In a recent post on the blog, we introduced you to what are the top ATV brands on the market at current. In today’s post, we want to take a more historical look at these ATV brands so you can appreciate where they came from.
Join us on this fascinating trip into the past. This article may just foster a stronger appreciation for where your favorite ATV brand is today!
The History of the Top ATV Brands
Let’s begin with what’s by far one of the biggest names in ATVs, and that’s Kawasaki.
The full name of this brand is Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. Today, the company produces motorcycles, ships and rolling stock, aerospace and defense equipment, and heavy equipment, but where did the Kawasaki company come from?
The company is named after Shozo Kawasaki, a Japanese marine who survived two offshore accidents. He believed that the reason he survived was due to the design of the ships.
Naturally, Kawasaki himself began designing new improvements for Japanese ships, but it took a bit for this new gig to gain any steam. Once it did, by 1886, Shozo Kawasaki had his own Kawasaki Dockyard in Hyogo.
By 1906, the Kawasaki company moved on to airplane, automotive, and railroad products as World War I wrapped up.
The company almost didn’t survive the Great Depression, as no one had the money for Kawasaki’s main product, ships. Fortunately, by the late 1940s, the Japanese government wanted to build more ships, and Kawasaki was back in business.
Even still, between the 1960s and 1970s, Kawasaki decided to expand once again, now introducing aircraft, tunnel-boring machines, bridges, jet skis, and motorcycles to its product lineup. The ATVs weren’t too far behind.
Next is Suzuki, which is known as Suzuki Motor Corporation in full.
The company is named after Michio Suzuki, born in 1887 and, by 1909, started the Suzuki Loom Works. The company, based in Hamamatsu, served the silk industry, which was big in Japan then.
Suzuki created a weaving machine that was so innovative when it was invented that it even got used overseas. Despite his huge success in this industry, Michio Suzuki wondered what else he could get involved in and began building cars by the late 1930s.
The vehicles featured four-cylinder, four-stroke, liquid-cooled engines, making them among the first of their kind.
World War II paused Suzuki’s aspirations to build cars, so he decided to return to his bread and butter, which was making looms. By 1951, that market too collapsed.
It was at that time that Suzuki decided to take a gamble on producing motorcycles. In 1954, the company was full steam ahead, making motorcycles, and manufacturing 6,000 vehicles monthly. Around this time, the company became Suzuki Motor Co., Ltd.
The next major ATV brand we’ll look at is Can-Am, a Bombardier Recreational Products division.
Bombardier Recreational Products, today is known as BRP, is a Canadian company that manufactures personal watercraft, motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles, and snowmobiles.
Back in 1971, when Can-Am was its individualized brand, it was led by Gary Robinson from the United States as well as development technicians from the US and Canada.
The first creations from Can-Am at that time were enduro bikes and motocross bikes. These bikes were created in conjunction with a Bombardier subsidiary called Rotax from Austria.
Riders who participated in competitions using Can-Am vehicles at the International Six Days Trial took home gold, silver, and bronze medals.
By 1974, Can-Am vehicles were widely seen at the American Motorcyclist Association’s 250cc motocross national championship.
The Can-Am motorcycles and other vehicles were celebrated for their outstanding power output, which was achievable by the unconventional Rotax engine. It featured a rotary disc system that could move plates depending on whether the rider was on the trail or the track.
However, just when Can-Am motorcycles were gaining steam, Bombardier decided to produce transit equipment and aircraft instead. The Can-Am division, which had received investments from Bombardier, no longer did to the same extent.
By 1983, Bombardier outsourced all the Can-Am manufacturing to an English company called Armstrong-CCM Motorcycles. The original Can-Am motorcycles ceased manufacturing in 1987.
However, in 2006, BRP brought the company back as Can-Am Off-Road. This brand has manufacturing facilities in Austria, Finland, Mexico, the US, and Canada.
The Can-Am Off-Road brand produces side-by-sides, UTVs, and ATVs.
Honda Motor Company, Ltd. manufactures motorcycles, automobiles, and power equipment. The company is named after the founder, Soichiro Honda, who had always been passionate about automobiles.
First, he was a mechanic, and then he started his own piston ring company in 1937 called Eastern Sea Precision Machine Company.
Although you probably couldn’t picture it today, Soichiro Honda once worked for Toyota.
He had first submitted his pistons to them but got turned down due to the piston quality. Honda studied up on what Toyota’s quality control measures were and eventually began working with the company.
As World War II got underway, Honda began making military aircraft propellers. Unfortunately, several Toyota plants were destroyed in the war and a subsequent earthquake in 1945.
Soichiro Honda salvaged parts, sold them to Toyota, and then started his own Honda Technical Research Institute.
The Honda Technical Research Institute was small, with a staff of only 12, who worked in a shack that was no more than 170 square feet. There, they began building motorized bicycles with 50cc two-stroke radio generator engines.
Those engines didn’t last long, so Soichiro Honda began using a version of the Tohatsu engine. The vehicles with these engines would later become the Honda A-Type, also known as the Bata Bata.
