From past to present
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1907 to 1925: Childhood and adolescence Open or Close
April 16, 1907, Valcourt, in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, Canada: Joseph-Armand Bombardier is born. No one in this peaceful farming village anticipates the newborn's unusual destiny.
As a boy, Joseph-Armand shows remarkable curiosity for everything mechanical, disassembling and reassembling a variety of mechanisms. At a mere 13 years old, he manufactures one of his first mechanical toys a miniature locomotive driven by a clock mechanism and paints the object in great detail, showing his advanced sense of both the mechanical and aesthetic. Other mobile toys, such as tractors and boats, soon result from Joseph-Armand's fertile imagination, to the immense pleasure of his brothers, sisters, and friends.
The entrepreneurial spirit that will eventually lead this inventor to success is already present: to finance the purchase of his clock mechanisms from the village jeweller, the young Joseph-Armand uses the money he earns serving mass to the parish.
From spinning wheel to cannon
Everything is possible in Joseph-Armand's feverishly inventive mind. He builds a steam engine out of old sewing machine parts. With permission from his aunt Marie, he mounts the engine on her spinning wheel, and to the boy's great joy and his aunt's distress the experiment works: the wheel spins faster and faster.
Joseph-Armand's curiosity is constant. He convinces the local veterinarian, Mr. Archambault, the father of his friend Paul, to give him a broken 12-calibre gun. Joseph-Armand happily goes to work shortening the barrel, modifying the firing system, cutting and polishing the butt, and changing the breech. Then he mounts the new device on metal wheels, and demonstrates his mini-cannon at Paul's house a week later. The gun is detonated with black powders in the presence of a dumbfounded veterinarian.
The infernal engine
Joseph-Armand takes great pleasure in dismantling and reassembling Alfred Bombardier's car motor, so to keep him away from it, Alfred gives his son an old Model T Ford motor considered "irreparable." With the help of his brother Léopold, the adolescent nevertheless fixes it and soon incorporates it into a vehicle of his own design.
His first snow machine must wait a few months, however, because Alfred sends him to pursue studies at Sherbrooke's Séminaire Saint-Charles-Borromée near Valcourt at the age of 14. Alfred hopes that his eldest son will join the priesthood, following a firmly rooted tradition of Quebec francophone families.
Insurmountable obstacles become challenges in the mind of Joseph-Armand. Away from his workshop, the schoolboy continues developing his latest idea. Upon his return for Christmas and New Year's vacation, he retreats to his father's workshop where he prepares a surprise with his brother Léopold and a few cousins.
New Year's Eve day Alfred Bombardier watches in astonishment as a strange sled propelled by the old Ford motor emerges from his workshop a veritable "infernal engine." Sitting in front, Léopold steers the machine using cotton rope reins, while Joseph-Armand, standing at the back, operates the motor, which drives a propeller manufactured by the young inventor himself.
At 15 years old, the inventor has created his first snow vehicle. Its launch surprises and amazes everyone, but Alfred Bombardier quickly orders it dismantled, concerned about the dangerous propeller. Joseph-Armand obeys, but is secretly proud of having successfully driven his machine on the snow.
Change of direction
Joseph-Armand's intellectual curiosity and ingenuity, and his pleasure in crafting different mechanisms and repairing motors, are an early sign of the passion that will drive him through life. He continues his studies at the Séminaire, but his heart isn't in it. He knows he will be neither a priest, nor doctor, nor farmer, but rather a mechanic.
At age 17 he obtains his father's consent to quit college and begin an apprenticeship at Gosselins's Garage in South Stukely in the spring of 1924. He then left to work in Montreal where he took night-school courses in mechanics and electrical engineering. He also took english courses and reads all the science and technology publications he can get his hands on.
1926 to 1938: First success Open or Close
Joseph-Armand returns to Valcourt in 1926 to open his own garage. His father lends him money, and his family helps build the garage. He's only 19, but his remarkable ability to solve any mechanical problem, whether dealing with cars, bench saws, or agricultural pumps, earns him an outstanding reputation throughout the region. His success allows him to pay back his father's loan by 1929.
A concern through his youth is the isolation of Quebec villages in winter, which prevented motorized travel. Joseph-Armand takes advantage of his seasonal business to put his genius to work seeking a solution to snowbound winters.
The challenge is to design a motorized vehicle light enough to travel on snow, and equipped with a motor, traction, and suspension adapted to the changing consistency of snow. For 10 years Joseph-Armand toils determinedly on the project, often late at night and even on Sundays. His trials and research multiply, eating into his savings and attracting mockery from observers when partial advancements end in failure. But his intuitive and reasoned methodology leaves no room for doubt and sarcasm. Year after year, he develops a variety of prototypes by adapting automobiles.
