The Dangerous Past: the 1973 Honda ATC-70 Three Wheeler

The early Honda ATC-70

Welcome to a new segment known as “The Dangerous Past,” where we take a look at some of the machines from years gone by that weren’t exactly the safest. But that’s what made them fun, right!? 

Considering it’s dangerous reputation, it was a surprise that the Honda ATC-70 lasted in the market as long as it did. Conceived originally as an all-terrain work vehicle, ATCs (All Terrain Cycles), Honda built a smaller version of its “adult-sized” ATC-90 aimed at small people. It was a huge hit with minimal changes through its lifespan. There were no safety devices placed on the ATC-70, other than a U.S. Forest Service-approved spark arrester.

The 1973 Honda ATC-70 sported a four-stroke, air-cooled, DOHC single-cylinder 72cc engine. The only transmission available was a three-speed constant mesh that was very easy to use. It had a 0.7 gallon gas tank and it had a good reputation for reliability.

The frame was stamped steel (later models got a proper tube frame) and very lightweight. The entire ATC weighed a scant 163.1-lbs. It was 51.2-inches long, 31.5-inches wide and had a seat-height of 22.4-inches. These dimensions made it ideal for grade-school (and above) kids. In many cases small adults could ride them comfortably.

Thanks, in part, to Honda and the 1973 Honda ATC-70, the recreational vehicle market in North America has expanded and is enjoying its second golden age with the popularity of side-by-side ATVs. You may have noticed, there are no new ATCs. In fact, that were deemed so dangerous, they were banned.

There were tons of issues with the old/original models:

  • No suspension (the earlier ATCs relied on the bouncy rubber tires – and nothing else)
  • Weak, stamped steel frame
  • No front brake
  • Bad balance (front to rear)
  • Tendency to flip and potentially crush rider
  • Tendency to roll in tight corners – potentially crushing the rider
  • Despite it being fairly lightweight for a recreational vehicle, weighing over 160-lbs can be problematic if it lands on, or rolls over a 40 lbs child.

I’ve ridden several ATV-70 and 90s along with the later 250cc versions, and they are anything but rider-friendly. With no suspension and bouncy tires, the possibility of flipping over the handlebars on a misjudged berm is surprisingly high. The impact alone can serve as a springboard (via bouncy front tire) to increase the speed of the front flip. I’ve seen it.

If you get caught in a rut, the chances of losing traction and (possibly) steering control as the front wheel lifts is quite possible. This lack of steering can result in an easy roll – which I’ve done. Overzealous riders who pop a wheelie tend to land on their back or neck given the incredibly short wheelbase and light front end.

The sheer number of serious injury connected to all ATCs caught the attention of the media. The word was out, ATCs were dangerous. Safety became such an issue for Honda that the Honda ATC-70 and all of its bigger brothers disappeared over 30 years ago. Quad-cycles and eventually, side-by-side ATVs took over and continue to be sold now.

Speaking of modern ATVs…

Easily amused by anything with four wheels, Nathan Adlen reviews vehicles from the cheapest to the most prestigious. Wrecking yards, dealer lots, garages, racetracks, professional automotive testing and automotive journalism - Nathan has experienced a wide range of the automotive spectrum. Brought up in the California car culture and educated in theater, childhood education, film, journalism and history, Nathan now lives with his family in Denver, CO. His words, good humor and video are enjoyed worldwide.