In late 2021, Polaris released the most powerful UTV of all time. A 225 Horse Power (HP) monster of a machine, the Polaris Pro R. Things have come a long way in the offroad industry, a far way from the 5 ½ HP of the Jiger. The Jiger had six wheels. It could ride across land and water. The body looks like a bathtub. It doesn’t look that comfy. Plus, the mechanics are pretty archaic. But, it was revolutionary at the time. In the early 1960’s it became the first all-terrain vehicle to hit the consumer market, and it came from Canadian soil.
Before the Jiger
Before the Jiger, the offroad market was virtually nonexistent. Anyone looking for a fun time might have converted their lawnmower into a go-kart, but that was about the extent of it.
Then a man named John Gower changed everything.
At a young age, John started work in the forestry industry and saw a need for a vehicle to combat the harsh terrains that the Canadian outdoors could bring. As an outdoorsman, he also saw a need for a vehicle to take others through any terrain in sight of their next trophy.
In the mid-1900s, however, options for trekking the rugged outdoors were slim. You could go on foot with snowshoes, take a horse, or take an old Bombardier snowmobile. These options were either exhaustive, expensive, or impractical in certain seasons.
The Prototype: The First Ever Offroad Vehicle
In a way, it’s fascinating that the Jiger wasn’t John’s first invention. Before he took on the offroad market, John made a .22 caliber wildcat rifle round called the JGR (an homage to the initials of his full name John Gower-Rempel).
In 1959, John, along with what would eventually become Jiger Corporation, finished the prototype of the Jiger. At this time, small-engine technology wasn’t around, so these early prototypes used a twin-engine system, one for each side of the drivetrain.
The machine’s body draws comparisons to the look of a bathtub. While many machines after had two, three, or four wheels, it started at six.
The first of its kind: Immediate success
Nick Oxender is the Sales and Marketing Specialist at Mudd-Ox. Mudd-Ox makes AATVs, but they also have an extensive museum of offroad machines, including the first-ever Jiger.
There were many great features about the Jiger, which took inspiration from the machines used in World War 2.
“Seeing all the equipment that was created back then, the tank was the ultimate off-road machine because it could go anywhere and run over anything. So I’m sure [John’s] thought process was that by having six wheels, you don’t have a break-over angle. You know, because you’ve always got a tire on the ground,” said Nick.
While the Jiger had limitations, it had some advantages over many of the machines that came afterward. The machine is only 300 lbs, and it has six wheels, so the pressure on the ground is very spread out. Nick says the Jiger had a smaller footprint than an animal or human. “The Jiger’s especially good on the snow because you’re not sinking down. You’re almost riding on top of it. That was a huge advantage to the normal four-by-four from back in the day,” Nick added that the Jeeps weighed about 2500 lbs then.
Wayne Edel is the grandson of John Gower. He became interested in the Jiger in 2006 and has been researching the machine for the past 17 years. Wayne keeps its legacy alive in online spaces like Facebook and Youtube. As part of Wayne’s journey with the Jiger, he’s also restored one.
The tires on this machine are what Wayne says makes this machine so iconic, “Those tires had no rim. You couldn’t replace the tire… They’re a disposable tire. It’s kind of like a balloon, right? You pop a balloon, you throw it away, you inflate another balloon.”
Production of the twin-engine units started in 1960. Although numbers are debated, it is estimated that 305 twin-engine units were manufactured. This was the first ever ATV to hit the consumer market.
In 1961, the world took notice of what was being built at Jiger corp. The machine graced the cover of Popular Science Magazine.
Wayne said that “when it was on the cover of Popular Science Magazine in 1961. That lit like a grass fire. That’s where everything just took off. Because no one’s seen anything like this before.”
A Grass Fire
As the Jiger continued to grow commercially, other organizations, mainly the US army and NASA, took interest.
Starting in October of 1962 and taking place throughout 1963, the US Army Tank Automotive Center began to hold demonstrations with the Jiger and other offroad vehicles.
During this time, the war in Vietnam was still over a decade away from its completion. The States planned to use new vehicles in Vietnam’s swamp and jungle areas.
The heavy and broad nature of Jeeps and tanks weren’t great on muddy terrains. The military did have the M29 weasel, which Nick Oxender from Mudd-Ox explained was a very similar machine to the Jiger at the time. The Jiger, though, still had potential for military use. “As far as military vehicles are concerned, you have something that’s small and lightweight, that can traverse terrains that a tank or a Jeep never could have.”
Shortly after, in 1965, the Jiger released a new model of their machine, the Jiger 152.
While Jiger had already hit the consumer market, the Jiger 152 was the first to be mass-produced. The most significant difference was that a single JLO 148cc engine replaced the twin engines. A headlight was also mounted in the nose of the body in front of the fuel cap. Changes were also made to the exhaust system.
