Three-Wheeled Wonder: 1970 Honda ATC90

040616 Barn Finds - 1970 Honda ATC 90 - 1

Your eyes don’t deceive you, this is just like the one that your neighbor had forty years ago and they would never let you ride it; not that you’re still bitter or anything. This original, survivor 1970 Honda ATC90 was stored in someone’s office in Connecticut and is just now for sale.

Honda opened Pandora’s Box with the ATC90 in an era where anything and everything was on the table, as far as making off-road machines goes. Like the snowmobiling world back in the late-1960s and early-1970s, where there were so many manufacturers that it would take quite a while just to name them all, including a rare Honda attempt, a lot of manufacturers had something up their sleeves for the off-season that included big, balloon tires or some multi-wheel-drive configuration. This red ATC90 sure is a beaut, you just do not find these things in this condition anymore unless they’ve been restored.

040616 Barn Finds - 1970 Honda ATC 90 - 2

You can’t go more than a few miles on any highway anywhere in the US without seeing some sort of ATV on a trailer or in the back of a pickup truck. Their DNA all goes back to the Honda ATC90. In 1967, Honda’s “special vehicle” team was given the task to design something unique, but also both fun and functional, for American Honda dealers to sell in the winter months. The three-wheel prototype caught the eye of the engineer in charge and the rest is history.

040616 Barn Finds - 1970 Honda ATC 90 - 3

The three-wheel configuration all makes sense to us now, but the Honda team tried several different configurations, after seeing the handful of all-terrain vehicles available with big, low-pressure balloon tires, and they settled on the triangular configuration of the three-wheel ATC90. This machine was originally called the US90 because it was mainly designed for the US market. In late-1970 it became the ATC90 with Honda trademarking the name “All Terrain Cycle”.

Honda’s PR department even went as far as getting it into Diamonds Are Forever, a James Bond movie, to add some much-needed exposure for this new vehicle type. They were selling for $595 ($3,700 in 2016 dollars) and eventually sold about 150,000 of them in 90cc, 70cc, and 110cc sizes by 1978. But, trouble was looming in the industry. Accidents were on the rise and the US Justice Department outlawed any further sales of three-wheel ATVs in 1988.

040616 Barn Finds - 1970 Honda ATC 90 - 4

But, back to this one for sale here. This is what it looks like without the seat and rear fenders on it. It sure hasn’t been used too much, I wonder if it even runs? The seller says that if they doesn’t sell it’ll go to a museum.

040616 Barn Finds - 1970 Honda ATC 90 - 5

This is Honda’s 4 hp, four-stroke engine connected to a clutchless four-speed transmission. If you’ve ever ridden one of these you know that they are both fun yet scary at the same time. No wonder thousands of people were injured on these jerky, bouncy three-wheelers. The four-wheel ATV market took over and most accounts say that even if the Feds didn’t step in, consumers were starting to see four-wheel ATVs as being much more stable and the three-wheel market would have dried up on its own in a short time. This one is listed on eBay in Staten Island, NY.  Do you have any memories of riding one of these, or do you have one now?

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Comments

  1. Pferdestärke

    We had two of these. My brother and I started riding them solo before the age of ten — no helmets, no shoes. We crashed them, rolled them, hit trees and the worst injuries we ever had were leg burns from the overheating engines. At 90cc I think we just never got going fast enough to kill ourselves…

  2. That Guy

    In the 80’s I had a work colleague who nearly died on one of these. He was at an off-road park south of the San Jose (California) area and rolled it, as so many people did. It landed on top of him and crushed his chest. He was airlifted to a regional trauma center and was in the hospital for months. He was lucky to survive.

    There’s good reason these three-wheelers gave way to the four-wheel configuration. They are unstable and tricky to ride. I don’t have any personal experience with them, so I’ll defer further comment to those who do, but if I wanted to do any real off-roading I would choose two or four wheels, not three.

  3. Scrapdaddy

    I’ve had three wheelers ever since they came out. I still own and use everyday, a Honda Big Red 200. My opinion, the only real reasons people got hurt were, they were drinking, riding two people or just acting like fools. I bet there has been more deaths and injuries on four wheelers from running in to trees or each other than three wheelers. These old Hondas just keep on running and are very useful on the farm.

