MELROSE (AP) -- Ed Petermeier loves his massive 1964 Arctic Cat snowmobile, with its blocky stance and fat aluminum skis. No amount of snow can stop it.
"I never kept stuck with that," he said, leaning back in the bouncy tractor seat he's adapted as his tool shop chair. "Nope, you can keep stuck with those other machines, but not with this old Arctic Cat."
But at 86, Petermeier admits he's looking for something more comfortable. And he knows just what he wants: a 1965 Alpine Ski-Doo.
"I'd like to drive one that I don't tip over with so good," he said. "That would be the Alpine there." He gave a nod toward a fading promotional poster tacked on his shop wall.
"That's the onliest two-tracker that wide. I'd use that, you bet."
Petermeier knows these machines inside and out. And he's not interested in the fancy new ones; it's the old-fashioned snow machines that have his heart. Among them, Petermeier and his sons Ralph and Germain own 40 vintage machines, most in fine working order. They're among a growing number of snowmobilers who prefer the simplicity of older sleds to modern high-tech versions. Retired from farming, Petermeier now fills his barn and other outbuildings with lines of classic snow machines, including a rare 40-year-old aluminum snowplane that can move across a snow-covered lake at speeds of up to 90 miles per hour.
The Petermeiers' collection is impressive, but its size isn't unusual, said Dave Guenther of Pequot Lakes, president of the 1,800-member Antique Snowmobiling Club of America. Interest in collecting antique (pre-1968) and vintage (pre-1980) snowmobiles has grown exponentially in the past decade, Guenther said. He owns 37 snowmobiles, and knows many who own more. The club's annual rally in Pequot Lakes draws nearly 500 machines each January. It's one of at least three such rallies held around the state.
The even larger Vintage Snowmobile Club of America draws nearly 3,000 spectators to Waconia to swap, ride and race. But it's not just big clubs that draw big crowds. One of the oldest and largest rallies is held in Avon, just up the road from the Petermeiers' farm. For a decade, as many as 400 vintage machines have gathered there the last weekend in January for a rally and 5-mile ride from Avon to St. Anna. It was only three years ago that Petermeier and his older brother Herman, now 93, endured 20-below temperatures to drive the old Arctic Cat there, picking up a plaque for best vintage machine for their efforts.
For the Petermeiers and many others, interest in collecting is fueled by nostalgia.
A relentless tinkerer, Petermeier built his first snow machine in 1947 so he could get out and enjoy the long winter on the farm. Using scavenged tractor parts and grain binder chain, he fashioned a primitive three-ski sled that had a top speed of 18 mph. It was slow and cumbersome, but it cured cabin fever for the Petermeiers and their seven kids. When commercial manufacturers began producing snow sleds in the 1960s and '70s, their family was drawn to the easy-to-use sport machines. They provided both excuse and vehicle for friends and relatives to gather by the dozens each weekend.
"Sundays, that was a big thing," said Petermeier. "We'd have a fire going down by the lake and ice skating. We'd get together, the kids having a ride. That was a big thing, the main thing."
Leisurely rides through woods and farm fields whiled away winter weekends. His son, Ralph, now 46, was a teen-ager then. He has fond memories of his 1966 Larson snowmobile, which now sits in the barn. He and friends would head out after chores on Friday and be outside nearly nonstop until Sunday dinner.
"We'd drive out with these older machines, you'd enjoy looking around, maybe see a deer here," said his father. That's hard to do with the newer machines, he said. "Now if you drive that slow you have to take a mechanic along. Your spark plugs foul up. The new machines are made for speed, and not for enjoying, as far as that goes."
When friends go out on modern machines, Petermeier brings a paper clip along to clean out the fouled spark plugs.
Minnesota is a haven for vintage collectors. Minnesota-based Polaris and Arctic Cat have long been industry leaders. At the peak of the industry's development in the 1960s and '70s, as many as 167 makers vied for consumer dollars; now there are only four.
The Petermeiers' aim is to preserve, not restore, their sleds. Cleaning and polishing was all that was needed for many sleds that came to them dusty and dirty, donated by folks who just wanted someone to haul them away. For other machines, they've paid up to a few hundred dollars.
But as interest in collecting has increased, prices have climbed, too. Petermeier and his son Germain thought they might pick up a sled that was up for auction at Sauk Center last year.
"It was rusted up, the motor didn't work, the chain was tight, it wouldn't come around," said Petermeier. "I told Germain I thought we could buy that old machine pretty cheap, but when it came up, it went for $1,400."
So now they've become more particular, said Ralph.
"At first, we didn't care what the condition was," said Ralph. "It was any machine and every machine. Now we narrow it down to the best machine at the best price."
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.