Ski artifacts: M29 Weasel all-terrain vehicle was predecessor to the snowcat
September 8, 2017
Editor's note: The following is part of a series of articles compiled by the Colorado Snowsports Museum and Hall of Fame that will take a closer look at some of the artifacts and stories contained in the museum's archives. The Colorado Snowsports Museum, located in the Vail Transportation Center, is currently undergoing a $2.4 million privately funded transformation that will refurbish the 24-year-old facility, add new exhibit space and modernize exhibits with interactive technology.
Skiing and the 10th Mountain Division are the cornerstones of Vail's history and success, which the museum preserves and celebrates year-round. The museum has been a favorite family-friendly visitor attraction in Vail for 41 years and, with these improvements, will become the most comprehensive ski museum in the world.
VAIL — In 1942, the fear that Germany would develop an atomic bomb gripped Allied strategists. With Norwegian hydroelectric power plants being used to produce heavy water for the German bomb development, a raid against these power plants was proposed, using a highly mobile, snow-tractor-like vehicle.
The idea that inspired the creation of this vehicle, dubbed the Weasel, was the brainchild of Britain's Geoffrey Pyke, a journalist, educator and, later, an inventor whose clever but unorthodox ideas could often be difficult to implement. The Colorado Snowsports Museum has an M29C Weasel as part of its collection, currently on display at the Idaho Springs Historical Society in Idaho Springs.
Pyke's plan to hamper the German atomic weapons development became known as Project Plough. For its implementation, he suggested a fast, light, mechanized device that would transport small groups of the 1st Special Service Force, an elite American-Canadian commando unit.
The mission called for a vehicle that could move quickly and easily through the winter snows of Norway, but it also needed to be air transportable and be able to withstand the effects of being dropped by parachute. The vehicle would also be able to carry arms, explosives and minimal resupply stocks.
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An entirely new and innovative vehicle was called for. Under wartime pressures to get it done, the Studebaker Co. of South Bend, Indiana, accepted the challenge of a 180-day schedule to produce the Weasel. In fewer than 60 days, they had a prototype, which, after testing and improvements, was standardized as the M28 Cargo Carrier.
Utilizing a Champion 6 cylinder engine and other automotive components, the initial reaction to the Weasel was lukewarm, as it had questionable handling characteristics in snow and frequently threw its tracks. When it was discovered, however, that the little vehicle could go almost anywhere, Army officials were encouraged. Studebaker set about redesigning it, moving the engine from the back to the front and improving other design flaws.
The new version, designated the M29, worked beautifully on all terrain. The military relied heavily on the Weasel and continued its use after the war. The last version, the M29C, was amphibious and found extensive use in the Pacific. By VJ day, more than 15,000 Weasels had been produced.
As World War II progressed, the Norwegian power plant raid became a lesser priority and Weasel development was declassified. However, the potential of the light carrier was recognized and was utilized in many theaters such as Europe, the Pacific and Alaska.
The 10th Mountain Division used Weasels for training in Colorado, as well as in Italy. During the 10th Italian campaign, the Weasel was mainly utilized for the evacuation of wounded soldiers, while also performing similar work in the European Theater, beginning with D-Day.
The Weasel proved to be a versatile vehicle that could be used for command, radio, ambulance, signal-line deployment and light cargo. It operated effectively on difficult terrain such as snow, swamps, sand, deep mud and lakes.
After the war, many surplus M29s were sold to allied countries, including Norway, Sweden and France. Some M29C and M29s survived to serve in Korea, supplementing quarter-ton 4-by-4 cargo vehicles in rough conditions.
They served in Arctic and cold-weather operations until retired in 1958. Large numbers of retired Weasels were sold off in the 1950s to civilians and municipal organizations, while 25 Weasels were loaned to the Organizing Committee for the 1960 Olympic Winter Games in Squaw Valley, California, in 1960.