Suspension Development

Looking Back At the 1980s …

April 2020 Feature Steve Janes Web Exclusive

            The other day I was having a discussion about the “good old days” of snowmobiling back in the 1980s with a good friend Dustin Sweeten at Powerhouse Motorsports.

            Dustin and I first met on the Rocky Mountain Cross Country Racing Circuit around 1983. We competed against each other then and formed that common bond that those who race can relate to. Since then we have snowmobiled together on multiple occasions. Dustin is now better known for having one of the best collections of vintage snowmobiles around … and he still races them. (I thought the old racing days of the tough 100-mile courses of the RMXCRC would have cured him.)

            Anyway, we started comparing our list of the most impressive sleds of the 80s … and realized that although our lists weren’t identical … there were 10 sleds that stood out with both of us as significant snowmobiles of that decade. (How does it stack up to your list?)

Top 10 Snowmobiles of the 1980s

1)                  1980 Polaris TXL

2)                  1984 Yamaha Phazer

3)                  1988 Polaris Indy 650 SKS

4)                  1988 Yamaha Snoscoot

5)                  1982 Kawasaki Interceptor

6)                  1988 Arctic Cat Wildcat 650

7)                  1987 Yamaha Exciter

8)                  1989 Arctic Cat EXT

9)                  1981 Blizzard MX 5500

10)              1980 John Deere Liquifire


Decade of Suspensions and Performance

            If there was a theme to the 1980s, it would be the decade of suspensions. Up to that time, there were a lot of “crotch rockets” that could blast across frozen lakes … but put them on a pounded trail with their leaf/spring suspensions and it became a white knuckle ride with near death experiences.

            However, in 1980 Polaris unleashed the Polaris Indy TXL with independent front suspension. Almost immediately Polaris started dominating the race circuits. It basically introduced suspension technology that would continue the leading edge advancement of snowmobiles for the next 20 years.

            Sweeten noted that the 1980 Polaris TXL has always been his sentimental favorite. It was his first snowmobile and first love (which he later sold to buy an engagement ring for his next love… but then years later tracked down that same TXL that he first purchased new and re-purchased it for his vintage collection).

            For me, most of my experiences with the 1980 TXL was from looking at its taillights … but that’s another story.

            The 1984 Yamaha Phazer should probably be a contender for the most significant snowmobile of the 1980s. It ushered in lightweight performance which proved to be about two decades before its time. The Phazer was affordable, lightweight and fun to ride. It was unique in about every way. It wasn’t the fastest or the best handling. But it was the most innovative sled on the market. Yamaha’s biggest mistake with the Phazer was that instead of trying to exploit its strengths in innovative development, the company followed the path of trying to make it blend into the mold of current snowmobile designs. In other words, they made it heavier by making it more durable for trail riding. (That’s like having a winning lottery ticket but using it for a coffee cup coaster.)

Look At The 1980s

            Going chronologically, here is how the decade shaped up and why our top 10 sleds represented such significant changes in the industry. The earlier part of the decade seemed to focus on suspension. And although that focus would carry the load for the next two decades, the latter part of the 1980s started making a turn toward performance and horsepower. Perhaps that’s when sled weights started to creep up into the 500-pound range.

            The 1980s could also be considered the decade of racing. Even with the winters of little or no snow, racing was big. Sleds evolved from free air or fan cooled to liquid cooled. It wasn’t until the end of the 1980s when track length started to hit the radar.


*          1980 Polaris TXL—First independent on a performance sled. It dominated racing and shot Polaris to the top of the market, especially in the West. This was the first significant change in front end suspension on a performance snowmobile. It opened up the decade with the quest of having the best trail ride possible.

*          1980 John Deere Liquifire—Although it initially had a false label of being overweight, the Liquifire received a new chassis which gave it a low center of gravity. It weighed 404 pounds and came with a stiffer suspension to handle the bumps. It had good balance and featured a 436cc piston-ported engine with oil injection. It was like a half-court shot at the buzzer to lose the game by only one point instead of four. John Deere would soon make its exit the snowmobile industry.


*          1981 Ski-Doo Blizzard 5500—Ski-Doo finally jumps into the independent front suspension game with a snowmobile built to handle the bumps. Perhaps Ski-Doo waited too long and allowed the competition to get a head start in the race for dominance of the 1980s.


*          1982 Kawasaki Interceptor—It was fast ... the fastest stock sled on the snow. It was also the last Kawasaki to be made. The following year Kawasaki shuttered its doors to snowmobile manufacturing. Too bad. The Interceptor had just set a new standard in performance.


*          1983—There were no significant changes because this year represented the greatest year of uncertainty in the snowmobile industry. Back-to-back-to-back years of no snow—a plunge in snowmobile sales and a feeble economy pretty much left all manufacturers investing only in “BNG” (bold new graphics). Everyone was just holding serve and cutting costs.


*          1984 Yamaha Phazer—This represented a revolution in snowmobile design. Priced at $3299, the Phazer was a 485cc fan-cooled snowmobile with the headlight mounted on a motorcycle-style fairing that turned with the handlebars. It weighed just 388 pounds and was quick to respond. This represented a new awakening to the snowmobile industry and perhaps a new start to growing the market size and increasing consumer interest. It was the best Phazer Yamaha made.


