David Johnson, co-founder of Polaris had strong ties to the Canadian market

David Johnson, one of original founders of Polaris Industries, died last week at the age of 93.

David Johnson, one of the original founders of Polaris.
David Johnson, one of the original founders of Polaris. Photo: VintageSled.com

Edgar Heteen, his 15-year old brother, Allan and their cousin David Johnston formed a partnership in 1945/46 to create the Heteen Hoist & Derrick Company of Roseau, Minnesota. They primarily built specialty hoists used to erect power and telephone poles and some farm equipment. Within a decade the trio had changed the company's name to Polaris Industries Inc.

Polaris Industries started to experiment with the manufacture of single track snow machines. That is where David Johnson's Canadian connection comes in. In 1956 David Johnson and his partner Edgar Heteen packed up a truck and headed north to the annual trapper's festival being held at The Pas in northern Manitoba.

There they met Harry C. Paul who had been experimenting with the creation of the snow machine himself, that he called the “Autoboggan.” Johnson and Heteen had taken their early snowmobile with them, which they tentative called the Sno-Cat, and demonstrated it at the festival.

H.C Paul quickly realized the Sno-Cat's development and performance outstripped his own Autoboggan invention.

According to the book, As the Snow Flies, by snowmobile historian Allister Ingham, “A discussion took place among the three men and it was decided that Polaris Industries would build machines for H.C. Paul, under the name Autoboggan and that Harry would have some input into the design and other details of the vehicles.”

Thus Polaris Industries would be serving the Canadian market through H.C. Paul of Winnipeg, instead of a previous arrangement made with a Winnipeg company called Yetmans. The Autoboggans produced by Polaris for the Canadian market were identical to their American counterparts except they were painted harvest gold instead of bright red.

Snowmobiles were still only a small part of the total business activity of Polaris Industries, yet they did provide the cash-starved company year-round employment and consistent cash flow. H.C Paul had a reputation of always paying cash for his Autoboggan, and in many cases prepaid for them. It evidently became a standing joke at Polaris, “If you needed cash, phone Harry.”

This arrangement worked until 1965 when Harry Paul dropped the Autoboggan line in favour of handling the new Mercury produced line of snowmobiles. Polaris quickly realized the importance of the Canadian market and built a snowmobile assembly plant in Beausejour, Manitoba, about 120 miles north of Roseau, Minnesota.

This decision was spurred on by the fact that completely assembled snowmobiles entering Canada had a duty applied to them, whereas parts did not, so it proved less costly to supply the Canadian market by assembling the snowmobiles in Canada. In addition to assembly, the Beausejour plant lead much of the company's early research and development.

On August 1st, 1968 manufacturing giant Textron purchased Polaris Industries. Duty regulations to Canada changed around the same time and the Beausejour assembly plant in Manitoba was shuttered.

After the tragic death of Allan Heteen due a farm tractor accident, and Edgar Heteen setting off to start Arctic Cat Enterprises in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, this only left David Johnson remaining with Polaris. He held a number of engineering and manufacturing positions including Vice President of Manufacturing. He retired from Polaris in 1988 but remained a goodwill ambassador for the company for many years.

David Johnson, one of original founders of Polaris Industries, died last week at the age of 93.

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