Vintage Big Wheel ride-on toys helped millions of kids move on from tricycles

Boy on a Big Wheel

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That good ‘ol tricycle is fast becoming a thing of the past (1974)

Remember the beloved tricycle you pedaled as a kid? Well, the popularity of the traditional trikes is rolling rapidly downhill toward toy extinction.

Today’s toddlers ride in style in the sleek and racy, brightly-colored, low-slung plastic numbers called ride’ems (the toy industry’s word for anything with wheels) that whiz, spin, skid, slide, race and even roar.

And according to manufacturers, there are some eight million vehicles with showy names like Big Wheel and Hot Cycle whizzing up driveways and down sidewalks across America, a display of what toy sellers call the biggest toy devotion since the Barbie doll.

It's not a tricycle - it's a Big Wheel - 1974

“Tradition. That’s the only reason we still sell any tricycles,” says Stan Ostrowsky of the Indianapolis Children’s Palace, a Midwest toy chain.

“Kids really don’t want the trikes. It’s mostly the grandparents. A kid one-year-old can barely reach the pedals, but he’ll ride a trike because grandma had one when she was young.”

Joe Karalla, owner Of J Kay Sales in Detroit and a toy seller for 18 years, agreed that the only people he seems to sell trikes to these days are grandparents.

“But the Big Wheel — that’s the hottest selling toy in the country,” he said. “If you can walk, they’ll get you in one.”

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The original Big Wheel

The original plastic ride’em, Big Wheel, was introduced by the Louis Marx Co. in 1969, and has since added three smaller models. Tots from 18 months to seven years can now ride one model or another of the toy.

“They really move, you can’t break ’em, and you can’t hurt yourself,” observed Karalla. “Kids throw ’em everywhere, ride ’em in all kinds of weather. They’re fantastic.”

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Early vintage Big Wheel ad from 1969
Early vintage Big Wheel ad from 1969

Already, he said, Big Wheel and its “knock-offs” the many imitators close on its heels have become “staple items” those that will always sell in great numbers.

Most large toy sellers in the Midwest say they sell five Big Wheels plus a few imitators for every one tricycle. In Karalla’s case, that’s a couple dozen each week in each of his four branches.

A sales clerk in the toy department of Hudson’s downtown store vaguely recalled selling a trike “a couple of months ago” but sells at least one of the new products each day. And at Christmas time, they go at a dozen-a-day clip.

Though prices on the plastic ride’ems have crept slowly upward, along with plastic costs, the other attractions of the toys apparently outshine the extra cost.

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The various models of the Big Wheel, for example, cost from $11 to $18 at Hudson’s, while a conventional chrome-and-steel trike (with a 12-inch wheel) goes for $13.

But parents and retailers agree, the plastic ride’ems are brighter, lighter (for easier dragging), safer (there’s not so far to fall), faster, less tipsy, and don’t rust when left out in the rain.

Racy noise-making toys like the Big Wheel may even make it easier for a child to imitate the car-conscious adults around him than the tame tricycle did, according to child psychiatrist Morris Weiss.

1981 Big Wheels and other ride-on toys
Vintage Big Wheels toys: Slick racers with mag wheels and fast-track styling (Sears Catalog page from 1981)
1981 Big Wheels and other ride-on toys - Girl versions
Trikes or racers mag wheels and sporty styling for gils (Sears Catalog page from 1981)
A new status symbol

But Big Wheels are also almost a status symbol among the toddling set.

One Dearborn Heights mother bought the toy for her five-year-old because it was the only thing he wanted for Christmas. Shortly afterward, she bought another for her younger daughter win found herself the only kid on the block without one.

There are at least 12 of them on this block, and sometimes when they line up to race. We like a parade,” she said.

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Steven with his new Big Wheel c 1975

As for kids, they mostly love the speed. “I go fast down the driveway, and just before the street, I turn real fast and come right back up,” said Lori Eming, 4, of 5273 Cadieux, who rides the same Big Wheel her brother rode four years ago. “And I never fall off.”

In Indianapolis this year, a week before the Indy 500, more than 360 tykes whizzed around a 500-foot track in the First Annual Big Wheel Derby. 

The champion, five years old, was clocked at 29 seconds, or close to 12 m.p.h. Not one of the racers suffered a bruise or a scratch.

“It’s pure sheer delightful for kids,” commented one Marx official on what he called the “astonishing success” of the Big Wheel, now Marx’s No. 1 seller.

1974 Girl riding a Big Wheel

No more trikes

But what is pure sheer delightful for toymakers like Marx and Empire is pure sheer depressing for the four tricycle makers in America.

The largest producer of all, the Murray Ohio Manufacturing Co., welded its last trike last year after 22 years in the business, and now makes only bicycles and lawnmowers.

“Conventional tricycles are selling at half the rate they did three years ago,” said D. B. Read, president of the Garton Co., a small independent trike maker that was forced by diminishing sales to branch out into lawn and garden equipment.

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Marx The Green Machine – Vintage Big Wheel (1970s)

For guys 8, 9, 10 years old who really know how to ride

Marx The Green Machine - Vintage Big Wheel 1970s

His tricycle production last year was a third of what it had been due, he claims, to “a tremendous push from the Big Wheel” and a government-sponsored study of tricycle safety that created some bad publicity for the industry.

“Our business went into a tailspin,” said Read, who admits he is bitter about both Marx’s success and the study, released by the former Bureau of Product Safety in early December 1972 — smack in the middle of the trike’s brightest season.

“What buyer wants to put a product on his shelf that is alluded by the government to be unsafe?” Read asked.

Big Wheels in 1974 - by spablab

Issues of safety

The $23,000 study, which looked into both tricycles and minibikes, “nowhere said that the conventional tricycle is unsafe,” according to the principal engineer who wrote it.

“What we said was only that it is less stable than some other designs that have the youngster seated closer to the ground,” said Roy Rice of the Calspan Corp. in Buffalo, New York.

But the headlines still read, “Tricycles unsafe at any speed.” Strict standards were voluntarily devised by toy manufacturers and submitted to the bureau for approval.

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But amidst reorganization in late ’73 and early ’74, the Bureau of Product Safety assumed a new name and more responsibilities, and the problems of tricycle safety — which studies showed caused 10,000 injuries annually — were shelved in place of more serious dangerous products.

“The damage has been done,” Read says, “and it’ll take time before the good old conventional tricycle is sold again like it used to be.”

Big Wheel photo by John Morgan

Before “the purge,” as he calls it, tricycle makers sold some three million trikes each year.

“Consumer habits have definitely changed as a result of the Big Wheel, which has taken a very very substantial chunk of the tricycle market,” he said. “Now everybody has to have a little Big Wheel rattling around their blocks.”

Tricycle manufacturers are optimistic that, despite a shrinking market due to shrinking families, they will make a comeback. They continue to mm the trike’s selling points as “basic, safe and durable.”

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And indeed, despite a sportier look in the plastic toys, your basic tricycle still very basic.

“They haven’t used imagination at all of any kind,” said retailer Karalla, who shakes his head to recall the days when he could sell new trike on his shelf.

By Susan Ager, Detroit Free Press Staff Writer

Vintage Big Wheel toys

Get $3 cash back on a Marx Big Wheel (Cap’n Crunch promo from 1974)

1974 Marx Big Wheel Capn Crunch

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Comments on this story

One Response

  1. I just missed out on Big Wheels; by the time they debuted, I was too big for them. Which was a bummer, because they always looked like so much fun. Fifty years on, Big Wheels are still a staple of the preschool set. My grandkids had them, and their kids will probably have them too.

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