Matchbox Posts

Penny Pinching, Processes and Practicality: Possible Pitfalls of Diecast Design

Matchbox cityWe recently told you the histories of Matchbox Senior Designer Steve Moye and Master Modelmaker Rob Romash, part of the talented team that created many of the brand’s model vehicles in the early 2000s. As much fun as they had working there, not every project goes through without a hitch. From misinterpretations to budget cuts to secretive licensees, here are some of Moye’s more interesting stories about projects that ran into an extra challenge somewhere on the journey from initial sketch to hanging on the pegs. We’ll leave it mostly in his own words…

Simplifying the Process

Matchbox Dune Buggy

The challenge with this Dune Buggy: use as few parts as possible.

How many parts in a diecast model? As many as it takes, right? In some cases, the company might dictate that a vehicle must be made of a limited number of parts regardless of design… “This 2003 Matchbox Dune Buggy was the result of an internal cost-cutting experiment, trying to see if it was possible to design and produce a marketable rescue-themed three-part vehicle (chassis, body, and interior… existing parts such as wheels and axles don’t count in that number). It was eventually adapted for use as a McDonald’s offering. We also were able to add a promotional Fire Engine and a Police Car for
McDonald’s, based on the three-part concept.””

Fighting for Extra Features

Matchbox garbage truck

A trash truck has to have moving parts, right?

Sometimes it takes extra effort and cost to make a working model, but in the end, the results can be worth the struggle… “This Trash Truck actually works as a pickup/dump vehicle with its own separate trash bin. It was a real internal battle to fight for the additional parts, and win, but the extra cost made this toy possible.

Battling Budget Cuts

Matchbox City Police Car

Some of the finer details of this model were lost in translation.

Sometimes management dictates a change to the processes that have worked for so long, resulting in a new learning curve… “In 2004, Mattel implemented some cost cutting measures by moving part of the design modeling process overseas. Issues surfaced early and often, when sources in Asia tried to translate sketches, orthographic and exploded views into Solidworks files. It took many back & forths in e-mails and telephone discussions for them to even be able to get us something that wasn’t ‘block-ish.’ I don’t dislike the final result, but….I’m also confident that had we involved Rob Romash  in the process, the final ’04 City Police Car -particularly the upper front fenders and other crucial areas– would’ve been much more to my liking.”

Meeting Marketing Demands

Matchbox ladder truck

Freed up from marketing demands, this fire truck turned out much better than previous designs.

Corporate management can sometimes make demands of a design that are hard to work with… “After an attempt at adding more kid-oriented, animated vehicles (a few of which I also designed) to Matchbox’s 3″ 1-75 lineup, some of us were able to convince management into getting our model shop back into the process. The last Matchbox Fire Truck embodied elements which I learned over the previous four years designing 3″ vehicles; plus, I wasn’t encumbered with trying to design vehicles with exaggerated ‘super-heroic’ width proportions.”

Being freed up from those demands led to some great work. “The result was what I consider to be my best non-licensed fire truck, and Rob did his always-superb job of translating my sketches into the final 3-D model and finished product. These models would eventually wind up as Matchbox’s last Mt. Laurel NJ-sourced products before the facility closed.”

Surprise, Surprise, Surprise

Matchbox City Bus

The sides on the bus go ’round and ’round (unless they ended up being straight).

Some designs aren’t easy to produce with traditional modeling processes, resulting in unexpected compromises… “On this 2005 Matchbox City Bus model, the difference between what I proposed and what Rob carved out, (a bus with rounded sides and front end) and what Mattel wound up producing (flat sides) is huge. This major change was only discovered when the production City Bus hit the store pegs, long after Mattel Mt. Laurel’s closing.””

Copyright Complaints

Matchbox trash truck

An original design, but someone apparently thought it looked familiar.

Sometimes a design issue catches you completely off guard… “This trash truck was an original unlicensed design that shouldn’t have run into any issues. But apparently the rear crush area raised some questions with an original manufacturer of trash trucks. The design was eventually produced, however so they worked it out.”

Uncovering Corporate Secrets

Matchbox C6 Corvette

General Motors was secretive and (accidentally) very helpful with this ‘Vette.

