Picture of ATV Riders

When we think about evolution, ATVs are probably not the first thought that come to mind. But they have evolved tremendously over the years! Have you ever wondered how the wonderful world of ATV’s came about? Motorcycles have been around since the later half of the 19th century, but it wasn’t until nearly a 100 years later that the idea for ATVs was even conceived. And the first models may surprise you.

The Very Beginning

Picture of Frog in WaterYou are familiar with the term ATV, or All Terrain Vehicle to be precise, but have you ever heard of AATV? What does that additional “A” stand for? It stands for “amphibious” – yes amphibious, like amphibian, like a frog. Well, at least in the aspect that frogs can live both in the water and on the land. The AATV was an off-road vehicle created to function in all conditions, water or land.

The very first ATV – or AATV – ever created was called the Jiger (pronounced “Jigger”) and was invented by a Canadian named John Gower who was tired of trudging through the snow in frozen Alberta while cutting his firewood. He wanted to create a machine to travel through the outdoors, whatever the terrain. The original prototype of the machine was created in 1960 and was run by a couple of chain saw engines (one engine on each side of the machine to run that side of tires) operating on a throttle controlled belt and clutch system. By the time the design came out in production, the Jiger looked like a small boat made of fiberglass with six balloon tires that also acted as the suspension for the machine. Boasting to be able to go 30 mph on land and 8 mph in the water, traversing any terrain and giving a full 11 horsepower, the Jiger sold with such rapid success that the demand was higher than the production, and the company went out of business!

Picture of a Patent Drawing for the Jiger

However, the stage had been set, and this original design was quickly followed by similar designs from competing companies. A couple other early models of Amphibious ATVs include the Amphicat by Mobility Unlimited, Inc. and the Terra Tiger by Allis Chalmers. Some brands of amphibious machines are still selling today, and ultimately the original machines stemmed the birth of the ATV world.

The Inception

The very first three-wheeler was actually the result of a graduate project in 1967 of student John Plessinger who was attending the Cranbrook Academy of Arts. Sporting a seat you sat in like an old-fashioned Big Wheel trike (minus the big wheel), the machine was called the Tricart. It had a handlebar for steering as well as foot pegs attached at the front wheel for additional steering, and two super wide tires that stabilized the rear end of the machine. It started out running a 5 horsepower lawnmower type engine, but eventually ran a JLO230 engine which was located behind the bucket seat and between the rear wheels. It was a low-profile, wide-set machine that could easily corner at 60mph.

Picture of a Patent Drawing for the Tricart

John leased out the patent for the Tricart to the Sperry-Rand company. He contracted out with them and they began working on the production of the Tricart. This new machine was perfect for every terrain and was even used for racing. The Tricart was available in a couple of models, and brought loads of fun to anyone who rode it. Production lasted for a few years before a political problem in business brought an end to what had been a good ride for the Sperry-Rand Tricart era. (Check out YouTube to see some of these super cool original three-wheeled machines in action!)

A Legend is Born

During the time period when the Tricart was thriving, Honda entered the scene and introduced what is known to the world today as the first official ATV, a three-wheeler called the US90 designed for recreational use. The name was later changed to the ATC90 when Honda trademarked the term ATC (All Terrain Cycle).

Picture of a 1970 Honda ATC90The three-wheeler had an 89cc four-stroke engine and pumped out 7 horsepower. It also had a dual-range four-speed gearbox and an automatic clutch. It had large balloon tires like the AATVs did (inspired by them, actually) which doubled as the original suspension. The production models of the ATC90 started selling in 1970 for $595, and with that the beginning of the era of ATV’s had officially started. Other major manufacturers followed suit and came out with their own models of three-wheeled ATVs:

  • 1979 – Yamaha introduces the YT125 Tri-Moto three-wheeler
  • 1981 – Kawasaki introduces the KLT200 three-wheeler
  • 1982 – Suzuki introduces the ALT125D and ALT50D three-wheeler models
  • Picture of a 1982 Honda ATC200E Big Red1982 – Honda comes out with first official Utility based three-wheeler, the ATC200 E Big Red, as all models until this point were recreational. Farmers, ranchers and hunters quickly were realizing the usefulness and efficiency of ATVs in assisting in their work, and the sales for machines to be used for utility purposes jumped tremendously.

Dawn of a New Day

The evolution of the ATV continued on, and before long the design had changed from three wheels to four wheels. These new designs were more stable, and sales continued to increase. Again, each manufacturer came out with their own original designs as follows:

  • Picture of a 1983 Suzuki LT125D QuadRunner1982 – Suzuki introduces the first four-wheeler which is the LT125D Quadrunner
  • Picture of a 1984 Honda TRX200TM1984 – Honda introduces their first four-wheeler model the TRX200TM
  • 1984 – Yamaha introduces their first four-wheeler model the YFM400
  • 1985 – Kawasaki introduces the Bayou 185

In 1985, the first high-performance sport four-wheeler was introduced, specifically geared towards racing. Suzuki called this machine the LT250R Quadracer. It had a longer travel suspension than previous ATVs, and ran a liquid-cooled 2-stroke motor and depending on the production years, either a five-speed or six-speed manual transmission. Honda followed up a year later with the TRX250R Fourtrax, an ATV that became a leader in racing.

Kawasaki joined the racing world with the Tecate-4 250. But Yamaha changed up the game in 1987 when they introduced the Banshee 350. This machine had a twin-cylinder liquid-cooled 2-stroke motor that was taken from Yamaha’s RD350LC street motorcycle. This machine is not known for trails because the design is not conducive for tight turns and spaces, but it is still known as the racing king of the dunes and drag strips.

End of an Era

In 1987, the major manufacturers signed a preliminary Consent Decree to stop production and sales of new three-wheelers. A ban was put on the design for 10 years due to safety concerns that three-wheelers were unstable. The manufacturer’s consented, but had already for the most part focused their efforts and energy on the four-wheeled ATV models anyway. This same year was also the year that the first 4×4 ATV was introduced, the Honda TRX350 Fourtrax. Again, each manufacturer followed suit and each came out with their own designs. And from there, the rest is history.

History in the Making

Picture of a 2014 Polaris Scrambler XP 1000Picture of a Polaris RZR XP 900

Looking at the designs, specifications, horsepower and engine size of the ATVs we have today, it is easy to say the evolution of the industry is amazing. The introduction of the UTV proves that the industry is only getting better! Who is to say what the ATV will be like in 20 more years? Leave your comments below if you have a vintage ATV or good memories riding back in days past!

By Rachel Bretzing