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By: Jason Giacchino

June 2010 - Off The Pegs

Today is Tomorrow’s History

The History Channel

It’s funny how easy it is to forget all of the twists and turns that got us where we are today as a collective industry until you’re forced to map it all out.  This reality landed on my plate a couple weeks ago when I got a call from a producer from the History Channel looking for some additional information on the history of the ATV for an upcoming program.

While I wouldn’t exactly consider myself an ATV archaeologist, I do admit to taking quite a bit of pleasure in researching and studying the evolution of what is now considered a typical all-terrain vehicle.  After all, in a fairly short period of time (1970 to now), the ATV has gone through many major evolutionary phases (including perhaps it’s most famous--gaining a wheel) and continues to incorporate ever-advancing technologies even as I type this.  We’ve gone from simple air cooled, recoil start 3-wheelers to electric start, liquid cooled, fuel injected, power-steering equipped, push-button 4-wheel-drive powerhouses in a little over a decade’s time.  We’ve gone from near extinction to rapid market grown and back again with alarming frequency.  And even now, with the economy in its dreariest state in recent memory, ATV manufacturers remain optimistic about the future.

Having gotten the woman’s message on a Friday afternoon with plans of returning the call first thing Monday morning, I had an entire weekend to think about some interesting facts to bring up.  Would I start at the very beginning?  Did they want to hear about Honda’s first 3-wheeler exported to the States back in 1970?  That its 90cc engine was putting out an under-whelming 7-horsepower and that chassis’ only form of suspension came in the form of the tires themselves?  What about the fact that Honda was the only game in town for an entire decade before Yamaha finally followed the ATC90 with their Trimoto YT125 in 1980?  From there the “big four” as we now know them were quickly established: Kawasaki came next with the KLT200 in 1981, and Suzuki dropped their LT125 (a four-wheeler no less) on the world in 1983.

Suzuki's 1983 Quadrunner LT125
Suzuki's 1983 Quadrunner LT125

From there I began recounting the American Motorcycle Association’s involvement in the budding sport, the formation of the American All-Terrain Vehicle Association (AATVA) back in 1985 and the introduction of factory-backed ATV racing.

Surely, I thought to myself, she would be interested to get into great detail about the controversy that followed in the mid 1980s.  I brushed up on the names, players, and dates involved: The 1986 investigation headed by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) into the potential dangers of ATV operation.  The resulting “Final Consent Decree” on April 29, 1988 that would ban the 3-wheeler forever despite CPSC findings that stated improper rider behavior and disregard for manufacturer warnings were the reason for a majority of the injuries that started the whole ball rolling.

This got me thinking about recent events as well and how lawsuits targeting Yamaha claiming design flaws in their popular Rhino UTV resulting in personal injury very nearly recreated the grim events of the 1980s.  That these claims were overturned in court is really just an immeasurable victory for the ATV industry as a whole and a testament to the fact that our judicial system is slowly correcting itself after years of nonsense lawsuit big-buck payouts.  Honestly, with what happened in the 1980s in the form of the CPSC fiasco, the message had been sent to the American public that we could basically be as irresponsible and carefree as we wanted and, should we end up hurting ourselves or others in the process, the blame could be handed off:  “Let’s see here, you weren’t old enough to operate the vehicle, over the legal limit of intoxication, and weren’t wearing any protective gear when you hurt yourself operating an ATC?  Sounds like the manufacturer’s problem to us.”

Then, of course, there was last year’s youth ATV ban thanks to lead content to consider bringing up.  But then again I didn’t want to focus only on the negative in our conversation either.  I could tell her about the recent rejuvenation of factory-backed ATV racing thanks to the advent of the 450cc four-stroke race engine and the phasing out of the old two-strokes.  There was the quick growth and uncontainable popularity of the UTV segment in the form of side-by-sides to mention.  There was, as touched upon above, the inclusion of high-tech automotive technology making its way into the industry like never before.

Satisfied I had enough material to discuss, I made the call first thing Monday and felt a bit over-prepared as she asked only a few questions pertaining to what, if any, off-road vehicles existed here before the Honda ATC 90 arrived.

“Well, dune buggies, amphibious crawlers, Jeeps, tractors, and I suppose you would have to consider each and every time a Model T blew a corner an off-road excursion,” I said.

Sliced TV Show on The History Channel

We laughed as the reality that my expertise wouldn’t be providing the narration for an upcoming episode of “Modern Marvels” sank in.

“By the way,” I asked. “What is the name of the show you need this data for again?”

“Oh, it’s called ‘Sliced’,” she replied.  “If you’ve never seen it, we literally cut objects in half to show the viewers at home how they work.”

“And you’re going to do this to an ATV?”

“Yup, a 2010 Polaris Sportsman 850 in fact.  We’ll be slicing it clean down the middle.”

“Interesting,” I said, rubbing my chin in thought.  “A shame you didn’t call 30 years ago, I would gladly have donated my YT125 to the cause.”

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