    Like 1
    • Ross W. Lovell

      Greetings All,

      Scrapdaddy, not sure about that why people were hurt but the 4 wheelers seem to give some sense of stability because of the number of wheels while they do stupid things.

      I had been riding 10 years and had raced for 7 when I tried one of these. First time I had a chance to ride one…….made the mistake of putting down my foot only to have the rear wheel climb up my calf, luckily it was wrapped in my old Full Bore boots. Did that 2 or 3 more times before I had decided that was enough.

      Forty-five years of riding and a variety of racing, wouldn’t touch one of these. The bounciness of the tires made fast riding sort of dangerous as the bike and rider responded in a much slower manner while working with the tire roll which tend to be slow.

      Later ones had a platform that prevented you from planting your feet, hard for Honda to explain why that was done without looking bad.

    • Howard A Member

      Hi Scrapdaddy, I tend to agree with you. People act like idiots sometimes when they ride these kinds of machines, 2, 3, 4 wheel, no wheels ( snowmobiles), it doesn’t matter. Common sense dictates. I’ve been riding motorcycles since I was 10 years old, and I had a lot of fun on all these machines, and all off road machines and never got seriously hurt. Oh sure, took a tumble or 2, but 50 years later, it’s my favorite activity.
      While these are extremely prone to tipping, you have to be aware of that. For many, these were the gateway to bigger better machines. Amazing find.

      Like 1
  4. Aaron

    Do these float? Those tires are massive. It looks like you could drive right over a lake and barely get wet.

    Like 1
    • grant

      With the right tires they do!

    • Pj5

      The definitely do NOT float!

  5. boxdin

    Straight axles in the rear make leaning the wrong way the only way to get around a turn. Kawasaki had a rear diff in some models, much better.

    • Alan (Michigan)

      Easy to understand, that in order to turn in any environment where there was more than a little traction: The inside rear tire had to have significantly less bite than the outside one. So, you would lean out to turn. But of course, many people could not grasp the concept, or natural tendencies overruled all else when the chips were down.

      I got into one scrape with a friend’s ATC in the late 70’s. We were at a reservoir in Nebraska, blasting around. I crested a ridge and was headed down the hill too fast to stop before reaching a downed tree with a trunk about 2/3 the size of the 3-wheeler’s front tire. At the last second, I gunned it to lift the front, and the Honda did indeed go up and over the log. I even managed to hang onto the handle bars. But I’d have probably been better off letting go. I came down on the tank. It was quite a while before I was ready to load up and leave. No permanent damage done, I have two sons from the 1990’s… :-)

  6. Scrapdaddy

    Aaron,

    The back will float, but the front doesn’t as well ( one tire ) and you will roll.

  7. JW

    Never knew anyone crazy enough to ride the three wheelers but I bought 2 new 1980 Yellow Honda Odysseys for the family to ride and they were even considered dangerous with a roll bar, some like my wife’s brother rolled one of them over a hill and his legs were flying around all over the place so Honda installed netting with the roll bar in the next generation Odyssey ( Red ) & the final version ( White / Pilot ). Any off road vehicle not treated with respect will get you hurt, it’s like owning a gun.

    • Jeff G

      My brother & I both had Odysseys back in the day. I had the early yellow version and he had a newer red one. What a blast those were. We took them up to the Silver Lake sand dunes here in Michigan several times.

  8. David Skulstad

    I road these back in the early 80’s in the hills and mountains of N. Ca. They were fun, but they were, IMO, dangerous even if you were careful. The problems were caused by the tires/suspension. The tires were the suspension. You could be riding along at a moderate speed and if you hit a rock or depression in the road, the tire would compress and act like a spring rocketing you up, to the side, or who knows where. The handle bars could be ripped from you hands, you lose control, and flip, hit a tree, or rock or other immovable object resulting in a scare/bruise at best, broken body at worst. I didn’t know anyone who didn’t have a major crash, but since we were young we could take the damage without too much trouble. If Honda had kept making these they would have gone out of business with all of the personal injury lawsuits.