Sometimes a licensed design is the subject of cloak and dagger work. You have the permission of the licensee, but they are only able to help you so much… “The last licensed vehicle I was involved in was Matchbox’s 2005 Corvette C6. The big problem: because of secrecy issues, GM was loathe to submit detailed information to us! Their 3D files were as vague (blobs!) as I’ve ever seen, almost unusable. So, I was forced to gather as many ’05 ‘Vette magazine ‘spy shots’ as I could find, do my best to draw them up, and take them over to Rob Romash to make a plausible 1/64 model. Given what we were and weren’t given, Rob did a fantastic job, in a rush situation, making a C6 model that GM reviewed and easily approved.

Every now and then, luck smiles on the designer in such situations, however… “Towards the end, GM mistakenly sent us a 1/18 scale Hot Wheels prototype of the same ‘Vette! Having that at our disposal allowed us to add an accurate underneath chassis, and to double-check the exterior details which Rob and I discerned. Amazingly, Rob only had to tweak a few minor areas before painting and submitting the final 1/64 scale model.”

 

 

 

Drawing Conclusions: Steve Moye Recalls His Days as a Matchbox Designer

steve moye matchboxA couple weeks ago, we brought you the story of Rob Romash, Master Modelmaker for Matchbox in the early 2000s. His ability to translate sketches and technical drawings into perfect prototype carvings was amazing, and he was responsible for most of the castings of that era. Now, meet Steve Moye,  the creator of most of those designs. 
matchbox steve moye

Former Matchbox Senior Product Designer with one of his all time favorite creations.

Moye worked with Romash at Mattel in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, from 2000-2005 as the Senior Product Designer. “I worked on almost all of the non-licensed basic (3” long) Matchbox vehicles, plus launcher-type toy vehicles and two special marketing/packaging diecast-related toy products,” he said. “Also, during the last eight months of the Mt. Laurel operation, I was also responsible for the licensed 3” long vehicle design process, including selections and graphic decoration designs. Rob Romash and I had a very special designer-modelmaker relationship. In the five years that Rob and I worked together at Mattel, he always seemed able to translate my ideas into three-dimensional reality, many times on-the-fly, and always arriving at great aesthetic and functional solutions in a timely manner.”

Matchbox cars could be grouped into two categories: licensed designs (based on real cars or pre-existing designs from elsewhere), or unlicensed designs (newly imagined vehicles.) The key to the unlicensed cars was to make them plausible in function and aesthetics without stepping on any copyrights, while still giving these little rolling vehicles play and collector value and doing it mostly with three or four manufactured parts, for retail at $1.00 each. In other words, the designer’s responsibility was to create a vehicle that looks and rolls like a real-ish car, but not like any particular brand.

steve moye matchbox taxi 2

Moye worked on the sketches and technical drawings for most Matchbox 3″ offerings in the early 2000s, such as this Taxi.

One of the first steps to designing a new model was figuring out what exactly Matchbox wanted to offer for sale. “There would be internal discussions of what models in Matchbox’s 1-75 lineup were outgoing, where we had new opportunities for our offerings, and what we needed to replace,” he said. “We needed X number of cars to fulfill some new purpose, to fit into an overall marketing theme.” 

That’s when Steve’s task would begin. For licensed vehicles, straight interpretations of actual cars and trucks, there was no need to create concepts. “On those, the manufacturer would oftentimes submit a folder of photos and measurements; then, it was straight to tech drawings.” His ability to translate those materials was no doubt helped by his previous jobs in the design departments at Chrysler and Subaru. His understanding of automotive design, both engineering and aesthetic, made him a natural for model car design.

steve moye matchbox fire truck

Some designs translate from sketch to production without any discernible changes like this 4×4 Fire Truck.

Early on, Steve jumped pencil-first into projects in progress, and eventually became part of the Matchbox die-cast decision-making team, headed by Trevor Hayes, Rob Butkiewicz, Jim Carty and Berdj Mazmanian. “When I first started working at Mattel Mt. Laurel in early 2000, I didn’t have much leeway in selecting vehicle types because we were in a crunch to get the design process on already-approved vehicles going.” Moye said. “Eventually, I also became involved in the vehicle selection process, too. While a specific design was being created, I did have quite a bit of leeway in changing and improving aesthetics and functionality before a vehicle received its final mid-management and upper management review and approval.”