Car motors are too heavy for the light vehicles he wants to design, so in 1933 he builds a lighter 45-kg motor fitted on new prototypes for one or two persons. But the new motor tends to overheat, and the inventor has to return to the car engines and the design of heavy vehicles.
Joseph-Armand's son Yvon dies of peritonitis at the age of two in the winter of 1934, when the family is unable to get him to the hospital for treatment. Urged on by the pain of his loss, Joseph-Armand increases his efforts to overcome rural isolation in winter. The next year he uses a cogged gear wheel, the sprocket made of wood covered with rubber, to pull the track. The latter is comprised of two rubber bands connected by steel cross-links. This revolutionary sprocket wheel/track system is at long last the solution for snow travel.
Patent and production
The 1935 sprocket wheel/track system is Joseph-Armand Bombardier's first major invention. Being aware of its importance and familiar with trade laws, he requests a patent from Ottawa on December 19, 1936. Six months later, on June 29, 1937, he receives a positive response from the Patent Office. Triumph! Joseph-Armand's efforts are finally recognized, and his dreams are within grasp.
A difficult choice now awaits him: should he exploit the patent himself or sell it at a handsome profit to an automobile manufacturer? The visionary entrepreneur opts to develop his patent in Valcourt, and in so doing becomes an industrialist. The Garage Bombardier was expanded and transformed into a production plant and will now operate year round, bringing jobs and prosperity to the small town.
The first seven production snowmobiles emerge from the new factory in the winter of 1936-37. They bear name B7, B for Bombardier and 7 for the number of passengers and are well received by customers. But the inventor is always seeking to improve his products. He notices that an excessive amount of snow and ice accumulates in the vehicle's wheel spokes. Joseph-Armand solves the problem by assembling a press that makes solid wheels, showing once again his capacity for innovation and self-sufficiency, as well as his preoccupation with quality. The first B7 snowmobiles equipped with solid wheels appear in 1940.
Demand drives production upward over the following years, and Joseph-Armand strengthens that demand by giving vehicle demonstrations. He can be seen winding his way around the province in his B7 snowmobile, showing its potential and his keen business sense.
While touring the province, Joseph-Armand parks his B7 snowmobile near the offices of local newspapers ensuring he gets free publicity.
1939 to 1945: The war years Open or Close
Success of the B7 snowmobile is such that by 1939 the L'Auto-Neige Bombardier is unable to keep up with demand. A more modern plant is built in 1940 with an annual production capacity of 200 vehicles. It will be inaugurated on January 29, 1941 under the name L'Auto-Neige Bombardier.
Through 1941, Joseph-Armand perfects a new snowmobile called the B12, which receives a patent on June 23, 1942. This new version of the snowmobile seats 12 passengers and features a longer, more aerodynamic profile than the B7 snowmobile.
The launch of the B12 snowmobile meets with great success, and orders increase. But momentum is short-lived, halted prematurely by Canada's declaration of war.
Material and manpower rationing now prevents Joseph-Armand from manufacturing civilian vehicles. His offer of service to the Minister of Munitions and Supply is greeted with a mandate to develop a prototype military snowmobile for transporting troops in snowbound operation zones, such as Norway.
Using the B12 snowmobile as a model, the inventor takes a few weeks to develop the prototype B1, with technical innovations submitted for Canadian and American patents. The Canadian Forces orders 130 vehicles, to be delivered in four months.
The Valcourt plant is too small for such an order, so Joseph-Armand begins production in an existing Montreal factory. He continues manufacturing parts in Valcourt to maintain employment for village workers.
At the request of Canadian authorities, Joseph-Armand develops a prototype of an armoured tracked vehicle, named Kaki, in 1943. Conclusive trials carried out near Valcourt allow the inventor to perfect the first in a series of armoured snowmobiles, named Mark I, armoured snowmobile which after modifications becomes the Mark II, also known as the Penguin. It is followed by the Mark III.
More than 1900 tracked military vehicles are produced following Joseph-Armand Bombardier's designs between 1942 and 1946. Although wartime production is limited, civilian snowmobiles are still manufactured at a modest pace in Valcourt to meet the needs of special permit holders. Production even increases annually, going from 27 units in 1942-43 to 236 units in 1945-46.
As the war ends, Joseph-Armand Bombardier leaves Montreal to return to Valcourt where he continues expanding the company.
Despite the war and its many restrictions, Joseph-Armand tirelessly pursues his research, trials, and inventions, and continues to submit patent requests in Canada and the United States. To protect his rights and benefit close associates, he decides to give the company a legal framework. On July 10, 1942, L'Auto-Neige Bombardier Limitée is born, with a head office in Valcourt, Quebec and authorized capital of 3,000 shares.
Wartime restrictions and challenges brought out the best in Joseph-Armand Bombardier: an exceptional ability to adapt to the most limiting of circumstances, an almost limitless capacity for work, a heightened sense of responsibility toward his hometown, and a sense of open-mindedness to the changing horizons lying ahead. He possessed crucial wisdom in surrounding himself with quality people to help run his business successfully which left him more time for his inventions.