  9. Lionel

    Had two of those growing up in Morocco in the 70s. My brother and I used to take turn driving and pulling each other on the soft sand on the beach, barefooting like we were skiing….. Never got hurt, but rear wheeled up one time and it fell back on me… Like we were going to tell our parent!

  10. geomechs geomechs Member

    A friend of mine still has the one he bought new. He thought it would be great to run back and forth to the field on. Unfortunately, he had too many upsets and finally relegated it to the yard where all three of his kids played on it. Through the years it has stayed in good shape but with the passing of my friend three years ago, it might be sent to a new home. I never felt as safe on these as I do on a quad. My brothers were pretty good at riding around on two wheels with the ones they had.

  11. Rspcharger Rspcharger

    I was about 16 when I went to visit my friend across the state for a week in the summer. This was like 1986, and his 3 wheeler was new, so rather refined in comparison and the tires were not balloons. He rode us out into the woods and let me take it on the trails myself without any pointers (all I’ve ridden up till then is 2 wheels). I’m doing OK, getting confident and slowly increasing my speed….I see a stump ahead just off the trail that I will need to steer around, so I turn the handlebars…..my change in direction was ZERO until the right rear wheel hit the stump an we went flying. Fortunately I was unhurt, but I bent the rear axle of the bike. Fortunately my friends father owned the trash collection company, so the bike was replaced rather quickly.

  12. stillrunners stillrunners Member

    Yes as old old time rider I had the Yamaha which was the Yamahopper I think…..you did ride it differently had to use more body English as you revved up…it was stolen out of my yard flat tire and all….wasn’t an easy starter with the rope thingie….

  13. grant

    My dad’s friend had a pair of these in the early 80’s. Riding on a ridge above highway 30 outside Scappoose, (there’s a golf course there now) we tried to go around a corner and plowed. Only thing that kept us from going over the edge was some blackberry brambles. Scary for an 8 year old. The trikes got sold soon after.

  14. angliagt

    I bought one of these new,in or ’75,for $525,as I had a Friend
    who knew the dealer.It was an ATC 90.
    We used to go over to the sand dunes by the Pacific Ocean,back
    when there were no restrictions.As these were underpowered,if you got
    close to the top of a dune,& realized that you wouldn’t make it,you’d jump
    off,& watch it roll to the bottom.
    I also had a great time at the Big Mountain ski area in Montana,in
    the parking lot – you could put these in a really cool drift.
    I also took it to the championships at the Hangtown motoX,in Ply-
    mouth,CA.It was REALLY muddy,& about the only way to get around.I
    (think) I got to see my hero Jimmy Ellis race there.I still have the unused
    bumper sticker from there.
    I also have a brochure for the ATV 90,in perfect shape.Wonder what
    it’s worth?

  15. Neil

    Little brother still has two of these classics at his lake house. Last time I visited him, he offered me a chance to ride one “for old times sakes” but I passed. No regrets…At 60, my bone don’t bounce; they break

  16. Stacy Burns

    We still have an original yellow 1970 ATC 90!

    Like 1
  17. thomas glashaw Member

    I have one of these bought it brand new in 1970 and it still runs today just doesn’t go as fast with a 200 pound guy on it lol. just replaced the gas in it yesterday keep the tank full so it doesn’t get rusty

  18. Renegades

    My Uncle owned a Honda Shop, I was fortunate enough to be able to sit on one of the very first ones in the shop when my Dad would pick me up from kindergarden. Soon thereafter we were riding them, and even parading through the streets in town. Yes, many mishaps, but by the grace of our Lord, I have many great stories of survival. 90 CC wasn’t big enough for the guys at the shop, so they built off the ATC 90 and an XR 500 & came up with the King Can, a friend of mine still has today, I had to try to outdo him with an ’85 350X powered by an XL600R. We raced for 20 years or so, beefed our engines to the max, and still had stupidity for more! It’s all in having the ability to handle situations completely out of control, and if your time is up yet. Still riding hard at 57. All Praise and Glory to our Lord Jesus Christ! (I Really shouldn’t still be here)

    Like 1

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