Winter Arrives: A History of Snow Plows, Winter Tires, and More

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jan 20, 2016

After a freakishly warm December, Old Man Winter arrived with a vengeance for me this week—snow storms, slipping on black ice, temperatures in the 20s. And a lot more is forecast this weekend for the mid-Atlantic and north. Unless you’re in Miami or Key West, it’s cold pretty much all over.

I've seen crazier snow plows than a VW Bug--this one in snowy northern Germany. So, a few thoughts on driving in winter, from snow plows to tires. People tend to think that owning a four-wheel-drive SUV makes you impervious to snow and ice, but in fact state cops tell me they’re forever pulling over-confident drivers of those big rigs out of snowbanks. AWD isn’t a big help on ice—the car is probably still at risk where rubber meets the road.

Not pretty, but probably functional.You probably haven’t given much thought to winter tires, but now’s the time. At the Detroit Auto Show, I talked to Mike Martini, president of North American original equipment tire operations at Bridgestone, about the sad fact that Americans think that all-season radials are, well, good for all seasons.

“Winter tires aren’t a hard sell in Detroit—people here know they need them,” Martini said. “And having a separate set of seasonal tires is required in the Canadian province of Quebec. But many people in the U.S. think their all-season tires are good enough.”

My friend Ben Hunting, a car writer and enthusiast from Montreal, is all for his province's tire requirement. 'Winter tire laws take some of the guesswork out of whether you'll survive your morning commute with fenders and bumpers intact," he told me. "It means the person sitting beside you in traffic has the same chance you do of beating slippery road conditions, instead of trying to eke out another few months on a set of hockey-puck hard all-seasons."

Don't think that having four driven wheels will get you out of winter's worst tricks. (Michael Mol/Flickr)Canadians are smart. But a Bridgestone survey concluded that only a quarter of American drivers either have—or plan to have—winter rubber. Keep in mind that number includes a whole lot of procrastinators who say they’ll buy them but never will. This in spite of the fact that, as Tire Rack reports, a car with seasonal rubber will stop 30 percent faster on ice, and can accelerate 25 percent faster. Quoting the Rack:

So what’s the difference between wintertime gripping and white knuckle slipping? Often it’s simply the tires; and we've found that satisfying wintertime grip typically comes from tires developed to provide their best traction when road conditions are at their worst.

Ok, ‘nuff said. Winter tires are great, and mounting them on separate wheels makes swapping them out easier. But storing four mounted tires is a hassle, of course—too bad we don’t have winter tire warehouses like they do in Canada.  

Yes, that is indeed a Porsche snow plow. What we do have is pretty effective snowplowing—unless you’re in Washington, DC or points south. I was once in a light dusting in DC, and everything was cancelled, including my speaking date. They’re totally unprepared south of the Mason-Dixon line when blizzards do arrive, like the one that dumped up to nine inches on Chattanooga in 2011.

Early snow plowing in Sweden, circa 1909. (Wikipedia)But even in the Midwest and Northeast, where snow is a given, snow plowing is a relatively new phenomenon. Before the Civil War, the state of the art was snow rollers, these big rolling cages pulled by horses that flattened out the snow so you could get over it with sleighs and such.

This International may be rusting away, but it probably still sees service in storms. (Jim Motavalli photo)Milwaukee was the first city to use plows, circa 1862. Mental Floss tells us that first plow “was a hit. Over the next few years, the plows hit the streets in cities throughout the Snow Belt.” And according to Jalopnik:

[Early plows were] attached to a cart pulled by a team of horses through the snow-clogged streets. Over the next several years, horse-drawn plows gained popularity and came into use in many other Northeastern cities. Intercity steam trains, having made their appearance several years earlier, now puffed and whistled their way through heavy drifts with giant plows attached to their front ends. Salt was used in a few cities, but was strongly protested because it ruined the streets for sleighing and damaged the shoes and clothing of pedestrians.

Automakers were making vehicles with skis in front and tank-type treads in back in the 1910s, and the first patent granted to a motorized plow was in 1913. U.S. companies Frink and Good Roads were early pioneers, as were Norwegian brothers Hans and Even Øveraasen, who built a practical truck-based plow in 1923.

They got a lotta snow in Norway, so it makes sense they pioneered the mobile snow plow there. (National Archives of Norway photo)But Marketplace tells us that tractor-, truck- and car-mounted snow plows weren’t common until later in the 1920s. And often they were makeshift, do-it-yourself affairs, constructed by putting tracks and a plow blade on cheap vehicles like Ford’s Model T.

That's a BMW E30 convertible hugely embarrassed by its plow blade.We’re still embracing our inner Rube Goldbergs and building weird snow plows. Or using old wrecks that only come out once a year. For most of us, though, it’s either grabbing a shovel or tipping our hats as the town plow comes by.

By the way, I'm sure you're right that the Porsche and BMW shots are gag Photoshop creations. And here's video of a restored 1917 Ford Snow Flyer in action. No plow, but it would be easy enough to fit one:


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