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Old 09-03-2015, 11:50 PM   #1
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Honda’s Billion-Dollar Baby: The ATC90 ATV | ROOTS


THROWBACK – Honda’s ad campaign in the early 1970s amounted to an educational effort. What the heck is the ATV and what can you do with it? Eventually, of course, consumers figured this out for themselves.

Sometime in early 1968, Honda special-vehicle engineer Osamu “Tak” Takeuchi sat in a cluttered R&D shop in Japan and looked around. What he saw were all sorts of weird parts and funky, mostly finished prototypes: two-, four-wheeled machines, large-tired ones, tracked-wheeled ones, even one with skis.

In the center of the room sat something a bit more finished: a three-wheeled prototype with tiny wheels, huge pillow-like tires, and a fairly conventional seat/tank/bar layout. Tak nodded slightly as he spied it, for he knew that machine, which he and his team had built, was a reasonably good reply to the challenge his bosses tasked him with a year before: to come up with something unique and interesting for American dealers to sell in the winter. The request was a shot in the dark, one with no direction whatsoever. The bosses simply wanted to support Honda dealers in winter, especially those in the northern tier, where off-season sales often slowed to a crawl.

Tak’s team spent a year researching, designing, building, and testing a wide range of prototypes for snow, sand, and mud, finally settling on this design a few months prior. During the final months came a breakthrough regarding wheel and tire design, and the bike’s functionality suddenly clicked. The machine he was looking at was both fun and functional, two characteristics vitally important to any of Soichiro Honda’s products.


And so Tak now had some hope—hope that the design would be accepted and hope that it would have an impact on the US market. Given the monumental effect Tak’s little three-wheeler would have on the world’s powersports market in the years to come, he needn’t have worried. But, hey, hindsight is 20/20…

Prior to Tak’s creation, the All Terrain Vehicle category in the 1960s barely existed and was dominated by a handful of four- and six-wheel machines with tub chassis and turning accomplished by braking one set of wheels (one side) at a time. Companies such as Jiger, Mobility Unlimited, and Attex built balloon-tired models catering mostly to hunters and fisherman. Many could float, with some owners even fitting small outboard engines. Tak’s concept thumbed its nose at these cumbersome, amphibious contraptions—then turned the entire concept of an all-terrain vehicle on that same nose.


The Amphicat provided its 22-inch, low-pressure, high-floatation tires, which made the whole concept work.

Tak’s team settled on the three-wheel concept relatively early, the triangular footprint offering the team what it felt would be the optimum combination of stability, traction, and maneuverability for the soft, slick, and otherwise tricky surfaces on which it would be ridden. The design was also unique enough to be patented in several ways, which would pay massive market-share and financial dividends later on.

Several versions were tried: one front wheel with two rears; two fronts and one in back; tandem wheels on dual axles in back, etc. Treaded motorcycle-type wheel and tire combinations were tried, but they chewed up soft terrain and didn’t allow the chassis to maneuver as intended. The breakthrough happened when the team received from American Honda a set of low-pressure balloon tires from an Amphicat six-wheeler to evaluate. They reconfigured the prototype to accept these 22-inch diameter tires and wheels, and suddenly everything clicked. Traction and handling were better, and the footprint on soft terrain was minimal—just right and just what Tak had envisioned early on.


Functionality jumped yet another level when the team moved to Honda’s 90cc OHC single from the 70cc unit they’d been testing. The bike now had the low-end and midrange it needed to handle softer, power-robbing surfaces. Another helpful change was a thumb-operated throttle, still in use today, which allows riders to maintain precise throttle control even when hanging off one side of the machine to help steer it. Testing showed the hardtail’s tire-supplied suspension to be adequate—at least for the relatively mellow use engineers and designers envisioned.

While functionality was the prime target, cost figured in as well. The simple design helped; Honda already had the engine, and the frame was a basic, stamped-steel assembly. There wasn’t much R&D to complete or tooling to purchase.

By mid-’69, the US90—a name chosen to reflect the machine’s primary outlet—was ready for production, and attention turned to informing the dealer body of the new concept. Honda knew it would likely be a hard sell, so it organized a weeklong dealer event at California’s Pismo Beach featuring more than 100 pre-production units for dealers to ride and experience. They had a grand old time on the ocean dunes, but the big question remained: How would dealers gauge the US90’s sales potential?

