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."
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.
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
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.
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.