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One Smart Idea

Smart car snowmobiles are turning plenty of heads

Jeff Humphries and Perry White draw plenty of curious stares any time they pull up in their vehicles. Of course, such curiosity is understandable as soon as you catch a glimpse of the winter rides the two Newfoundlanders commonly use for weekend getaways to cottage country.

Humphries and White are the proud owners of what have come to be known as Smart car snowmobiles. The snowmobiles are regular Smart cars which have been converted to off-road winter vehicles that are ideal for getting around on groomed snow trails. The rear wheels of the cars have been replaced with a set of tracks while skis have been installed in place of front tires.

White’s Smart car was already fully decked-out when he purchased it from a mechanic in Alberta where he was working at the time. He had it shipped to Newfoundland and Labrador when he returned to his home province to retire about three years ago. Humphries was so impressed when he saw White’s vehicle he purchased his own Smart car and converted it himself about a year ago. The friends figure they, along with another acquaintance in Valleyfield, N.L., own the only three vehicles of their kind in the province.

Not surprisingly, these unique creations draw lots of attention wherever Humphries and White go.

“Oh yeah, wherever you go there’s always someone taking pictures or video of the car,” White said. “A lot of them flag you down to ask you about the car. “I’ve had more pictures taken and more people wanting to go for rides and wanting to drive it than I can remember. It’s a real head-turner. Everywhere you go there’s someone asking you questions.”

One of the most common questions the pair gets is how much work went into converting the vehicles. Humphries says the conversion is surprisingly simple. After removing the front tires, he had to change a few fuses for the traction control system and the anti-lock brakes had to be disabled. A pair of metal plates were then installed and heavy-duty skis, similar to the ones used on a ski plane, were attached. On the back end, plates were installed and a pair of tracks from a side-by-side ATV were attached to the plates and the rear axle assembly.

Humphries estimates it took him about three weeks to complete the conversion. “It was a nice bit of work,” he said.

White’s already converted vehicle cost him C$8,500. Humphries, meanwhile, purchased his for C$3,300 and spent another C$3,400 converting it for winter use.

Another question Humphries and White commonly get is what kind of speeds their vehicles are capable of. While they can go as fast as 43 miles per hour, White says he prefers to keep his speed to between 20 and 25 mph most times. “The tracks on these belong to an ATV and I don’t think they’re meant to be doing 70 or 80 kilometres [45 or 50 miles] an hour,” said White, who lives in Centreville-Wareham-Trinity, N.L.

Humphries, a heavy equipment operator in Nunavut for much of the year, says his converted Smart car is ideal for getting back and forth between his home in New-Wes-Valley, N.L., and his cottage near Indian Bay, N.L.

It provides a smooth ride as long as you stick to groomed trails, he says, and in most cases it handles much the same as a regular Smart car.

“If you can drive a car, you can drive a Smart car with tracks,” he said. “It’s perfect on a groomed trail. It’s a little different than driving (on the road), but not a lot. The main difference is the steering. You’ve got skis instead of wheels so you can only turn about a quarter turn or half turn each way with the skis. But it handles fantastic. No problem at all.”

Perhaps the biggest difference between the Smart car snowmobile and more traditional snowmobiles is comfort. The interior of the cars remains the same as when they rolled off the factory floor with the steering wheel, gear stick and pedals unchanged. Another benefit is that they don’t have to strap on a helmet and bundle up in layers and layers of winter gear to hop on a snowmobile; they simply hop in their Smart car, buckle up and go.

“The biggest comfort is the warmth,” said White, whose wife, Lune, is originally from the Philippines and is a big fan of their converted Smart car. “She loves it because it’s warm.

“Plus, you can turn on your music and you’ve got wiper blades and all that stuff, and there’s no snow or wind to deal with. And there’s lots of storage space. You wouldn’t believe the amount of room that’s in the back of that thing. You got no problem to put your cooler back there and a couple of sleeping bags and a couple of cases of beer. We’ve got no problem taking whatever we need.”

The beauty of the conversion process, according to Humphries, is the fact that it’s fully reversible.

“In about three hours I can have my car converted and back on the road,” he said. “All you have to do is put your rotors and callipers back on the front end. After that, you take off your front skis and your back tracks and put on your tires and you’re ready for the road again.”

Humphries and White – who is planning to convert a second Smart car he recently purchased – have become local celebrities thanks to the attention their unique rides have attracted. They were recently featured on CBC’s The National and they’ve received calls from across Canada and even the U.S. from people wanting to know more about the conversions.

“Yeah, I guess in a way we have become celebrities. There’s lots of people calling and asking questions and wanting to know about the cars. Right now it’s not too bad, but it’s not something I want to be doing every day,” White said, laughing.

Although they have yet to hear from any snowmobiling or cross-country ski clubs, Humphries says the Smart car snowmobile could be ideal for groups that need to assist members who might require help on a remote trail and to ensure rules and regulations are being followed by users.

“Oh yeah, it would be fantastic for that,” he said.

Even though Humphries says he’s enjoying all of the attention his vehicle has received, he’s not interested in turning it into anything more than a hobby.

“No, not for me. I work in Nunavut about eight months of the year. I don’t want to see any more snow,” he said, laughing.