March 9, 2003
Mini Cooper Morphs to Snowmobile
Monster Garage creates Mini Cooper snowmobile project
Discovery Channel’s Monster Garage features custom bike builder, Jesse James, and a crew of metal contortionists taking normal cars and turning them into monster machines. The show’s first creation to involve snowmobiles aired on February 24.
Jesse and his build team, which included Polaris Industries’ Matt Lube and Tison Performance’s Brady Cambern, tore the guts out of a Mini Cooper and installed two snowmobile tracks and two snowmobile engines. The resulting monster was a car that could cruise down the streets on tires and down the groomed trails on tracks and skis.
Originally slated to use the Cooper’s engine to turn the two Polaris 151x2-inch racing tracks, plans later changed when Jesse noticed that a Polaris 800cc twin engine produced 20 more horsepower than the Mini Cooper’s engine. And to add chaos to creativity, Jesse and crew decided to use not one, but two Polaris 800 twins to spin the tracks.
“If you look at it, it’s actually two complete snowmobiles. There are two Vertical Escape engines, drive clutches, drivens, jackshafts, brakes, drive shafts. I made the rear suspension rail—it’s not a snowmobile suspension, it’s a lot like a drag race rail; just rails with idler wheel assemblies. It has two 151 two-inch race tracks, just like the hillclimb guys use,” said Lube, snowmobile product manager of RMK and Touring lines for Polaris.
The car had to be cleaned out and reinforced to accommodate the new power plants and drive trains. The Cooper’s uni-body would buckle without an interior frame to support the weight, so the crew welded together a cage to support the workings. The two engines were installed in the tight quarters with a great deal of coaxing. The drive system uses Polaris drive and driven clutches for each engine (Team roller secondarys to be exact), Polaris jackshafts and drive shafts. The two 800 twins even had functional electronic reverse, just like the PERC feature found on Vertical Escapes. Each engine powered its own track.
The throttles for the two sled engines originally linked to the foot pedal, but as Jesse pointed out, that had to change.
“We hooked it up with a foot throttle first, but with the two-stroke type of motor you gotta be able to blip the throttle, so that sucked because your foot just doesn’t have that fine tune like your hand does. So we switched it to that hand throttle,” said Jesse.
The hand throttle was hooked to an arm that allowed the driver to brake either track independently, giving the Cooper skid-steer-like handling.
When the car left the snow for drier ground, two hydraulic rams lowered the wheels back to the ground and lifted the tracks and skis off the snow.
“We put in a 70 or 80 hour week in five days. The biggest trouble was fitting that much stuff in such a small car and still having it function as a car,” Jesse said. “If you look in there, it’s a uni-body, so to have it so it didn’t buckle in the middle and have it be strong, we had no frame to work off of so we had to build a whole inner skeleton.”
The team is given one week and a $3,000 budget (not counting donated parts, wheels and paint job) to complete the monster project. The final scene of the show features a real-world test which, for the Mini Cooper, was shot near Richard Petty’s ranch in Alpine, WY, early January. Jesse, driving the Mini Cooper/snowmobile, raced Petty, who was piloting a 2004 Polaris Pro X 700. While the Cooper touted nearly 400 horsepower with all three engines combined, it was no match for Petty’s Pro X.
Jesse James owns his own shop, West Coast Choppers. He has built custom bikes for Shaquille O’Neal, Kid Rock and Keanu Reeves, among other big names. Since being involved with Discovery Channel’s Monster Garage, he has transformed several vehicles, including a Ford Explorer/garbage truck, school bus/pontoon boat, Cadillac Hearse/car crusher, and one of Jesse’s personal favorites: an ambulance/wheelie-mobile.