3 Wheel ATCs / All-Terrain Cycles
Before there were four wheel ATVs there was a short glorious time when 3 wheel ATVs reigned supreme.
In the early years, these new vehicles were called All-Terrain Cycles (ATC), trikes and 3 wheel ATVs.
Honda actually copyrighted the term ATC in 1973, so other manufacturers couldn’t legally use the term in their names or brochures. They also owned specific patents tied to 3 wheel ATV design, so other manufacturers actually had to pay Honda before they even started production.
All of Honda’s ATC models carried the ATC moniker and used it right up until they stopped making 3 wheel ATVs in 1987.
But, ATC was a good descriptor, so it gained traction with the public and was widely used.
The birth of 3 wheel ATVs may not be as dramatic as when the first cars hit the market, but it opened doors to adventure and created an new exciting market.
Today the ATV and UTV market is worth over 5.69 billion dollars.
What Is It?
Dune Buggy – Snowmobile – Trail Bike
How do you sell a vehicle that no one understands?
It’s hard to believe, but when these crazy new vehicles became available, manufacturers had to educate consumers on what is was and why they should buy one.
People didn’t know what to make of this new vehicle.
In fact, some of Honda’s first advertising campaigns for their first 3 wheel ATVs in the 1970s were spent explaining “What is it?”.
What’s Up With Those Big Fat Tires?
In the early 1970s when ATCs first made their appearance they featured big balloon tires.
Since the first ATCs didn’t have suspension, these tires served an important function – they helped soften the ride.
Plus, they worked well enough on dunes and in snow. But, their weak spot was trail riding. The balloon tires didn’t do well in rough conditions.
To address this tire problem, in 1974, Honda innovated the rubber tires that all manufacturers are using today.
Who Invented Three Wheel ATVs?
The credit for inventing the 3 wheel ATV goes to John Plessinger. Interestingly, he designed the 3 wheel ATV as part of a graduate project while attending the Cranbrook Academy of Arts near Detroit in 1967.
While I feel confident some garage tinkerer may have built a Frankenstein 3 wheeler before Mr. Plessinger, the one who gets the patents and sells the idea is ultimately the one who gets the credit!
Sperry Rand Tricart – The First 3 Wheel ATV
He sold the rights to his prototype vehicle to an American company, Sperry Rand, where the vehicle then became the Sperry Rand Tricart.
Sperry Rand briefly manufacturer the Tricart for sale to consumers.
But, once Honda started making 3 wheel ATVs, it was near impossible for small manufacturers to compete.
I love that it’s “Visually Exciting – Has the look of “now” and “tomorrow”.” Delightful 1960s hippy dippy marketing.
The Big Four ATC Manufacturers:
Honda – Yamaha – Kawasaki – Suzuki
Lesser Known Manufacturers of Three Wheel ATVs
There were several early bit players making three wheel ATVs, but they’re fairly obscure with reliable information difficult to find.
Also, during this time, ATC racing was very big, so custom made/modified racing models were prolific and available to those with the need and pocketbook.
Canadian Argo manufacturer, Ontario Drive and Gear (ODG) Limited produced a three wheel ATV, the Argo Taurus 650, from 1985 – 1987.
Besides Sperry Rand, there were other US trike manufacturers such as Tiger ATV LTD, Manco Industries (the Quester ATC) and Polaris.
But, Tiger and Polaris were way too late to the trike game.
Both Tiger and Polaris didn’t start manufacturing three wheel ATVs until 1985.
By this time, Honda dominated the market.
Tiger had a very short life span and eventually went under in 1991. Exact production numbers aren’t known for Tiger, but they’re thought to have manufactured somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 – 1,000 vehicles.
Tiger did survive long enough to product four wheel ATVs, but it was short lived. The history is hazy, but it’s known that they definitely produced one quad, a 250cc model and perhaps a 200cc model as well.
Tiger has a pretty good claim to fame, they produced the largest displacement ATC commercially available at the time – the Tiger 500.
The Tiger 500 had top speeds of 80+ mph.
This makes it the fastest consumer ATC available with a stock engine.
That’s some pretty solid street cred that nobody can ever take away.
Curious if Polaris ever made three wheel ATVs?
Spoiler Alert: They did!
But only one – it’s the last ATC in our throwback lineup.
Although Polaris may not have been a big player in the trike ATV world, they were obviously able to pivot successfully into the four wheel ATV market.
Today, Polaris is the top selling ATV manufacturer in the US.
The End Of 3 Wheel ATVs
As ATV three wheelers were getting bigger and faster, obviously people wanted to ride them faster.
