There’s no doubt that UTVs have left their mark on the powersports industry in a big way. When other segments – such as ATVs and motorcycles – saw diminishing markets during the recession, UTVs only found their numbers continually increasing. Where did this new type of vehicle come from? Find out for yourself in this brief history of UTVs.

The Rocky Mountain ATV/MC Polaris RZR Climbing Rocks

History of UTVs

UTVs fit in a unique category when it comes to the history books. There wasn’t a clear moment when suddenly everyone said, “Here is something completely new that wasn’t here before.” Instead, modern UTVs draw on the influence of many types of vehicles from the past. Perhaps that’s why the popularity explosion of UTVs comes as a surprise to many. This is because modern UTVs weren’t invented. They evolved.

Modern UTVs Defined

Discovering the history of UTVs first begins with understanding how they are defined. It doesn’t really help that several names are attributed to this class of vehicle. For example:

  • Utility Task Vehicle (UTV)
  • Utility Terrain Vehicle (UTV)
  • Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle (ROV)
  • Recreational Utility Vehicle (RUV)
  • Side-by-Side (SXS)

Ironically, these names are not always synonymous. What might be considered a recreational utility vehicle might not be considered a utility task vehicle. And what some would call a recreational off-highway vehicle might not also be called a side-by-side.

Two Riders in a RZR

So what exactly is a UTV? These seem to be common characteristics of vehicles that are usually described as UTVs:

  • Off-road design
  • At least four wheels
  • Non-straddle seat with belt
  • Steering wheel
  • Foot pedals
  • Roll cage
  • Width of less than 65″
  • Unladen dry weight of less than 2,000 lbs.

Of course, this definition is in a constant state of flux. If this article were written last year, we absolutely would have included a side-by-side seating with at least one passenger (in addition to the driver). But with the introduction of the single-passenger Sportsman Ace by Polaris, we’re not so sure that this is applicable anymore. Perhaps now the term side-by-side will fall out of favor?

The 2014 Polaris Sportsman Ace

Furthermore, modern UTVs almost always encompass two main factors: utility and recreation. However, some models definitely lean more in one direction than another.

Now that we have an idea of what a modern UTV is, we can find out where it came from.

Precursor Vehicles

There are several vehicles that existed previously which definitely were not UTVs yet still displayed some similar characteristics to modern UTVs. In an excessively broad sense, nearly every vehicle might be considered a precursor vehicle in some way or another, but here are a few which are worth pointing out.

Jeeps

Introduced to the military in 1941 (and available to consumers in 1945), Jeeps were arguably the first mass-produced off-road vehicles. After World War II, Jeeps boomed in popularity as they became available through military surplus. Their rugged versatility and pragmatic design lent to their appeal.

While modern UTVs and Jeeps are entirely distinct and separate classes of vehicles, it’s obvious that any four-wheeled off-road vehicle owes a nod to the Jeep’s introduction of off-roading to the general populace.

An Early “Jeep” Vehicle Produced for the Military in 1941

Dune Buggies

The origin of the dune buggy dates back to the 1950s, when enthusiasts would strip cars down to their chassis and rebuild them for off-road use. The first buggies were designed for beaches – in fact, many English-speaking countries still prefer the term beach buggy. But when the first production fiberglass buggies were introduced in the 1960s with the Meyers Manx, they became a commonplace sight in desert races as well. Dune buggy desert racing remains a popular motorsport today, and modern UTV racing in particular owes much of its roots to it.

Dune buggies have traditionally been built out of smaller cars, so they have been smaller than other vehicles capable of off-road travel (like Jeeps or trucks), giving them a unique advantage which UTVs enjoy to an even greater extent.

A Dune Buggy Equipped for Off-Road Racing

Amphibious ATVs

Even before the introduction of what we would today recognize as ATVs, the term all-terrain vehicle applied to another category of vehicle. These unusual configurations (often with six or eight wheels) weren’t only capable of driving in off-road environments; they were also able to traverse open water as well. Because of this, they are sometimes called amphibious ATVs (AATVs) in order to provide a distinction.

Introduced in the 1960s with models such as the Jiger or Amphicat, AATVs were marketed as both a utility and a recreational vehicle. However, they were not destined to enjoy the phenomenal success that ATVs did later on. Instead, their sudden boom in popularity quickly died down, and only a few manufacturers (out of more than 70) survived to continue making them. They still exist today, used mostly by enthusiasts and organizations with unique needs. Their focus on both utility and recreation, coupled with their ability to cross a variety of terrains, has led them to be categorized as UTVs in some circles. However, for the most part they are very different vehicles from what are normally called UTVs despite obvious design similarities.

An Amphibious ATV in Open Water

ATVs

Perhaps the most apparent precursor vehicle is the ATV. After all, most UTV manufacturers also produce ATVs, leading to similar styles and even components. They are often seen next to one another on showroom floors, race tracks and trails. Of course, there are a number of obvious differences – and not just in size. For example, the straddle seat and handlebars on ATVs are carryovers from motorcycles.

