Straight Furrow 70th Anniversary : Dec 19 2011
Straight Furrow • December 19, 2011 24 STRAIGHT FURROW CELEBRATING 70 YEARS SOME would say the ATV (or 'All Terrain Vehicle') has been the single biggest invention since the tractor. Not only does just about every farmer own at least one ATV, the farms themselves have been tracked and developed with the ATV in mind with not only tracks but bridges just sufficient for the small and versatile ATV. If you ever wondered where the idea came from, it was more a case of development than overnight creation. For those of you old enough to remember (and this will take you back a few years), it all started with the NZ-built Gnat, powered by the often reluctant 125cc Villiers motor, which steered its way into the hearts of many farmers as well as a few gullies on the way. The Gnat introduced the idea of a lightweight vehicle that sat on top of the mud rather than in it, leaving pasture in better condition and the old fergie back in the shed. Japanese manufacturers were also starting to develop ATVs and the three-wheeled Suzuki ALT125 hit the shores of NZ in 1982. At this stage, three- wheelers were the only option for farmers. They were unstable and difficult to manage at best, but they did inspire one man to think 'what if'. That 'what if' was a fourth wheel and the man was the then Suzuki importer of the day, Rod Coleman. In typical kiwi fashion he took the ALT125 and not-so-simply added a fourth wheel, popped the prototype back into the crate and shipped it to the Suzuki Motor Company with a small note attached: 'Make some of these and I think we will sell a few'. AN INSTANT HIT Not long after, the LT125D was born. Its rugged simplicity and basic features (such as reverse) made it an instant hit with farmers. The very first were sold with carriers manufactured in NZ, with the later models sent factory-equipped to meet the wants and needs of the increasing market. Suzuki claimed 'first on four wheels' and worked hard on improving the LT125 by increasing the engine capacity to 185cc, fitting front suspension as well as front brakes - and this was only 1984! Already proven in the field, Suzuki had the confidence to develop the LT250EFF complete with four-valve motor, hydraulic front brakes, aluminium rims and easy select reverse. Still chain driven and without rear suspension, the LT250 was a sales success. Sold as spray equipment for $5195, farmers were able to claim the sales tax back from the government. This meant most were converted to carry the early model CDAX tank and spray boom or weed wiper. With the introduction of the LT230, Suzuki was starting to get serious. Taking note of the increasing use of ATV by farmers, Suzuki fitted the LT230 with shaft-drive for durability and dual-ratio transmission. Selling for $5300 in 1986, the 230 was soon to be eclipsed by the LT-F4WD. In another industry-first, Suzuki took a clean sheet of paper to design what was to become New Zealand's best selling model of ATV. For the first time, independent rear suspension graced the new generation of ATV along with 15 forward gears and front differential lock. Well ahead of its time, the 1986 QuadRunner LT-F4WD also became the first ATV to be fitted with four- wheel-drive. Sold for just $7150, the LT-F4WD opened up areas of terrain famers had never been able to access previously, conquering muddy tracks, heavier trailers and all manner of towed devices. It wasn't long before competitor models started to adopt some of the Suzuki features although it took Honda almost 20 years before they also fitted dual-range transmission and independent suspension. With many of the latest ATV now fuel-injected, water-cooled and with power steering, the development path has been significant. Suzuki's automatic ATV hit the scene in 2001 under the Quadmatic banner. Its tight belt system has stood the test of time and, with proven durability now on their side, automatics now account for over half of the total amount of ATVs sold. Automatic ATVs are easier to ride and generally less expensive to maintain. Some interesting changes have taken place over the years. Farmers now spend longer on average behind the handle bars, with many ATV travelling over 10,000km per year. For Suzuki the engine capacity has grown from 125cc to a massive 750cc. One North American manufacturer even produces a 1000cc Utility ATV. On the other side, carry racks have decreased in size to reduce the propensity for overloading that NZ farmers are known for, and ATVs have become more complex in their engineering design to keep pace with changing requirements by the end user. THREE DECADES OF CHANGE Since my own early experiences as a motorcycle apprentice with Gary Worsley motorcycles in Feilding, the ATV has been an overwhelming success story. OnmyfirstdayinthejobI stood facing ten new LT250 in crates ready for assembly and pre-delivery, all of which were sold awaiting delivery. In those days we also had to 'farm convert' them which meant lowering the gearing, sealing the chain case, filling the front wheels with water/glycol mixture and a raft of other minor modifications to meet the requirements and expectations of local farmers. These modifications meant the ATV would perform better and last longer. Now, as Sales Manager for Suzuki New Zealand Limited, I have been able to host the Japanese engineers on local farms so they can conduct testing onsite for new models of ATV. So successful has this testing been, they have actually measured and duplicated parts of the farm back in Japan to speed up the process. Farm converting is a thing of the past - so good is today's product that very little needs to be done in order to make them 'Kiwi-proof'. Farmers expect a lot from an ATV, however New Zealanders are especially creative in their uses. A prime example would be K-line irrigation which requires an ATV to shift the pods and associated pipe work. The average ownership period for a new ATV is less than three years, which means there's currently about 80,000 in circulation, a majority of which are not associated with agriculture after being traded by farmers on the latest model. In 2010 Suzuki was the number one selling brand of ATV, something Suzuki's keen to repeat for 2011 although, due to the Tsunami and associated production issues, they may have to settle for second to rival brand Honda (based on the latest industry statistics). WHERE TO NEXT? Make no mistake, ATV are here to stay. They are still the most popular form of transport around the farm and an indispensible tool for farmers. However, forecasting the future is a difficult task. We have seen constant innovation, with the latest being fuel injection and power steering along with disc brakes and torque sensing front differentials. If there's a problem, it's that ATV were designed as a reasonably priced reliable form of farm transportation. The more 'features' that are added, the higher the cost to the end user. Basic ATV such as the Suzuki KingQuad LT-F400F are making a comeback. Its simple no frills design offers farmers a rugged commercial quality ATV at a basic price, but still with a two year warranty. Automatic ATV will be the future for many famers and sales have increased year upon year. After all, how many of us still drive a manual car? Reliability is one key reason to own an automatic, along with ease of use. It's so much simpler riding an automatic and now that most brands have impressive off-throttle braking, you would have to ask the question "why ride a manual gearbox ATV?" In summary, ATV development has almost gone full circle. Basic is good and price is important. The future ATV will most probably be automatic, about 500cc in capacity, with power steering as standard, along with greater safety features such as traction control, electronic stability control and ABS braking -but only as these electrical benefits become more affordable. The history and future of ATVs By SIMON MEADE LT125: "First on 4-wheels" the beginning of farm ATVs. LT-A500XP Today's automatic, power steer 500cc farm ATV. LT250EF: Farmers bought as 'spray equipment' and claimed back sales tax.