What’s the point of having a fast ATV if you don’t ride it fast?
Also, at the same time that ATVs were becoming increasingly fast, ATVing was also booming in popularity.
More People Riding = More People Riding Fast = More Accidents
Politicians, doctors and the American Academy of Pediatrics all turned an eye to the ATC market.
Villainizing The Three Wheel ATV
No doubt about it, ATVs are dangerous. But this includes both three wheel ATVs as well as four wheel ATVs.
Cornering is more difficult on three wheels vs four wheels. A lighter front end increases the risk of roll overs and steering difficulty at high speeds, plus they’re more susceptible to rolling while traversing inclines.
While it’s true that three wheel ATVs have increased risk factors, most of these risk factors could have been reduced with rider training/education vs. banning.
Another thing that I think is important to note is that these early off roading days were largely unregulated.
It was basically the Wild West
Helmet use was hit or miss. People didn’t use whip flags at sand dunes. ATCs were on roads with cars. Young children were driving ATCs unsupervised. Multiple people were on bikes.
Of course, in this type of devil may care environment more deaths and accidents are likely to occur. It then seems a bit ingenuous to try and pin it exclusively on three wheels rather than taking a look at the bigger picture.
Most 3 wheel ATC deaths and injuries were in children and young male riders. This hasn’t changed over time, most deaths and accidents on 4 wheel ATVs still occur with children and young male riders.
Perhaps better regulated riding, especially in regards to children, could have helped to mitigate some of these accidents and deaths. Pushing helmets could have helped dramatically too.
Are 3 Wheel ATVs Actually More Dangerous Than 4 Wheel ATVs?
One study conducted in 1988 actually proved that accident frequency and severity were basically the same for three and four wheel ATVs. The same.
This study also concluded that “minimum age requirements, rider education, and helmet use should reduce injuries”.
Admittedly this same study did say that 3 wheeler ATVs were less stable than their four wheel counterparts, but ultimately this didn’t impact the overall findings.
But, three wheelers took all the blame.
Three Wheeler ATV Ban Is Coming
1987 was the last year that three wheel ATVs were manufactured.
Due to all the safety concerns regarding ATVs and facing an inevitable ban, manufacturers voluntarily agreed to stop making 3 wheel ATVs.
Originally it was only supposed to be a 10 year moratorium, but that basically became forever. The market was already shifting into quads and groundwork was being laid to ban trikes.
In addition to ending 3 wheel ATV production, manufacturers also ‘volunteered’ to finance a $100+ million safety campaign. I’m guessing they saw which way the wind was blowing and didn’t want to risk getting quads banned as well.
2008 H.R. Bill 4040
This bill was the final nail in the coffin of 3 wheel ATVs.
In SEC. 232. ALL-TERRAIN VEHICLE STANDARD is the following entry:
‘‘(c) REQUIREMENTS FOR 3-WHEELED ALL-TERRAIN VEHICLES.—
Until a mandatory consumer product safety standard applicable
to 3-wheeled all-terrain vehicles promulgated pursuant to this Act
is in effect, new 3-wheeled all-terrain vehicles may not be imported
into or distributed in commerce in the United States. Any violation
of this subsection shall be considered to be a violation of section
19(a)(1) of this Act and may also be enforced under section 17
of this Act.
‘‘(d) FURTHER PROCEEDINGS.—
‘‘(1) DEADLINE.—The Commission shall issue a final rule
in its proceeding entitled ‘Standards for All Terrain Vehicles
and Ban of Three-wheeled All Terrain Vehicles’.”
Well, long story short – a “mandatory consumer product safety standard applicable
to 3-wheeled all-terrain vehicles” was never proposed or put forth. This essentially banned 3 wheel ATVs without outright banning them.
Honda Dominates The ATC Market
Honda ATC Patent
Not only was Honda the first to bring sit on top ATCs to market, but they were also able to patent the design. Wheel placement, engine location, seat position – the whole enchilada – Honda owned the rights.
In 1980, Honda applied for a patent for “The ornamental design for a three-wheeled motor vehicle, as show”. In 1983, they were granted the patent. Patent USD267637S
Other manufacturers had to pay Honda to use this three wheel ATV ‘design’
The only option was to pay Honda, or not enter the market. So, pay they did.
The Birth of the ATC
ATC stands for “All Terrain Cycle”. In 1973, Honda trademarked this term so other manufacturers couldn’t legally use it.
But, ATC was the perfect descriptor for this new exciting vehicle, so it gained traction and was widely used by the public.
Honda used the ATC designation on all their 3 wheel ATVs right up until the end of the trike market as it segued into 4 wheels.