“Most had a hard time seeing the market,” says a Honda associate who helped run the event, “unless, of course, they lived near sand dunes or a gravel pit.” Even some inside Honda wondered. “As a motorcycle rider since the early 1950s,” says longtime Honda president Tom Elliott, “I thought the US90 was a little weird and wondered if there was a market for it.”

Still, bike sales were booming and dealers bought plenty. Some did well, others not so well, and it soon became obvious that geography was key; rural dealers sold a lot of them, urban dealers less. Dealers promoted the $595 US90 in unique ways too. Some floated them in pools in front of their stores to attract attention, while others took them to county fairs and allowed folks to have their hands and feet run over to show how soft and harmless the footprint was. Honda promoted heavily, too, mainly in print ads but also in movies, getting the machine into Diamonds Are Forever, a James Bond flick that debuted around that time.

By late 1970, the US90’s debut year, the machine had officially become the ATC90, Honda successfully trademarking “All Terrain Cycle.” Press reaction was generally positive, and retail sales during the first few years averaged around 10,000, with roughly 150,000 being sold by 1978, the machine’s final year of production. By then the line had expanded to include the ATC70, with the ATC110 taking over the 90’s spot in the lineup. What’s more, farmers and discovered how useful ATCs really were, and that trend grew into the gigantic utility market we have today.

“The ATC90 was a surprise to us,” says Yamaha product-planner Ed Burke. “We’d been researching alternative products at the time but hadn’t moved on any. The off-road market was peaking at the time, and it seemed like it could work.” Because of Honda’s many patents, Yamaha couldn’t jump into the market until 1980. Its initial entry, the two-stroke, 123cc Tri-Moto, was indeed a three-wheeler but had its engine positioned between the rear wheels. Eventually, Yamaha bit the bullet and paid Honda royalties until the patents expired.


A one-piece seat/fender assembly removes for access to the rear of the suspension-less trike.

But paying that price was worth it. “Once we got into [three-wheelers],” Burke remembers, “ATV sales became a significant part of our business. In the mid-’80s, [three-wheelers] literally took over a good portion of the off-road market. Bike sales declined, but three-wheeler sales grew. In many ways, ATVs have helped support the industry and keep dealers alive during significant downturns. You saw this then, and you see it today. That’s really significant.”

But the three-wheeler story would not have a happy ending. Broken axles and poorly designed footpegs were problems early on, but issues of a far larger scope would eventually derail the ATC and three-wheeler train. The design’s unusual handling, coupled with what must be called a healthy dose of rider irresponsibility (and arguably overzealousness by regulators and litigators), would spell the end. Honda’s desire to reach out to non-motorcyclists and utility consumers no doubt attracted many who felt motorcycles were dangerous, but that three-wheelers were somehow safer. Just because you couldn’t fall over at a stop did not mean you couldn’t crash them. Accidents increased and three-wheelers had already been convicted in the court of public opinion by the time the Consumer Product Safety Commission came on the scene.


The evergreen SOHC, air-cooled single hung from a steel frame in the ATC’s belly. The location of the engine was patented for three-wheeler use.

Ultimately the CPSC forced the manufacturers to stop making and selling three-wheelers, a ban that took effect in 1987 and would last 10 years. Fortunately, manufacturers saw the writing on the wall early and began building four-wheel ATVs as early as 1982 (Suzuki was first, with Honda and Yamaha following in ’84), a move that kept the ATV surge alive. Today, it’s a multi-billion-dollar part of the powersports puzzle, with every Japanese manufacturer participating with machines that are clearly evolved from the original ATC, plus the proliferation of side-by-side (and larger) ATVs that resemble (and cost like) automobiles.

And it all goes back to the ATC90. From its inauspicious start as a seasonal gap-filler it got millions of people into motorcycling, many of whom would never have experienced the fun of our sport without it. It jumpstarted an entirely new industry, one that’s sold more than 10 million units over the years. And it helped support our business and dealers at key moments when bike sales slacked off. All of this, one way or another, stemmed directly from Osamu Takeuchi’s original three-wheel prototype.

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