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Stray Cats

The 1982 Arctic Cat sleds that never were
1982 Arctic Cat sleds Tom Rowland El Tigre Cougar Pantera prototypes
From the left are Tom Rowland’s 1982 El Tigre, Cougar and Pantera prototypes.
Photo by Joe Rainville
Arctic Cat’s history as a snowmobile manufacturer goes back to the founding of the company in 1960 by Edgar Hetteen. Starting with the first 1962 model year “Polar”-branded machines, the company has manufactured snowmobiles almost continuously to this very day.

Noticeable on the timeline posters from the mid-1980s are the two “gone fishing” model years of 1982-83. The early ’80s recession and high interest rates were tough on the snowmobile market. The company, then called Arctic Enterprises, had an especially tough time. Cat seriously overproduced sleds for the 1980 model year and had to drop production to unsustainably low numbers for the ’81 season, pushing the company into bankruptcy in the spring of 1981. Only leftover ’80 and ’81 machines were sold for the winter of ’82, with a liquidation sale later that summer.

The beauty of this story is the happy ending. The dedicated crew of former Arctic employees was able to scrape the remnants of the company back together, releasing new El Tigre and Panther models for 1984 under the new company banner of ARCTCO. And the rest is history, so they say.
1982 Arctic Cat sleds El Tigre 500cc
The planned 1982 El Tigre showing off her 500cc of oil-injected, liquid-cooled muscle.
Photo by Joe Rainville
A question remains
But what about the planned 1982 models? You might assume that even though there was not a regular production run of 1982 models starting down the assembly line in the summer of 1981, there must have been prototypes ready to go … and you would be correct. The last snowmobiles built by the former Arctic Enterprises were, in fact, the 1982 prototypes.

Arctic engineering was working to field an updated and expanded lineup for 1982. Some new names were to be introduced alongside some returning classics. Oil injection was spreading, as were innovations like direct drive and rear suspensions with longer travel. Most of the sleds were going to get updated bodywork and graphics.

Fortunately for history and vintage collectors, many 1982 prototypes were sold to the public during Cat’s unfortunate liquidation. Even more surprising is the fairly high survival rate of the approximately 26 or so ’82s known to have been built. For example, five Cougars are thought to have been built, but four of them are accounted for.

Collectors such as Tom Rowland, owner of Thomas Sno Sports in Ogilvie, Minn., have been pursuing these rare collectibles. He’s built an impressive collection of most of the planned ’82 machines. With the assistance of Tom’s collection and a few others, we can paint a good picture of what Cat’s 1982 line almost was.

At the top of the line, the El Tigre 6000 gained a sharp new hood design, and under it was to be an oil-injected 500cc liquid Suzuki twin. The 500cc Suzuki twin was never oil injected in production; even the 1984 leaf spring and 1985 AFS Tigers were pre-mix. The effective chassis, drivetrain, rubber track and suspension was planned to carry over from 1981 with a few cosmetic  enhancements.
1982 Arctic Cat sleds Cougar 500cc
The Cougar was expected to be a high volume seller with 500cc fan-cooled, dual carb performance, replacing the El Tigre 5000 in the lineup.
Photo by Joe Rainville
The newly named Cougar was slotted to replace the old 500cc free-air El Tigre 5000. By the early 1980s, the relatively loud air-cooled sleds had overpowered their simple, lightweight cooling method, and most air-cooled motors had become axial or flywheel fan-cooled.

The new 1982 Cougar featured a 59hp 500cc fan-cooled twin with dual carbs and oil injection. It had a rubber track, with 5 inches of rear suspension travel. It was slated to have Cat’s Hex drive clutch on a Sno Pro reverse cam, cast-aluminum secondary. The Cougar was expected to be a volume leader, a hope that was eventually realized by the very popular 1985-90 AFS Cougar. The bright, wide stripes and “Cougar” graphics of the ’82 prototype even made an appearance on the 1986 AFS Cougar’s new hood that looked very similar to the 1982 El Tigre 6000 prototype.

The Pantera received new bodywork and an updated liquid-cooled 440cc motor to solidify its position as the top luxury Cat. Deep brown paint and stylish decals by Leon Raiter added a touch of class to these machines. The track length on the prototypes was 5 inches longer than the production ’80-81 models, but it’s not clear if that was to be the final specification for production.  

