Vintage snowmobile collection restores a legacy, reunites a family

Star Tribune

Article by: ROBYN DOCHTERMAN

Updated: January 27, 2004 - 10:00 PM

At times, Eileen Harrison can still smell the oil. It's been 35 years since Scorpion snowmobiles covered her family's front yard in rural Crow Wing County. But drops of the oil that spilled onto the snow and seeped into the ground still linger. And just a whiff of that scent triggers vivid memories of how deep snowmobiling runs in the family.

Just two years ago, the Harrisons joined the swelling ranks of vintage snowmobile collectors. They now have about a dozen vintage Scorpions, certainly not the largest collection of snowmobiles -- or even the largest collection of the once-popular Scorpions -- in Minnesota. But the Harrisons' collection is unique if only for its history.

It was Eileen's husband, Dick Harrison, who engineered the stylishly curved fiberglass hoods on Scorpion snowmobiles. And it was Dick who devised a way to make an innovative rubber track for the Scorpions. Along with his father, "Stub" Harrison, and businessman Glen Gutzman, Dick formed the Trail-A-Sled company in 1959 and saw the company zoom out of the old wooden garage where it was started.

Within a decade, the company was producing 16,000 Scorpions a year and employing hundreds of people in the Cuyuna Range town of Crosby, Minn. The whole Harrison family was involved. Eileen posed for Scorpion advertisements, son Steve raced, and all three kids joined their parents on trail rides.

Just as snowmobile sales were peaking in 1969, the three founders sold the quickly growing company and walked away from the industry. Dick Harrison didn't look back. And when the company folded in 1981, Harrison assumed that no one cared about the spunky little sleds that were once as ubiquitous as Polaris and Arctic Cat -- or remembered his contributions to the sport.

Then, two years ago, he got an invitation to a vintage snowmobile collectors' rally.

"We didn't have the slightest idea people were collecting them," he said. "We didn't think they'd be looking at a has-been. Scorpion was long gone."

Restored vision

Dick went to the rally, with his children and grandchildren in tow. They were greeted by a line of beautifully restored Scorpions. Within minutes, Dick was on his hands and knees, looking underneath an aqua '65 model, said his younger son, Randy Harrison, of Maple Grove.

"You could almost see his mind rewind," Randy said.

All day long, Dick met people who peppered him with questions about models, parts, the early years of snowmobiles. And he discovered that collectors not only remembered his Scorpions -- they revered them.

For Mike Linnenkamp, a St. Paul collector, meeting a pioneer such as Harrison was a thrill. "I sat and talked to him for three hours," Linnenkamp said. "I never dreamed that would happen. That was just the coolest thing."

The normally reserved Harrison warmed quickly to the reception.

"I saw a twinkle in my dad's eye I hadn't seen in awhile," said Randy. "Imagine believing that no one really cared about your past contributions. Then seemingly overnight you realize your legacy is not lost, but is, in fact, celebrated. Suddenly people want to meet you, take your picture, and get your autograph -- what a surprisingly wonderful thing."

That show marked a turning point not just for Dick, but for the whole Harrison family. Seeing the old machines sparked Dick's memories and rekindled the kids' memories of their early sledding days. The family now attends several rallies a year (wearing matching Scorpion sweatshirts) and they e-mail Scorpion-related news to each other almost daily.

Randy created a Web site dedicated to the company (http://www.trailasled.com) and started an online discussion group for Scorpion enthusiasts, which has more than 160 members. Daughter Deb Piirainen of Little Falls, a former Beanie Baby collector, uses her collecting experience to scout for Scorpion-branded sleds and memorabilia, which includes snowmobile suits, hats, board games, matchbooks, playing cards, swizzle sticks, even whiskey. And Dick and Eileen collect the snowmobiles that once filled their front yard.

The family houses their dozen or so machines in a pole barn that serves as their personal museum. Along with the original and restored sleds, there is a trio of fiberglass-hulled Air Sleds, which the company built with aircraft engines before switching to tracked snowmobiles.

Personal connection

Few other collections are as steeped in history as the Harrisons, but it's likely that a personal connection drives many of the 600 or so snowmobile collectors in Minnesota. Dave Guenther, of Pequot Lakes and president of the Antique Snowmobile Club of America, is a good example. The first snowmobile he ever saw left a clear impression.

"I was in first grade, daydreaming out the window," he recalled. "I saw this red piece of equipment with the engine in the back go by. It turned out to be a 1963 Polaris. I've got one of those now. I bought it for that reason."

Guenther, who has about 30 sleds, said he paid $50 for his first old snowmobile. The rare 1964 Trailmaker he restored is worth about $4,000 today. Not that he'd sell it.

As with many kinds of collecting, the potential for profit in old snowmobiles is secondary to the delight of finding a forgotten or forsaken treasure. Dick Harrison and Deb Piirainen work together to hunt up sleds and parts to restore them. Over the past two years, they've waded through the dusty barns and haymows of many collectors and would-be restorers. Often, they see dismantled sleds. It pains Dick to see the old snowmobiles lying in pieces.

"People say they are going to clean them up, and I think 'No way, they are not going to get it done. It just isn't going to get done,' " he said. "It's history and it's not taken care of."

Recently, the father-daughter duo visited a vintage enthusiast in hopes of finding a track for a classic sled they were restoring. They came home with the track all right -- and a trailer-full of decrepit snowmobiles as well. Where the untrained eye might see rodent-gnawed seats, rusted engines and dangling bumpers, Dick and Deb saw a rich mosaic of memory made of fiberglass and metal.

"Most of the sleds [we look at] are beyond help," admitted Deb. "But sometimes we get a real find and I think that's funner than anything. It's a thrill when you come across something like that."

Father and daughter know it will take a Herculean effort to transform the aged sleds into showpieces, but neither is daunted by the rebuilding process. They plan to return the rare sleds to their former glory so they can share them at a vintage snowmobile convention, such as the one in Waconia on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1.

Drawing 4,000 people annually, the show is the largest in the nation, and features vintage races, a huge swap meet and trail rides. Although awards are given for best restoration, Piirainen said they just want to show their family's products well, not win prizes.

To prepare for a show, the Harrisons will spend months grinding, sandblasting and polishing, carefully coaxing each sled to reveal a little more of its history.

"You get to know them quite personally," Piirainen said.

Just like the long-lost family members they are.

Robyn Dochterman is at robdoc@startribune.com

The Harrison family attends several vintage snowmobile rallies each year, clad in their black and red Scorpion gear. From left to right: Randy Harrison, Eileen Harrison, Dick Harrison, Deb Piirainen and Starr Harrison. (Harrison family - Joel Koyama, Star Tribune)

The Harrison family attends several vintage snowmobile rallies each year, clad in their black and red Scorpion gear. From left to right: Randy Harrison, Eileen Harrison, Dick Harrison, Deb Piirainen and Starr Harrison. (Harrison family - Joel Koyama, Star Tribune)