The product of three years and millions of dollars of development work, the virtually all-new Polaris Cutlass was introduced for the 1981 season with much fanfare.
This revolutionary new model was expected to be the company’s primary product platform for the new decade because Polaris envisioned the Indy as a premium product only. They believed that this more modestly priced new leaf-spring “family” sled would be the one to put up the big sales numbers going forward.
New Thinking From Roseau
The Cutlass was a true breakthrough model for Polaris with its sleek styling, greatly improved fit and finish, and direct drive power transmission.
Direct drive meant that the driven clutch was mounted directly to the drive axle, thereby eliminating the cost, weight, noise and parasitic power consumption of a chain case and related components. It also promised to lower the center of gravity for better handling.
About 40 pounds was saved overall. Significant clutching issues were associated with direct drive, but the Polaris development crew put its industry-best clutch expertise to work and sorted out the problems to produce a very well-behaved product.
The Fuji engines featured a radial cooling fan mounted on the end of the crankshaft rather than the more common top-mounted, belt-driven whining axial fan. This cut more weight and noise, and also reduced mechanical drag, making the engine easier to pull-over to start while improving power delivery and gas mileage.
“We found the lightweight Cutlass was not shy about performance,” Snow Goer reported in the ’81 Buyer’s Guide. It was a gas miser, too, recording 29.8 miles per gallon in a Snow Goer mileage test.
Billed as snowmobiling’s “shining new star,” the Cutlass was introduced in two distinct versions, both with a new long-travel (for the day) aluminum slide rail rear suspension. The $2,099 base model had a painted steel chassis with a pre-mix 340 engine, twin carbs and breaker point ignition, but no instruments.
The $2,625 SS model got a bare aluminum chassis and a new single carb 440 engine featuring CD ignition and oil injection – a first for Polaris – plus instrumentation and nicer trim graphics. It weighed about 10 pounds more than the entry-level model. Arguably the best looking Polaris snowmobile ever, the stylish and well equipped SS got all the advertising support and product publicity.
SG testers at the time loved the new Cutlass SS. “On the trail the Cutlass not only was responsive, but also seemed abnormally quiet.” They went on to say that, “It’s the little things as well as the new things that make the Cutlass SS a snowmobile that stands out from the rest. It’s innovative in concept and execution.”
And they concluded with “This Polaris turns us on.”
The Cutlass series evolved quickly, with the slow-selling base model discontinued after just one season. The base model returned for 1983 as the Sport with an oil-injected 440 tuned to run like a 340, and done in black with lime green trim to appeal to Arctic buyers while Cat “went fishing.” This version achieved 29.29 mpg in a Quaker State/Snow Goer fuel economy test, effectively backing up the prior mileage finding.
The 1983 Super Sport was a Cutlass SS done in beautiful burgundy. And the new Star 250 single-cylinder version also arrived in ‘83. Model year 1984 saw the Cat-colored Sport dropped, and the arrival of the LongTrak utility version with jackshaft drive to pull better in deep snow.
For 1985, the SS became a small two-seater. And by 1986, the single-seat two-cylinder version returned as the Sprint 340 with all the premium features that the initial Cutlass 340 had lacked. The economical StarTrak single-cylinder utility machine was added in 1988.
My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed our 1983 Sport 440 and our brick red 1986 Sprint 340 ES (electric start). Comfortable, quiet, stable and smooth riding with good handling and excellent reliability, they weren’t going to win many drag races, but they certainly had adequate power for family trail riding. The Sprint 340 would even show its tail lights to a few 440s.
I did turn in the adjustable steering stops on the Sprint to decrease the rather wide turning radius, but that plus carbides and track studs were the only modifications we ever made to either one. And the fondly recalled Sprint was the last leaf spring sled in our household.
The Unexpected Happens
A curious thing happened as the 1980s unfolded. While some riders chose to abandon the sport rather than pony up big bucks for a new sled, those who remained were going heavily for the better ride of the Polaris Indy. Cutlass variants certainly were not busts, but their sales began slowly while the Indy was putting up bigger numbers, eventually carrying Polaris to the top of the market.
Model year 1989 was the last hurrah for Cutlass variants as they were all replaced by the new Indy Lite suspension sled series in 1990.
The Cutlass series never lived up to sales expectations because most snowmobilers were willing to pay more for the benefits of the coil-over-shock ski suspension on the Indy. But the Cutlass chassis was solid and adaptable, and provided a superior platform for the lower end of the Polaris line all through the transitory period for snowmobiling in the 1980s, so it has to be considered a success anyway.
All these years later, the sleek and classy Cutlass series is still one of my personal favorite “leafers” of all time.
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4 thoughts on “Flashback: 1981 Polaris Cutlass SS”
I have a 1980 Arctic Cat that looks like the Polaris. I also have a 1980 Yamaha Enticer. I’d like to sell them but need info on doing that. I have 3 other sleds to sell also. The newest being a 2004 Polaris. Can you help or point me in the right direction? I don’t currently have a subscription – had one for many years – but will get one if it will help.
The scorpion sidewinder was the best sled in 1981 1200 made, 68 hp Suzuki liquid cooled engine comet clutch and expansion pipe. Last scorpion ever produced. Came down the same production line as the artic cat eltigra. Different lipstick different front bumper and different belly pan.
And a 440 instead of the 500 in the 81 ElTigre
Too bad MPG is no longer mentioned in any of the testing.
With the continuous increase in gas prices as well as having to cover long distances between fuel stops on many rides it would be a nice number to see.
It may also push manufacturers to increase their MPG.