Back before drones, iPads, hoverboards, BB-8 droids and the Consumer Protection Agency, the toys we got under the tree had the real risk of injury and/or house fire. Some were good, some not so good.
WINNER: Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle
If you took any 45 year old male right now and asked him what toy he’d want to have back, there’s about a 137% chance it’d be the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle.
The Stunt Cycle was the single greatest toy ever. If you’ve never played with one, it sat in a red cradle until you cranked the gear reduction handle to approximately 189,496 RPM, at which point, the cycle would eject itself from the base and shoot across the floor at speeds faster than the real Evel Knievel ever hit a launch ramp.
There were four different vehicles to choose from, including the Triumph Bonneville-esque Stunt cycle, a sort of Top Fuel dragster, a version of the failed X-1 Skycycle, and a chopper that rode a constant wheelie.
Friends, there was no better toy that one modeled after a self-confessed second-story safe cracker who once broke Shelly Saltman’s arm with a baseball bat.
LOSER: Six Million Dollar Man Dual Launch Drag Set
Celebrity tie-ins were a critical part of toy marketing, once Evel Knievel figured out how to make more money selling plastic than he ever made hurling himself over — and sometimes into — school buses. Kids also still loved cars and motorcycles in the 1970s, so any opportunity to marry the celebrity and the car was fair game.
Such was the case with the Six Million Dollar Man Dual Launch Drag Set. Kenner was already printing money with its Steve Austin action figure, and his nemesis, Maskatron. Kenner even made an Oscar Goldman action figure, because what kid didn’t want to play with a government bureaucrat, complete with plaid sport coat and briefcase?
In order to cash in on the popularity, Kenner put the Six Million Dollar Man in an air-driven cycle-car, which would’ve been ok on its own, because Steve Austin must’ve had to get to work somehow.
Where it got weird, though, was who he raced against. His principal competitor was Bigfoot from the two-part episode in season 3.
Yes. He raced a robot Sasquatch.
Who drove a car. Makes total sense.
WINNER: Aurora AFX Racing Set
Aurora Plastics OWNED the slot car market in the 1970s. Companies like Tyco had their own versions, too, but Aurora just killed it with its car sets.
And it wasn’t because it was a better product. Like all slot car sets of the 1970s, Aurora AFX sets weren’t much good at anything other than generating the smell of burnt ozone. Despite the “Magna-Traction” magnets that ostensibly held the car on the track, if you hit a corner at anything more than a walking pace, you’d find your 1972 Datsun 510 in BRE livery wedged under the couch after it flew off the track at light speed.
No, what Aurora was really good at was marketing. They scored real race car drivers like Jackie Stewart and Peter Revson to talk up the sets. They also contracted artists like James Bama to create the incredible box art. James Bama was a renowned Western artist who also painted the covers for Doc Savage paperback sci-fi novels, and the Aurora Plastics Mummy, Frankenstein, Wolfman and Dracula model kit box art. One look at the box and kids were hooked, regardless of whether the racing was any good or not.
LOSER: R-r-r-aw Power
Requiring no batteries and just a Phillips screwdriver to install, R-r-raw Power replaced the right handgrip on your bicycle. When you twisted the handle, it made a sound sort of like a dirtbike, the way a playing card stuck in the spokes with a clothespin sounded like a dirtbike.
That is, absolutely nothing like a dirtbike.
The only good thing is that once installed, your parents would immediately give you a dollar to get lost because nobody wanted to hear that nonsense around the house.
WINNER: Green Machine
NOW HEAR THIS: It’s been almost 40 years since the Green Machine made the Big Wheel look like a horse and buggy, and the hot tears I cried for being just a little too old to have one are still as fresh now as it was when I was 10 years old in 1978.
The Green Machine was simply awesome. Instead of having handlebars, it had twin-stick shifters like Hurst Lightning Rods, which connected to the rear wheels that turned on a center pivot.
Instead of the Big Wheel’s archaic handbrake turn, you could get the Green Machine up to about 73 miles an hour, yank the shifters in opposite directions and spin out like Jim Rockford’s Pontiac Firebird. It beat the sport of drifting by 30 years.
They make an adult-sized version of the Green Machine now, with rear wheels that are specially designed for drifting. If anybody’s looking for a gift for me this year, that would be it.
LOSER: Honda Kick ‘n’ Go
Yes, that Honda.
In 1978, instead of getting me a Green Machine, my father surprised me by visiting a Honda motorcycle store.
I thought my prayers to every deity this side of Poseidon had been answered and I was getting a Honda 50 dirt bike, but no, I got a 1940s-era scooter with a self-returning, chain-drive foot lever for propulsion.
The foot-drive was supposed to be the innovation, but there was no way to make the scooter go faster than you could by just pushing it along the way a normal scooter worked. Kicking it also made it unstable, because you had the weight of one leg extended as far as you could off the back. Finally, if you did push it along like a regular scooter, you smashed your shin on the foot pedal.
Yelp Review: ZERO STARS.
WINNER: Fonzie’s Garage
Fonzie’s Garage was super-cool, and had a legitimate tie-in with the early years of the TV show. It even had a pretty faithful reproduction of Ralph Malph’s ’32 Ford pickup hot rod, which presumably Fonzie worked on, before he ended up with a gig teaching Auto Shop.
The real reason we mention Fonzie’s Garage is not that it’s cool, but to have an excuse to show the Mego Toys promotional reel that the company produced for toy fairs. In the first 10 seconds, a bevy of young women sing Arthur Fonzarelli’s praises, including Wonder Woman Lynda Carter and 1970s poster girl Farrah Fawcett.
Oh, and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.
LOSER: The Sweathogs’ Dream Machine
To not let the folks at Happy Days cash in on all that awesome toy money, there was also a line of Welcome Back, Kotter-themed toys in the 1970s. All of them were completely lame, unless you particularly relished arranging dance sequences inside the walls of a plastic replica of James Buchanan High School.
Regardless, toy manufacturers pressed on, which is how we go the Sweathogs’ Dream Machine from model car maker MPC.
First of all, Welcome Back, Kotter was filmed entirely on two sets. One was the classroom, the other was Mr. Kotter’s lousy apartment. Nobody ever had a car. Nobody ever talked about a car. The Internet Movie Car Database, which obsessively compiles photos of every single car in every single movie and TV show ever produced, doesn’t even list a page for Welcome Back, Kotter.
Yet here we are with the “Sweathogs’ Dream Machine,” a pimperiffic 1970 Pontiac Grand Prix, with Arnold Horshack and Juan Epstein’s faces emblazoned on the box.
To add insult to injury, the “Sweathogs’ Dream Machine” is the exact same model kit as something called “The Grand Superfly.” It was the same car in a new box. They didn’t even change the color.
There was also a second toy from Mattel called the “Sweathogs’ Bike”, which made even less sense.
These people lived in Brooklyn, for crying out loud. They weren’t out riding wheelies in the countryside.