1946 to 1948: Postwar growth Open or Close
L'Auto-Neige Bombardier Limitée experiences a boom period beginning in 1946. Demand for civilian snowmobiles returns and increases rapidly. The 1940 plant is no longer able to respond to demand, so in 1947 L'Auto-Neige Bombardier Limitée builds an assembly line plant with a capacity of 1000 vehicles, inspired by Ford factory assembly lines.
With the lifting of wartime restrictions, the B12 snowmobile, which had been launched just before the war, now enjoys huge popularity with a range of customers ensuring the company's success. Between 1942 and 1951, L'Auto-Neige Bombardier Limitée produced 2,817 B12 snowmobiles.
The B12 snowmobile is highly versatile, appealing to a variety of sectors for different applications: public and materials transport, ambulance and rescue services, and transport of missionaries in isolated regions of the Canadian north. It also serves as a transport vehicle for installing and maintaining electricity and telephone lines, and on prospecting and mining sites.
Another product adds to the growth of L'Auto-Neige Bombardier Limitée after the war: the C18 snowmobile, an expanded version of the B12 model, seating 18 adults. It can also seat up to 25 school children, meeting a specific need for winter student transport. Known as the school snowmobile, it is sold as such in a number of regions in Quebec and Ontario.
In 1947-48, Joseph-Armand Bombardier's company achieves total sales of $2.3 million, 10 times more than in 1942-43. With profits of $324 000, L'Auto-Neige Bombardier Limitée is a resounding success.
1949 to 1958: Industrial vehicles Open or Close
The future seems certain, but 1948-1949 brings new challenges to L'Auto-Neige Bombardier Limitée. On top of a winter of very light snow, the Quebec government adopts a policy demanding all rural routes be cleared a major blow to the snowmobile market. In one year, sales fall by close to $1 million.
A disaster? Joseph-Armand Bombardier takes it as a challenge. He plans his company's survival by ending its dependence on snowmobiles and creating new machines for new markets.
Joseph-Armand's diversification effort begins with a period of intense and varied research for an alternative product to the snowmobile. A number of prototypes emerge from the inventor's new experimental centre in the small town of Kingsbury near Valcourt, and are designed to tackle all sorts of terrain, from snow to swamp to peat bogs.
The BT (Bombardier Truck) industrial vehicle is a modified B12 snowmobile ready to serve the local forestry industry. New modifications, mainly based on experiments, give rise to the C4 model, the first all-track vehicle, and the B5 model, equipped with an interchangeable system of wheels and skis.
These vehicles advance the inventor's research and lead to the later development of other commercially successful vehicles. The R Series, for example, consists of interchangeable wheels and skis in front allowing it to travel on asphalt or snow. Its sales are strong, and ensure L'Auto-Neige Bombardier Limitée success through the 1950s.
The most significant results from the rebuilding of the company's strong position come with the launch of a new traction mechanism, the TTA (Tractor Tracking Attachment), which Joseph-Armand Bombardier perfects from his brother Gérard's design.
The TTA improves tractor traction in muddy and swampy terrain, and thousands are sold to tractor manufacturers in North America, Europe, and South America. Patents are awarded to L'Auto-Neige Bombardier for the TTA in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
In 1952, unsatisfactory rubber quality and market prices lead Joseph-Armand to produce rubber from raw material himself. Together with his father, eldest son Germain Bombardier founds Rockland Accessories Ltd. Established in Kingsbury, the plant opens in 1953 with the mandate to produce all the rubber parts required by L'Auto-Neige Bombardier Limitée. Rockland Accessories Ltd. became the first subsidiary of L'Auto-Neige Bombardier Limitée in 1956.
The entrepreneur is also aware of the fact that his vehicle's track shows weakness due to the lack of resistance in the rod bolts. His track suppliers seem unable to produce the continuous track he constantly requests. For Joseph-Armand, the impossible is unacceptable: he will produce his own tracks.
His ingenuity wins out with the development of a new vulcanization process for which he received a patent that enables the production of the continuous track he requires. Joseph-Armand simultaneously succeeds in producing an all-rubber, unbreakable and shape-retaining sprocket. Thanks to these major discoveries, he can market more reliable, higher-performance vehicles.
The celebrated Muskeg† tractor
Of all vehicles produced at the Valcourt plant in the 1950s, Joseph-Armand considers the Muskeg† his greatest success of that era. The tractor's unique quality is its low impact on the soil, which gives it enhanced accessibility to swampy areas. "Muskeg" is swamp in Amerindian.
The Muskeg† tractor is an all-track, all-terrain vehicle. Launched by the Valcourt plants in 1953, it meets with great commercial success because it fills the need to work and transport on difficult terrain, and is used as much in the Alps to carry skiers as in the Sahara to clear roads. In its modified version, the Muskeg† tractor is still sold today around the world.
