Arctic Cat has never been a company that follows. Since the day Edgar Hetteen rolled into Thief River Falls and set up shop, Arctic Cat has always led the industry with some of the most creative and off the wall sleds to hit the snow.
Ski-Doo had been dominating the sport in sales and on the racetrack until the winter of 1967 when Arctic Cat and its new Panther raised the bar in snowmobile design. The winter of 69 would see Arctic Cat become the # 2 manufacturer in sales and dominate the racing scene. Believe it or not the Panther was the only model Cat built in 69 and it also was the race sled. The big Panther chassis was fitted with 744cc JLO twin with megaphone exhaust. This first “Boss Cat” was the first in a long line of Cats that would have engines that were limited in availability and produce lots of power relative to what was available at the time. At Eagle River that year Cat swept first through fifth.
As the sport’s popularity continued to grow, racing became more popular and engines sizes grew. Arctic would enter the 70 season with the new Puma model, which was a short track chassis sled that was lighter than the Panther and featured free air JLO and Hirth motors. The 793 cc Hirth triple was a force to be reckoned with in Mod V classes all winter but the Puma chassis proved to be more suited for the 340 and 440 classes. Team Arctic Legend Larry Coltom recalls those days; “I liked the Puma when we first built it in 1970, but I thought the ’71 EXT was an improvement over the ’70 Puma. It felt lower, handled better, and I thought it looked better. But I like the ’71 EXT Special and King Kat better than the regular ’71 EXT because it was a longer chassis and stuck to the ground a little better in the corners.”
Arctic continued to produce the Panther with the 760 JLO triple and the Hirth “Honker” with 793cc putting out 80hp. Cat did not defend its World Championship that year with Polaris and Ski-Doo showing the advantage of having their own exclusive engine supplier. Anyone building sleds in 1970 could get their hands on the big JLO and Hirth engines. Arctic knew it and they were working on securing a deal with Kawasaki.
Arctic Cat had started building an alliance with Kawasaki to become their exclusive engine supplier back in 1969. The ’71 season would see 40% of Arctic’s production made using engines built by Kawasaki, including the EXT race sleds and the mother of all high performance sleds, the 4 cylinder King Kat.
I asked Roger Skime (VP of R&D at Arctic), where the name came from; “I really don’t remember if it actually was one person, more than likely it was a group of people we would now call a product planning group. But from what I remember, I think Bill Ness (Former Director of Engineering) may have had a lot to do with choosing the name King Kat.”
The King Kat 4-banger was housed in a new chassis, which at the time featured all of Arctic’s latest technology. Aluminum tunnel, fiberglass belly pan, forward mounted engine, slide rail suspension, CD Ignition, and a set of tuned pipes that would make a plumber turn green with envy. The King Kat hood design, a leopard pattern raised back seat and lots of chrome, made this Cat a real head turner on the track. Oh, and did I mention, only 124 of them were ever made?
4 Cylinders of Symphony
You have to hear one of these sleds to believe the incredible sound it makes. If you remember the sound of a three cylinder Thundercat, then you know what the King Kat sound was like minus 25% .The King Kat by today’s standards is so politically incorrect that even Cat brand haters have a smile on their face when they hear it.
All that noise produced impressive power for a state of the art two stroke engine if the early 70’s. To put things in perspective with today’s sleds, the King Kat was rated at 85 hp from an 800 CC engine. I found this surprising. I asked Roger Skime why was the power so low? He explained, “That’s pretty much what the power was back then, but that was changing all the time as we became better at designing exhaust systems for the engine. The exhaust systems are the primary reason a 2 stroke engine makes its horsepower and continued exhaust development over the years let us keep improving power on all our engines”.
