It was just about impossible to be a kid in the 70s and not know about Evel Knievel. He was the iconic folk hero of a generation that grew up a little too late to catch the space race or Daniel Boone. Eyes were transfixed to television sets around the world each time he put on his helmet and proceeded to propel his motorcycle towards a ramp – sending the daredevil flying over cars, buses, fountains, canyons, and anything else that seemed to have a need to be jumped over. Of course, part of the allure of these spectacles was that Mr. Knievel didn’t always make the most graceful landing.
Often he landed just a bit short, or perhaps his wheels came down a bit off their mark, sending him tumbling head over heels just ahead of his motorcycle – which was quickly catching up behind him. Each failure only increased his legendary status, however, and made him a superhero in the minds of many. From his legendary Caesar’s Palace fountain jump to his ill-fated rocket journey over Snake River Canyon, Evil had his share of horrific accidents that often left him with multiple fractures. In fact, as legend would have it, he supposedly broke every bone in his body at one time or another – a statistical tidbit that every kid from the era could rattle off with ease.
And while imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, in Evel’s case, it could be downright dangerous. On suburban streets all across America, little boys set up shaky plywood ramps, tied a makeshift cape around their necks and started to pedal profusely, eager to see how many obstacles they could jump with their bicycles. In the process, some even broke a few bones of their own. Still, nothing deterred them from wanting to be just like Evel Knievel, which instantly caught the attention of the toy companies.
Ideal Toys was the first out of the gate, when, in 1972, they released the first action figure, complete with white jumpsuit, American flag proudly adorned on the back, a motorcycle helmet, and oddly enough, a walking stick (something Evel would probably need in the future?). Soon to follow were vehicles that allowed kids to send Evel flying over Tonka Trucks, the family dog, or any other obstacle their devious little minds dreamed up. The Stunt Cycle, in particular, became a staple on Christmas lists around the country. Wind up the hand crank on the side, release the lever and off he would go, racing fearlessly towards eventual doom. Rarely, if ever, did the motorcycle land successfully, just like the real Evel!
These items sold in such massive quantities that it was inevitable that other accessories would follow. The Super Jet and Sky Cycle were introduced as well as a Crash and Stunt Car (Did Evel ever even drive a car?) and the more fanciful Silver High Jumper Stuntcycle and Strato Cycle. Even a dragster with a working parachute joined the mix. And when Evel needed a little R & R from the high-stress daredevil world, he could kick back in the Scramble Van and the Road and Trail Adventure Set, basically an RV with a set of mechanics tools, ramps, and any other little devices Evel might need along his adventurous journey.
But wait, there’s more! What better place to show off Evel Knievel’s talents than your very own Stunt Stadium, complete with the painted faces of cheering fans adorning the stands. Or, for the ultimate challenge, there was Stunt World, providing a death-defying obstacle course for Evel to traverse. Then there was the somewhat-bizarre Escape from Snake Canyon set, with boulders and trees, and (if the danger factor wasn’t already extreme enough) even a scraggly werewolf-ish monster for him to battle. Hey, it could happen.
And while these were some of the more memorable toys in the lineup, the ones that every boy in America absolutely had to have, they were only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the Evel Knievel marketing machine. There were board games, toothbrushes that looked like the Snake River Canyon Skyrocket, lunchboxes, comic books, die-cast vehicles, bedsheets, and any other item that could possibly have an Evel Knievel image slapped on the front.
The popularity of Evel Knievel raged on throughout the 70s, finally running out of gas towards the end of the decade, a few years after Evel hung up the motorcycle helmet for good and began his convalescence and eventual legal troubles. But of all the toys issued in the 70s, these are perhaps some of the most memorable and, as such, remain extremely popular with toy collectors all over the globe. And for a little taste of nostalgia, Back to Basics toys, fine makers of retro playthings, has even reissued a number of these classic toys in recent years – much to the delight of former little boys everywhere that fondly remember an era where a man on a motorcycle became a folk hero to an entire generation.
If you have fond memories of tuning into ABC’s Wide World of Sports to watch Evel jump the obstacle de jour, especially the Snake River Canyon debacle, or if you ever jumped over a makeshift plywood ramp with your bicycle just like Evel, or if you just thought his toys were awesome, tell us all about it. Share your memories in our comments section, as we tip our helmet to this beloved daredevil that gave us immeasurable thrills throughout the 70s.