Being aware of ATVs didn’t make me interested in them — that came later. As a boy growing up in Oklahoma, I loved riding my bike, especially on dirt trails. The Cushman scooters were popular when I was in high school, but a friend’s accident on one made me leery of motorcycles. I was content to provide the power for my own two wheels.
It wasn’t until my father-in-law bought a new Honda Forman Fortrax 300 in 1988 that ATVs moved into my peripheral vision. I thought it was cute, but wouldn’t let myself get excited about them because I couldn’t afford one. However, my interest grew when I saw where that little red machine would take him.
That changed in 1992 when I could afford one. The next step was to present the idea to “the finance committee.” She is only one, but she is one. I played the “It isn’t safe for your dad to ride alone” card to get approval and it worked.
Now I was really excited and I began shopping for my first machine. At the time, the biggest machine on the market was the 400 cubic centimeter Yamaha Big Bear. I smile when I thought it was too big for me.
It took a year to narrow my decision down to a choice between two machines — a Honda like my father-in-law had or a Suzuki King Quad 300. Because I am a sucker for bells and whistles, I chose the Suzuki. It had a speedometer, an odometer, and three gear ranges that meant 35 forward speeds. In the course of a day’s ride, I must have shifted 400 times, well maybe 324. Anyway, I know I just about shifted my brains out. Still, it was a wonderful ATV and it was mine.
That year was in the middle of a Consumer Products Safety Commission Final Consent Decree — a 10-year agreement that banned the production of three-wheelers, required manufactures to provide free safety education, and limited engine size to 90 ccs for all riders 16 years and younger. Issued in 1988, the market was quiet when it came to engine size. I have ridden one of the banned three-wheelers and I didn’t like the way they handled.
Things started to heat up toward the end of that agreement. I remember when Polaris came out with the first 500 cc in a Sportsman ATV and I had been worried about 400 ccs being too big. It was the beginning of the cc wars.
Yamaha answered with a Grizzly 600. It was the biggest ATV on the market and it had the agility of an army tank, but it had the power. Polaris came back with another Sportsman exhibiting a 700 twin cylinder with MacPherson struts.
I had favored Suzuki ATVs to that point, especially shying away from the Polaris machines. Then one day, I was talking with Curt at the old Layton Cycle about the big 700 offered by Polaris. Curt said something that pushed my buttons and suddenly I had to have a Polaris Sportsman 700. He said, “It takes a skilled rider to handle one of those machines.”
The cc wars didn’t stop there. Polaris came out with an 800 and then an 850 with power steering which tamed the beast in the big machines. I think that power steering was one of the most significant changes to improve ATV handling and safety. Not only did it make the bigger machines easier to handle, the improvement had an anti-kickback feature built into it. ATVs without this feature caused injury to the riders when either of the front wheels hit an obstacle, causing the handlebar to kick back hard enough to sprain or break the rider’s wrist.
Polaris pushed the needle up another notch with a Sportsman 1000. I knew then that a line had been crossed. Appealing to the manly man with a bigger-is-better approach actually works, but I figured that a motor that big would have to be dumbed down to be safe enough for a big ego to handle.
When I did my homework, I felt justified in buying the Polaris Sportsman 850 with power steering. The price was $3,200 lower and the engine in the 1000 sported only 10 more horsepower. The power and handling of the Sportsman 850 makes it one of the most exciting ATVs I have ever ridden on the trail. When you go, take plenty of water, keep the rubber side down and see where you fit in the ATV world.