Ontario Drive & Gear Limited (ODG) conducts business in two related lines of business: gears and vehicles. This Canadian manufacturer has built a solid reputation for producing quality gears and transmissions, as well as amphibious all-terrain vehicles for both recreational and industrial applications. David Soyka gets up to speed.
Since its inception in1962, Ontario Drive & Gear Limited (ODG) has followed the path of the road less taken. Because that’s what the vehicles they manufacture are designed to do: transverse off-road terrain, including water. Within the outdoors recreational sports world, ODG’s amphibious ARGO all-terrain vehicle (ATV) is the transport of choice for the most demanding conditions, as is its commercial counterpart, the CENTAUR, which is aimed at the utility, natural resource, and search and rescue sectors. As the company name indicates, ODG’s other core business is the manufacture of gears and transmissions, used both on its own ATVs as well as other commercial-grade and recreational vehicles.
While based in New Hamburg, Ontario, Canada, ODG traces its heritage to classic German engineering concepts synonymous with high performance precision. “My father came here from Munich to open a gear subsidiary in Kitchener for a German company,” explains Joerg Stieber, president and CEO. “Today, we are a privately owned company with $45 million in annual sales. In fact, 2006 was the best sales year ever for both our gear and vehicle divisions. We have the amphibious all-terrain vehicle market niche virtually all to ourselves, but continue to offer innovations in design and features with new commercial and recreational applications. And, a couple of years ago, we became the exclusive distributor for KTR Couplings in Canada, which was yet another of our moves to diversify the gear business and move into new markets.”
While ODG does some international business through a distributor network, its sales are primarily to North America through dealers and some direct sales. “Right now we do more business in Canada than the U.S., but we definitely see the U.S. as a growth market for us, for both the gear and vehicle divisions. We’re looking to expand our dealer network and do some more aggressive marketing through industry tradeshows and publications to get the word out about our capabilities and unique product lines,”
Back in the 60s, ODG’s founding objective was to design and manufacture power transmissions and gears, one of which was a special transmission for a 6-wheel drive, skid steer ATV called the Amphicat. Realizing the potential of the ATV market, ODG decided to introduce its own six-wheel ATV, with the twist that it would be amphibious. In 1967, the company introduced the ARGO, named for the Argonaut famous in Greek mythology for his stamina on land and water. The rest, as they say, became history. As ODG expanded its ARGO line, it expanded manufacturing capabilities to New Hamburg to make an eight-wheeler model that featured a more durable polyethylene body. The introduction of a more powerful four-cycle engine opened up possibilities for more rugged industrial/commercial applications, which, in 2000, led to the establishment of the separate CENTAUR model line. Additional product innovations include the first liquid-cooled engine, extended wheelbases to provide additional rider comfort, camouflage and other color options.
However, the ARGO’s most distinguishing features remains its amphibious capabilities, thanks to specially designed tires that allow it to propel through all kinds of wetland environments, including slow moving streams, rivers and even small lakes. While its top speed in water is three miles per hour (mph), with the optional accessory of an outboard motor, ARGOs are capable of reaching speeds of up to 10 mph. Indeed, according to acclaimed outdoor filmmaker Klaus Gretzmacher, “The reason I purchased my ARGO was because I was amazed at what it could do in the water. It carried film equipment and crew to places we usually have to access by helicopter. The ARGO goes places where even my floatplane can’t take me to.”
In early 2004, ODG launched what it termed the “ultimate dream machine” – the completely re-designed ARGO 8×8 Avenger, ideal for hunting and fishing uses. The latest iteration, the 750 EFI in a special series named for the famed hunter and outdoorsman Jim Shockley, is powered by a 31hp, 748cc electronic fuel-injected Kohler LH 775 engine. It has a load capacity of 1,150 pounds and can tow up to 1,800 pounds. At the same time, it has low emission rates that satisfy both U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and California Air Resources Board (CARB) standards. Also new for 2008 is the ARGO 6×6 Frontier 650, equipped with a four-cycle overhead valve V-Twin air cooled 627 cc 23 horsepower Briggs & Stratton engine, carries up to four passengers, and has a load capacity of up to 700 pounds and can tow 1,400 pounds. According to a company press release, “Low ground pressure minimizes the environmental footprint of the vehicle and protects the outdoors that Frontier owners care about.” Smaller versions of both models are also available. Prices for ARGOS range from $8,000 to $18,000.