Another challenge at Mattel was to avoid stepping on toes at the company’s other big diecast brand, Hot Wheels. Hot Wheels generally was the domain of flashy fantasy racers, while Matchbox became the brand known for more realistic, down-to-earth models. The goal: a $1.00 product that was realistic, but to save Mattel royalty fees, often not based on a real car. Hot Wheels was also becoming the brand for older kids and collectors, while conversely, Matchbox was being marketed to the younger kids. “A lot of the collectors and Matchbox purists didn’t like that shift away from licensed designs,” he said. “Collectors understandably wanted more of the realism that was part of Matchbox history.”

steve moye matchbox dump truck

This dump truck was aimed squarely at Tonka’s foray into 1/64 diecast.

In total, Steve created 70 die-cast vehicles for Matchbox in his five-year stint at Mattel Mt. Laurel, plus two launchers and two diecast-related packaging designs. When one multiplies that figure by the number of vehicles each die cast tooling mold set is capable –a conservative estimate is 100,000 cyles-per-mold set– of making, it’s easy to conclude that his rolling creations easily got into the hands of millions of worldwide scale model car collectors, both young and old.

Whereas Romash sort of stumbled into his prodigious career at Mattel by turning a hobby into a job, Moye took a more calculated route. “My San Jose State University Bachelor of Science degree is in Industrial Design; before that, I attended Art Center College of Design in Pasadena CA, preceded by a correspondence course –Academy of Automobile Design- in car design,” he said. Since age 12, Steve’s career goal was to design cars, just maybe not in miniature. “Incidentally, I was the only correspondence student to actually complete the entire course. J. Bruce Bollinger, AAD’s originator and the designer of Chevy’s original Nomad, actually had to create new courses for me, and those led to my first vehicle design portfolio.”

steve moye exoto gt 40

Moye’s AutoCad work for Exoto, translating real production cars into detailed 1/18 scale models.

Prior to Mattel, he held a similar job at Paramount Industries in Philadelphia designing for the Franklin Mint and Exoto, among other clients. Automotive design conceptualization, however, wasn’t part of the process at Paramount, as their models were exclusively based on existing classics; hence, his work on die-cast classic vehicles involved technical drawings, with an occasional on-site photo shoot/documentation session for good measure. “The big challenge for ‘The Mint’ was that many of the cars were vintage ones so at times, we had to find a collector with a restored car to document and use as a guide. There were no company archives of material to work with, because many of the auto companies don’t exist anymore.”

steve moye matchbox carrying case

Moye designed this carrying case while he worked at Mattel.

Over his six-year stint at Mattel, he rarely ran into any issues with designs which closely resemble a copyrighted design. “I did a trash truck in 2005 before the Mt. Laurel operation was given notice to shut down, an original design,” Moye said. “But I later heard that one of the OEM manufacturers thought the back end of the truck looked too much like their rear crush mechanism compartment.” Aside from that, the vast majority of the designs he worked on while at Midlantic Drive in Mt. Laurel, NJ went into production with relatively few hitches. Steve still has a collection Matchbox models, many of which emanated from the entire design process; a few are shown here.

steve moye matchbox taxi 2

The final production model can take on many variants, resulting in tens or hundreds of thousands of copies.

Moye and Romash have remained in touch over the years, fondly remembering their days creating the toys and collectibles that fueled the imagination of kids everywhere. “Mattel Mount Laurel was such a great place to work. The place was staffed with good, friendly, talented and skilled people, from the executives on down to the marketers, the graphics folks, the engineers, the product planners, the separate modelmaking staff which Rob Romash was a big part of, all of the creative folks over in the Matchbox Collectibles, Tyco RC, and Tyco divisions, my hard-working graphic design compadres Christine Peterson, Jeff Osnato and John Mullane in Matchbox 1-75 and, last but not least, Midlantic Drive’s great support staff. I was sad to see it close.”

A Brief History of Matchbox in Germany

A Guest Blog Post from Christopher Leon Gaas, a collector of Matchbox and other 1/64 scale diecast with an interest in the history of the hobby.