In 1955, the J5 tractor the first tracked vehicle designed specifically for the forestry industry is launched and is another commercial success. Later, the vehicle is adapted by adding a shovel in front and becomes the popular sidewalk-clearing SW† still seen on the winter landscapes of towns and cities across North America.
Joseph-Armand Bombardier is especially interested in the forest and forestry. He has already developed vehicles specifically for transporting wood, but he foresees other mechanized applications that will improve productivity. The machines he envisions can fell trees, remove their branches, cut lengths, load the logs onto the transport vehicle platform, and chip branches. Two of these machines, the VFB skidder and the BPU delimber, are launched and patented.
The Valcourt company enjoys an intense level of activity in the 1950s, thanks to its founder's personality a happy mix of tenaciousness, ingenuity, vision, audacity, and the constant search for self-sufficiency.
1959 to 1964: The Ski-Doo® snowmobile Open or Close
At the close of the 1950s, the Valcourt company is very successful, as shown by its sales of $3.5 million and profits of $850 000 in 1958-59. The coming few years will launch Joseph-Armand Bombardier's greatest invention, the recreational snowmobile, marketed under the name Ski-Doo®. This invention will fulfill Joseph-Armand's boyhood dream and have a profound impact on the success and future of L'Auto-Neige Bombardier Limitée.
A "miniature" snowmobile
Joseph-Armand's ability to finally develop the light, individual vehicle he had always dreamed of was made possible by the advent of lighter motors, and especially by the revolutionary continuous track designed and patented by his son Germain at the Kingsbury experimental site.
At the end of 1958, working with close collaborators, Joseph-Armand creates the prototype for a "miniature" snowmobile. The April 1959 thaw meant the end of Joseph-Armand's Valcourt trials and a chance to take the machine for a visit with his friend Maurice Ouimet, a Marie-Immaculée oblate and missionary among the Ojibwa peoples of Lansdowne House in Northern Ontario. Fascinated by the little vehicle, the natives try it almost non-stop for three days. Joseph-Armand is satisfied with the results, gives the vehicle to Father Ouimet as a gift, and returns to Valcourt to complete the project.
Production and marketing
Mass production of the Ski-Doo® snowmobile begins in the autumn of 1959. It is immediately welcomed by missionaries, trappers, prospectors, surveyors, and other people who need to travel over snow in isolated regions. But the little $900 machine also finds a keen new clientele in sports and outdoor recreation lovers, who eventually become the reason for the snowmobile's immense popularity in the years to come.
After a modest start, demand increases from year to year as promotion and the sales network expand. In 1959-60, 225 units are produced; 250 in 1960-61, then 1200 in 1961-62, 2500 in 1962-63 and 8352 in 1963-64 requiring numerous expansions to the Valcourt facilities.
Always concerned with self-sufficiency, in 1963 Joseph-Armand Bombardier establishes his company's second subsidiary, Roski Ltd., in Roxton Falls near Valcourt, for the manufacture of fibreglass parts required for the snowmobile hoods.
The dream is interrupted
Joseph-Armand Bombardier would only see the earliest signs of the phenomenal popularity of his snowmobile. His death on February 18, 1964 at the age of 56 ends a full and happy life. With his departure, the world loses an ingenious inventor and exceptional entrepreneur. In a moving letter to his children, he encourages them to pursue his work. The success of Bombardier Inc. and the humanitarian and social mission fulfilled by the J. Armand Bombardier Foundation show he had every reason to have confidence in them.
A model citizen
Success in no way diminishes Joseph-Armand Bombardier's social responsibility and attachment to his hometown. He recruits his workforce in Valcourt and respects the pace of life in the region, such as by allowing farmers to work their fields in the summer and take factory shifts in the winter. He also demands the best of himself and his employees, increasing their pride and sense of belonging.
Joseph-Armand takes an active part in the community life of Valcourt. He serves as municipal councillor, founds council 3207 of the Valcourt Knights of Columbus, and earns the title Knight of Saint-Grégoire-le-Grand for his support of Church endeavours.
Passionate about music, he is a member of the parish choir, and enjoys many happy moments singing with his children whom he accompanies on the piano. His love of music leads him to promote and finance the launch of an harmony in Valcourt, and his concern for education leads him to help and encourage youth to pursue their studies.
Despite his need for solitude to dream, cogitate, design, invent, develop, and test, Joseph-Armand Bombardier always welcomes family, friends, employees, and fellow citizens who need a sympathetic ear, a helping hand, support, or advice.
Hunting and fishing are his ways of enjoying the natural world, which he loves and visits often while testing vehicles. He also enjoys flying, and buys a plane and learns to pilot it maybe even dreaming of one day exploring air transport.