ATV history is just as interesting as UTV history is. Several three wheelers existed prior to Honda’s ATC90 (originally called the US90) which was released in 1970, but it was this model that served to prepare the world for what was to come. The first major powersports manufacturer to attempt this brand new market, Honda enjoyed enormous success with the ATC90.

Several different models were produced following this same design, but the next landmark was arguably the Honda ATC200E Big Red in 1980 – that’s right, Big Red. It included racks and suspension (the previous models had relied on balloon tires to handle off-road terrain instead of true suspension), giving an ATV a utility factor for the first time. Since more and more farmers were discovering the advantages of using ATVs for some tasks instead of traditional tractors, this was a move designed to expand the market. And it worked, as utility ATVs have been important ever since.

Suzuki’s breakthrough four wheeler was released in 1982: the QuadRunner LT125. More manufacturers released their own quads, and the style rapidly gained popularity. In 1988, the major manufacturers all consented to stop selling three wheelers due to safety concerns, and pretty soon four wheelers were the only style available in mass quantities. Four wheelers or quads eventually became synonymous with ATVs. Today, quads are released in sport and sport utility models.

A Red Utility Quad

The Rise of UTVs

By the late 1980s, after consumers had experienced affordable off-road vehicles and begun to use ATVs for both recreational and utility purposes, the stage was set for the advent of UTVs. Of course, they didn’t just appear as the recreational machines we see on showrooms today. Instead, they developed out of a natural need: a better lightweight utility vehicle. Here are a couple of important milestones that occurred in the evolution of UTVs.

Kawasaki Mule

The Kawasaki Mule, released in 1988, was engineered to be more useful than a utility ATV but more versatile than a full-sized truck. As an acronym for Multi-Use Light Equipment, even the name reflected this design. The machine was wildly popular and became standard equipment for a variety of industries: farming, sports facilities, park management and more.

Other manufacturers soon followed suit, with models such as the John Deere Gator or the Polaris Ranger. Many of these original UTVs continue to have a legacy that lasts today, with updated models released every year. However, despite their popularity, they remained primarily a utility vehicle for commercial purposes. Consumers seeking a recreational thrill were still turning to ATVs.

A Red Kawasaki Mule

Yamaha Rhino

In 2004, Yamaha sought to turn the industry on its head with the Rhino, the first UTV that was really designed to be a versatile recreational vehicle. Since it was part of the already established UTV class, it didn’t gather an unusual amount of attention when it was introduced. It was, after all, just another manufacturer’s introduction into the UTV market. This is evident from an article produced by ATV Rider at the time as they were testing out the new 2004 Yamaha models. When asked about the new Rhino, they made this remark: “You know it’s just a farm machine that people are going to ride around on their property.” A test run was all it took to convince them that this was no farm machine. Instead, it was a recreational all-terrain beast. No one knew what was about to happen – except possibly Yamaha and a few of these early test riders who saw its potential.

Due to its design as both a recreational machine and a utility vehicle, the Rhino was a huge success. In fact, 2004 was the first year that consumer purchases of UTVs surpassed commercial purchases. The Rhino was charting new territory, and it was perhaps the first modern UTV to come into existence.

A Red Yamaha Rhino Sporting ITP Wheels

Polaris RZR

Although Polaris was already part of the UTV scene with the Ranger, it wanted a piece of the action that Rhino was getting. And why not? The Rhino quickly launched Yamaha into a position where it could hold a major market share. So how could Polaris best the beast? By introducing a UTV that was designed primarily for recreational riding. Polaris wasn’t the first to jump on the recreational bandwagon (Arctic Cat produced their Prowler in 2006), but the 2007 RZR was the first sport UTV on the market.

Redesigning the look of UTVs altogether, Polaris created a machine that was styled completely different than other UTVs on the market. But it wasn’t just about looks. Everything about it was designed for off-road fun. And with a 50-inch width, the RZR could literally go where no UTV had gone before: trails. Since many trails have a 50-inch maximum width, many UTVs simply couldn’t follow their smaller ATV cousins through the woods. The RZR changed all of that.

The RZR’s popularity launched Polaris into the leading spot among UTV manufacturers – a position it still holds to this day. Now most manufacturers also produce sport UTVs, from the Can-Am Commander to the Kawasaki Teryx.

The Rocky Mountain ATV/MC Crew in a RZR 900 in Moab During the Rally on the Rocks and With Numerous Other Sport UTVs in the Background

The Future

If there’s one thing beyond doubt, it’s that UTVs have an intriguing past and a promising future. But just as they have evolved to become the recreational/utility hybrid vehicles that they are today, what forthcoming changes might occur in the market?

As mentioned above, the single-seating Polaris Sportsman Ace is already challenging existing paradigms of what a UTV is or isn’t. Will other manufacturers follow suit, or will it fade away as a footnote of UTV history? Will it change the way we define UTVs or ATVs? Or will it create an entirely new class of its own? Only time will tell.

What are your favorite memories when you reflect on the history of UTVs? What are you predictions for the future? Leave your thoughts in the comments!