Says Stieber, “Even after such a long involvement with this product, the ARGO still holds its magic for me. Every time I take this remarkable machine deep into the bush of Canada’s North, I fall in love with it again. Today, in terms of units produced, the ARGO is worldwide the most successful amphibious vehicle ever built! After nearly four decades of continuous improvement and refinement, today’s ARGO is also better than ever before.”
He adds, “One new wrinkle is that there is now a special line of ARGOs built on a robotic platform, which enables a user to control operation remotely through the use of a computer. One application is for military training in their use as moving targets.”
Indeed, ODG recently sold over 100 vehicle/ trailer systems to the South African army. In a related application, both ARGO and CENTAUR vehicles are used in mine detection and clearance. According to a company press release, these machines are perfect for the slow, dangerous and expensive activity of mine clearing because, “in addition to their ability to traverse difficult terrain, both vehicles exert very little ground pressure and as such lower the risk of landmine detonation. Unlike other landmine clearing vehicles
which, quite often end up destroying the ground while searching for [mines], both the ARGO and CENTAUR are able to tread gently, thereby minimizing ground destruction and allowing local populations to quickly resume agricultural and commercial activities. Furthermore, with a payload of up to 1,500 pounds, and a towing capacity of 2,000 pounds, the CENTAUR is one of the few machines that can effectively maneuver through the most delicate of situations. Also, both the CENTAUR and the ARGO offer the added benefit of being able to be quickly and economically transported via air to specific worksites… Finally, while the majority of [mine] clearing vehicles available in the contemporary marketplace run upwards of $500,000, both the ARGO and the CENTAUR are without a doubt a much more economical solution.”
The CENTAUR is the economical choice not only for explosive situations. The new CENTAUR 8×8, for example, is the less expensive alternative in utility work, which historically relied on helicopters (at a rate of a $1,000 an hour) and tracked vehicles (which, of course, can’t travel off-track) for remote, difficult-to-reach sites. The CENTAUR, in contrast, can make its way through any weather conditions to transverse the toughest terrains for line construction and maintenance duties.
In addition to utility and military applications, CENTAURs are put to work in a variety of applications ranging from agriculture and forestry and tour operations. Most recently, search and rescue models provide a highly efficient mode of emergency patient transportation under even the most difficult operating conditions. Because these are designed for more heavy duty applications, CENTAUR pricing starts at $35,000. However, ARGOs can be a less expensive alternative for less demanding commercial applications, “We’ve introduced a lot of options, such as roll cages and special heaters for cold-climate operation,” Stieber notes, “so customers can basically design the vehicle they need for their specific operating conditions.” He adds, “While we make the basic vehicle here in New Hamburg, the dealer will install the various add-on options specified by the customer. That helps us speed up delivery time while providing dealers with the flexibility to easily provide a customized vehicle.”
Of course, what makes both the CENTAUR and the ARGO vehicles go are the gearboxes and transmissions made by the ODG gear division. “We have separate buildings with separate production lines for our gear and vehicle manufacturing,” Stieber notes. “Total manufacturing space is 105,000 square feet. And while our gears and transmissions are part of the manufacture of our vehicle line, we do also sell these products to other manufacturers of material handling equipment, tractors, construction and off-road vehicles, as well as making specialized gears and gearboxes for injection molding, mobile hydraulics, and other automated machinery. We initiated a number of lean manufacturing practices a few years ago, and we are ISO: 9001:2000 certified.”
ODG has invested heavily in leading edge CNC turning and milling, gear cutting, grinding and machining technologies. The transmission department also has the capability to design and construct complete made-to-order gearboxes. It also makes ROTEX shaft couplings featuring superior vibration dampening and torque transmission characteristics resulting in an excellent running quality and service life. ROTEX couplings are maintenance-free and can compensate for misalignment without exerting additional stresses to component shafts or the insert. ROTEX has become the standard choice among equipment manufacturers worldwide.
Looking forward, Stieber sees open roads ahead for both business divisions. “We continue to innovate with new technologies that provide better performance for our customers.” With its long track record of success, ODG intends to remain in high gear.