Starting the sled was a chore as was tuning the 4 carbs so they were all in sync and dialed in. Unlike most engines at the time, the big Kawi motor used Mikuni butterfly carbs instead of the well-known Tillotson HD carbs. Roger Skime recalls,” In the 60’s and early 70’s we used multiple engine brands many of which were from Europe, and many different carburetors from Tillotson, Walbro, and others. We had a good relationship with these suppliers and we knew how to calibrate a pumper carb, so with all the work we had to do to calibrate all these engines packages with the carburetors we were already using, we just didn’t react right away to a carburetor change that was new to our calibration methods. We also were a little concerned about the freezing of the carb slides on the Mikuni type round slide carburetors. But as our relationship grew with the Japanese engine supplier Kawasaki, it became easier to learn more about the Mikuni carburetor and also make the contacts we needed in Japan to purchase those carburetors. That’s when we began changing over to the Mikuni type float bowl carburetor. “
On the Track
The King Kat first made its appearance in the hands of the boys from Thief River at West Yellowstone. Roger Janssen had a hard time muscling the big sled around the high bank oval and flew off the 12-foot drop, totaling the sled. Teammate Dennis Bakke was laughing until he found out Janssen had borrowed his sled.
At Ironwood the King Kats wowed the crowd. There was nothing like seeing the purple clad Arctic race team pull up to the line with the 4-cylinder engine snapping and snarling. It was pure intimidation. Team Arctic took 1st and 2nd that day and immediately a petition was started calling for the end of the 800 class. The machines were now too fast, too big and too dangerous to run on the racetracks of the day. The death notice for the 800 class was written.
The early success on the racetrack however was plagued later on with clutch failures that would take out crankshafts. Cats at the time did not have their own clutch. They were using Salsbury clutches, which were like a grenade waiting to explode. There is nothing like having a 35 pound drive clutch let go while running at 90 mph. Belts were also eaten up like there was no tomorrow. Reliability was a big issue for these sleds as was the weight. It took a big man to muscle this machine around the corners in the days when carbides and studs were just beginning to turn up at the racetrack.
A Race Driver Remembers
Harold Kihn of Steinbach, Manitoba bought a King Kat sled in the fall of 1970 from the local Cat dealer. He raced it the winter of ’71 on the Manitoba Snowmobile Association circuit. Forty years ago is a long time ago but Harold remembers that winter like it was yesterday.
“I bought the sled for $2000.00, which was a huge amount of money for a snowmobile back then. The King Kat was always a crowd pleaser (win or lose) as they were indeed a rare creature and would often be a winner. They worked well enough on large radius turns and long tracks (like Beausejour) when studded properly and the front right spring was stiffened up sufficiently to hold plenty of pressure on the outside ski. (Check the pic of the KK in action). All those studs than became your enemy on a tight turn and the sled just wanted to go straight. Remember these were the days when carbide runners did not exist.”
“Comparing the top and bottom end performance is difficult. I tended to set up our sleds with deep gearing. I always felt that quick acceleration was much more important than a lot of top end speed which we rarely needed or could not likely reach anyway as a lot of our races were run on somewhat shorter tracks than most. Anyway, the deep gearing was quite successful for us.”
“It did not matter where we raced. The wide stance, exposed four cylinders, distinctive exhaust tone and overall attention grabbing design certainly had an intimidating effect. At the start line we would always line up last, knowing our competitors were waiting impatiently. We used this strategy of making them wait to psyche them out. When this monster pulled up beside them the noise would just overwhelm their own machine. Little did they know how much we were trembling inside our race suit knowing what was in store for us the next 10 to 15 minutes trying to manhandle this unwieldy beast around those turns. It was scary!”
The Big Cats
The King Kat was the first of a long list of bad-ass big displacement sleds that Arctic Cat continues to build today. “World’s Fastest Snowmobile” is more than just a slogan; for Arctic Cat it is an obsession. The King Kat has morphed into the Wildcat, Thunder Cat, ZRT and now the CFR 1000 and Z1 Turbo. “Bigger is Better”, “Go Big or Go Home”, Arctic Cat continues to intimidate the other manufacturers with high horsepower sleds that have roots back to the 1971 King Kat – the Mother of all high performance snowmobiles.
From the Jan/Feb 2011 issue of SnowTech
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