The Surprising Origins of Portal Gear Lifts

The History of Portal Gear Lifts

When you think about the perfect marriage of technology, design, and function what do you picture? A smart phone? An Italian sports car? At SuperATV, we think of Portal Gear Lifts.

Portals have a murky history from their origins pre-World War II to their wide-spread commercial, agricultural, and military use. One thing is clear: the creation and application of portals has been a worldwide effort spanning the better part of a century — and they sure make riding a whole lot more fun.

Taking Gears for Granted

The Portal story starts with the gear and gear reduction — common in machines of all kinds since people first started making complex mechanisms. The reason gear reductions are so important in automobiles and beyond is their ability to transform the fixed power output of an engine into more torque or more speed. Torque without speed gives you the ability to pull massive loads at a snail's pace and probably tear up your drivetrain along the way. Get rid of all that torque and your vehicle will go fast… as long as you have a few miles of straight, smooth road to get up to that speed.

Automakers have been using gear reductions to get the perfect balance of speed and torque since they first used gasoline to make them go. It didn't take long for someone to see the advantage of putting a gear reduction in the hub.

The First Portal Gear Lift

Would you believe me if I said the Volkswagen Beetle was the first major application of portal gear technology? Ok so that's not exactly accurate, but it's not totally false either.

Prototype of the Volkswagen Kübelwagen
Portal Gear Lifts were first used on the Volkswagen Kübelwagen, which was prototyped in by Ferdinand Porsche in 1938 for the German army.
In the lead up to World War II, Ferdinand Porsche (yes that  Porsche) prototyped the Volkswagen Kübelwagen in 1938 for the German army. The design started with a Beetle and was modified to make it more versatile. However, his Beetle-based design left the German army wanting — its minimum speed was too fast for the marching tempo of troops, and it performed poorly off-road.

The solution? You guessed it — portal gear hubs.

This solution killed two birds with one stone: the gear reduction reduced the minimum speed to 2.5 mph (perfect for marching along with marching soldiers), and the hubs gave the Kübelwagen more clearance off-road to go with that extra torque.

Despite only being a two-wheel-drive vehicle, it outperformed many other World War II vehicles in its day thanks to its innovative hub design.

Portals Grow in Popularity

From big Unimog trucks to Humvees to farm equipment, vehicle manufacturers across the globe saw the value of the portal hub. Turns out that the advantages of portals can be applied to different types of work and jobs in almost any industry.

Portals have been used on industrial vehicles for many years.
A variety of industries recognized the value of portal hubs and starting installing them on vehicles including Unimog trucks.

Portal axles (they were called "portal axles" because the hub was considered part of the axle) were useful on Unimog trucks and allowed them to haul massive loads. They could also roll over, or through, virtually any terrain eliminating the need for roads. Humvee created a more capable troop carrier that could handle uneven surfaces where roads weren't an option.

There are countless examples of farming equipment that make use of portal hub gear reductions where farmers need vehicles that can clear crops and pull a lot of weight. Some tall sprayer tractors even utilize chain driven portal axles to get the massive clearance needed to clear crops while still getting the huge gear reduction required for large tires.

The applications throughout the decades have been broad, but the advantages have been very specific. It's no wonder the recreational off-roading community took notice.

Using Portals for Fun

Portals didn't just appear on UTVs overnight. Quite the contrary — people spent years poking at portals to see if they could cram them on their UTV or ATV of choice.

Jeeps were the first off-road vehicles to use portals
Jeep fans were the first to add portals to their vehicles for fun.

Before the first true side-by-side (the Yamaha Rhino) hit the market in 2004, the recreational off-road scene was dominated by Jeeps. It should come as no surprise that Jeep fans were the first to use portals just for fun.

Those intrepid Jeep wheelers started off by ripping the portal axles off junk yard Unimog trucks and modifying them to fit their machine. The results were good, but the price tag and effort level were very high. Unimog trucks aren't so common here in the states making this type of upgrade unrealistic for most Americans. We were just left ogling pictures on online forums posted by European enthusiasts.

Eventually aftermarket solutions became available for Jeep owners, but it would be a few years before the ultra-niche portal axle got a new life, and a new name, as a UTV lift kit.

Giving Portals a Lift

When it came to fitting a portal axle on a UTV, there needed to be a more elegant solution than hacking together hundreds of pounds of ill-fitting German parts together. SuperATV was the first to tinker with this idea creating a very early prototype that predates any other UTV portal gear lift. The portals you know and love today don't resemble that early prototype. It was bulky, nearly 80 lbs. per hub, and chain driven.

Portals have become a popular addition on UTVs.
Portals have quickly become a popular addition to UTV vehicles, both for work and recreational uses.

That prototype never saw the light of day, but it was the first step to something greater. It took some time but eventually GDP Portal Gear Lifts were born with precision-ground and heat-treated gears, a thrust bearing for the output shaft that could handle any load, and a relatively lightweight casing that made it easy for anyone to install.

Now they're taking over the UTV industry. From King of the Hammers to your buddy's backyard, you can find a GDP Portal Gear Lift just about anywhere. Their original intent — more clearance, more torque, and bigger tires — is still just as useful today as it was 70 years ago. It's just that now it's a whole lot more fun.

UTVs are still new, RZRs and Mavericks are newer still, so it's remarkable that such innovative technology made its way into the industry so quickly. With many years ahead for the industry to grow and mature, who knows what could be coming right around the corner?