It’s a little late in arriving (sorry about that) but the final push of my summer vintage sled road trip with Jim Dimmerman and Tom Rowland saw us meet a legend of sorts: Gordon Rohde.
A former Arctic Cat (and Harley-Davidson) dealer, opportunistic salesman, promoter and race fan, Rhode has owned or touched A LOT of historic Arctic Cat machines.
We caught up with him for a few hours at his shop in Wausau, Wis., where he answered a slew of questions about his career.
Gordon Rohde is a name frequently heard in conversations with vintage Arctic Cat collectors. Among the first to intentionally obtain, collect and sell rare Arctic Cats, Rohde (pronounced Row-Dee) “touched” many of the machines that collectors now consider among the most desirable.
Among them, a dozen or so 1982 prototype Arctic Cat’s from the last days of Arctic Enterprises; a 1974 Sno Pro that had been Larry Coltom’s, and another that was Rich Porter’s; IFS Sno Pros; prototype engines; and oodles of parts.
Depending upon whom from the colleting world you ask, Rohde was either a great dealmaker and fellow collector, or someone to be weary of.
In a hobby where ownership, verification and big money often mix into a weird soup, it’s nearly impossible for everyone at the table to agree on the taste. I learned long ago to form my own opinions about collectors rather than simple trust the often-jaded perspectives of others.
Good thing, as the few hours that Jim Dimmerman, Tom Rowland and I spent with Rohde were truly enjoyable. The man we met was kind, introspective and utterly without an ego.
He answered every question we posed with grace and a sharp memory for someone who stopped accumulating stuff nearly 30 years ago, and who started selling nearly as soon after.
All three of us realized there was more to Rohde than what we’d previously heard.
For instance, Rohde was one of the first entrepreneurs to build three-cylinder Cat/Suzuki engines utilizing Sno Pro cylinders, which he sold at retail and provided to the Rill Reynolds/Mike McArdle drag efforts in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That was a successful three-way partnership that hauled home grass and ice drag wins from all over the country.
Plying his knack for resourcefulness, Rohde started buying Sno Pro goodies from sources connected with Arctic Cat even before he became a dealer in 1987. It was those early purchases – most through the Salvage department – that netted Rohde much of his vast array of vintage parts.
He used the same resourcefulness to source Suzuki motorcycle engine parts that he used in snowmobile engines, once coming to market with a particular, new design that nearly beat Arctic Cat.
But before all that, Rohde developed his aptitude for the snowmobile business from his years working for his dad’s Polaris dealership, which began in 1961 as the first snowmobile dealer in Wausau. It was there that Rohde learned the often tough lessons of competing on price and inventory. They were lessons he would hone when he bought out an existing Arctic Cat dealership in Wausau in 1987. That venture would last until 1998.
Rohde is one of a relatively few who raced at the very first Eagle River World Championships, held in 1964 on Dollar Lake. The passion for competition always burned hot, leading Rohde to stints of competition aboard Alouettes, Tradewind and Polaris.
Racing would remain close to his heart, as evidenced by the sleds he purchased and the engines he built. Other ventures came and went. One particularly smart move was his purchase of a Harley-Davidson franchise in 1990. He grew the business well and sold in 2006 (which was nearly perfect timing with the Great Recession to hit a year or so later).
For snowmobile enthusiasts who had bought rare gems from Rohde, 2009 marked the last chance to make a deal on his what was still a remarkable collection. That was when Rohde held an auction, during which truckloads of gems left his hands for new owners.
A massive load of truly phenomenal items went to Darnell Nuhn of Stratford, Ontario. Darnell has subsequently parted with some choice items, many of which have made the show circuit via new owners.
During our conversation with Rohde, we asked whether he still has a stash of rare snowmobile items. Nope, it’s all gone. A tour of a massive building on his property showed lots of Harley-Davidson stuff, but almost nothing snowmobile related.
It’s true the three of us felt some disappointment that there was no secret stash, but we’d already been quite enriched by the conversation with Gordon. There’s no need for dessert when the main course is entirely fulfilling.
These days, the 67-year-old Rohde is enjoying retirement. His collection of pristine American muscle cars (stored in his climate-controlled shop) is testament to his current passion. Hard work, resourcefulness, risk-taking and well-timed business decisions have rewarded Rohde well.
That said, I detected absolutely ZERO air of financial well-to-do from him. On the contrary, Rohde exuded a work ethic learned from holding multiple jobs through his entire life. This is a man who has worked very, very hard.
I will admit that after shaking hands with Rohde and driving away, I was a little bit disappointed that Rohde hadn’t kept something that connected him to his decades in the snowmobile world. But I don’t begrudge him for this.
Somewhere between Wausau and home, I realized that inside the trailer we were towing was a prototype 1982 Arctic Cat Panther that was now Tom Rowland’s. Like all of Tom’s amazing sleds, this one will be on display at future events, and will likely be ridden from time to time.
That ’82 Panther had passed through Rohde’s hands many years ago. Rohde had already played his part in the whole process. I’m thankful for that.
Thanks for reading.
Mike McArdle (above) raced Reynolds-built sleds with Rohde triple engines to many, many drag race victories.