Our subject for today is one of the most beloved four-wheeled vehicles of all time. Who among us has not dreamed of driving one?
Well I went down to the local arena
Asked to see the manager man
He came from his office, said "Son can I help you?"
Looked at him and said "Yes you can.
"Hey, I wanna drive the Zamboni
"Hey, I wanna drive the Zamboni
"Yes I do"
Zamboni & Co. therefore continues to insist that the word "Zamboni," as applied to the machine, is a brand name and a trademark and therefore an adjective, but just about everyone else uses it as a noun. That machine clearing the ice between periods is the Zamboni.
As you've probably already guessed, both the Zamboni ice resurfacing machine and the company that makes it are named after the machine's inventor, Frank J. Zamboni, Jr. Mr. Zamboni lived in the Los Angeles area in the 1920s, where he made his living in the electrical supply business in partnership with his younger brother Lawrence.
In the days before electric refrigerators were widely available, people stored milk and other perishables in an icebox. This was an insulated cabinet that was kept cool by large blocks of ice delivered to your home by the iceman. (This, by the way, is the source of the title for Eugene O'Neill's stage play The Iceman Cometh.) In sunny Southern California in the 1920s, with its growing population and year-round warm temperatures, there were lots and lots of iceboxes, and ice was something of a hot commodity. The Zambonis saw an opportunity and opened an ice-making plant in 1927.
1927 was also the year in which General Electric began selling the first successful consumer model electric refrigerator. Even with the Great Depression in full swing, electric refrigerators steadily replaced the icebox, and cooled off the demand for block ice. The Zambonis scaled back their ice-making operation as the market declined, leaving them with a bunch of expensive industrial refrigeration equipment sitting idle. Instead of selling that equipment off secondhand, the Zambonis repurposed it and went into the entertainment business.
In 1940, Frank, Lawrence, and one of their cousins opened a 20,000 square foot public skating rink called "Iceland." Iceland was soon doing a thriving business. Skating was rapidly becoming a popular activity--thanks largely to Olympic figure skater Sonja Henie and traveling shows like the Ice Follies and Ice-Capades--and running an arena promised steadier employment than retailing block ice. General Electric wasn't going to be selling in-home electric ice rinks anytime soon!
While the industrial strength refrigeration system kept everything nice and cold automatically, maintaining a clean, smooth ice surface was done by hand. It took a crew of four or five men with a tractor about three and a half hours to scrape the ice down, remove the "snow" (shavings), wash and squeegee the surface, and apply clean water which would then freeze into a new surface. Frank Zamboni began to wonder if this operation could also be automated.
Over the next few years, he built several experimental ice machines, gradually working out critical details like how to keep the scraper blade steady and how to get all the snow picked up. By 1948, he was finally getting a consistent surface. The "Model A Zamboni Ice Resurfacer"--assembled from war-surplus bomber hydraulics, a Jeep engine, truck axles, and half-inch plywood--went into regular service at Iceland in 1949, and Frank applied for a patent on the design.
The Model A combined all the essential functions of ice maintenance in one handy piece of equipment. There was a blade to scrape the ice, an auger to sweep up the snow, a belt conveyor to carry the snow up out of the way and dump it in the overhead wooden snow tank, a system to squirt "wash water" onto the ice, and then remove it, and a clean water system to lay down the finished coat. The ice could now be completely resurfaced by one operator in about ten or fifteen minutes.
In 1950, Sonja Henie rented out Iceland to practice for her next touring ice show, and saw the Model A in action. She asked Frank if he could build her one. What she got was an improved design, the "Model B," which consisted of Frank Zamboni's patented resurfacing equipment and a steel snow tank carried on a war surplus Jeep.
Frank Zamboni delivered it by packing the ice-resurfacing equipment in a trailer and using the donor Jeep to pull it. When he arrived in Chicago, where Sonja's show was then playing, he unpacked the trailer and bolted it all together.
