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 widespread 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.
When it comes to portals, it all started with gears and gear reduction, which makes sense because gears are what have driven machines since the beginning of time (practically). The reason gear reductions are so important in automobiles is their ability to transform the fixed power output of an engine into more torque or more speed. Torque without speed will allow you to pull massive loads, but at a snail’s pace, and you’ll probably tear up your drivetrain along the way. If you get rid of all that torque, your vehicle will go fast, but only if you have a few miles of straight and smooth road to accelerate on.
Automakers have been using gear reductions to get the perfect balance of speed and torque since the very first gasoline-powered vehicles were rolled out. It didn’t take long for someone to see the advantage of putting a gear reduction in the hub.
Would you believe me if I said the Volkswagen Beetle was used in the first major application of portal gear technology? Okay, so that’s not exactly accurate, but it’s not totally false, either.
In the years leading up to World War II, Ferdinand Porsche (yes that Porsche) prototyped the Volkswagen Kübelwagen for the German army. The design started with a Beetle and was modified to make it more versatile. His Beetle-based design was innovative, but it didn’t have everything the German army was looking for—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 soldiers), and the hubs gave the Kübelwagen more clearance 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.
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.
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. For example, farmers need vehicles that are tall enough to clear crops yet still strong enough to pull a lot of weight. Some tall sprayer tractors even utilize chain-driven portal axles to get massive clearance 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.
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.
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.
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. 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 pounds, and chain driven.
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 SuperATV GDP portals 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, 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?