Big Wheel

Big Wheel

In the world of toys, there is the neat, the cool, the trendy, and the classic. But every once in a while, sometimes only once in a generation, comes a toy that hits all these points and also serves to help define the decade. The Big Wheel is one such toy, so iconic that they are still being pedaled down neighborhood streets four decades after their debut.

Ray Lohr probably had no inkling of it when he first invented and developed the Big Wheel for Louis Marx and Company Toys in 1969, but his plastic tricycle became an icon of the seventies and eighties. It’s look – mimicking the choppers of the open road – was indescribably cool. More than that, a toy with no built in noise-maker nevertheless had an distinctive sound. The clatter of plastic grinding on pavement announced to the neighborhood more than the coming of a child and his/her toy. It announced the coming of a star.

Although the design promised (and in theory delivered) increased safety over traditional metal tricycles, there was no denying the aesthetic appeal of the Big Wheel. Big Wheel riders rode low to the ground, hands extended to grip the high handlebars that swept over each side of the toy’s namesake. Big Wheel riders rode with their legs sticking out in front of them, feet clawing at the pedals. Big Wheel riders rode with their head back, wind roaring through their hair, laughter blowing back in their face.

Colorful and clamorous, the Big Wheel was named for the large plastic wheel that dominated the front of the assembly, big and bold and utterly beautiful. It sat back on two smaller wheels and featured a sliding seat that could adjust for the growing tricyclist. Some models even featured a hand brake located to the side, but if anyone ever rode a Big Wheel with the intention of braking, history and legend have both thankfully chosen to ignore the fact.

One of the basic tenets of Big Wheel’s awesomeness was not only its durability, but it’s adaptability. One could ride the Big Wheel down the hall, through the kitchen, and into the family cat as easily as cruising down the sidewalk. Figure-eights were at the top of their game during the age of the Big Wheel. Potted plants knew no malice like the Big Wheel who hungrily circled the living room while waiting for the words, “RIDE THAT THING OUTSIDE!”

Ride outside they did. Big Wheelers often rode in packs, looking to the locals like any intrepid band bound for Sturgiss. Part of a toy’s worth is measured by how many dares one can make with it. The Big Wheel knew no limits. I dare you to ride down that hill curvy with, touch your brakes and you lose. I dare you to play chicken with Louis, whoever swerves first loses. I dare you to ride down those stairs, bail out or fall off and you lose. I dare you to race with double passengers, anyone who falls off automatically loses. I dare you to ride to the end of the lane and do a 180 degree drift, 179 doesn’t count.

And who refused? No one. Big Wheel was not built for fear. It was built for the driveway, the sidewalk, the open road. It was built for the living room, the dining room, the back patio. It was built for safety, for speed, for fun.

It was built to ride.

Did you leave a few trails of disintegrating plastic tires on the pavement in your day? Do you have any good daredevil stories to share? Were you the coolest kid on the block, thanks to your formidable Big Wheel skills? Share those memories with us as we remember one of the coolest kid-sized vehicles ever made.

6 Responses to “Big Wheel”

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  1. jyrhino says:

    Totally disagree on the brake. It was the second best thing about the toy; first was the speed you could get to without any sideways slop – I could ride the hill near my grandparents to ‘amazing’ speeds and then the brake came in. By turning the wheel the right way, jamming the wheel still and hitting the brake just enough, I could fishtail 2 to 5 ft at horrendous speeds (10 mph?), leaving skid marks every time. The poor thing finally was sent to the landfill (arghhh.. no recycling!) Both the front wheel and the rear wheels had flat areas on them, about 4″ long on each. That’s how much I loved that thing.

  2. Eddie Ruff says:

    adults ride them too and they are still very much around

  3. Jeff ogden says:

    When the front wheel went bad, they could be turned into a go cart by cutting off the front and stuffing a piece of wood in the hole, then building a front axle that used rope to steer. It was just as fun flying down roads and alleys on a hill. When the rear wheels decided to go, then you found another and started over. The kids in my grandmother’s neighborhood did that for free fun and it was a blast..

  4. SYL says:

    When I was a kid, my dream was to throw some sandwiches in the rear trunk (some big wheels had them), and ride across the country.

    Sadly, that still remains on my bucket list today.

  5. Tom Byrne says:

    The front wheel would go bad, but local shops would sell you a new one. When the rear wheels went bad, we retro-fitted traditional tricycle wheels due to their lower rolling resistance. True story, my vehicle-mod hobby started in 1974 when I was 7 years old. Great times.

  6. Tom Levier says:

    Loved my Big Wheel. My brother and I rode ours for hours. The saddlebag was often an early casualty; If another big wheel rear ended you, the saddlebag was easily destroyed – I remember later models (like the one my sister rode) did away with them.

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