The Rise and Fall of the Three wheel ATV

Three wheel ATVs were in their heyday back in the 70s and 80s with around 80% of all ATVs in use being three wheeled. With 20 years under their belt you would think they would keep making them well into the future but that ended up not being the case. In this blog we’ll discuss the most popular three wheel ATV and why they fell from grace.

The most well-known model of three wheelers was Honda’s ATC, which stood for All-Terrain Cycle. A term first patented in the 1970s by Honda. One of the most popular three wheelers was Honda’s ATC90. Now this baby was quite the powerhouse. The ATC90 was powered by an 89cc four-stroke single-cylinder engine that pushed out a staggering 7 horsepower and was sold for $595 or around $3651.77 today. That’s inflation for you.

So why did Honda or any other manufacturers decide to make these three-wheel vehicles? Basically, Honda tasked one of their engineers, Osamu Takeuchi to create a new product dealers could sell when motorcycle sales fell off during the winter.Looking at this from a purely economic point-of-view it’s an obvious move any company would want to make, a move other manufacturers quickly followed. Unfortunately, their motives would soon come to be questioned.

Three wheeled Death Machines

By the time the 1980s were in full swing, three and four wheel ATVs were being largely produced by Japanese companies and marketed in the US. Sometimes that marketing took the form of less scrupulous dealers targeting children. This, as it probably should have, caused a public outcry about and against these vehicles. said from an article dated in 1987,

“In the past five years ATVs have claimed the lives of 644 Americans and injured 230,000 more, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The fact that nearly 50 percent of them have been kids 16 years old and younger has prompted the American Academy of Pediatricians to call for a moratorium on ATV sales in this country, which reached 500,000 last year.”

Since the most popular ATVs at the time had three wheels, they took the brunt of the criticism. The critics, when talking about three wheel ATVs, point out that they lack the mechanical shock absorbers and rely on their oversized tires to handle bumpy terrain. They also say that three wheeler’s have a solid rear axle making it tricky to handle, especially when turning, when you need that control most of all. These vehicles also lack a differential between the two rear wheels, making the wheels turn in unison rather then moving at slightly different speeds giving the driver greater control.

These problems led to the bike’s centre of gravity moving to the inside forcing the rider to shift his weight into each turn to avoid tipping the bike over. This means these vehicles required a certain level of skill to use and even then they were seen as pretty dangerous by researchers. The average person though walking around the show floor thought these vehicles looked perfectly harmless.

Men would look at these three wheelers thinking they were weak compared to what they were purchasing and perfect for their spouse or child. When you look at them it’s easy to understand that thought process, they look like tricycles, the kind made to protect children from falling off their bicycles, except they are just as dangerous as their more powerful, four-wheel cousins.

After all this bad press the government made their move and sued the manufacturers of these vehicles leading them to be banned in 1988 in order to reduce injury and death. Now people could still buy and sell used three wheel ATVs, it wasn’t illegal to own them because they weren’t recalled, but manufacturers could not continue to sell them. The manufacturers blamed user error, saying that people were acting unsafe especially on three wheel ATVs though relented to the pressure and agreed to stop selling them. This all culminated in the Consent Decree that was effective for 10 years and required manufacturers to:

  1. Stop selling new three wheel ATVs and repurchase unsold stock from dealer inventory.
  2. Promote and sell four wheeled adult-sized ATVs (i.e. those with engines of more than 90 cc or cubic centimetres)
  3. Promote and sell youth-sized ATVs (i.e. for-wheeled machines with engines between 70 and 90cc) only for the use of riders 12 and older.
  4. Provide free training to all ATV purchasers and their immediate families.
  5. Conduct a nationwide safety public awareness media campaign
  6. Adhere to guidelines for advertising and promotional materials.
  7. Include specified warning on labels and in the owner’s manuals
  8. Develop a voluntary ATV industry standard.

Initially injury and deaths went down because of the disappearance of three wheelers; however, that was short lived. Four wheel ATVs grew in popularity filling in the gap left by their three wheeled cousins and so did ATV related injuries. The government doesn’t seem poised to step in again despite numbers being as bad as they were before the Consent Decree, but there are great classes out there that teach ATV safety and they’re one of the most important tools to have when driving ATVs.

Interestingly, three wheelers haven’t totally gone away. ATV manufacturers like Can-am have developed the Spyder, a kind of motorcycle instead of an ATV which they say “has unmatched comfort for two riders and luxurious styling.There are also a number of three-wheel street legal cars, like the Campagna T-Rex.

We hope this goes to show that ATVs, no matter how many wheels they have, might not seem overly dangerous just by looking at them, but can be in the wrong and untrained hands. It’s important to make sure you’re operating them safely and not underestimating what they can do.

Have any questions about three wheel ATVs or still holding on to one and want to share your experiences, let us know in the comments. If this blog inspired you to act a little on the safer side why not look at some of our aftermarket parts made and tested to last longer than any OEM part at


  1. Trouble on Three Wheels:,,20...
  2. Deceptively Dangerous: Why ATVs Keep Killing:
  3. Handbook of the Economics of Risk and Uncertainty, pg 586-587
  4. The ATV Under Fire Critics Manage to Get the Three-wheel Off-road Vehicle Off the Market:
  5. All-Terrain Vehicle Safety Crisis: America’s Children at Risk:
  6. Honda ATC90 Picture:
AtcAtc 90Three-wheeler

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