Honda ATC Models 1970 – 1987
Claim To Fame: Designed First Sit On Top ATC & Hold The Design Patent
- 1970 MSRP: $595
- Model Years: 1970–1978
The ATC90 was the first large scale mass produced ATC available in the US
Although 3 wheel ATVs were available in the US prior to 1970, it was on a small scale from much smaller manufacturers.
Honda really kicked things off with the ATC90 and pretty much dominated the market until the end.
When it was first released, this vehicle was called the US90. But, in 1973, Honda changed the name to ATC90.
Honda found a better name/branding opportunity when they switched to using ‘ATC’.
89cc four-stroke single cylinder engine with 7 hp. It featured two wheel drive and automatic Posi-Torque 4 speed transmission.
The handlebars swivel (Swivel-Lok™), so that it would be easier to load.
With a recoil starter, a pull chain was used to start the US90.
- 1973 MSRP: $549
- Model Years: 1973–1974 & 1978–1985
The ATC70 is the second addition to the Honda ATC lineup.
It may seem a bit surprising, but rather than go bigger, Honda decided to go smaller.
After 3 years in the ATV market, Honda rolled out the ATC70, a smaller version of the ATV90 with 3 speeds vs 4 speeds.
This smaller ATC was less expensive and designed for children.
Features include foot guards, easy-to-operate brakes and a US Forest Service approved spark arrester.
From 1974-1978, Honda didn’t release any new models. They kept making the ATC70 & ATC90 with the only major change being the tires.
In 1974, Honda moved away from the balloon tire when they were found to be too delicate for rough terrain. At this time, they switched to traditional rubber tires that are still in use today.
- 1979 MSRP: $898
- Model Years: 1979–1985
In 1979, the engine of the ATC90 grew to 105cc outgrowing its ’90’ designation. It was at this point that it became the ATC110.
ATC90 Morphs Into the ATC110
With a 105cc 4-stroke engine, dual-range four-speed transmission, parking brake and enclosed drive, this is Honda’s most powerful build to date.
- 1980 MSRP: $1,248
- Model Year: 1980 (a short production because it quickly morphed into the ATC185S and then the 200)
As the 3 wheel ATV market is really starting to gain traction, Honda releases their biggest ATC to date, the ATC 185.
Big Changes Under Way In ATC Design
This model marked a big change in Honda’s engine design. The engine when from being somewhat horizontal to a more upright placement.
This new engine also has a protective tube frame. Previous models basically had the engine kind of hanging there potentially exposed to rocks and other hazards.
Obviously the tube frame isn’t as protective as the skid plates we use today, but it’s a definite improvement over nothing.
With a 180cc engine, this was quite a jump in power over the ATC110’s 105cc engine.
It still had a recoil start, but the transmission went from four speeds in the ATC 110 to a five-speed semiautomatic with an ultra-low first gear in the ATC185.
Front and rear racks as well as a trailer hitch were available options at the time.
The increase in power plus the addition of racks and a hitch was the first step in a new powerful breed of three wheel ATVs touted as ideal for both work and fun.
- 1981 MSRP: $1,148
- Model Years: 1981–1983
The ATC185S is simply an ATC185 redesign to give it a new sleek sporty look.
Not a lot happened here – most of the overall specs stayed the same.
The vehicle maintained its 71.7″x 42.5″ size, but Honda did reduce the wheelbase from 45.7″ to 44.1″.
The biggest change was downsizing the tires from 25 x 12 x 9 to 22 x 11 x 8 which also resulted in a loss of ground clearance of .2 inches from 4.9″ to 4.7″. Not too bad actually when you consider how much smaller the tires are.
These changes also dropped the ATCs weight from 302 lbs to 270 lbs.
This doesn’t happen too often, but the price also went down $100.
It still has the same 180cc 4-stroke air-cooled chain driven 2wd 5-speed auto-clutch with a recoil start.
- 1981 MSRP: $1,298
- Model Years: 1981–1983
The ATC200s are the natural evolution of the ATC185 with a bit more power.
A jump in power from 180cc to 192cc, but still a 4-stroke, 5-speed with recoil start.
In 1982, when Yamaha introduced front suspension in the Yamaha YT175J Tri-Moto, everyone else quickly go onboard the following year.
Honda Introduces ATC Suspension
So, in 1983 Honda rolled out front suspension in the ATC200, their first ever model with front suspension.
By 1983, ATC front end suspension was now a thing and fully embraced by all manufacturers.
Better tires and an electric start are great.
But nothing compares to suspension!
Riders today can’t image the literal ass kicking an ass got while riding an ATV without suspension.