Four Model Bs were sold: one to a local rink in California, two to Sonja Henie's traveling shows, and the fourth to Ice-Capades. The three itinerant Model Bs were seen by rink operators all over the civilized world, many of whom were impressed enough to want one of their own. Frank Zamboni started getting orders for more machines in his mail, and figured he needed to incorporate the business. He originally wanted to call it "Paramount Engineering," but couldn't because that name was already in use by someone else, and that's probably for the best. "The Paramount" just doesn't have the same ring to it as "the Zamboni."
The evolution of Frank Zamboni's ice machine continued. The next version, designated Model C, improved on the Model B by increasing the size of the snow tank. It also moved the operator's station from down on the ice, where it was getting hard to see around the snow tank, to the elevated position where it is today.
The use of a complete Jeep as the vehicle's foundation gave way to a stripped Jeep chassis on the Model F of 1956, and eventually to a chassis fabricated in-house by Zamboni & Co. The HD-series introduced in 1964 replaced the paddle and chain snow conveyor with a more efficient vertical auger, and boasted a fully covered self-dumping snow tank. This is more or less the Zamboni we have today.
The current production models are the compact Model 445 and the full-sized 500-series. You can get them with CNG, propane, or gas engines, or as plug-in electrics. They have a top speed a little under 10 MPH. The chassis has no suspension system--the axles are bolted directly to the frame--but since the Zamboni only runs on flat surfaces, it doesn't really need springs.
Still owned and operated by Fank Zamboni's descendants, Zamboni & Co. builds about 200 self-propelled machines a year, and has sold over 10,000 to date. It also makes smaller ice machines with no drive system, designed to be pulled behind a tractor, and hand-pushed "edgers" for cleaning up the ice along the boards.
It was no surprise that the Zamboni became popular with hockey teams, ice shows, and rink operators, who appreciated the machine's efficiency and the quality of the ice surface it produced. What nobody quite saw coming was that the Zamboni would become a cultural icon. As Charlie Brown, that astute and influential (though fictional) observer of the human condition, famously put it:
There are three things in life that people like to stare at: a flowing stream, a crackling fire, and a Zamboni clearing the ice.
There is, indeed, something mesmerizing about the Zamboni. Shortly after one of the first machines went to work for the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks, the team's owner complained that his income from concessions had dropped. It seems that people were staying in their seats during the intermission to watch the Zamboni, instead of going for a hot dog!
In most arenas today, the Zamboni is treated as part of the entertainment, with corporate sponsors, formal introductions over the PA system ("Lay-dees and gen-tle-men, pree-sent-ing...The Great Zam-boni!"), theme music ("Zamboni" by the Gear Daddies, more often than not), spotlights, laser shows, and scoreboard animations. Many operators have promotions in which fans get a chance to ride the Zamboni--something which the manufacturer officially discourages. In Detroit, there's even an element of audience participation: Red Wings fans have a tradition of throwing octopi onto the ice while the Zamboni is at work.
"I, uh, wanted to do a story on the Zamboni for the Daily. What it takes to prep the ice, you know. Everyone always cheers when the Zamboni comes on --"
"Chick magnet." He gave a wink. "Stokes them up."
--James Lileks, Graveyard Special (2012)
But Zambonimania doesn't stop there. Zamboni & Co. sells officially licensed Zamboni merchandise ranging from the usual hats and T-shirts to die cast models, battery-powered remote control Zambonis, playing cards, golf balls, a Zamboni hand vac (!), a children's book (Z is for Zamboni), and a Zamboni stuffed toy. Zambonis appear in TV commercials and print ads; they've led funeral processions, been given out as Happy Meal toys, and gone for test drives with writers from sports magazines and buff books. Just about every movie involving hockey or figure skating has a Zamboni scene, sometimes several. In James Lileks' newly-published mystery novel Graveyard Special, there's a whole chapter on proper Zamboni operation, and the Zamboni plays a major role in the exciting conclusion. There's even a band called "The Zambonis"--they licensed the name from Zamboni & Co.--which performs hockey-themed novelty songs.
All this inspired by a piece of specialized industrial equipment.
I'll leave it to the psychologists to figure out the root cause of Zamboni Lust. Whatever it is that fascinates us about them, you have to admit that Zambonis are pretty cool. (Pun intended.)
--Cookie the Dog's Owner