Moto-Ski: The end of the road

Moto-Ski started in the early 1960s and survived until the mid 1980s
Over a hundred snowmobile brand names have come and gone since the late, great David Johnson and the crew at Polaris jump-started the North American snowmobile industry in the winter of 1956. Thirty years of shake-ups in the industry later, we were left with the same four brands we have had since 1986.

Back in 1963 Moto-Ski wasn’t the first company to build a state-of-the-art steel tunnel and hood with a mid-mounted motor and sprung bogie wheels, as Ski-Doo pioneered that architecture in 1960. But no other late brand endured longer or sold more machines over Moto-Ski’s proud 21-year run.

■ Canadian born
The Moto-Ski brand got its start early in the history of the snowmobiling on the southern banks of the St. Lawrence River in La Pocatiere, Quebec, Canada (north of Maine) under Industries Bouchard Inc, before being purchased by Giffen Industries Inc., in 1968. As the flagship brand of Giffen’s snowmobile lines that also included Boa Ski and Sno Prince, Moto-Ski grew to eventually become the second most popular brand in Canada and the third largest globally by the early ‘70s. In their peak model year of ‘71, Moto-Ski offered a full lineup of durable mid-mount sleds, built on steel tunnels using rubber covered cleats riveted to three-layer belting for their unique take on tracks cushioned by sprung bogie wheels. From the smaller sized Mini-Sno, the entry-level Capri, long track Zephyr (with four sets of bogies instead of the usual three), sporty Grand Prix and the family MS-18 with its long and 18-inch wide track, Moto-Ski used Hirth and JLO single and twin engines ranging from 223cc JLO for the Mini Sno up to the beefy 634cc Hirth for the GP and the MS-18 in ‘71. Moto-Ski also released a new racer for ‘71, the fabled “Bullet.” While cutting edge at the time with a low, front-mounted motor is popular with collectors today, the all new “KMS” engines - which apparently stood for Quebec Moto-Ski - were a self-destructing, costly headache for the brand that had otherwise seen very low warranty claims and was stubbornly profitable.
Unfortunately, economic headwinds were blowing against the parent company. Several suitors took a hard look, but Bombardier purchased Moto-Ski outright in early 1971, changing the name from “Industries Bouchard Inc” to “Moto-Ski Limited” but still operating out of La Pocatiere as a stand-alone division.

■ More changes
New ownership wasn’t the only change in store for Moto-Ski. Unfortunately, the factory in La Pocatiere was badly damaged in a fire in 1972. As a result, all snowmobile production was moved about 200 miles southwest to Valcourt. By the 1976 model year, Bombardier decided to drop the unique and individual Moto-Ski machines completely. Marketed in their place were basically orange and blue painted “Ski-Doo” machines with Rotax branded engines. This was strongly hinted at in ‘75 when the Moto-Ski Sonic 340 was released as the twin to the Ski-Doo 245 RV racer.

All of the 1976 models mirrored Bombardier’s Ski-Doos, with the Sonic again sharing a chassis along with the 250 and 340cc rotary-valve free air motors. The Futura 440 was based on the Everest and the Nuvik’s following the pattern of the venerable Olympics again. The Spirit was based on the classic Elan.

Bombardier should get credit for making attempts to differentiate the brands with unique bodywork, tracks, colors and graphics. For example, when the Elan was rebadged as the Moto-Ski Spirit, the hood looked more modern even if the sled was a throwback to Moto-Ski’s steel tunnel, bogie wheel, mid-mounted single cylinder roots. With the rapidly shrinking market, it made sense to share technology to spread out costs, but at that point Moto-Ski lost its individuality and got by on color and style … for a while anyway.
Moto-Ski received versions of the ‘80s Blizzard lineup, including the fast 440cc LC Ultra Sonic, the 340cc LC Super Sonic, the 500cc fan cooled Grand Prix Special and even a Blizzard 5500 MX clone in 1982, the Sonic (MX). For several years Bombardier even ran separate race teams for each brand. One Moto-Ski twin track oval racer even exists.

The last year Moto-Ski would field a full lineup was 1983, but with some changes. The Super Sonic was dropped and a 300 Futura was added. Even with the high performance Ultra Sonic and “Glide Power” Sonic MX at the top of line, rumor was these sleds were a hard sell. Stories circulated of new sleds being parted out by dealers that couldn’t sell the complete units. One former Cat dealer in NY who switched to Moto-Ski during Cat’s “Gone Fishing” years of ‘82-83 flatly stated that he “couldn’t give them away.”

A few surprises came around in 1984 and raised more than a few questions about Moto-Ski’s future. Ski-Doo released its 25th anniversary SS-25 model, celebrating launching the brand in 1960. But Bombardier also released an all new Moto-Ski companion sled, the Sonic LC based on the same new chassis powered by the same 463cc LC twin. While the Sonic LC was a great leap forward, there was also a huge step back as it seemed the rest of the lineup was eliminated.

For 1985 a new Moto-Ski was announced: The Mirage III. While not the most exciting model, it seemed to be basically the solid Safari 377 in orange paint with some added hood venting and a recessed headlight. It could have at least started to fill out the lineup with new iron, except, again, there was no other new iron.
Typically when a snowmobile brand left the market, it was pretty cold and abrupt. No doubt Bombardier had their reasons for slow-walking Moto-Ski out. It’s understandable they no longer desired to compete with themselves, but the two-year wind-down remains one of the most unique endings in the industry.

There were other oddities with Moto-Skis long before the end in 1985. My family’s first sleds were a used pair of 1970 Moto-Ski MS18s that my dad brought home for Christmas of 1977. The Hirth 500-powered pair were rugged and quite durable. However even back then, they were a pain to get parts for. Unfortunately, one of our MS18s wore out a set of track drive sprockets and had to be parked until we wer old enough and had enough experience to figure out how to adapt Ski-Doo parts for her.

Back in 1982 my first snowmobile purchase was a 1969 Cadet 250 with $50 I earned throwing hay. This has always given me a soft spot for orange sleds and a dislike for impossible-to-find driveshaft bearings.

It seemed that those old Moto-Skis were tough enough to survive almost anything … except the brutally competitive forces of the snowmobile industry itself.
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