Artifact Remembering the Big WheelIntroduced by Marx Toys in 1969, the Big Wheel made tricycles cool.
- Words Christian Glazar
Three toys defined my 1970s childhood: Legos, Matchbox/Hot Wheels cars, and the Big Wheel bike. The first two categories need no introduction, but the latter seems to have faded a bit from the collective memory. You can still buy a new one, but for whatever reason — helicopter parenting, the internet, resume-building in place of free play — the Big Wheel is no longer a staple of suburban driveways and sidewalks.
Introduced by Marx Toys in 1969, Big Wheels made tricycles cool, giving the preschool set a low-slung, wide-stanced, powerful-looking cruiser that made you want to hit the open sidewalk and pedal for hundreds of feet, yank the handbrake to spin a 180, then pedal back home … over and over and over again until you wore holes in the plastic, raised-white-letter tires and had to ask Mom and Dad for a new one. I went through two or three.
Plastic — so much plastic — has never been put to more effective use, and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is no doubt home to thousands of worn-out Big Wheels. Left outside in the sunshine all summer long, mine eventually faded from its aggressively primary color palette of red, yellow, and blue to a less-badass colorway of rose pink, cream and teal; the stick-on gauge cluster, which only provided useful information in my imagination, also faded and peeled. Fortunately, the trike’s three-position bucket seatback could accommodate my fast-growing frame, at least for a year or two.
But back to those plastic tires: they were the muscle trike’s secret sauce. The skinny front tire — the big one — had an aggressive tread pattern that allowed you to make progress forward or, if you chose, backward. You knew your Big Wheel had reached the end of its serviceable life when you would pound the fixed pedals like mad and the bald front tire would just spin uselessly. The meaty slicks on the back provided stability and little else; they were just along for the ride, offering no resistance if power slides and handbrake turns were your objectives.
And really, what other objective could there be? You weren’t commuting on this thing — you were six. Your range was a block, tops. If you lived on a busy street as I did, you stayed on your own property. Pedal up the driveway, turn, pedal faster down the driveway with some extra boost from gravity, yank the blue handle on the right side to execute a perfect handbrake turn, repeat. At the age of seven or eight, you graduated to two-wheelers, ventured out beyond where the sidewalk ends, and found interesting new ways to flirt with danger.
Some people never grow up, though. And those lunatics have taken the basic concept of the Big Wheel and turned it into an extreme sport called drift triking, piloting adult-sized machines with PVC-sheathed rear tires down twisty mountain roads, counter-steering their way through the sweepers and switchbacks. These gravity machines employ freewheeling instead of fixed pedals, enabling high-speed shenanigans — and serious wipeouts. Helmets and padding on the knees and elbows are absolutely necessary. And don’t think for a minute that some builders aren’t doing away with pedals altogether and mounting gas and electric motors on these things.
Or that I haven’t spent the past several hours figuring out how to justify getting my hands on one and taking it for a 180-degree spin.