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Fans, former employees to celebrate Brut snowmobile

Summer isn’t the time many people think about snowmobiling, but Brad Goodenbour is among dozens who are looking forward to an event this month celebrating the heritage of a sled that helped revolutionize the sport four decades ago.

In the early 1970s, Brooten-based Brutanza Engineering introduced a liquid-cooled, two-cycle snowmobile with a variety of other innovations that soon began to dominate races in the Upper Midwest. After three years, the company sold out to Scorpion. But from 1972-74, the “Brut” snowmobile made an impression that remains strong today.

Goodenbour grew up in St. Louis Park but he had family near Brooten. His uncle owned a Brut, and the sport grew on Goodenbour even more after he moved to the area to take over his grandparents’ dairy operation. He enjoyed collecting just about anything associated with Brutanza, and today he boasts almost a dozen operational sleds and a trove of sales literature, magazine articles, stockholders reports and other artifacts.

So he naturally became the point man for a group of collectors and former Brutanza employees who have banded together to remember the snowmobiles and those who designed and built them.

The Brutanza Snowmobile Reunion will happen June 25 in Brooten. At least two dozen collectors have said they’ll each bring from two to 10 sleds each. And many of the 50 employees who worked at Brutanza — including quite a few who still live in the area — plan to attend as well.

If you like vintage snowmobiles, particularly this one that is native to Central Minnesota, it could be a once-in-a-lifetime get-together.

“There are some chat sites for Brut collectors on the Internet, and I got to talking with some other people and they found out I lived in Brooten,” said Goodenbour, 48, who began gathering all things Brut about 10 years ago after seeing a vintage snowmobile show in Glenwood. “They started asking me things like where the factory was and stuff like that. One thing led to another and we figured it would be a great idea to have a reunion if somebody would step up and line something together. So that’s what I did.

Connecting dots

Goodenbour knew John Bohmer, who as the owner and president of Bonanza Valley State Bank was striving to bring industry to Brooten in the early 1970s. Bohmer contacted Gerry Reese, an engineer who’d grown unhappy working for Polaris in Roseau. Bohmer and Reese banded together to start something new.
“They wanted to put a faster sled out there and Polaris’ attitude was that consumers didn’t need that,” Goodenbour said. “What they came up with was fast and looked way more modern than the older sleds of that period.”
Goodenbour said some of the original Brutanza drivers told him the sled was clocked as high as 118 mph. Before long, that led some races to ban the machine.

“(Reese) was a big wheel in snowmobile racing at the time and he knew a great bunch of people,” said Bohmer, 89, who will miss the reunion because of a fishing trip. He’ll be there in spirit, however, as two of his Bruts will be on hand — original Nos. 1 and 2 off the production line.

“Our machine was doing 85 mph out of the box,” Bohmer said. “The others of that time would go 60, maybe. We were ahead of our time in many respects.”
The machines weren’t only fast. They also “reduced noise levels, improved handling and increased liability,” according to a report in Snowsports Dealer News soon after the Brutanza plant opened. The initial production was to be 600 sleds that first year.

Clutch trouble

They went like hotcakes — initially. But a variety of issues soon conspired to leave Brutanza in financial difficulty. Snow conditions were weak a couple of years running. Then gas prices went through the roof (sound familiar?). Ultimately, a clutch recall delivered the final blow.

“When we got our 50th report of a clutch exploding, our insurance company said we had to recall all the sleds from the field,” said Reese, 74, who lives in Brooten. “That was pretty tough to overcome. But the clutch just couldn’t handle the RPM we were turning.

“There were about six of us from Polaris who switched gears when we got the chance,” recalled Reese, Brutanza’s operational director.

Another of those engineers was Charlie Baker, whose brother Mike also was research and development manager for Brutanza. The name was an alliteration on Brooten.

“Everything was off-the-wall for us,” said Charlie Baker, 60, who lives in Glenwood and has a farm near Brooten. “It wasn’t just the liquid cooling. We dropped the engine down and it’s interesting even today to see the number of machines that eventually copied something we did. When we moved the engine, we couldn’t use a straight steering post. We had to make one with a bump in it to accommodate the engine. Before long, everyone was lowering their profile like that.”

But the Brut was like a snowmobile version of the Tucker Sedan, according to Baker. Brutanza ran into cost problems. Because the company started with a small production quantity, there was no financial break in buying engines and other parts. Other snowmobile companies suffered a similar fate.

“You’ve got to understand, in 1969 there were about 130 snowmobile manufacturers,” said Baker, who won the 1972 South Dakota Governor’s Cup on a Brut. “Now, there are three or four. But I’m not surprised collectors still have an interest in the Brut because of the way we took off.”

Reese and Baker worked for a while with Scorpion before going their separate ways. Reese eventually founded a company that makes skis for airplanes, and Baker ran a repair business in Brooten.

Honoring origins

Ironically, Reese and Baker — who plan to be at the reunion — each pointed out their goal wasn’t to make snowmobiles. Reese said Brutanza originally was formed to design machines to haul freight in Alaska. When those efforts were rebuffed, they switched to sleds. Baker added that the snowmobiles were going to be the avenue to sell Brutanza’s engineering expertise to other companies.
Dan Steman is one collector who was glad Brutanza became known for sleds — even if it was for a short time.

Steman, 36, lives near Cambridge and was born the year Brutanza was sold to Scorpion. He originally began collecting and restoring vintage Scorpions but eventually became intrigued by the Brut. Today he has about 20 running models and another 15 he uses for parts. He says a nice, complete, running sled would fetch at least $2,000 now — around what they sold for new.

And, of course, you can easily spend that restoring one

“They grow on you,” Steman said. Steman plans to bring at least 10 sleds to the reunion.

“This is going to be the first time I’ll be in contact with any of the people who made these sleds,” Steman said. “I just want to thank them and hopefully hear some stories. I don’t know if something like this will ever happen again.”

Goodenbour would like to arrange it — and in the winter if possible. But for now he’ll be happy to compare some of the other sleds to his own, including a 1972 440, an LC29 and LC44 from 1973 and ‘74.

“I have a neighbor who worked on the assembly line, and I know somebody who welded the mufflers,” Goodenbour said. “This is as much about them as anyone.”


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