Vehicles have always been called upon to supply the insatiable needs of man's wanderlust; and if it's to withstand the harshest sampling of Mother Nature's fury, it had better be one heck of a vehicle.

Such was the task of the Antarctic Snow Cruiser. Under the command of prominent explorer Admiral James E. Byrd, an expeditionary force mobilized in the late '30s to make greater headway into the recesses of the Antarctic desert. To achieve this, Thomas C. Poulter, physicist and fellow explorer, proposed a herculean vehicle capable of sustaining a small party for up to one year. It required living quarters, a galley, and working research and laboratory stations. But most important, it had to be fully mobile in the harsh environs of the polar region.

Capitalizing on acclaim from the two previous Byrd Antarctic expeditions, Poulter gained the backing of major industry moguls and government officials to build his vision. And what a vision. With a length of 55 ft and a width of nearly 20, the Antarctic Snow Cruiser was massive. Design duties were handled through the Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago. It was fabricated at the nearby Pullman railroad facility using a steel-beam infrastructure for rigidity, the exterior being clad in heavy steel skin. The basic design was elementary, and construction took only four months.

Fresh from the Pullman shop in its high-visibility orange-paint scheme, the Snow Cruiser was driven over 1000 miles to catch its ride south on the ship North Star. This pre-run, the only test of the equipment before reaching Antar­c­tica, resulted in mechanical failures, accidents, and massive traffic snarls, but the Cruiser arrived in Boston under its own power 19 days later. From there, it took three months to get to Antarctica.

At a cost of $150,000, the Snow Cruiser seemed to represent the ultimate Antarctic outpost, fully self-contained and mobile. It could house a half-dozen explorers. Sleeping quarters, galley, communications room, darkroom, machine shop, and research laboratory were among the built-in amenities. The driver's control pod sat high and forward to afford the best possible view, leaving room behind the cabin to mount a Beechcraft Model 17 Staggerwing biplane equipped with skis if arial reconnaissance was needed.

The Snow Cruiser used a special four-wheel-drive system made from a combination of diesel and electric power. Similar to locomotives, diesel-powered generators drove individual electric motors for each wheel. Output for each was a mere 75 hp. Large balloon tires built by Goodyear were 10 ft tall and produced a sizeable footprint believed to work well on the snowy terrain.

Dr. Poulter's previous explorations indicated that any vehicle traveling the Antarctic must be able to overcome not only the weather but the terrain. A full underbelly pan was reinforced with I-beams serving as a sliding surface. When the Snow Cruiser encountered a large crevasse, the front wheels would be raised. The rear wheels would then push the front portion over the gap. The rear would retract and the front wheels would then re-engage and pull the rear portion over -- in theory.

While the underside was capable of sledding down embankments, the smooth tires couldn't provide enough grip to climb one. The Snow Cruiser was abandoned less than five miles into its exploration when it failed to overcome its first barrier. Documentary evidence indicates the 75,000-lb Cruiser's tires dug into the snow rather than skirting over it. After the drive motors failed, the Snow Cruiser became a stationary outpost, and the onset of World War II forced its abandonment. It remained an outpost and was visited until the '60s when the ice shelf on which it was trapped gave way.

An Internet hub for more information about the Snow Cruiser can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antarctic_Snow_Cruiser.