choose from. Names like Alouette, Sno-Jet, Evinrude and Boa-ski were still pumping out sleds. The following year the count was down to about 15. Scorpion, with its new engine plant and a completely new chassis, was entering the ‘75 season full of optimism.
The new sled featured an all-aluminum chassis, a first for Scorpion. The design placed the motor over the skis, a major departure from previous years which still had the engine mounted on top of the tunnel. While the company had lagged behind the industry leaders with their tunnel mounted engine chassis, the new Whip now featured a low and wide ski stance of 29” contributing to less inside ski lift when cornering and a lower centre of gravity. The 440 Whip was the lightest 440-trail sled on the market in ‘75 tipping the scales at just 385 pounds with a 6-gallon fuel tank. The ‘75 Whip was now 63 pounds lighter than the popular Super Stinger model it replaced!
Para-Rail Track Suspension
Back in the early 70’s Scorpion engineer Gerald Irvine was looking at how to improve the performance of the snowmobile track suspension. The predominant suspension system back then was the “bogie wheel” system pioneered by Ski-Doo. The endless rubber track invented by Bombardier worked well with this system but a rough ride and lack of adjustability to improve weight transfer was its drawbacks.
In the mid 60’s Arctic Cat’s Roger Skime had developed the slide rail suspension that worked well with the other popular track option (cleated track) which was a three belt construction with steel “U” shaped grouser bars (known as cleats) holding the belts together. The drawback with this track/slide rail combo was running on ice and limited snow. The Hyfax sliders would heat up, increasing drag and wearing out quickly.
Scorpion’s Irvine came up with the “Para-Rail” suspension that was a combination of both the bogie wheel and slide rail designs that could be used with the more durable all-rubber track. The Para Rail was one of the first track suspensions to utilize a front torque arm, which was controlled by torsion springs. The front torque arm improved weight transfer to the rear of the sled during acceleration. Scorpions were always hard to beat off the line and this design also improved its deep snow capability.
What was missing was a shock absorber attached to the front torque arm to control damping – that feature was still a number of years away. The rear of the suspension utilized a single vertical-mounted shock with twin torsion springs. The rear shock assembly was connected directly to the rear track wheels of the suspension. The independent springing on the rear arm allowed the rails to flex, keeping as much of the track (see Fig.8-10) on the ground for improved traction. The suspension was patented in 1971 and Para-Rail and Scorpion were forever linked, much like Ski-Doo and R-Motion are today.
Power Thrust Clutching
Scorpion not only assembled their own engines they also had designed their own clutching package. In the mid 70’s the big four had been working on their own clutching solutions and Scorpion was no different. The ‘75 Whip continued with the original Power Thrust primary, which featured three roller weight arms, which acted against primitive ramps stamped into the clutch cover. The moveable sheave portion containing the roller arms and the cover transferred power through a spline torque bushing. The Power Thrust functioned similar to the original Ski-doo TRA primary clutch but without the adjustability. The owner easily removed the clutch from the motor without any special pullers, which was handy for service work.
Power from the primary was transferred to the chaincase-mounted secondary. While many manufacturers were using disc brakes and jackshaft-mounted secondary clutching, the ‘75 Whip was still old school in this department. In fact, Scorpion used the stationary side of the secondary as the brake drum. A mechanical brake acting on the 10” diameter secondary provided the stopping power. A double row chain enclosed in a die-cast aluminum chain case transferred the power to a Gates 16”x 118” rubber track wrapped around the Para-Rail suspension.
Made in the USA Cuyuna Engines
The original Whip was offered in three popular engine sizes of the day. All were fan-cooled twin cylinder four port engines. A single Walbro butterfly carb metered the fuel into the engine and a two-into-one exhaust kept the noise to a dull roar. The snowmobile industry in 1975 was really focusing on reduced intake and exhaust noise levels. Air intake systems were in their infancy and Scorpion had implemented a 90-degree bend to reduce noise. Liberal amounts of acoustic foam under the hood made sure the sled met the noise standards. Scorpion continued to use magneto ignitions on the Cuyuna engines while most of the competition had long moved to CDI. The engines would prove to be reliable and the 440 produced hp in the low 40’s.
Putting it all Together
Scorpion had a lot on their plate back in 1974. First, they had bought Brutanza Engineering and the Brut Liquid Cooled snowmobile lineup. Moving an entire engine plant from Germany, installing machinery, training employees and manufacturing motors then followed this up. If that was not enough, the engineering group had designed a completely new snowmobile called the Whip.
Scorpion pulled it off and the brand loyal Scorpion customer snapped up the Whip in droves. Scorpion built 16,000 snowmobiles in 1975. Scorpion’s quality policy was simple – make sure that whatever can go wrong won’t. Most of us avoid a first year model until all the “bugs” have been worked out. Scorpion was confident enough to take a production Whip from a dealer showroom and enter it in the 1975 Winnipeg-St. Paul 500-mile cross-country race that year. The result? Well, they didn’t win, but out of 377 starters only 22 machines finished and the Whip finished 7th!
The Bittersweet End
In March of 1978 Scorpion was purchased by Arctic Enterprises. In July 1978, Arctic announced plans to move their Heavy Hauler trailer business to Crosby-Ironton. By February of 1979, employment at Scorpion was at 360 and Heavy Hauler Trailers began rolling off the assembly line.
Curiously, it was during this time frame of the Arctic Cat/Scorpion relationship that oval racing legend Brad Hulings and his capable wrench David Karpik took some “left-over” Arctic Cat race sleds and transformed them into the Scorpion Squadron, a fiercely competitive racing effort that not only embarrassed their Arctic Cat owners, but most anyone else that got in their way. During the 1978-79 Sno Pro racing season, the Scorpion Squadron claimed seventeen firsts, twelve seconds, and eight third-place trophies, and returned from Finland and Sweden with three first-place and one second-place trophies – bringing the season to a thunderous end.
But, by January of 1980, even though Hulings had claimed an impressive second place finish at the Eagle River World Championship event, layoffs begin hitting the Crosby-Ironton manufacturing facility. In March of 1980, sighting a number of economic and industry woes (namely sluggish economic conditions, historically high interest rates and rising fuel prices), Arctic Cat embarked upon a consolidation strategy and the Crosby-Ironton manufacturing facility was officially put up for sale. As manufacturing transitioned to Thief River Falls, Arctic added only one new Scorpion model – the Sidewinder – for 1981, basically an Arctic Cat dressed in Scorpion clothing.
In February of 1981, under extreme pressure from creditors, Arctic Cat filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Large amount of parts and equipment were sold at auction for bargain basement prices. Although not officially announced at the time, the bankruptcy filing led directly to the ultimate demise of Scorpion. The brand never survived the reorganization process. Scorpion was finished, if only for a time. Shortly thereafter, with the purchase of engine manufacturing assets, Cuyuna Development Co. announced their intention to manufacture small engines in a portion of the former Scorpion plant in Crosby.
Finally, in May of 1982, many of Arctic’s assets were sold to Certified Parts Corporation of Janesville, Wisconsin, including the licensing rights to Scorpion snowmobiles.
The Scorpion brand and the people behind it were as passionate about their product as their competitors were. Perhaps the company expanded too big too fast but had the perfect storm of back to back years of low snow and a bad economy not conspired against the company they might still be in production today. What we know for sure is that in a brand loyal industry, the Scorpion faithful were as passionate and committed to their brand as their Minnesota cousins to the north of them.
Historical facts and some of the photos are courtesy of Randy Harrison – www.trailasled.com. Be sure to visit this website to learn more about the Scorpion snowmobile legacy.