Honda Finds Big Success With The 200
Honda’s 200 line ends up being it’s most successful during the early 1980s, so they expanded the line to an eventual six different 200 ATC models.
Evolution of Honda’s ATC200
Did We Have Too Much Fun In the 1980s?
I feel like the 200 models may have been the beginning of the end for 3 wheel ATVs.
Too Much Power – Too Much Danger
We flew too close to the sun on these beautiful gas powered beasts.
- 1981 MSRP: $1,695
- Model Years: 1981-1987
The Honda ATC250R was considered the first real high performance ATC.
This model marked the beginning of racing or “sport” ATVs. The ATC250R and the 1983 ATC200X were the start of the “sport” ATC market.
Prior to this time, ATVs were seen as functional and fun, but the “sport” designation really put the focus on speed and performance.
Honda ATC25R Makes History
It comes with a fun back story that happened prior to the ATC250R being available to consumers – a bit of preproduction field testing.
It’s claim to fame was an unofficial run in the 1980 Baja 1000.
The story goes that some Honda associates caught and passed Mickey Thompson (a racing legend known for achieving 406.60 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1960, beating out the previous record of 402 mph and a 1990 Inductee into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame) while he was pre-running for the race.
Mickey Thompson saw the potential in ATC racing and was influential in getting three wheelers sanctioned for the 1981 Baja 1000. In 1984, when Honda ran the ATC250R they finished first and second in class which put them in fourth and fifth overall.
The only vehicles that beat the ATC250R were motorcycles
No vehicles with four wheels were able to beat them.
Honda had real street cred with their Baja victory and made it part of their advertising campaign.
ATC Industry Groundbreaking
First ATC With Front And Rear Suspension + Front Disk Brakes
They may have been a bit behind Yamaha with front suspension, but the Honda ATC250R was the first ever ATC to offer adjustable front and rear suspension and front disc brakes.
Plus, the ATC250R also featured counter balancers to reduce vibration from the powerful 248cc engine.
Because this was a sport model geared towards more advanced riders it had a 5 speed manual clutch vs an automatic.
1985 Improvements To The ATC250R
The ATC250R was a popular model and remained in the Honda lineup until the end.
It remained much the same the first few years until some significant changes were made in 1985.
- Engine redesign. It went from a 248cc 2-stroke air cooled in 1984 to its current 246cc 2-stroke liquid cooled. Honda promises 42% more horsepower than previous models.
- Previously a 5 speed, now a 6 speed
- Front and rear suspension increased to 9.8″, up from 8.7″ in the front and 8.1″ in the rear
- New strong, rigid, but lightweight frame
- Fuel tank redesign for improved center of gravity
- New low profile tires
Honda ATC200E AKA Big Red
- 1982 MSRP: $1,648
- Model Years: 1982–1987
Big Red ATC200E and the 1984 ATC200ES were the first ATCs designated as “utility” models. Prior to this, ATCs were obviously being used for work and hunting as well as fun, but these were the first two ATC designed specifically with work in mind.
Big Red is Honda’s first ATC to have an electric start
Equipped with 192cc, 5 speed dual-range semiautomatic transmission and front suspension. Front and rear racks came standard.
In 1984, the ATC200E became the ATC200ES with a few minor changes.
1984 saw the addition of a reverse gear to Big Red. Honda also swapped out the chain drive to a shaft drive which was a huge improvement that resulted in a quieter ride requiring less maintenance with a longer lifespan.
- 1983 MSRP: $1,698
- Model Years: 1983–1987
Like the ATC250R that came before it, the ATC200X is a pure sport model built for performance.
Features include 192cc 4 stroke, chain drive, 5 speed manual clutch, lightweight aluminum wheels plus front and rear disk breaks. It also came with full suspension – hydraulic telescoping forks in the front and a mono shock in the rear.
This is Honda’s first model with a kick start
A kick start is less expensive to make, requires less maintenance, plus they’re lighter, so it’s a clear winner for this sport ATV trike.
Coming in at only 282 lbs, this ATC could move!
- 1984 MSRP: $1,198
- Model Years: 1984–1987
The ATC125 is a successor of the ATC110 which was itself a successor of the ATC90. So, the ATC125 is also closely related to the ATC90 albeit with a lot more power.
Honda jumped the displacement to 124cc while making a few small changes along the way.
A couple of the more notable changes were a standard electric starter plus both front and rear brakes.
Other features include 124cc 4-Stroke air-cooled, chain drive, 4-speed dual range automatic clutch.
The introduction of the ATC125 so close to the end of the 3 wheel ATV market in 1987 means that not as many were made. Although they were made right up until the end, later year models are hard to find, especially 1987.