Beside its huge history in the United Kingdom, the Matchbox brand also has something to talk about in German-speaking countries. With its rich history, some very nice special models and today’s fast-growing collector’s scene, there are great reasons to bring this turbulent story of Matchbox in Germany closer to the rest of the world.

The LondonerMB 17-B

It begins in 1959: Jakob Prins, the founder of the Dutch toy company Edor, notices that the former dairy farm of the small town Rees in Northrhine-Westfalia was abandoned and buys the huge building as a new German branch of Lesney Products. Shortly thereafter, he purchased the distribution rights for Matchbox toys in the German area and expanded the company in 1964, 1966 and 1971 with three huge new storage halls.

The Airport CoachMB 65-B

The huge expansion notwithstanding, the main subject of the new factory in Rees was mainly packaging: the Matchbox products were produced in England and a lot of female workers from Rees and surrounding villages were responsible for packing these into boxes for sending to German toy stores. Only the game ‘Cascade’, made in 1971 without any car content, was ‘Made in Western-Germany’.

As Jakob Prins became too old to watch over the complete factory, he named another Rees resident, Theo Wissing, as the new manager. Wissing received his own flat in the main building and became head of nearly 70 employees. Everyday, two huge overseas containers from Rotterdam port arrived in Rees. After a check from the customs office they were re-packaged and were distributed across West Germany.

In 1980, after a few successful years in Rees and after the retirement of Prins, workers received a difficult message: The new managing director, Paulhans Handrick, told workers about a planned move to Hösbach in Bavaria and the closing of the Rees factory. Even a visit of the former Rees mayor Josef Tasch at the Matchbox headquarters in London wasn’t enough to keep this important taxpayer in Rees. As a native inhabitant of Rees, Theo Wissing, one of the most important men of the early years, stayed in his hometown and left the company in 1980.

Mercedes-Benz Container Truck MB 42-C

Everything started new in Hösbach. Handrick, the new manager, remained in his position until the 10th December, 1980 and was then succeeded by Ernst Zillig who held this job until the 16th of April, 1983. His successor was the well-known Ludwig Darmstädter who led the company until 1994. The work in Hösbach remained nearly the same as in Rees: the models shipped from the United Kingdom were now unpacked by Bavarian ladies and went to the many shops and department stores in the West-German area. One very remarkable feature in the new company was special-designed red and yellow boxes with an unusual version of blisters in a cardbox. Today, they are named ‘Hösbach boxes’ after the new location of the Matchbox factory.

Following a few management changes in the years between 1980 and 1993 the German branch was sold in 1994 to the American company Tyco and the budget raised from 1 Million DM to 17 Million DM in November 1995. In 1998 Mattel bought the company and the German Matchbox history was over.

Matchbox in East Germany

A very rare sight compared to  models from the Soviet Union, Matchbox was also present in communist East Germany. It was very difficult to obtain new models and they were more or less only sold in the ‘Intershops’ in bigger cities. Due to the issues between capitalist and communist countries at the time, some of these models were visually changed in East Germany because brands like BP and Esso were companies from the enemy behind the Iron Curtain. On the cover of the 1979/1980 catalogue for example, the American Space Shuttle was removed.

Leyland Petrol Tanker MB 32C

Special Models

Besides many British and American special models, Germany is one of the countries with the most issues of German commercial models.

The first German model was the Aral variation of the 23C Petrol Tanker in 1963, the first unofficial modified Superfast model followed in 1970: a ‘Bank von Klasse – Girokasse’ version of the No. 74 Londoner was used a a giveaway for customers of the German Savings Bank ‘Sparkasse’. During the course of the 1970s the numbers of commercial models increased every year. For example, Matchbox used the famous brands and clubs ADAC, Esso, Aral and Lufthansa for their models and even made a few German versions of the Mercedes Container Truck No. 42: A ‘Deutsche Bundespost’ (German Federal Mail), a ‘Confern Möbeltransporte’ (furniture transport) and a ‘Karstadt’ version that was only available at Karstadt warehouses and is hard to find today.

