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Churning into tomorrow on six chubby tires
Brock Yates
November 02, 1970
All-terrain vehicles are the latest symptom of America's motor mania. These go-anywhere bathtubs on wheels carry a deer out of the woods or a dear into them with equal �lan, and builders predict a boom
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November 02, 1970

Churning Into Tomorrow On Six Chubby Tires

All-terrain vehicles are the latest symptom of America's motor mania. These go-anywhere bathtubs on wheels carry a deer out of the woods or a dear into them with equal �lan, and builders predict a boom

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Anglophobes claim that if you give an Englishman a piece of metal, he will do something stupid with it. I claim that if you give an American a piece of metal—or a hunk of plastic or a block of wood, for that matter—he will try to put wheels on it and drive it around the block. Or run it nonstop across the country. Or drive it up the face of Mt. Baldy, or across the Mojave Desert with an eight-track stereo turned up full blast.

We the People are cursed as a people with a weakness for gadgets with wheels. We buck across the landscape on go-karts, mini-bikes, hot rods, dune buggies, snowmobiles, golf carts, motorcycles and assorted other forms of transport. Now comes the latest virus of nut-ball vehicle disease. It is called ATV—all-terrain vehicle—and this peculiar contraption, in the words of one industry spokesman, "will take you anywhere you've got the guts to ride."

Imagine this thing that looks like a manic hermit crab. Inside its plastic body is a small air-cooled engine that drives through the six doughnut tires lining its flanks. There are seats for two people—who had better be prepared to be trundled up mountainsides, across deserts, through swamps, over water, onto snowbanks and into the deepest woods and jungles. Its mini-engine buzzing away and its tubby tires half floating, half digging at the terrain, this thing, this ATV, will go, as the man says, just about anywhere. It will keep scrambling up vertical slopes until it finally tumbles over backward like a wounded June bug. On reasonably level ground the average ATV refuses to be stopped by anything short of a land mine. It will run through mud, snow, sand, shale, heat, rain, cold or hail and, given a stretch of pavement or hard earth, it will scuttle along at speeds up to 50 mph.

While hardly a 12-meter yacht, it can navigate small bodies of water. This it does in a sort of tippy, lumbering fashion that betrays its origins as a land-based amphibian. Nobody who builds ATVs claims great feats on the shining sea. "If you want to go on the water, you buy a boat," says one manufacturer. But it will ford streams or serve as a duck hunter's punt; with its tires acting as paddle wheels it can chug through the water at three to four mph.

To be sure, vehicles not unlike this have been featured for years in the secret-genius-basement-workshop-fantasy magazines ("Build an Artificial Heart for 98 Cents"; "Hobbyist Models Mount Vernon from Ice Cubes"; "Power Your Car with Cement!"), but the scarcity of small-displacement engines prevented their manufacture. Then came the snowmobile phenomenon, with power plants producing up to 40 hp yet small and reliable enough to propel all-terrain vehicles. From there it was simply a question of molding a plastic body, plugging in the motor and attaching six fat wheels. These wheels drive and steer like a bulldozer; by stopping one bank of wheels or the other, the driver pivots and changes the ATV's direction, row-boat-style.

The first machines were built in Canada to serve the logging, fishing and hunting businesses, but it took an aggressive, 30ish Pennsylvanian named David McCahill III to launch the ATV industry in a proper way. It is somehow fitting that David McCahill is an heir to the Maytag washing machine fortune. For years the single-cylinder engines attached to his family's early washers found their way onto motorized carts and midget cars fabricated in America's garages and backyards. A longtime motorcycle nut who has raced at Daytona and other tracks, McCahill comes by his interest in unusual vehicles honestly. He is the boss of ATV Manufacturing Co., at present housed in a low brick factory formerly occupied by the People's Natural Gas Company in suburban Pittsburgh. There he and his associates expect to build more than 9,000 Attex ATVs in the coming year and hopefully lead their fledgling industry to real prominence.

A standard Attex weighs about 450 pounds, will carry an 800-pound load, has a 300-cc. two-cycle engine developing 20 hp, will do 35 mph on land and four mph over the water and costs about $1,600, although options (e.g., top, self-starter, trailer) can boost the price to nearly $3,000. Other versions range from a stark eight-hp, 25-mph model at $995 to an all-out 50-mph racer for $1,700.

McCahill has a squeaky-clean Henry Aldrich manner (diluted a good deal by his consumption of expensive cigars and his level, gunfighter's gaze) and a powerful urge to turn the ATV business into a national craze, thereby easing any lingering impression that he is a rich kid fiddling with outsized toys. "You can let your imagination run wild as far as the size of this market is concerned," says McCahill. "We think the potential is tremendous, because, unlike motorcycles or snowmobiles, ATVs aren't seasonal. You can run them in any kind of weather. And they're useful as well as recreational. We've got a lot of Attexes in service with farmers, the border patrol, people like that. They've even got one on the LBJ Ranch. And then there are all the hunters and fishermen who use them, plus the guy who buys one for the family just to bounce around on. Right now the industry is selling about 30,000 a year, but we look for 100,000 annually very soon, and in 10 years I can see a market of 250,000."

A quarter of a million plastic June bugs scuttling around in the wilderness? Can there be that many Americans who will pay up to $3,000 for the sensation of ultimate mobility? As the leading prophet of the industry, McCahill has yet to be disproved. After he and his partner, Roger Flannery, distributed another brand of ATV for a brief period, they opened the doors of ATV Manufacturing in 1968. Their first-year sales totaled $200,000. In fiscal 1969 the company grossed $3.5 million. Business has boomed on. A rugged, patented drive system that takes all kinds of punishment established Attex as a quality machine, and the company climbed past older manufacturers to lead the field.

Abercrombie & Fitch, that hallowed mart of patrician playthings, took on an Attex dealership, and suddenly owning an ATV had a certain cachet. Some major corporate executives and a few Arab monarchs (Arab monarchs are established automotive freaks and buy at least one of anything new) purchased them. Even the Marine Corps bought one to see how they would be for evacuating wounded troops. But for every king, soldier or tycoon who acquired an ATV, there were a hundred good old American consumers, dutifully going into debt again to support the latest fad. "Most of our customers are older blue-collar workers who buy ATVs for recreational use," says McCahill. "They look safer than snowmobiles or trail bikes, and the fact that you can use them all year round in any part of the country is a factor. We've got a special olive-drab camouflage model for hunters." Otherwise you can have any color you want in an Attex, as long as it is canary yellow.

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