To track the history of ATVs, we only need to go back to 1968. The first ATV was a three-wheeler and it was made popular in 1970 with Honda’s All Terrain Cycle — the ATC 90.
To examine the first UTV, we need to go back an additional 28 years when the first prototype of the military “jeep” rolled off the line. Government specs were so stringent that of the 135 companies that were invited to bid on the project, only three responded.
The result was nothing short of a military miracle and the armed forces came away with a go anywhere, do anything machine that quickly became a vital part of the Allied war arsenal. Scripps Howard WWII Reporter Ernie Pyle once said, “It did everything. It went everywhere. It was faithful as a dog, as strong as a mule, and as agile as a goat. It constantly carried twice what it was designed for and still kept going.”
I like to think of the jeep in terms of the specifications of my four-seat Kawasaki Teryx:
- Length: 131 inches (jeep) / 125.24 inches (Teryx)
- Width: 62 inches / 62.01 inches
- Height: 72 inches / 79.41 inches
- Wheel base: 80 inches / 86.10 inches
- Horse power: 60 / 54
- Transmission: Three speed, high and low / Automatic with high and low
- Top speed: 65 / 50
The strong similarities don’t make up for the difference in suspension. The jeep had independent suspension, but it was only leaf springs, which would be a ride like a horse-drawn buckboard.
Greg Brubaker of Layton gave me an interesting fact about those 1941 jeep tires. He said, “They were labeled NDTs for Non-Directional Tread. As a security measure, if the tracks were detected, no one could tell which direction the jeep was going.”
The jeep was king of off-highway travel in the U.S. for nearly 30 years before ATVs gained so much attention from outdoor enthusiasts. 1961 saw the introduction of the “Jigger,” a six-wheel amphibious vehicle that had two engines and six wheels. It could carry two passengers, but it didn’t make much of a splash.
At the time, Honda was making a name for themselves in the ATV world with the Honda Forman Fourtrax 300 ATV. In 1988, Kawasaki introduced the Mule. While it was a multiple passenger UTV, it was more popular among groundskeepers and farmers than from recreationists.
1999 saw the introduction of the Polaris Ranger. It had six wheels because they wanted it readily classified as an off-road vehicle. Carrying two passengers, it had a greater payload than any other utility vehicle. With a top speed of 25 miles per hour, it clearly targeted the commercial and agricultural markets.
There was a clear distinction between machines designed for utility and those made for recreation. All of that changed in 2004 when Yamaha introduced the Rhino. At first look, it was just another UTV — it carried two passengers and it had a dump bed. With a turn of the key and your foot in the throttle, it was easy to forget about the dump bed. This was not your grandfather’s hay hauler. In the year of introduction, it surpassed the sale of commercial UTVs.
Polaris answered with the Ranger RZR in 2007. It carried two passengers, had greater acceleration than any other sport UTV, and its 50-inch width allowed it go on any ATV trail.
The 54-inch width created a problem of stability, so Yamaha offered to install 2-inch spacers on the rear wheels. This increased the width to 58 inches and notably enhanced stability. Yamaha dropped out of the UTV market in 2012 because of the stability problem.
Yamaha came back in 2014 with the six-seat Viking followed by the two- and four-seat Wolverine. By then, sport UTVs were outselling ATVs by a margin of at least 10-to-1.
All major manufactures of ATVs offer a UTV with the exception of Suzuki. With their outstanding engineering in their selection of ATVs, it is a surprise that they don’t offer a UTV.
The explosion set off by Yamaha 16 years ago is still reverberating. I was in Young Powersports in Layton recently and counted 79 different models of ATVs and UTVs offered by Polaris alone. RZR models make up the majority of the lineup.
2020 saw a huge upsurge in outdoor recreation and the demand for off-highway vehicles shows no sign of slowing down. Regardless of the machine you pick to ride on Utah’s trails, take plenty of water, keep the rubber side down and take a friend.