The only special edition made for East Germany was a K-15 Londoner variation for the 750th anniversary of Berlin, the ‘capital of East Germany’ in 1987.

 

Some other models for the German market

Matchbox in Switzerland and Austria

The two other German language countries, Switzerland and Austria, have a unique history of Matchbox which is even older than in Germany. From as far back as 1956 (!) the Waldmeier AG in Basel was the distribution partner for Lesney products in Switzerland. They held this position until 1979 when Matchbox looked for a new partner.

Waldmeier successor was the Joker Group from Zurich, which was founded exclusively for this purpose. With the end for Matchbox in Germany in 1994, the history of the Swiss branch also ended.

From Sketch to Blister Card: How Prototypes Shape a Matchbox Model

Rob Romash

Rob Romash, former Matchbox modeler, has a large collection of preproduction models.

We recently met Rob Romash, who has worked in the design department for several companies including Mattel, and got to talking about the design process. For over 20 years (with various companies), Romash has been part of the team that makes the 3D prototypes of toys. He did just that for most every Matchbox car of the early 2000s.

matchbox prototype police car

Some of the many steps towards the creation of a diecast car.

So we asked him how a diecast car goes from an idea to finished model on the pegs. How a bill becomes a law, so to speak.

It all starts with sketches, of course (as photos if the model is based on literal interpretation of a real car). Steve Moye was the lead designer during Romash’s tenure, and they collaborated on countless models. Once those are refined and agreed upon, the Master Modelmaker (Romash’s official title at Mattel)  figure out how big the vehicle will be.

The exact scale of a model car is up to several factors. Some companies like Wiking, make all their cars to a specific scale, such as their 1/87 models. A more common approach, like Hot Wheels and Matchbox take, is to make all the vehicles similar in overall size. Even though collectors refer to their main offerings as “1/64 scale” very few models from these will actually be exactly 1/64. Many will be larger or smaller. So a VW Beetle might be about as big as a Mack truck. As the model nears a certain size, available wheel options are often the factor that will decide if a model needs to go up or down a bit in scale.

At Matchbox, the process began with a “Butterboard” model carved from soft yellow foam. At this stage, the overall shape is represented minus any detail. In addition to wheel size, the vechicle must also fit existing packaging parameters.

matchbox prototype police car butterboard

This is the “Butterboard” size study, carved from soft foam for the 2001 Matchbox Police Car.

In some cases, the design of a real car must be tweaked proportionally to fit these requirements. “Selective compression” involves removing or reducing portions of a design in such a way that most people won’t notice. Romash’s collection includes a pair of Volkswagen Bulli (a modern VW bus concept) carvings that show an accurately scaled model that was too big, and a slightly compressed one that fit Matchbox paramaters. This scaling has to be done just right so as not to offend the licensing department at Volkswagen.

matchbox prototype vw buiil

The longer version of the VW Bulli concept is more accurate, but the final design had to be compressed lengthwise a bit to fit packaging requirements.

 

matchbox prototype police car detail

Here’s a second “Butterboard” model, more detailed, painted gray, and with detail notes written on it. This is an unusual step, and not a lot of prototypes like this exist.

Traditionally, the first design study would be carved out of wood. When Romash was in the Mattel Mt. Laurel modelshop the preferred material for master patterns was an Acetate that had the properties for very detailed carving and the ability to revise the model without noticing. At times some models were modified on the fly during the sculpt process.  “It comes in giant monoliths like 2001: A Space Odyssey,” ( I had a great impression routine of the waking monkey from  the film when a block came in !) he said. “It’s simple. You just start carving away everything that doesn’t look like a car, and you’re done.”

matchbox prototype police car acetate

This is a pattern made from a mold based on the original carving. This would be cleaned up a bit, and in some cases additional details might be fabricated from other materials and glued on, but it’s essentially a single piece from which all future molds would be made.

For most small models, the prototype was usually carved at double size (so about 1/32 scale) to include more detail. Then a pantograph machine was used to make a smaller version (here’s a neat video that shows a pantagraph in action at Matchbox in the early ’60s. It’s the big machine at the 0:59 mark.) For most models, there may be a double sized buck in existence, but not for any of his.

