Original Big Wheel keeps on turning

November 10, 2003|By Steve Esack | Steve Esack,THE MORNING CALL

The concrete straightaway never lessened. The zig-zag defense, working so wonderfully for so long, was failing. The plastic wheels ground louder, closer. And then it was there.

The Green Machine, in all its hideous green, sleek, menacing glory, was there. Powered by legs two years older and two inches longer than mine, the machine was about to overtake my wee-little Spider-Man Big Wheel.

"No! Cut the wheel," my Spidey-sense tingled.

With a superhero-fast jerk of the handlebars, pebbles bounced, tires crunched, plastic met plastic, and the machine was pushed right, right into old Emma's wall.

Crash, cinder blocks tumbled. Emma yelled. The Green Machine stopped. Victory was mine. And with it, a heaping serving of Big Wheel-style ice cream, ice cream.

Ah, that was a race for the ages, at least the '70s, when the low-slung, peddle-powered Big Wheel and its Marx brother, the Green Machine, ruled my neighborhood and kid-dom nationwide. It was a golden, or rather a plastic, age, before corporate shake-ups caused the Big Wheel to seemingly vanish from sidewalks and driveways across America, thus cementing its status as a pop icon.

But now, after years of mothballed extinction, the icon is rising again. The original, 16-inch Marx Big Wheel - and a more modern, 21st-century version of the Green Machine - are back. And selling briskly, toymakers say, thanks in part to the nostalgia children of the '60s and '70s feel to the name brands.

"It's coming back, good," said Keith Miechur, 30, co-owner of City Dogs, etc., in Easton, Pa. "I haven't seen a Big Wheel in a long time, and now that I have a niece I'd like her to have one. It's like a childhood thing. Every child I knew, who is now my age, had it. It was just something fun. That, and it used to peel out pretty good."

In July, Alpha International Inc., a toy company in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, officially relaunched the Big Wheel for 3- to 8-year-olds. Cast in the same yellow, red, blue and black plastics mold as the original 1969 model, the $27.74 Big Wheel was out of stock last week on Walmart.com.

Last week, the company unveiled a Sponge Bob Big Wheel at the Fall Mass Market Toy Expo in New York City. And Alpha expects the Nickelodeon cartoon star's endorsement will bolster sales against other low-riding cycles, such as the relatively inexpensive Hot Wheels version and the bigger-ticket items, such as the Razor Scream Machine and Huffy's new Green Machine.

Huffy Bicycle Co., based in Springboro, Ohio, debuted its steel-framed Green Machine in February. It soon became the number two, high-priced seller ($99.97) at Toys R Us, said Huffy Bicycle spokeswoman Dawn Lynn.

Although he had no figures on the Green Machine, Eric Deininger, Alpha's marketing consultant, says Alpha's research shows that an average of about 1.7 million Big Wheels were sold a year up until the early '80s, for a total of about 40 million in its lifespan.

Now that the two riders are back, can fond memories alone sustain retro toys in this age of lights, sensors and sounds that pulsate from big and little toys alike?

At first, nostalgia will fuel the market, experts say, but for the Big Wheel and new Green Machine to last in the marketplace they will need kids too old for tricycle, too young for a bike, to identify with and accept them as they did decades ago.

So what is it about the Big Wheel and the Green Machine that illicit such strong feelings?

Is it that they remember the glowing report issued in the mid `70s by the U.S. Consumer Safety Report that called the Big Wheel "the most stable tricycle design in U.S.A."? Is it the strange ice-cream thing kids would do by flipping the cycle upside down, turning the peddle and screaming ice cream, ice cream? Is it the freedom to roam the driveway?

For Ellen Sherman Todd, it is all the above. Todd, who runs the online toy company googlebux.com, claims to be the longest-selling auctioneer of Big Wheels on eBay.com. She says she has found that Generation X parents seem to dismiss the modern, steel-framed cycles in favor of the old Big Wheel because they "want to hear that old sound of those Big Wheel tires and see those spinouts."

"I wanted something with a low center of gravity, and when my son first rode his, I was whisked back to 1975," e-mails Todd. "I had the 1976 Marx version, with clicking rear wheel, spinout brake and saddlebag. I've seen message boards with thirtysomethings asking if there is an adult-sized plastic big wheel. It's fun to relive those days."

The Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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