- 1984 MSRP: NA
I’m including this 4 wheeler because it fits the timeline and is an essential part of the ATV evolution.
The writing is on the wall when Honda introduces their first four wheel ATV the TRX200. The trike market isn’t quite dead yet, but it is dying.
Besides the obvious addition of the fourth wheel, this model included other features that riders were looking for: 192cc, lower maintenance shaft drive, 5 speeds plus reverse, electric start with recoil backup plus front and rear brakes.
The addition of front and rear racks added to it versatility for both work and fun.
Buyers responded well to the TRX200.
In fact, 1984 was Honda’s biggest ATV sales year to date, they managed to capture 69% of the US ATV market that year.
- 1984 MSRP: $1,598
- Model Years: 1984–1985
This recreation 3 wheel ATV had 192cc, chain drive, electric start, 5-speed auto-clutch, front suspension with standard rear rack.
- 1984 MSRP: $1,270
- Model Years: 1984–1986
A budget version of the ATC200M.
You got the same 192cc, chain drive, electric start, 5-speed auto-clutch and front suspension, but no electric start and racks were an upgrade.
It had a recoil start.
- 1985 MSRP: $1,928
- Model Years: 1985–1987
As off roading was gaining in popularity, manufacturers were responding to consumer demand. Not everyone needed an ATC for work and not everyone wanted an ATC to race.
Some people just wanted an ATC for fun
But, they still wanted power! So, in 1985 Honda introduces the ATC250SX – a recreation model for these new emerging consumers.
It had features such as a 5 speed automatic transmission with reverse and an electric start that were more user friendly than the manual clutch and kick start of the sport ATC250R.
The engine was also redesigned; these changes resulted in less maintenance with better durability. The engine in the ATC250SX was a 246cc 4-stroke air cooled with a shaft drive vs the 246cc 2 stroke liquid cooled chain drive in the ATC 250R.
- 1985 MSRP: $2,248
- Model Years: 1985–1986
Honda’s biggest ATC to date.
This sport ATC has a 350cc 4-stroke air-cooled engine, chain drive, 6-speed manual clutch and a kick start.
Other features include:
- Front air assisted telescopic suspension
- Rear shock with 4 way rebound and 17 position compression damping adjustment
- Front and rear disc brakes
- Counterbalancer to reduce vibration
- Larger gas tank
- Dual halogen headlights
1987 was the last year that Honda had 3 wheel ATVs
As 4 wheel ATVs became the norm, Honda didn’t roll out any new three wheel ATV models.
Their final year in the ATV trike market featured models introduced in previous years including the ATC125M, ATC200X, ATC250ES “Big Red” and the ATC250R.
Yamaha 3 Wheel ATVs From 1979 – 1986
Claim To Fame: First To Introduce Front Suspension
Yamaha entered the ATV trike market in 1980. This late arrival yielded seven ATC models – 5 recreation models, 1 sport model and 1 utility model.
Each new year would feature a new designation of each model. For example the YT125G became the YT125J in 1982 and then YT125K in 1983. The letters were indicative of new year models rather than any significant changes.
Entering the three wheel ATV market just as it was winding down didn’t allow Yamaha a lot of time to redesign older models. So, when they introduced new features such as full shocks and shaft drives, they did it on new models rather than redesigning already existing models.
Yamaha YT125G Tri-Moto
- 1980 MSRP: $1049
- Model Years: 1980-1985
Yamaha began production in 1979 and rolled out their first three wheel ATC to the public in 1980.
The recreation YT125G Tri-Moto had a 123cc, air-cooled two-stroke single engine, automatic 5 speed auto clutch, chain drive, no suspension, no front brake, rear drum brakes.
Yamaha YT175J Tri-Moto
- 1982 MSRP: $1,299
- Model Years: 1982-1983
First ATC with front suspension
When it was released, the Yamaha YT175J was kind of a big deal.
By the early 1980s, Honda was dominating the ATV trike market. They were virtually untouchable. No one even came close until Yamaha released the YT175J Tri Moto in 1982.
This was the first time any manufacturer really got the jump on Honda, but Yamaha did when they released this first ever ATC with front suspension.
Of course, Honda and everyone else rolled out front suspension the next year, but Yamaha was first.
The YT175J was a recreation model with 171cc, air cooled two stroke single engine, automatic 5 speed auto clutch, chain drive, front telescopic fork , front drum brakes and rear enclosed disc brakes.
Both new 1983 Yamaha ATC models, the YTM200E Yamahauler and YTM225DXK Tri-Moto, featured shaft drives. This marks the first time that Yamaha has used a shaft drive.
