All-terrain, all-weather, all-pleasure: Karou Incorporée of Drummondville, Québec, and the Karou all-terrain vehicle

A Karou Karou all-terrain vehicle. Anon., “Opération Camping à Saint-Hilaire.” Photo-Journal, 26 July to 1 August 1971, 47.

On this day of August 2021, yours truly would like to invite you to an examination of one of the many all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) which saw the light of day during the 1970s, the Karou Karou, produced by Karou Incorporée of Drummondville, Québec – one of the first series-produced ATVs in Québec.

And yes, I realise that the issue of the weekly Photo-Journal which served as a launch deck for this issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee covers the period from 26 July to 1 August 1971. Yours truly noticed that detail only when writing the caption for the photo above. I will be more careful next time. This being said (typed?), our subject is, in my opinion, worthy of being lifted from oblivion. I shall be brief. You may, after all, feel an irrepressible urge to go out and mingle with humans.

Our most interesting story for today began at an undetermined date in the 1960s. Robert “Bert” Beaudoin, a mechanic and stock car pilot, perhaps employed at the time by a snowmobile manufacturer, Skiroule Limitée of Wickham, not far from Drummondville, Québec, bought an ATV available in Ontario. He noted that this vehicle had a certain number of faults, however. Before too long, around 1968, Beaudoin joined forces with Gilles Lalancette, then sales manager at Skiroule, and began designing an ATV.

Let us mention in passing that Lalancette and Beaudoin had been working in the field of recreational vehicles, including snowmobiles, since approximately 1964. The latter had also worked for another snowmobile manufacturer, Sno-Jet Incorporée of Thetford Mines, Québec, at an undetermined date.

And yes, the collection of the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa, Ontario, a sister / brother institution of the incomparable Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, includes a Skiroule Sno Pro snowmobile.

Deeming their project sufficiently advanced, Lalancette and Beaudoin contacted a businessman from Drummondville, Raymond Dubeau, president of Dubeau & Lapointe Limitée, a firm which specialised in steel structures. The 2 men may have known that Dubeau had had some problems with an ATV designed in Ontario.

Five residents of Drummondville, that is 1 mechanic, 3 industrialists and 1 business agent, incorporated Karou Incorporée in June 1970. All these wonderful people had, it was said, a good experience in the field of recreational vehicles, including snowmobiles. The firm’s small factory was apparently located in Grantham-Ouest, Québec, near Drummondville.

Before I forget, Dubeau and his business partner, Paul Lapointe, then owned the majority of Karou’s shares.

Even before the end of July, journalists had the opportunity to test some prototypes and (pre?)series examples of the 4-seat 6-wheel-drive amphibious ATV that the Karou was during a visit to the 1970 edition of the agricultural and industrial exhibition in Drummondville. The management of Karou obviously praised the merits of their ATV, ideal, they stated, for farmers, industrialists, sportsmen, forestry workers, etc., etc.

The mayor of Drummondville, Philippe Bernier, may have taken a stroll before said journalists, however. If I may be permitted a comment, flattering people in authority is rarely a bad idea. In any event, Bernier was delighted. He was no doubt aware that his city and region had an enviable reputation for the production of leisure and recreational vehicles.

Would you believe that Bernier was a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force and, for some time after 1953, the owner of a flight school, the first in the region, located in Saint-Nicéphore, not far from Drummondville, before setting off in municipal politics?

Karou’s management hoped to produce or, more precisely, assemble between 250 and 300 vehicles before the end of the fall of 1971. The various parts of the Karou were indeed manufactured under contract by various firms, some of them located in Drummondville.

A representative from Karou visited the United States in the fall of 1970 and the fact was that at least one major (American?) order was then initialed. In fact, Karou hoped to sell about 80 % of its production in the United States.

Earlier in the year, some observers had predicted that up to 30 000 ATVs of all types would be sold in North America in 1970. A total of 10 000 seemed more likely. Some of the reasons behind this lower figure included the limited success of ATVs as utility vehicles and the fact that a typical ATV was twice as expensive as a typical snowmobile, but back to our story.

Weeks, then months went by. The number of vehicles produced annually by Karou apparently did not exceed the 250 mark, but their cost increased by a third between the middle of 1970 and the middle of 1972. Indeed, orders did come in but the firm did not succeed in producing its ATV quickly enough. Karou actually appeared to be in the red. Lalancette left the firm for one reason or other before the summer of 1972.

In any event, Karou’s management believed that ATV production would take off in the 1970s. Indeed, Karou undertook the construction of a somewhat larger factory in the fall of 1972. At that time, management relied mainly on the Québec and Canadian markets to fill its coffers. It hoped that said factory would produce 1 000 Karou per year in 1974.

In November 1972, the Commission des valeurs mobilières du Québec suspended trading in Karou’s shares. This suspension was rescinded in January 1973. Something, it seemed, was rotten in the state of Karou.

Incidentally, Hamlet is not the person who speaks the famous line “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Nay. These famous words are spoken by Marcellus, one of the officers who first see the ghost of king Hamlet, the daddy of the other Hamlet, walking on the ramparts of Elsinore castle, in real life Kronborg castle, in Helsingør, Denmark, but I digress.

Continuing in the wake of this digression, the best cinematic versions of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare would be those which starred, in alphabetical order, Kenneth Charles Branagh (1996), Mel Columcille Gerard Gibson (1990), Sir Laurence Kerr Olivier (1948) and Innokenty Mikhailovich Smoktunovsky, born Smoktunovich (1964). Olivier himself applauded the performance of the Soviet actor, quite possibly the best movie Hamlet of them all.

In any event, again, Karou seemed to move to its new factory around February 1973. In March, the firm signed a 10-year contract with a North American distributor created for that purpose, Karou International Distribution Incorporated of Montréal, Québec. The American market again appeared to be a safe haven if the staff could produce the vehicles ordered quickly enough.

A few weeks and months go by. Karou was forced to declare bankruptcy in September 1973. The creditors of the firm shared the spoils over the following weeks and months.

Yours truly would be surprised to read (hear?) that more than 1 500 Karou got produced between 1970 and 1973. That type of ATV was really rare as of 2021.

The disappearance of Karou was not the only one to affect the Québec and Drummondvillian ATV industry. No less than 4 other firms established in Drummondville or its region, in all likelihood the region of the world with the highest concentration of ATV manufacturers, disappeared or left even before the end of 1980. The bright future envisioned by Karou’s management had gone up in smoke.

Take care of yourself, my reading friend. Stay cool and drink a lot of water.

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Rénald Fortier