Distributors, for the most part, were small and largely regional. Parts Unlimited was a small company out of Wisconsin. (I can remember the first time I met Fred Fox: He was in our warehouse to buy obsolete inventory.)
There were plenty of magazines — Cycle, Motorcyclist and Cycle World, Cycle Guide, Road Rider, as well as off-road magazines, but none had widespread distribution, and you couldn’t find many of them on newsstands.
FAST FORWARD. Today the snowmobile industry in North America has shrunk to 90,000 units, and there now are just four major sledmakers. Motorcycles have gone through two cycles of boom and bust, each time peaking at just over a million units in 1981 and 2006. I believe the number of OEMs has remained constant, not counting all the small builders. PWC sales are now down to around 50,000. Like snowmobiles, there are only four major players left in the personal watercraft game.
Products seem to have gotten bigger (at least displacement-wise), faster and more powerful. ATVs have largely replaced the off-road bike sales of the 1970s and UTVs that didn’t exist in ’72 have just surpassed ATVs in terms of sales. PWCs are equipped with 200 hp engines, fuel injection, and much better handling and comfort.
Motorcycles are amazing — fuel-injected, disc brakes on both wheels, ABS, electronically adjustable suspensions, and windshields, traction control and more horsepower than some mid-sized sedans.
One thing that’s remained constant, however, is the issue of sound. In ’72 it was mostly directed at off-road bikes (You may remember the slogan, “Less Sound, More Ground”). While it’s still an issue for off-road, it’s an even bigger issue for on-road riders, and unless owners act responsibly, our non-riding brethren through their government representatives will take action to make sure our motorcycles are no longer offensive.
Oh, that little company that gave me my first job? Polaris. At the time, it was a third- or fourth-place player in the snowmobile business, with a great little race team and a quaint factory near the
Minnesota/Canadian border. It’s evolved into one of the major players, producing ATVs, UTVs, motorcycles and snowmobiles, and is doing quite well, thank you.
It’s been a wonderful 40 years. I’ve had phenomenal experiences, and met lots of interesting and bright people. While I probably won’t be around for the next full 40, I’m anticipating that the next 20 will at least be as dynamic and interesting as the past.