March 10, 1986 12:00 PM

Zamboni on ice; that’s nice, if you know what it is. A Zamboni, for those of you not given to social rinking, is a machine that looks like the mutant offspring of a street sweeper and an armored personnel carrier and that can be seen lurching across the ice at hockey games and skating shows the world over, gobbling up ice chips and leaving behind a swath of glass-like smoothness. Over the years, hockey fans and admirers of Peggy Fleming have wondered about the origins of the Zamboni name—well, at least some of them have. One imaginative reader of the San Diego Tribune wrote in to suggest that it came from Swahili and meant “crazy man.” That interpretation didn’t cut much ice with Frank J. Zamboni, 85, who invented the thing—sort of by accident—back in 1949. At the time, Zamboni’s goal was simply to cut back on the amount of downtime at the family-owned skating arena in Paramount, Calif. He had no idea that he was starting a business that would make his name famous around the world and bring in steady sales of $3 million-plus a year.

Today some 3,800 Zambonis, each of them costing between $6,000 (tractor-towed) and $50,000 (the top-of-the-line, battery-powered model), clean up after skaters in 33 countries. Since hockey has yet to come up with a half-time show, the Zamboni is the only thing to watch between periods, so it makes a perfect advertising vehicle too. Toyota buys space on the Los Angeles Forum’s Zamboni, and the one in St. Louis is painted to look like a gigantic six-pack of Bud.

The company that Frank Zamboni built now employs 30 workers to hand-build each machine in a plant just four blocks from Frank’s Paramount home. Each new Zamboni is test-driven in the neighborhood (at a stately 8 mph), and another eight employees assemble Zambonis for the Canadian market in a smaller plant in Brantford, Ont. Until 1963 the gawky machines were made on a Jeep chassis. Today’s models are built from the floorboards up, use an 1800-cc Volkswagen engine and come with four-wheel drive and skidproof studded tires. Since the Zamboni has no domestic competition, there is only one real problem: The rugged machine doesn’t wear out. A Zamboni built in 1955 is still cleaning the ice at Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire.

Frank Zamboni has come a long way from his humble beginnings. He was born, appropriately, in Eureka, Utah, grew up on a farm in Idaho and, at 20, left the farm and followed his older brother George to Paramount. There young Frank started a refrigeration plant that supplied ice for old-fashioned iceboxes. To keep the place running at capacity during the slack winter season, Zamboni—together with his brother Lawrence and other investors—built the Iceland Skating Rink, which opened in 1940, just as the ice-for-refrigeration business was going into the deep freeze. But Iceland had a major drawback. Starting at 10 every night, it took five men up to an hour and a half to undo the day’s damage, scraping the ice, hosing off the lint, buttons, loose change and other debris, squeegeeing off the dirty water and laying down clean water for the next day’s surface. The ice rink was his life, so Frank Zamboni set out to invent a machine that would make his life smoother.

Working with surplus parts, including two axles from a Dodge Army truck, Zamboni built his dream machine. In fact, between 1942 and 1948, he built three of them. None of them worked. Then, on his fourth try in 1949, Zamboni got it right. The Zamboni Model A was a hideous, Rube Goldberg contraption with a wooden bin, a maze of pulleys and crude four-wheel drive. But it could scrape the ice, raise and dump the scrapings into a holding bin, and wash and squeegee the entire Iceland surface in 15 minutes.

Although he built one other machine and sold it to a rink in Pasadena, Zamboni had no idea that his funny-looking behemoth might also be a money-maker. Then in 1950 ice star Sonja Henie booked practice time at Iceland for her national skating troupe, saw the Zamboni and fell in love. So Frank made a new machine. Henie paid him $5,000 and ordered a second one. Then the Ice Capades show ordered one. Because of Zamboni, the Smooth Ice Age had begun.

Business exploded when the Olympic Committee ordered four custom-designed machines and leased two more for the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley. “That was the first time the whole world got to see them on TV,” says Zamboni. He promptly signed with distributors in Switzerland and Japan, and today there are more than 200 Zambonis in Japan and about 900 in Europe.

Zamboni is humble about his achievement. “If I hadn’t invented it, someone else would have,” he says. His son Richard, 53, who is now the company president, demurs: “Dad’s being too modest. His machine really made the financial success of skating rinks possible.”

Although he has hardly skated away from the business completely, Frank has turned over the day-to-day operations to Richard. Married since 1923, Frank spends much of his time reading and watching TV with wife Norda, but he still visits Iceland every day to check out the rink’s refrigeration system, sometimes working as much as three or four hours a day.

The ice business has been reliable and rewarding for Frank Zamboni, but it has had one drawback. “I never learned to skate,” he says. “I was too busy working.”

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