1983 also marks the first year that Yamaha introduced full suspension on the new Yamaha YTM225DXK Tri-Moto.
Yamaha YTM200K Tri-Moto
- 1983 MSRP: $1,399
- Model Years: 1983-1985
This recreation Yamaha featured 196cc, 4 stroke air cooled engine, automatic 5 speed with reverse, recoil starter, front telescopic forks, chain drive, front drum brake and rear enclosed disk brakes.
Yamaha YTM200E Yamahauler
- 1983 MSRP: $1,449
- Model Years: 1983-1984
Yamaha’s first and only utility ATV trike.
This utility Yamaha featured 196.3cc, 4 stroke air cooled engine, automatic 5 speed, electric start with recoil backup, front telescopic forks, shaft drive, front drum brake and rear enclosed disk brakes.
Yamaha YTM225DXK Tri-Moto
- 1983 MSRP: $1,849
- Model Years: 1983-1985
This recreation Yamaha featured 223cc, 2 stroke air cooled engine, automatic 5 speed, electric start with recoil backup, shaft drive, front drum brake and rear enclosed disk brakes.
Yamaha’s first vehicle to have full suspension
It had telescopic forks in the front and a monoshock in the rear.
Yamaha YT60L Tri-Zinger
- 1984 MSRP: $599
- Model Years: 1984 – 1985
Like a lot of manufacturers of the time, Yamaha realized that the face of ATVing was changing. More families were interested in off roading, so smaller easier to use ATVs were needed to support this growing demographic.
So, rather than go bigger, they went smaller with the kid friendly Tri-Zinger.
But, with a top speed of 30mph, this model was still capable of a fast fun ride.
The Tri-Zinger had 59cc, 2 stroke air cooled engine, automatic single speed, recoil backup, front telescopic forks, shaft drive and rear drum brakes.
- 1985 MSRP: $2,249
- Model Years: 1985-1986
The last new ATC model released by Yamaha
Plus, the Tri-Z250 also marks the first Yamaha ATC with both front and rear disk brakes.
This is the only pure sport model ATC ever released by Yamaha.
It’s really too bad that this was such a late entry into the market, I think it’s a great looking machine.
Wouldn’t you have liked to see this model a couple generations down the line?
Sport Yamaha with 246cc, 2 stroke liquid cooled engine, manual 5 speed, kick start, chain drive, front and rear disk brakes, front telescopic fork suspension and a swing arm with mono shock in the rear.
With the three wheel ATV market winding down, Yamaha closed out 1986 with the production of two previous years model, the YTM225DRS Tri-Moto and the YTZ250S Tri-Z.
Kawasaki ATC Models From 1981-1986
Claim To Fame: Their first model, the KLT200, was the largest displacement ATV (198cc) available at the time of its release
Kawasaki KLT200 (KLT200-A)
- 1981 MSRP: $1,399
- Model Years: 1981-1983
Kawasaki was a little late to the ATC party
But, when they did enter the ATV market in 1981, they did it with a bang with the KLT200.
When it was first released, it was the largest displacement ATV available with 198cc. But, then Honda rolled out the ATC250R so they quickly lost their crown.
Prior to 1979, the market was comprised of primarily 70cc and 90cc trikes. It wasn’t until the early 80s that ATVs really started becoming all they could be. So, the KLT200 was a strong opener for Kawasaki.
Kawasaki packed in features that not all trikes had at the time. These features included electric start, dual-mode differential, biggest engine, manual clutch, key switched ignition, auxiliary 12v capability and a standard hitch bracket.
Other features include an enclosed drive chain and an automatic cam-chain tensioner for less maintenance.
The big balloon tires, lightweight chassis and additional power opened up new terrain for off road adventure.
Kawasaki KLT250 (KLT250-A)
- 1982 MSRP: $1,669
- Model Years: 1982-1983
Building on the powerful build of the KLT200, Kawasaki kicked it up a notch with the KLT250’s 246cc engine.
Check out that front suspension. Definitely looks like a big improvement over the KLT200.
The Kawasaki KLT250 had 146cc, 4 stroke air cooled engine, manual 5 speed, electric start, front and rear drum brakes, chain drive and leading link front suspension.
Kawasaki 200 (KLT200-A) aka The Duckster
- 1983 MSRP: $1,499
- Model Years: 1983
Some people hate the Duckster and think it’s one of the ugliest ATVs ever made, but I disagree. I think it’s so ugly it’s cute.