By 1949, the Honda Technical Research Institute underwent liquidation so Soichiro Honda could start Honda Motor Co., Ltd. He quickly hired Takeo Fujisawa, who’s considered a co-founder of Honda Motor Co., Ltd., and Kihachio Kawashima, an engineer.
The team produced the Honda D-Type by 1949. By the 1980s, the Honda brand was growing more all the time, and today has expanded to include engines, ATVs, motorcycles, and automobiles.
You can’t talk about ATVs without Polaris, a company founded in 1954 in Minnesota by Edgar Hetteen, Allen Hetteen, and David Johnson.
Edgar and Allen Hetteen both worked at Hetteen Hoist and Derrick as partners. Together with David Johnson, the three men, as well as employees Orlen Johnson and Paul Knochenmus decided to create a vehicle that could easily traverse the snow so hunters could reach more places.
The prototype for what would become the first Polaris snowmobile was created in 1954, but it admittedly wasn’t much. The machine featured a grain silo conveyor belt for the track, Chevy bumpers for skis, and a motor from Briggs and Stratton.
Although the first design maybe wasn’t something the entire staff loved, the team kept working on it and eventually built a better second prototype called the Polaris Sno Traveler. This Polaris creation entered the production line by 1956.
Polaris snowmobiles at the time only reached top speeds of 20 miles per hour and were quite weighty, about 1,000 pounds on average. Even still, the vehicles sold exceptionally well.
Edgar Hetteen even took one of the Polaris snowmobiles 1,200 miles across the Alaskan wilderness to prove just how effective a Polaris was.
By the 1960s, Polaris snowmobiles shrunk in size in response to competition from brands such as Ski-Doo. By the 1980s, Polaris had begun designing Indy snowmobiles, which continued well through the 1990s.
Other vehicle types were to follow.
Yamaha, which is called Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd. in full, produces motorized vehicles such as ATVs, motorcycles, and boats.
The Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd. branched off from the already existing Yamaha Corporation in 1955.
The Yamaha Corporation was founded in 1887 by Torakusu Yamaha. The company started by manufacturing pianos and then, in post-World War II times, metallurgical products and, later, motorcycles.
Getting back to Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd., this is where the bulk of Yamaha’s motorcycle production was later outsourced to. Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd. also produces industrial-use unmanned helicopters, snowmobiles, golf carts, ATVs, fishing boats, personal watercraft, sailboats, motorized bicycles, scooters, and a whole lot more.
Genichi Kawakami led the company once it was incorporated in 1955. The first product under the Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd. umbrella was a single-cylinder, two-cycle motorcycle called the YA-1.
The motorcycle was based on an existing German bike but still sold well and was used in races and competitions like the 125cc Mt. Fuji Ascent.
After producing several more motorcycles like the YA-1, Yamaha began making two-stroke twin 305cc vehicles in the mid-1960s. That was followed up in 1968 with the XS-1, a four-stroke twin 650cc motorcycle.
In the decades to come, Yamaha would fine-tune its motorcycles, so they continued to remain on the cutting-edge of design.
Another Minnesotan ATV company is Arctic Cat, founded by a name that should be familiar to you by now, Edgar Hetteen.
That’s right, Edgar’s time with Polaris was short-lived after the fated Alaskan wilderness ride on his Polaris snowmobile.
In 1960, Hetteen created Arctic Cat, which was designed to compete with Polaris and other snowmobile manufacturers like it.
Arctic Cat was initially known as Polar Manufacturing, then Arctic Enterprises, and later, Arctic Cat. The first snowmobiles from Arctic Cat were called the Boss Cat line.
The company had a sizable factory in Ontario that was 15,000 square feet. Hetteen tried to bring on boat manufacturers so the company had a more sizable lineup, but nothing shook out.
Arctic Cat did fall into bankruptcy by 1982, but by 1984, a company called Arctco was established to keep Arctic Cat snowmobiles going. Arctco later became Arctic Cat in 1996.
Today, Arctic Cat produces two-wheel-drive vehicles, helicopters, personal watercraft, mini bikes, generators, snowblowers, and ATVs.
A much smaller brand, Aeon Motor, produces ATVs and scooters. The ATV models include the Minikolt 50, Revo II 50/100, Cobra 50/100, Sporty 125/180, Overland 125/180, Cobra 220, and the 300.
The company was founded in 1970 but was then known as Kuan Mei Plastic Co., Ltd. and did not produce ATVs. That wasn’t until 1998 when Aeon Motor Co., Ltd. was established.
Besides scooters and ATVs, Aeon Motor today also makes accessories and spare parts and supplies markets throughout Europe.
One of the earliest ATVs from Aeon was the 50cc to 100cc models, which entered mass production in 1999. By 2000, Aeon introduced an ATV with a reverse gear.
If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about where your favorite ATV brands come from, we hope this article provided a fascinating read for you.
Many of the biggest companies that produce ATVs today started in areas like snowmobiles and motorcycles and later expanded into manufacturing ATVs. We couldn’t be happier that they did!