TNB Night Owl – Fun On Wheels

Back the bike for school, June 2010. Photo by Knowsley Council.

Based on the enthusiastic response to the previous two Night Owl articles, nostalgia week continues! Wheels were (and remain) a big part of the toys that kids liked to play with. Let’s take a look back at how we had fun on wheels.

Toy cars have been common childhood playthings for more than a century, so you surely must have had at least one when you were growing up. Plastic cars and trucks started to replace their metal predecessors as early as the 1960’s, but metal toy cars are still available today. In my day most of mine were metal, made by manufacturers such as Ertl, Buddy L, Tonka, Matchbox, Dinky, Corgi, and Hot Wheels. You can help me out in the comments with the names of toy vehicles that were popular in later decades (a description alone is good if you don’t know the brand or maker). Honestly, I really am genuinely interested in what you little twerps were playing with after I matured and moved on to other things.

Toy cars that a kid could actually sit in and drive (where your legs provided the power) have been around since the horseless carriage. If, like me, you were born in the 80’s (the eighteen eighties, that is) you remember decades of pedal cars made of steel and cast iron. The term ‘pedal cars’ includes muscle-propelled cars, trucks, tractors, jeeps, planes, even boats! Steel wagons, such as the classic Radio Flyer, were more affordable and thus more common than pedal cars.

These fancy dream toys were highly desired, but expensive until after the Second World War. Before the war, only wealthy families could afford them. (Of course, none were made during the war as the metal could not be spared). Pedal cars after the war were more affordable. Yet, in the sixties and seventies, even less expensive plastics came along, which brought the age of steel and iron pedal cars to a virtual end. You youngsters are probably more familiar with the plastic cars, many of which had batteries and electric drive. Likewise, you are probably more apt to fondly remember plastic wagons than steel wagons.

While we’re on the subject of plastic, we must mention the Big Wheel. The Big Wheel was the reinvention of the tricycle, but for older kids, with more power and speed and a loud noise that irritated the neighbors. Every kid I knew loved it.

Tricycles were great when we were too little for bicycles. Pushing on those pedals built muscles, preparing us for the bikes we really wanted to ride – just like the older kids. Of course, when we were big enough for a bike, most of us started out with training wheels. Once those were off, though, so were we! Around the block, up to the school, over to a friend’s house, all without parental supervision. The thrill of coasting down a hill at speeds faster than achievable on level ground was unforgettable. All this and no adult in sight – it was the first taste of freedom in our young lives. As our skill and experience on bikes grew (as well as our judgement and maturity) we were allowed to bike further from home. First, to other neighborhoods, then to the shopping plaza (or to the mall, for you youngsters).

Some kids modified their bikes with accessories, or decorated them with stickers. Some even painted them. For a while it was cool to attach playing cards to the frame with clothes pins, right next to the wheel, so that the cards were snug up against the spokes. As the wheel turned the cards would ‘snap’ against each spoke, mimicking the sound of a motor. The faster you rode, the higher the ‘motor’ revved. A bike was more than a toy; it was transportation, it was the first time you customized something to make it your own, it was independence.

The popularity of roller skates after the war and through the 1950’s and into the 60’s must be noted for an important reason, as we’ll recall in a moment. These weren’t the skates found at indoor skating rinks, these were meant to be used outside in driveways and on sidewalks. They were relatively inexpensive because they strapped on to your shoes. It was literally putting wheels under your sneakers.

Old roller skates found new life in a new toy: skateboards! Kids removed the straps and bolted the wheels under a piece of wood shaped more or less like a surfboard, and voilà, an epic toy craze and sport was born that has endured for decades.

If you’re enjoying this impromptu nostalgia series and you have a suggestion for more recollections of the past, please let us know in the comments. I can’t guarantee we’ll roll with it, but I can guarantee it will be considered.

Questions of the night: (1) What were your favorite toys on wheels? (2) What was your first bike, or your favorite bike?

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About Richard Doud 622 Articles
Learning is a life-long endeavor. Never stop learning. No one is right all the time. No one is wrong all the time. No exceptions to these rules.