I’m not sure why, but it has a beautiful weird appeal to me. Although it’s from 1983, to me it looks like some sort of James Bond military vehicle from the ’60s.
Do you love it or hate it?
Soak up the fly camouflage graphics and revel in the fact that the racks are also camo.
The odd appendage off the handlebars is a built in gun rack – also camo!
The Duckster was obviously designed with hunters in mind. Hunters, along with farmers and ranchers were the first big markets for ATVs.
The Duckster had 198cc, 4 stroke air cooled engine, manual 5 speed, electric start, front and rear drum brakes and a chain drive. This model had no suspension.
- 1983 MSRP: $1,299 – $1,369
- Model Years: 1983-1984
In 1983, Kawasaki rolled a new and improved KLT200.
Subtle, but dramatic body changes were made to the original. This beauty barely looks like the same plain Jane workhorse from 1981.
Other changes included in the upgrade include an electric fuel pump and a new carburetor.
The Kawasaki KLT200-B/C had 198cc, 4 stroke air cooled engine, manual 5 speed, electric start, front and rear drum brakes and a chain drive.
The Kawasaki KLT200-B had no suspension, but the KLT200-C had leading link front suspension.
Kawasaki Prairie 250 (KLT250-C)
- 1983 MSRP: $1,549
- Model Years: 1983-1985
This was the first ever Prairie Kawasaki.
The Prairie brand name was a popular one. Kawasaki rolled the Prairie name into their 4 wheel ATV lineup all the way into 2013.
This 1983 model offered a 249cc engine with higher compression and a wide-ratio 5-speed
transmission mated to a dual-mode quick-change differential.
Other features included a theft resistant key ignition, electric start, front and rear cargo racks, fused accessory terminal, leading link front suspension and radial tires.
Kawasaki KLT110 (KLT110-A)
- 1984 MSRP: $899
- Model Years: 1984-1986
Since Kawasaki first introduced their 3 Wheel ATVs in 1981, they’ve been focused on larger more powerful builds that featured 200cc and 250cc engines.
But, the KLT110 has 103cc.
This marked a change in direction from Kawasaki; they made a strategic move based on changing market conditions to step down in size.
Turns out not only hunters and farmers want/need ATVs.
Changes in the market indicated that teens and families were also interested in off roading and needed an ATV focused on their needs.
The KLT110 featured beginner friendly features such as easy heel and toe shifting, a neutral indicator and a dual control rear break that could be activated from either the brake pedal or a left-hand lever.
But, it didn’t have any suspension or an electric start – it had a recoil start.
Kawasaki Tecate (KXT250-A)
- 1984 MSRP: $1,699
- Model Years: 1984-1985
Kawasaki bills the Tecate as having high tech features such as a liquid cooled 249cc 2-stroke engine, a large fuel tank, powerful front and rear disc brakes and “lightweight
aluminum wheels mounting computer-designed tires”.
The Kawasaki Tecate had 249cc, 2 stroke liquid cooled engine, manual 5 speed, primary kick start and a chain drive.
The 1984 Tecate was the first Kawasaki trike with full suspension
It has pneumatic telescopic front suspension and uni-trak rear suspension.
1984 Kawasaki KLT 250-P1 Police & Olympics
In 1984, Kawasaki converted 300 of the KLT250s into police vehicles. 50 of the 300 were then donated to the LA Olympics to police and monitor the games.
The KLT 250-P1 was painted white and had the addition of a small rear rack complete with a lockable case.
For the police version, “Police” was written on the back tire fenders, but the Olympic version had no writing on it.
Over at The World of Vintage and Custom Built ATC, 3 Wheelers (Facebook) they have one if you’d like to take a look.
Vintage Kawasaki 1984 Lineup Promo Ad
Kawasaki Bayou 185 (KLF185-A)
1985 MSRP: NA
I’m including this 4 wheeler because it fits the timeline and is an essential part of the ATV evolution.
1985 saw the introduction of Kawasaki’s first 4 wheel ATV, the Bayou 185.
Like the Prairie name, the Bayou name was also a popular one for Kawasaki. The last Kawasaki Bayou was a 2003 quad.
Features included a shaft drive, smooth independent front suspension, reverse gear and plenty of low rpm torque for adventure.
Kawasaki KLT160 (KLT160-A)
- 1985 MSRP: $1,399
- Model Year: 1985
Another smaller family friendly ATV billed as compact and lightweight.
The Kawasaki KLT160 had 153cc, 4 stroke air cooled engine, 5 speed automatic with reverse, recoil start, shaft drive, front and rear drum brakes and telescopic forks front suspension.
