In 1966 Arctic Cat revolutionized the snowmobile with the original Panther. A decade later, the Pantera redrew the Cat blueprint to create a cross-country race sled for the trail.
The Pantera name had been introduced in 1975 on a machine that was little more than a Panther with a mid-mounted gas tank and orange trim instead of purple. However, the 1976 Pantera was virtually all new and definitely different from the ground up, sort of a cross between a Panther and an El Tigré.
A Winnipeg Racer For The Trail
Some manufacturers, including Arctic, Polaris and Viking, had been building low-volume specials for the famed Winnipeg-to-St. Paul International 500 cross country race for several years. These specials were typically longer two-seat family sleds with a competition-style free-air engine poking out of the hood and an auxiliary fuel tank on the back end. The new 1976 Pantera turned this basic formula into a full production model, but it was built on a whole new frame with some substantial differences.
The new chassis was all-aluminum instead of including the usual steel front end. To reduce vibration, the engine was suspended in the frame rather than being bolted down onto it. Instead of locating the driven clutch on the chaincase as in the Panther and Cheetah, the jackshaft drive system from the El Tigré was used to better distribute stresses in the chassis. Although this was a single-seater, it was 5 inches longer than the 2-Up Panther and had more track on the ground than any solo sled in the industry. And for the first time, the track featured DuPont Fiber B (Kevlar) reinforcement. New arched skis were said to make turning easier. And new slide rails allowed the hyfax to be slid on and off through the track windows instead of removing the skid frame and laboriously drilling out numerous hyfax rivets, a truly monumental maintenance improvement at the time.
The engine itself was part of the brand new Suzuki-built Spirit series (“The Spirit’s goin’ to move ya”) that replaced Kawasaki power in all full-sized 1976 Cats. Larger than the usual 440s by design, the Pantera’s 500 free air produced more torque and power at lower rpms for better performance, less noise and longer engine life. In an Arctic promotional video, former Cat Sno Pro racer Charlie Lofton revealed that the machine delivered 24 pound-feet of torque to the track, probably the most of any production machine available that season.
In the rear, a high-back seat cushioned the auxiliary 3.5-gallon gas tank that drained down first. When it was empty, the fuel system automatically switched to the 7.1-gallon mid-mounted tank. This 10.6-gallon total capacity was completely unprecedented in a stock snowmobile. Unfortunately the tiny storage compartment on top of the rear tank wouldn’t hold much more than a spare set of spark plugs.
A tall windshield and some orange and yellow pin striping topped off this impressive package that was dubbed the “Catillac” in the sales brochures. It became Cat’s most-produced model for the 1976 season, with 7,501 of these awesome but pricey machines being manufactured and sold.
“Good Times Are Comin’ On The Cat”
Catillac was certainly a good nickname for this Pantera because it was a huge sled that set new ride standards for a single-seater. Fast and smooth, and lighter than most people believed, the powerful Pantera was embraced by riders who wanted a performance sled with extra range and real comfort for those long days in the saddle. The relatively light weight and large track area gave it good acceleration and deep snow performance. And the free-air Suzuki engine started very easily and was rock solid reliable, even in well above-freezing weather.
The Catillac wasn’t perfect, though. Handling was definitely not a strong point of this long, narrow sled. Cargo capacity for spare parts and ride necessities was just about non-existent. The little plastic tether switch wasn’t up to race sled standards and tended to break off so easily that most people didn’t bother using it. And the plastic rear compartment door was also easily broken off by any good whack from a snowmobile boot being slung over the seat.
Still, this was an impressive overall package that definitely raised the bar for serious performance trail riding.
The Pantera Goes Racing
The International Cross Country Snowmobile Federation (ICCSF), a sanctioning body created specifically for this type of competition, was also new for 1976. For the first time, Arctic Cat fielded a full factory-sponsored cross- country team instead of leaving this activity to the field test crew. Managed by rider/engineer Doug Dehnert, seven racers were mounted on the new Cross Country Cat, a ’76 Pantera variant fitted with the Suzuki Spirit AB34F3 340cc engine to meet ICCSF race rules. Cat green trim instead of orange and yellow made this batch of 625 sleds easy to identify.
Although the team was definitely competitive and made several solid showings, only independent racer Guy Useldinger actually won with the sled by taking the Stock class at the Mille Lacs 300 to close the ICCSF season. However, an updated Cross Country Cat carried Team Arctic’s Chet Bowman to the ICCSF season points title the following winter.
The Pantera continued to be built on this platform with relatively few changes through the 1979 model year. Additional variants included a long-seater that swapped the rear gas tank for passenger space, and a 500 fan with upgraded trim decals and optional electric start.
Although free-air power was on the way out, the Pantera did give us a peek at the future in several ways. The big Cat was definitely the next major step in the continuing enlargement of the snowmobile. The 121-inch track under it gradually replaced the 114- and 116-inchers used on contemporary single-seaters, and combined with the overall sled length and superb skidframe to raise the bar on ride quality and deep snow capability. Innovative engine mounting, slide-off hyfax and increased gas capacity also previewed later construction.
Although thousands of these unique sleds were built and sold over the four years it was produced, they are rarely seen and even less appreciated today. And that’s a shame because the Catillac is one of the more prominent mileposts on the way to the modern performance sled.
Engine: Suzuki Spirit AC50F2 Series 5000 free-air-cooled piston-port twin
Carburetion: Two Mikuni VM-32 slide valve with single air intake silencer
Compression Ratio: 6.9:1
Ignition: Capacitor Discharge (CD)
Lubrication: Pre-mix at 20:1
Exhaust: Single pipe into Arctictron muffler
Power Output: 55 hp @ 7,200 rpm
Electrical Output: 120 watts
Drive Clutch: Arctic hex drive
Driven Clutch: Arctic die-cast aluminum
Type: Riveted aluminum with extruded aluminum front and chrome tube steel rear bumpers, fiberglass hood and belly pan
Claimed Dry Weight: 381 pounds
Front Suspension: Mono-leaf springs with chromed hydraulic shock absorbers
Rear Suspension: Aluminum slide rails with four-position adjustable torsion springs and one hydraulic shock absorber on rear arm
Ski Stance: 30 inches
Track: 16- by 121-inch internal drive molded rubber logo dropper with Kevlar reinforcement and molded-in two-third width steel cleats, 40.5 inches on the ground
Brake: Manually adjustable mechanical disc
Fuel Capacity: 10.6 gallons
Standard Equipment: Wood-grain dashboard, Kelch fuel gauge on front tank, kill switch, tether switch, halogen headlight, resistor spark plugs, snow flap
Options: Speedometer with odometer, tachometer, cylinder head temperature gauge, spare belt clip, spare spark plug holder, tow hitch