Romash always did his carvings closer to the final, smaller size, allowing for a tiny bit of shrinkage from carving to first test mold . “If you give me a bunch of photos and a block of material, I can carve just about anything.” Romash also eschewed precise measuring tools, prefering to naturally eyeball the carving instead. His results speak for themselves. “I also created my own custom scribing and sculpting tools from carbide blanks to suit my style of building—a lot of 3M carbide sandpaper also came into play.”

“Moye’s sketches had a look and a feel,” according to Romash.  That’s what I went with, at least for the non-licensed models he designed, which was the larger part of the collection per year.”

You’ll notice the bodies on most of the prototypes are a single piece with solid windows and no consideration given to the chassis yet. Once the test casting is approved, it is sent to the factory overseas. As that point, additional designers will carefully remove the windows from the mold, and create a separate molds for those. Same for things like the grill or other details that will not be included with the main casting. Opening doors, hoods, and tailgates also must be taken into consideration here.

matchbox prototype police car resin

Here’s the first “Test Casting” of the design. Notice how everything including windows is a single piece.

Additional chassis details, as well as logos, trademarks, and other information are added as well. Depending on the brand, scale, and budget, the chassis may have a lot or very little detail In some cases, the engine, tailpipes, and other undercarriage details are kind of generic. As long as they line up where they’re supposed to for the design, it’s good enough. Also, at this time, the bits for attaching the axles to the chassis are figured out.

“Interiors are usually the least detailed part of most cars,” Romash said. “Unless it’s a convertible. I didn’t do a lot of interiors, but when I had the chance, it was fun!”

matchbox prototype taxi

In some cases, a painted prototype might be used for promotional purposes, such as the Taxi on this poster featuring the new releases.

The next step is to create a Silicone mold for samples. Then a “First Shot,” wihch is a resin casting of the pattern model. These usually have some flashing and other imperfections, so they are sorted and smoothed out. At this time, the designer’s color schemes were implemented, and sometimes a prototype of a paint master was done. After the paint is agreed upon then more resin castings are done for sales or Toy fairs and other marketing materials. It may also be hand painted to give an even better idea of the final product. (Glenn Hubing, a good friend of Romash, was one of the painters for thise models. We hope to feature him in an article soon as well!)

matchbox prototype police car final

And here it is, the production version of the 2001 Matchbox Police Car.

Once all of that is worked out, final mold is made, usually with 10 of the same body (a “Ten-up” as it’s called in the industry). and production begins.

It’s all simple, really…

  • Sketch
  • Color rendering
  • 2:1 model (Romash skipped this step, saving weeks per project)
  • 1:1 model
  • Silocone mold
  • Resin test casting
  • Paint study
  • (Then the body is sent to the production facility)
  • Separate components
  • Technical drawings
  • Test mold
  • First white metal shot
  • Refinement
  • New multi-car molds
  • Production

Much of this process has been disappearing over the past few years, however. As 3D printers become more precise, companies are first perfecting designs on screen and then having the printer spit out a more or less perfect replica. While it may be more precise, not to mention cost and time-efficient, a lot of the romance of the design process is lost.

In fact, Hot Wheels debuted the new VW Rockster as a “prototype” of sorts, assembling a limited edition of actual 3-d printed models on cards to sell. (If you produce replicas of a prototype for market, doesn’t that make it a production model?) It’s too early to see if the replica/prototype (Replitype? Reprotoica? Reprototype?) will catch on.

“When I was at Mattel, the model came first always, as the human hand can do things you can’t do on the screen. It’s also why pretty much every major car company today still relies on full size clay models for their final shapes before turning it into 3D data,” he said. “The art of the human hand does come into play.”

matchbox prototype police car

With 3D printing, prototypes like the ones Romash owns (and is offering for sale) are becoming a thing of the past from most companies.

 

—–

You can buy some of these prototypes in Robert’s store

If you want to own the real McCoy, you’re in luck… all the models you’ve seen in the article and dozens more, as well as sketches and technical drawings are for sale on hobbyDB. “I thought it would be great to pass some of these on to collectors who will really appreciate owning a bit of diecast history,” Romash said.