Kawasaki KLT185 (KLT185-A)
- 1986 MSRP: $1,449
- Model Years: 1986-1987
Advanced features of the KLT185 included shaft drive, reverse gear and an automatic compression release.
The Kawasaki KLT185 had 182cc, 4 stroke air cooled engine, 5 speed automatic with reverse, recoil start, shaft drive, front and rear drum brakes and telescopic forks front suspension.
Kawasaki Tecate (KXT250-B)
- 1986 MSRP: $2,349
- Model Years: 1986-1987
The new upgraded Tecate was the last 3 wheel ATV offered by Kawasaki
At only 284 pounds this trike had the lightest chassis in its class with plenty of power for fun fast riding.
This lightweight beauty was built for performance with more advanced riders in mind.
In 1986, the Tecate offered the Kawasaki Integrated Power-Valve System (KIPS), billed as the world’s only dual stage power valve.
This new Tecate featured 249cc, 2 stroke liquid cooled engine, 5 speed manual, primary kick start, chain drive, front and rear single disk brakes, telescopic forks front suspension and uni-trak rear suspension.
Suzuki 3 Wheel ATVs From 1982 – 1986
Claim To Fame: The Alt 50 is the smallest ATC produced
Due to their late entry into the market, Suzuki only rolled out 3 trike ATVs: the ALT 50 (Trail Buddy), ALT 125 (3×6) , and ALT 185.
Also, due to how few trikes Suzuki produced, they are a bit more difficult to find.
Suzuki ALT50 aka Trail Buddy
- 1983 MSRP: $499
- Model Years: 1983-1984
The ALT 50 had a very short life span, only two years; 1984 was the last year it was released.
The ALT 50 is a cute little guy designed with the tiniest of riders in mind – the seat was only 18.5″ off the ground!
Coming in at 90 lbs, this 49cc, 2 stroke had a single speed automatic transmission, recoil start, chain drive and a whopping 3.1″ of clearance.
No front brakes needed at these speeds I guess as it only had rear drum brakes.
The Little Buddy also came with parental controls – an engine cut off switch with a tether attached. A parent could pull on the tether while running alongside to stop the bike.
Suzuki Wins The Prize For Smallest Displacement Engine In Our ATC Throwback Lineup
Suzuki ALT 125 aka 3×6
- 1983 MSRP: $1,000
- Model Years: 1983-1986
In 1982 Suzuki finally started production of 3 wheel ATVS, with both the ALT50 and the AKT125 released in 1983
Interestingly, 1983 marked a big year for Suzuki as it also marks the debut of Suzuki’s first ever quad, the Suzuki LT125D (produced 1982–1987).
The Suzuki ALT 125 had a 124cc, 4 stroke air cooled engine, chain drive, no suspension, recoil start, manual 5 speed plus reverse gear and rear drum brakes.
Suzuki ALT 185F
- 1985 MSRP: $1299
- Model Year: 1985
The Suzuki ALT 185 only had one year of production making it a rare find!
Featured a 178cc, 4 stroke air cooled engine, automatic 5 speed plus reverse, recoil start, 4.3″ of ground clearance, no suspension, chain drive and rear drum brakes.
Polaris 3 Wheel ATVs
Claim To Fame: One and done!
It’s a wonder that Polaris decided to make a three wheel ATV at all. I’m not exactly sure why they didn’t just bypass trikes and head right into quad production….
When they entered the ATV market for the first time in 1985, Polaris introduced a three wheeler, the Polaris Scrambler 250 as well as a quad, the Polaris Trail Boss.
Polaris Scrambler 250
- 1985 MSRP: $1,968
- Model Years: 1985-1986
Rare ATC with only 1,600 ever made
Built with a Fuji engine, the Polaris Scrambler 250 has a 244cc, 2 stroke air cooled engine capable of hitting 54 mph.
It featured an automatic transmission with reverse, electric start with a recoil backup, chain drive, front drum brake, rear disk brakes, telescopic forks in the front and a single pre-load adjustable shock in the rear.
Polaris also introduced floorboards which was new to the trike market. By moving the brakes entirely to the handlebars, Polaris was able to get rid of foot pegs which were standard equipment at the time.
Another innovation that Polaris brought to market with the trike Scrambler, but we all take for granted now, was the introduction of the thumb throttle.
Goodbye twist throttle
Front and rear racks came standard on the Polaris Scrambler as did a hitch.
Original 1985 Polaris Ad For The Polaris 250 Scrambler and Trail Boss
Fortunately, Polaris’ late entry to the ATV game didn’t hinder them at all.
Today, Polaris dominates the US off road vehicle market much like Honda dominated the three wheel ATVs market.