THE MIGHTY ATC250R
— Extreme evolution from the ATC90, by Karel Kramer —
In the October issue of Dirt Wheels you’ll see a brand-new, built-from-parts 1970 Honda ATC90, then called the US90. Ace restoration expert Mike Palmgren recreated the little jewel of a three-wheeler, then brought along his friend and loyal customer Tim Pappas. Pappas brought his cherry, fully modified Honda ATC250R. In addition to the US90, Palmgren had a lot of early brochures, ads, tests and background information on that beginning of the Honda ATC.
Honda originally commissioned its engineers to come up with a product that Honda dealers could sell in the winter when motorcycles don’t look that appealing. That old joke, “Is the ground icy? You’ll know when you feel it with your elbow,” has more than a little truth to it. A few die-hards ride and race on ice, in snow, and when the weather is way too cold for our California-based staff but not enough to keep shops going in deep snow areas.
When we met Palmgren and Pappas at Pismo AKA Oceano Dunes SVRA, none of the staff had ever ridden a first-generation ATC with the all-rubber tires and no rims. Ironically, considering the design goal for the US90, the first ATC I ever rode was the then-new ATC70, and I rode it in the snow. I was already a dirt bike rider and spent an entire afternoon spinning doughnuts in the snow on my uncle’s lawn. I was certain the lawn underneath would be destroyed, but I was a snow-doughnut druggie, and I couldn’t stop. The next summer the lawn was fine, and I was hooked on the fun of ATVs.
Later I gained experience with all sorts of pedestrian and performance three-wheelers. My favorites were the Kawasaki Tecate models. Once I discovered sport three-wheelers, the dunes at Pismo Beach were the next part of the fun puzzle. For me and my friends who rode dirt bikes, riding three-wheelers never seemed to be as dangerous as the Consumer Product Safety Commission eventually made them out to be. Sure, they required respect and care, but so do dirt bikes, quads and UTVs. When around anything motorized, the first thing you turn on is your brain and common sense. For each motorized adventure you plan, run some mental what-if scenarios. What if the machine breaks? I get a flat? I miss that turn? Somebody is coming the other way? Those sorts of things. That thinking will keep things fun and safe. Much safer than the infamous, “Watch this and hold my beer!”
Meeting Palmgren and Pappas at Pismo was like reliving my ATV past. I may not have ridden a first-edition ATC90 before, but I was at the press introduction for the liquid-cooled ATC250R that Honda held at Indian Dunes riding park. At Pismo I had along Dirt Wheels staffer Collin Duffy. He is definitely of the generation that knew only quads, and he actually feared riding something as “hazardous” as a three-wheeler. I tried to explain that normal caution would do fine, and that he should enjoy the light feeling and nimble handling of the three-wheeler.
I couldn’t convince him, but he is an open-minded and fair test pilot, so it didn’t take long for the machines to do the job for me. It is hard not to like the mellow and nimble little US90, but he embraced the ATC250R just as quickly, even going so far as saying that he found it more fun than a Suzuki 500 Quadracer we piloted recently.
When it comes to dirt bikes, I love looking at and admiring restored examples. The newer they get, the more interested I am in riding them. But that isn’t the same situation with three-wheelers and quads. Recent outings on Rachel and Rick Bosemer’s TRX250R and Banshee, which they are still winning championships on against modern machines, have proved to me that age is just a number where ATVs are concerned. What matters is the condition of the machine. It would be very difficult to do the same thing with late ‘80s or early ‘90s dirt bikes racing at the level the Bosemers compete at.
I am so impressed with owners that keep these rolling memories alive and more than kicking. It is a big job, but a rewarding one. And, in the case of ATVs, you don’t need to just look at them. Go ahead and have fun riding or even racing them.