*          1985/86—Two more years of BNG. Perhaps it was the industry trying to sort out a new direction after the overwhelming success of the Phazer … or trying to get back to profitable after several years of no snow.


*          1987 Yamaha Exciter—Taking the Phazer to the next level. The Exciter was a 589cc liquid …but 35 pounds heavier than the Phazer. Yes it was the natural evolution of the Phazer chassis … but it was just a little too heavy to have the same affect. Still, the Exciter was exciting.


*          1988 Polaris Indy SKS 650—This three cylinder liquid-cooled 648cc muscle sled was powerful. It was fast. But it was also heavy. However, it also had a 133-inch track—the first factory longtrack sled for the West. The industry was starting to turn to power, performance, and floatability … but it still hadn’t caught on to the concept of power/weight ratio.

*          1988 Arctic Cat Wildcat 650—Trying to keep up with Polaris required some drastic horsepower action. Cat answered the call with its own version of a 650 muscle sled.

*          1988 Yamaha Snoscoot—Not conforming to the quest for power (at least yet) Yamaha created an 80cc single-cylinder sled for smaller people. It was simple. It was small. And it was a blast to ride around the meadow when the snow was set up. Again, the Yamaha Snoscoot was likely before its time. It took a couple of years for people to get use to the concept of a “play around” sled for the family. Once they did, they couldn’t buy enough of them … particularly since Yamaha gave up on the experiment and quit making them.


*          1989 Arctic Cat El Tigre EXT. This is significant because it was Cat’s first real longtrack snowmobile for the western market. But again, it was trying to play catch-up to Polaris. This battle between Cat and Polaris would soon be fought in the West … leaving Ski-Doo and Yamaha in the shadows of the western market for the next five years.


Other Sleds of Note

            Although Dustin and I agreed on most of the sleds, there were a few each of us would have added to this list.

            For me, there are nine other snowmobiles which stand out. Here they are and here’s why:

*          1980 Kawasaki Drifter—This was your basic affordable snowmobile that did nothing great but everything pretty well. It had a twin cylinder 340cc engine with good spunk. It was fun to ride, making it a perfect family sled. You could see kids riding Drifters out in the meadows more most of the 1980s.

*          1981 Arctic Cat El Tigre 6000—This 500cc liquid-cooled Spirit engine with twin VM 38 Mikuni carbs was fast and handled surprisingly well for a leaf-spring front suspension. Even with the limited travel, it was still competitive on the race track.

*          1982 Yamaha Bravo—How does this sneak into my list? Well, the Bravo was a single-cylinder two stroke 246cc fan-cooled sled designed to be an affordable entry-level snowmobile. It was fun to ride, inexpensive and perfect for the family with a cabin in the mountains. Although it wasn’t a good trail (no suspension) or mountain (no power) sled, because of its lightweight size it was easy to ride.

*          1984 Manta 500 LC—This re-introduction to an older Raider designed cockpit-style chassis featured a 499cc liquid-cooled Suzuki engine. It had two 9-inch wide by 103-inch long tracks and weighed 550 pounds. However, it only had limited interest in the Midwest (we got Manta in the mountains and spent a couple of days digging out of holes). Manta only built 200 sleds and had a dealer network of 36 dealers.

*          1985 Polaris Indy 400—This 398cc liquid-cooled cross country race sled was certainly an over-achiever. It was fast and fun to ride—particularly through the bumps and tight twisties that restricted the use of horsepower.

 *         1986 Ski-Doo Formula Plus—At the time the 521cc Rotax engine seemed to deliver a lot of power. The Formula Plus also featured a 16.5-inch wide track to offer some floatability although it was still a heavy snowmobile. But it did offer a 10.8-gallon fuel tank which addressed the needs of the western market.

*          1986 Yamaha V-Max—This was a sled with an attitude and really reminded me of the Kawasaki Interceptor. It was fast and featured a 535cc liquid-cooled engine with Mikuni VM38 carbs. It was also heavy at 472 pounds and only offered a 6.3-gallon fuel tank. Need gas?

*          1988 Ski-Doo Stratus—Sure, some of you are going to have to google this to see if it actually did exist. It was a 496cc fan. The windshield was huge … like riding in a fish bowl but did offer great protection from the wind. It had a Progressive Steer Suspension and was actually a good trail sled. But boy was there a bunch of plastic on that sled.

*          1989 Ski-Doo Mach 1—It was a 580cc liquid that was cherry red and looked great. It tipped the scales at 500 pounds … and somewhere in our photo archives there’s a photo of me walking across its hood after being stuck for the fifth straight time up on Two Top.

            Dustin’s list is much shorter … but then, I told him to keep the rambling down since he could go on for weeks about the vintage sleds of the 1980s. Here’s what he thought could have been included in out top sleds:

*          1980 Yamaha SRV—This was a 540cc fan-cooled single carb snowmobile with a simple telescopic front suspension. It did will on the trail. It was extremely dependable and built to last … which is why you can still see it running out on the snow. It started Yamaha out in the western market and kept them going until the Phazer could create a new standard in western riding.

*          1885 Arctic Cat El Tigre—After taking a couple of years off while the company refinanced and restructured (a true success story in the snowmobile industry), the El Tigre represented the first performance independent suspension sled for Cat. It made a statement to the snowmobile industry the Cat was back and would be a force to be reckoned with on the race track.


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