While Jiger was busy producing its new machine, the space race was heating up between Russia and the USA.
Amid the cold war, the two countries were racing to see who could be the first to the moon. The two countries were developing new technology at an unseen rate.
In 1967, a member of NASA saw the Jiger at a boat show. He later sent a letter to Jiger President John Gower explaining that he was interested in some of the features of the Jiger.
NASA knew that the current iteration of the Jiger wouldn’t work on the moon. What they were interested in was Jiger Corps. problem-solving abilities, according to Wayne. “[They] saw a need and solved the problem.” Eventually, Jiger worked on a few prototypes for NASA that “looked nothing like a Jiger.”
As NASA was preparing to take one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind, Jiger Corp. took a massive leap backward. Jiger filed for bankruptcy in April of 1968.
Just over a year later, US astronauts Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins unofficially won the space race as they landed on the moon. Boeing was ultimately awarded the contract for the Lunar Roving Vehicle and eventually gave the LRV-1 to the Kennedy Space Center in April 1971.
Too Big, Too Fast.
The issue with Jiger had nothing to do with demand. When Jiger filed for bankruptcy, John Gower told the Toronto Star they had pre-sold about 9,000 machines.
In Wayne’s opinion, everything grew too big, too fast, as demand grew in North America and Germany. “Many companies over the years don’t know how to handle fast growth.” Wayne added, “I think they started bringing in a lot of raw materials because the demand was so great… [They] just couldn’t get the product to market fast enough and had just too much growing debt.”
Cape Breton Development Corp. re-licensed the “Jiger” after Jiger Corp. went bankrupt. They brought in some former Jiger Corp. staff and offered John Gower a position. However, he declined.
This new ownership took one last crack at selling the machine under a new name, the ‘Versatrek Jiger.’ The machine, once known for being a lightweight vehicle, had its weight doubled with all new mechanics. Even the logo changed.
After they struggled to find success, a last-ditch attempt was made when they repurposed the Jiger into a ‘build it yourself’ Kit. Breton Versatrek sold its assets at a public auction in 1971.
The decade-plus run of the first-ever ATV to hit the consumer market was over.
An Unmatched Legacy
For the time, Jiger’s run of over ten years was actually quite lengthy. Although the Jiger was the first, it didn’t come without competition. “It changed the world. I mean, there was no ATV market. It didn’t even exist. Then, once (the) Jiger came out, people realized the possibilities. Then everybody rushed to build their own machine, so they ended up with 100 Different manufacturers [of six-wheeled machines],” said Nick Oxender.
Although the Jiger is widely known as the first machine, the by-product of the invention was that they also invented the first ever low-pressure all-terrain tire. The tire’s themselves became a whole industry as the six-wheel sector grew.
The Amphicat six-wheeler was an AATV that came out shortly after the Jiger and drew lots of inspiration from it. Nick says this grew into the beloved three-wheeler market. “[Honda wanted] to get into the ATV market. So they took a brand new Amphicat six-wheeler, shipped it to Japan, and told everybody, ‘we need to make something that competes with this.’ That’s when they came out with the Honda ATC 90. If you look at that thing. You can easily see the similarities of how they referenced the Amphicat because they have the huge flotation tires on it, and the small size.”
“The Jiger really is the grandfather of them all.”
Ironically, Wayne Edel, the grandson of Jiger President John Gower, told us that although the Jiger was first, he knows something was coming down the pipeline regardless. “Something had to come along to trigger this industry. It was going to happen no matter what. The Jiger just happened to fit all the needs of a small, light, amphibious [machine].”
“It just seemed to be the right thing at the right time.”
The Jiger Lives On
The Jiger still lives on through offroaders like Wayne and Nick. Both have restored this historic machine. Both have the popular Jiger 152. Mudd-Ox recently found a centerpiece for their museum as they found the ultra-rare original twin-engine version. “I searched for decades. I never could find one. When that individual reached out to us [And said they had one]… we almost couldn’t believe it. It was a story where we jumped in the truck that minute and drove all the way to New York,” said Nick, who wants to restore it and put it in the museum next to the latest release of the Mudd-Ox.
“It really belongs in the Smithsonian. It’s just so important to history.”Nick Oxender
As for Wayne, he wants to make his own “Smithsonian” of offroad history, “My wife, she thinks I’m crazy. My retirement thing is that I’m going to open up an all-terrain vehicle museum. Because there’s all this stuff being lost… There’s so much history that nobody knows about.”
A special thank you to Nick Oxender and the team at Mudd-Ox for all the help with this article. Mudd-Ox has a tremendous virtual museum that you can visit at https://www.muddox.net/atv-history/
Also, a special thank you to Wayne Edel for all of the help in researching the story of the Jiger. You can visit Wayne’s website at Jigeratv.ca to learn more about this historic machine and keep up to date with everything Jiger.
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