The Legacy of J. Armand Bombardier

This Canadian man built things that go like no other things go.

vintage 1922 Vehicle

1922 Vehicle.

1922 Vehicle© J. Armand Bombardier Museum

There's been significant consternation over what the Can-Am Spyders are, and why a company would build this answer to a question that no consumer has ever asked. But if one takes a moment to consider what Bombardier Recreational Vehicles (BRP) is, the Spyder makes complete historical sense. In fact, the Spyder's creation harks all the way back to the heart and soul of its founder, a creator of unique vehicles for new markets.

J. Armand Bombardier was a Canadian who, beginning in his teens, applied himself to solving alternative needs of transportation. As just a 15-year-old, he applied himself to creating a vehicle that could “float on snow.” While the rest of the world preceded him with inventing and developing the horseless carriage, Bombardier set himself to inventing a dog-less sled to provide winter transportation where snow all but halted travel and commerce for many of our northern neighbors.

Bombardier’s first teenage creation, in 1922, was a Model T engine mounted on skis and driven by a rear-mounted propeller. But his father was terrified by this machine’s open blades and ordered it to be disassembled. Many developments later, Bombardier began production of his B7 Snowmobile in 1937, which was fully enclosed and driven by a track on each side, steered with skis, and capable of going where no vehicle had gone before.

vintage 1947 B12 CS Snowmobile

1947 B12 CS Snowmobile.

1947 B12 CS Snowmobile© J. Armand Bombardier Museum

The van-sized B7 led to the even larger B12 CS, which was a great commercial success that had a decade-long production run, starting in 1947. It was used as a bus, as an ambulance, and to transport supplies. The B12 was replaced by the R12 in 1951, which had the added feature of interchangeable skis and wheels, allowing for use in any weather condition. The R12 was so efficient that versions of it were in available up until 1981.

The creation that made Bombardier a household name, though often mispronounced in the US as “bom-ber-deer,” was the 1960 Ski-Doo, an open, single-track sled with seating for a passenger behind the pilot. Since then, the Ski-Doo has been copied, interpreted, and redeveloped by companies with which you’re quite familiar.

In 1968, BRP invented the first-ever production sit-down-style personal watercraft, the Sea-Doo, which preceded even the stand-up-style machines of other companies. This again established BRP’s forward-thinking corporate culture. But, as some hooligans have shown, even a Ski-Doo can be a personal watercraft.

vintage 1960 Ski-Doo® Snowmobile

1960 Ski-Doo® Snowmobile.

1960 Ski-Doo® Snowmobile© J. Armand Bombardier Museum

Under the brand of Can-Am, BRP went motorcycling in 1973, creating off-road bikes for a decade before selling licensing to produce it to another company that manufactured them for a few more years. This endeavor resulted in the remarkable success of AMA Hall of Famer Gary Jones winning the AMA 250 Motocross National Championship for Can-Am in 1974.

So, as can be seen, the Can-Am Spyder follows in the BRP lineage of creating unique vehicles. The last three mentioned all have handlebars. Two of them, like the Spyder, aren’t counter-steered, and they carry the passenger behind the pilot. With their three points of contact to the ground, Spyders are basically snowmobiles with wheels, though US states generally consider them motorcycles. Even the long arm of the law is confused as to what Spyders are. But please don’t try to cross a lake on one.

With over $300 million in sales over the last seven years, the Can-Am Spyder has established a new market nearly all its own. And now another player, the Polaris Slingshot, has joined the three-wheeled fray, confusing us even more with a steering wheel and the passenger sitting beside the pilot. I have to wonder if there's a meeting going on right now at Bonnier, the Cycle World publisher, to plan a new magazine.

vintage 1937 B7 Snowmobile

1937 B7 Snowmobile.

1937 B7 Snowmobile© J. Armand Bombardier Museum