The 1982 Panther prototype had some surprising features that never appeared on the ’84 and older leaf spring sleds, including a liquid 440 twin and new unique hood also shared with the Pantera. It was also oil-injected with dual carbs. The Panther was a mainstay in Cat’s lineup since its introduction in 1967, and it was the first 1984 model year Cat off the assembly line under ARCTCO. The ’84 production model had far more in common with the 1981 Panther than with the 1982 prototypes, however.
1982 Arctic Cat sleds Puma prototype chaincase drivetrain
This is one of five known ’82 Puma prototypes with unique bodywork and a chaincase drivetrain.
Photo by Joe Rainville
New tech for ’82
While these new and improved models had somewhat conventional drivetrain layouts, Cat was also ready to release two models with some state-of-the-art technology for the entry level market. The 1982 Jag was expected to be direct drive, where the driven clutch mounts to the track drive axle, replacing the jackshaft and chaincase.

Gear reduction typically handled by the chaincase gear set is accomplished by increasing the diameter of the driven clutch and reducing the diameter of the track drive sprockets while mounting them on a common shaft. John Deere was first to market a direct-drive sled with the 1978 Spitfire, and Polaris had the Cutlass for 1981. Cat planned to follow suit to reduce weight and complexity of the new Jag. The Jag was expected to be powered by a 440cc Suzuki motor.

Cat also had another sled in development similar in size to the Jag: the Puma. The four known Pumas owned by collectors all have lightweight 440cc Suzuki fan-cooled, single-carb twins with the direct-drive system. But this machine also raises interesting questions about existing prototypes.  

With any new product, there are going to be different versions of prototypes built. Early prototypes can test out new concepts. If successful, the concept sled will move to the pre-production phase, where near-production quality sleds may roll down an assembly line. For example, Adam Leubner owns an early prototype Cougar with an aluminum hand-formed nose cone and other unique features compared to the three later Cougar prototypes with fiberglass nose cones and pans. The later sleds have a bright graphics package and “Cougar” embroidered on the seat, whereas Leubner’s Cougar has only minimal pinstripes.
1982 Arctic Cat sleds Jag direct drive
The Jag was slated for direct drive.
Photo by Joe Rainville
The known Pumas, however, all seem to be unique. Most are direct drive, but some have rubber tracks with a 2.52-inch drive lug pitch, driven by two rows of drive lugs on the center belt, while Leubner’s Puma has a 2/3-cleated track with triple billet aluminum drive sprockets engaging a row of drive lugs on each of the three track belts. Cleated tracks are generally thinner and require less power to turn, but sacrifice traction compared to rubber tracks. Adam’s Puma also lacks a suspension wheel kit, possibly because the side rails are closer to the snow than rubber track sleds, which have complete wheel kits installed.

There is also another very unique Puma prototype that is nothing like the direct-drive sleds. It has a very conventional chaincase setup, and sports unique bodywork and a slightly different seat variation. Unlike the king/queen setup of the direct-drive models, it has a flat seating area for both driver and passenger.

So far, only one of these prototype Pumas have come to light, and its presence begs more questions than it answers. This Puma was slated to be powered by a 275cc oil-injected, free-air motor, or a 300cc fan-cooled, oil-injected single as an option. According to retired Cat engineer Brian Espeseth, all the direct-drive sleds should have been 440 Jags for 1982. Brian tells us he purchased about two dozen 1982 models from Arctic Salvage, and he has no recollection of direct-drive Pumas. So this leaves a bit of a mystery as to the origin of the three Pumas with direct drive.

Arctic was also working on more advanced concepts. John Sandburg’s “50 Years of the Cat” book shows the first public picture of a concept “El Tigre Sport” that was a more finished version of the author’s “#28 Doug Oster Cross Country Racer,” circa 1980. The Sport has a trailing arm IFS front suspension with a dual internal shock long-travel rear skid. It also featured Cat’s direct-drive setup. At least one or two of these are known to be in collectors’ hands, and by the finished condition of the machine, it could have been ready for production by 1983 or so.

Tom Rowland again is the fortunate owner of what is thought to be a concept 1983 El Tigre 6000. This sled has a very unique IFS suspension system. Upon inspection, you’ll see details of designs that were not fully perfected until the 1985 AFS machines. This sled features outboard rear shocks, lowered footrests for better ergonomics, and swoopy rear bodywork.

It’s bittersweet to talk about what Cat had in the pipeline for 1982 and later, but their comeback in 1984 was extraordinary. The follow-up act of releasing the all-new 1985 AFS El Tigre and Cougar was no less impressive. Well played, guys. Well played.
Photo by Joe Rainville
This prototype Team Arctic cross country racer was the first generation of the never-mass-produced El Tigre Sport with a lightweight LC 440, direct drive and IFS.
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