The name Can-Am (if you are of a certain age) will remind you of a little upstart company, that seemingly out of nowhere entered the early 1970s motocross scene, winning races right out of the gate against the big established factory teams, including the three top podium spots in the ’194 season of the US Motocross Championships. Do you remember who built the Can-Am series of dirt bikes? Well, it was Bombardier.

Now for the 2007 model year Bombardier has resurrected the Can-Am name to brand all its ATVs—including a new line of sport quads the company expects to be competitive with anything on the market.

The introduction of this new flagship model was held at a riding area outside of Atlanta recently, where I had thousands of acres of trails to ride as well as several motocross style dirt tracks. It’s these dirt tracks, though, that the new Can-Am intends to dominate—just as its dirt bikes did in the 1970s.

Leading this renaissance is the 2007 Can-Am Renegade. This all-new sport quad is powered by a Rotax 800HO EFI V-Twin engine set in a lightweight Surrounding Spar Technology (SST) frame. Long travel double-A-arm front suspension and long travel independent rear suspension features torsional trailing arms and dive-control geometry. There are high-pressure gas shocks front and rear, extensive use of aluminum (including rims) and an aggressive minimalist bodywork styling. It is also 19 kg lighter than the comparable 800HO Can-Am Outlander utility ATV.

That’s a good thing, too, because I’m heavier than the average racer (and 20 years older). Still, I noticed right off that the balance on the Renegade is excellent—on the ground, but particularly in the air where with either a blip of the throttle or pull on the brake handle I could change the attitude of the bike for a smoother landing. Around the groomed dirt track, I found the tabletop jumps were a breeze and with a little torque off the top of the whoops the ATV flew, landing with a cushioned attitude only gas shocks and long travel suspension can give you. Now, as for sailing over the double-bumps, I have too many painful memories that prevented me from attempting those. But, certain other younger riders with less scar tissue were jumping them with abandon.

The trade-off with plush suspension is often a high-centre of gravity on an ATV; but I found that the wide stance and low profile tires of the Renegade countered that effect in the corners. Another positive in this class is an all-wheel-drive setting for the transfer case which makes the Renegade very competitive on bush trails where many 2WD-only machines get hung up. Power-wise, there is a lot of jam on the bottom of the torque curve and it stays strong almost to the top of the rpm range. In fact, off the line, the Renegade wants to rear up, so pinning the throttle is not recommended. Even in the midrange, I felt the front end want to lift when I snapped the gas to the bar. On the other hand, it will get you airborne in a heartbeat.

When I had a chance to do a little Q&A with engineers and staff from this newly minted Can-AM division, my first question was what about the dirt bikes? Were they going to be building those again, as well as using the name? The only answer I got was a chorus of silent smiles.

Okay, so then why use the Can-Am name and why now? That question, as it turned out, had several answers; most of them intertwined with more than 30 years of Bombardier history. It was obvious that the lure of the ever expanding ATV segment had everything to do with this new corporate direction despite the coincidence of the current hot ATV market that is mimicking what happened during the hay days of the snowmobile (Did you know that in 1971 there were 173 companies building snowmobiles in North America? Now there are five).

Back then, flush with cash, Bombardier management jumped into the then exploding motocross market by forming an independent in-house engineering group to build, not just a salable dirt bike but also one that could win in competition. After two seasons of racing unbranded prototypes across North America the company released the first Can-Am 125cc and 175cc models in May of 1973 and swept several top place finishes that year. In 1974, they did even better, but by 1975, Bombardier corporate was shifting its priorities and resources into the production and sale of transit equipment and then later into the aircraft field. The recreational division (the one that had started it all) suffered as a result. By the late 1970s, Can-Am was not what it once was, and in 1983 Bombardier licensed the brand and outsourced development and production to an English firm. The last of the Can-Am bikes rolled of that foreign line in 1987, closing out a chapter of home-grown Canadian innovation with a sputter.

While much of what they did was cutting edge, it proved to be just too different for the marketplace.

Since then, Bombardier has become a huge aerospace and transportation conglomerate, selling planes and rail cars all over the world while still producing its core brands—the Ski-Doo line of snowmobiles, and watercraft appropriately named Sea-Doo. But by the millennium, it was obvious that the recreational department was under-funded and lacking in the desire to continue to lead within the field that had originally made the fortune of the little company from Valcourt, Que. 

So, in April of 2003 the Bombardier family, with a group of investors, purchased the recreational division alone with the intention of once again dominating this segment on land, snow and water. To that end, the new company was renamed BRP (Bombardier Recreational Products) and a line ATVs introduced.

The original Traxter lineup of ATVs was different, very much in the same way as Can-Am bikes once were. The engineers from Valcourt refused to copy from their competitors—instead trying to reinvent the ATV in a new image they envisioned. While much of what they did was cutting edge, it proved to be just too different for the marketplace.

There was also another nagging problem, one that struck on a more personal level. While the Bombardier name was well known throughout Canada and the snow covered northern states of the US, in the heart of ATV country further south, buyers didn’t have a clue what a Bombardier was. In fact, few could even pronounce it, they called it a ‘Bomb-ba-dear,’ thinking it was named after the guy who dropped bombs from airplanes. Still, Bombardier persisted, employing extensive ad campaigns (including TV) to familiarize the American public with its name. This went on for several years, and had some sales success, but in the end Bombardier couldn’t shake this mispronounced label despite the fact that it introduced the DS650, (some eight years ago) one of the fastest and toughest race quads on the market. The DS produced results but not the sales the company needed, even though the machine won races in the Baja off-road series as well as the grueling 9,000 km Dakar race. In fact the DS capped its race record just this year sweeping the 2006 Dakar desert race taking first, second and third.

Still, general public recognition has eluded Bombardier.

From what I saw in Georgia, BRP is dealing with this reality. Firstly, the company has dropped the Bombardier name that led to market confusion. Second, it dusted off the Can-Am badge—a new name with a history. Exit the Traxter, the different ATV that just failed to take. And, finally plot a new direction for BRP by going mainstream and targeting the sport and racing segment of the ATV market by providing the time and funds that will let these new Can-Am engineers build the best bikes.

Perhaps more simply put, this engineering group wants to recapture the maverick spirit of the Can-Am days and they are hoping that their first effort, the Can-Am 800cc V-Twin Renegade, will do just that. 

The rest of the rebadged 2007 lineup includes the Outlander; a more utility minded ATV that comes in 400, 500 and 650cc models. The series also features the Max, a two-rider version of the biggest 800HO Outlander; the Rally, 200cc entry-level bike; the race-winning DS650 is also joined by a new fun little DS250. And for anticipated new, smaller customers, there is also a DS50 and DS90. These new models on their way to dealers now and pricing will be available soon.

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