The Evolution of ATVs 

By , January 12, 2011 10:18 pm

ATVs (all-terrain vehicles) were first developed during the 1950s. The earliest models had six wheels instead of the four that riders are now familiar with. Honda was the first company to make the 3-wheel ATV in 1970. These were famously displayed in the James Bond film, ‘Diamonds Are Forever.’ Originally called the US90, the ATV was purely for fun, made with very large balloon tires instead of the mechanical suspension and smaller tires eventually introduced in the early 1980s.  

One of the most important versions of the ATV was the 1982 Honda ATC200E Big Red. It was a landmark model in that it featured suspension and racks. This made it the first utility three-wheeled ATV available on the market. It was popular due to its ability to go anywhere on any type of terrain. The fact that it could go over types of terrain that most other vehicles could not eventually made it very popular with hunters in both the US and Canadian. It was also very appealing to those who were looking for nothing more than an exciting ride on the trails.  

Soon Honda broke new ground by developing sport models. Honda seemed to have a virtual monopoly on the market, due to its patents on design and engine placement. The 1981 ATC250R was important because it was the first high-performance three-wheeler, featuring full suspension, a 248-cubic-centimetre two-stroke motor, a five-speed transmission with a manual clutch and a front disc brake. For those who enjoyed the sporting trail, the 1983 ATC200X was another in a series of landmark machines. It was developed with an easy-to-handle 192-cubic-centimetre four-stroke. This simple design was seemingly perfect for new participants in the sport. 

Honda soon found itself competing with Suzuki. Suzuki led the industry in the development of 4-wheeled ATVs. It sold the first 4-wheeled ATV, the 1983 QuadRunner LT125, used primarily as a recreational machine for those who were just beginning to ride ATVs. In 1985, Suzuki stepped up their game when they introduced the first high-performance 4-wheel ATV, the Suzuki LT250R QuadRacer. This ATV was in production from 1985-1992, during which time it underwent three major engineering makeovers. This vehicle became the ATV known as designed primarily for racing by highly skilled riders.  

Honda then responded a year later with the FourTrax TRX250R. This ATV has never been replicated.
Kawasaki joined the battle to develop better ATVs when they introduced their Tecate-4 250. In 1987, Yamaha introduced a different type of high-performance machine – the Banshee 350. The Banshee 350 featured a twin-cylinder two-stroke motor from the RD350LC street motorcycle. This ATV was heavier and more difficult to ride in the dirt than the 250s .It soon became a favorite with riders who preferred the sand dunes. The Banshee is still a hugely popular machine, but 2006 was the last year it was available in the U.S. Riders will be able to pick up a 2007 model in Canada, however. 

ATVs were first introduced to the buying public in the 1970s. They immediately caught on with those who were interested in doing something different outdoors. Original versions featured much larger tires and were offered in both 3-wheeled and 4-wheeled models. Soon, though, the 3-wheeled models of the ATV were prohibited, as they gained a reputation for being too dangerous. ATVs have since undergone a number of cosmetic and mechanical changes. Companies such as Honda, Suzuki, and Yamaha have developed a number of models that serve ATV riders of all tastes and interests.  

The first ATV (All Terrain Vehicle) actually was built with six wheels instead of four. It was developed sometime during the 1950s in Japan and was primarily desinged to deal with the mountainous topography and isolated rugged regions of that country. Particularly during spring when the ice thaws and river flow would increase substantially, Japanese mountain roads and paths that weren’t maintained regularly often become impassable with more typical vehicles. In addition, these early ATVs became popular in rural areas where the absence of roads in rough terrain makes passage difficult despite the need to traverse this kind of terrain efficiently. When Honda first exported an ATV* to the United States in 1970, their US90 was sold primarily as a recreational ride. Though it is still in use, even to this day, the growing number of ATV users quickly discovered that its excellent efficiency over rough ground offers a wide variety of uses for the ATV.

Honda, due to the patents it took out on ATV design and engine placement, enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the market at the beginning. Its initial release in the western market, the US90 was designed by engineers specifically for joy rides. Later that year, Honda once again used clever tactics to trademark the name ATC and proceded to rename the US90 model as the ATC90. The ATC90 had 7 hp passing through a dual-range 4-speed gearbox with automatic clutch and featured large balloon-type tires that can eat up rough terrain. Honda continued forward and released two more ATCs during the ’70s which were also revolutionary.

As the ATV moved into the next decade, models were beginning to become clearly divided into two major usage groups. One for sports and one for utility use. Sport models are usually built for performance: they are lightweight with relatively high power, have good suspensions and a low center of gravity. These models can accelerate quickly, have manual transmissions and some can run up to 75 mph. Since they permit traveling in most terrains, these models became highly popular with hunters and thrill riders.

On the other hand, it’s value as a utility vehicle is easy to understand. Given its construction, an ATV generally boasts remarkable strength for its size, body construction and cost. With a mechanical structure able to withstand significant loads, and wheels which allow passage over demanding terrain, it becomes a nearly perfect machine for farm use and on construction sites. And, of course, an ATV requires only a fraction of the fuel that typical heavy machinery consumes.

When Suzuki, long a dominant Japanese vehicle company, released their first high performance 4-wheel ATV in 1983, the Suzuki LT250R, it quickly become the leader in 4-wheel ATV development. Later in 1987, the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a decree to shift 3-wheel ATV production to 4-wheel machines. Quite naturally, Honda responded with its FourTrax TRX250R, which then became the most versatile and most popular modle in ATV history. There were other entries as well making a splash in the ATV market. In particular Kawasaki’s Tecate-4 250 and Yamaha’s Banshee 350 which also became quite a popular machine.

Times have changed and today a new era is beginning as Kawasaki trumps the market with its KFX700 V FORCE. This is the first V-Twin powered, ultrahigh performance sport ATV. Mind-boggling? Absolutely, the sheer diversity of new models is astonishing. Even SeaDoo is sticking in the game with their Bombardier ATVs. Artic Cat also has a brand new 2007 700cc model. And you can check out the Polaris, Can-Am and Cobra ATVs as well as the Hondas, Suzukis and Yamahas. We’re talking big, fast, high performance machines these days – and the price has escalated to match. But it’s a wild ride if you’re up for it.

—– *this was formally referred to as an ATC (All Terrain Cycle) since Honda released 3-wheel design ATVs. However, it was more commonly called an ATV.

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