What I Learned From Toy Motorcycles: I Shouldn’t Ride One

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

Toy Motorcycles hold a curious spot in the world of miniature vehicles. Consider this: A toy car or truck, especially one with a closed cabin, looks ready to drive, and requires no assistance to stand on its own when stationary. But a motorcycle? It looks weird moving without a rider, and it can’t stand alone without a kickstand, a sidecar or training wheels. In fact, without any assistance from such things, the only way to make one scoot around was to hold onto it the whole time lest it fall. That’s a lot to engineer into a small toy.

LEhmann Tinplate motorcycle

A typical tinplate motorcycle has at least three wheels, sometimes four. But it can’t go fast enough and far enough to sustain the momentum required to balance on two wheels for long. And that’s kind of disappointing.

matchboxcycle

Matchbox offered some motorcycle models in the 1960 and ’70s, but most had a permanent, fixed kickstand. Even this Honda cycle with posable kickstand was designed primarily as a trailer load. The message was clear: You can look, but you can’t ride.

Hot Wheels Rrrumblers Bone Shaker

Hot wheels eventually offered a series of freewheeling cycles, the Rrrumblers, which could do all the things their cars could do: zoom down orange track, go over ramps, get buried in the sandbox. And they had cool removable riders, too. But like the earlier toys, they still required some assistance in the form of clear plastic bases with training wheels. Some had two wheels, but their three wheeled choppers needed assistance, or they would get squirrelly on the track. (Eventually, I figured out they could go downhill backwards without assistance, but who wants to ride that way?)

Hot Wheels Sizzlers Chopcycle Triking Viking

Mattel upped the ante when they added similar trikes (These were all 3-wheelers to accommodate the battery-powered motor) to their self-powered Sizzlers line. Instead of going in a straight line down a hill with some difficulty, The Chopcycles could go in circles and figure eights at high speeds before crashing even more spectacularly. These also came with a sled-like removable attachment to keep them pointed in the right direction. It should be pointed out that most of the rider figures wore appropriate protection (except for the fancy lad who wore a top hat and the other fellow in the newsboy cap).

Kenner SSP Cycle Stunt Show

Kenner’s SSP line offered a few motorcycles in the early 70’s as well. With their gyroscopic flywheels, they demonstrated how to ride balanced and without restraint, no training wheels, no sidecars… until they came to a stop by either falling over as they slowed down, or by running into something and slowing down instantly. The full gold racing suit and helmet was pretty cool, though.

Evel Knievel Jet Cycle

In 1974, Ideal came out with a line of toys that boys of a certain generation consider the all time champion coolest thing ever: The Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle. The commercials were filled with promise… enthusiastic boys cranked up their motorcycles with fury, the gears whining to a loud, high-pitched shriek. And suddenly, the bike shot off at great speed! They showed it on pavement. And on dirt. And jumping!!! And perhaps as a warning, crashing, causing a floppy-limbed rider to go flying and landing in a heap!!!!! And when I got one for my birthday and tried it for the first time… It was even louder and more chaotic and more exciting than promised!!! And the harm that came to Evel was even more real. Mine even suffered a gash on his nose when his helmet ended up sideways on his head after a crash. Never mind the carnage Evel would inspire on a regular street bike, the series quickly expanded to include jet-powered bikes and dragsters.

ssp rockin rickIn the late ’70s, SSP offered a new series of cycles, this time resembling street bikes, with posable riders. The drive wheel was hidden in the middle of the bike, so they really had three wheels, (or four for chopper trikes) this time in a line. But the riders clearly cared more about looking cool than they did about safety. Sure, boys wanted to be Rockin’ Rick and girls wanted to be with him, but his long flowing hair and ill-secured guitar sent a questionable message about responsible cycling.

So what did I learn from all these toys? Ride too fast, you will crash. Ride too slow, you will crash. Training wheels look silly. Wearing a helmet is a good idea, unless you have long, flowing hair or a top hat, in which case, you ride at your own risk.

I’ve ridden a motorcycle exactly once since: It was a friend’s dirt bike, and I wore a helmet. The sudden acceleration from standstill caused the bike to do a wheelie, dumping me off the back in seconds. Somewhere Evel Knievel is shaking his head.