Joseph-Armand Bombardier was a mechanic who dreamed of building a vehicle that could “float on snow.” In 1937, he designed and produced his first snowmobile in his small repair shop in Valcourt, Quebec.
Bombardier’s technological breakthrough in the design of bush vehicles came in the mid-1930s when he developed a drive system that revolutionized travel in snow and swampy conditions. In 1937, Bombardier sold 12 snowmobiles—named the B7 and, in 1942, created L’Auto-Neige Bombardier Limitée company.
The first snowmobiles were large, multi-passenger vehicles designed to help people get around during the long winter months. Snowmobiles were used in rural Quebec to take children to school, carry freight, deliver mail, and as ambulances. His invention filled a very particular need in the region and soon business was booming. In 1941, Armand opened a large new factory in Valcourt. Then a major setback hit the growing business: the Second World War was well underway and the Canadian government issued wartime rationing regulations. Bombardier customers had to prove that snowmobiles were essential to their livelihood in order to buy one. To keep his business going, Armand switched gears and developed vehicles for the military. After the war, Bombardier experienced another setback in his snowmobile business. In 1948, the Quebec government passed a law requiring all highways and local roads to be cleared of snow; Bombardier company’s sales fell by nearly half in one year. Armand Bombardier therefore decided to diversify his business and make all-terrain vehicles for the mining, oil and forestry industries.
Bombardier dreamed of developing a fast, lightweight snowmobile that could carry one or two people. In the early 1950s, Armand set aside his dream to focus on developing his company’s other tracked vehicles. But by the end of the decade, smaller, more efficient engines had been developed and were starting to come on the market. Bombardier resumed his efforts to build a “miniature” snowmobile. He worked alongside his eldest son Germain, who shared his father’s mechanical talents. Armand and Germain developed several prototypes of the lightweight snowmobile and finally, the first Bombardier snowmobile went on sale in 1959.
The Ski-Doo was originally called the “Ski-Dog” because Bombardier meant it to be a practical vehicle to replace the dogsled for hunters and trappers. By an accident, a painter misinterpreted the name and painted “Ski-Doo” on the first prototype. The public soon discovered that speedy vehicles that can zoom over snow were a lot of fun. Suddenly a new winter sport was born, centered in Quebec. In the first year, Bombardier sold 225 Ski-Doos; four years later, 8,210 were sold. But Armand was reluctant to focus too much on the Ski-Doo and move resources away from his all-terrain vehicles. He vividly remembered his earlier business setbacks that forced him to diversify. Armand slowed down promotion of the Ski-Doo line to prevent it from dominating the other company products but still dominate the entire snowmobile industry. The snowmobiles produced were of exceptional quality and performance, earning a better reputation than the rival Polaris and Arctic Cat brand of motosleds. In 1975 Bombardier completed the purchase of the Moto-Ski company.
On 18 February 1964, J. Armand Bombardier died of cancer at age 56. He left behind a thriving business, but also one that had been focused on one person. Armand dominated his company, overseeing all areas of operation. He controlled the small research department, making all the drawings himself. By the time of his death sales of the company had reached $20 million, which is the equivalent of $160 million in 2004 dollars. The younger generation took over, led by Armand’s sons and sons-in-law. The young team reorganized and decentralized the company, adopting modern business tactics. The company adopted the latest technological innovation—the computer—to handle inventory, accounts and billing. Distribution networks were improved and increased, and an incentive program was developed for sales staff.