When asked about car-inspired toys, most people immediately think Hot Wheels®. But the world of car toys goes far beyond one brand of 1:64 diecasts.
There are few themes that trigger memories like toys and cars, so vintage car-themed toys can be particularly nostalgic. The best toys are opened eagerly and played with mercilessly until broken and discarded or outgrown and set aside - making it hard to find them in good shape decades later. Here are five sought-after vintage car toys, some of which are still in production today.
1. Originally designed as model car kits by toy manufacturer MPC, Zingers® were custom cars with zany over-sized engines set into 1/25 scale bodies. Huge rear slicks and regular front tires rounded out the customizing to create a cartoonish look. Advertised as “the hairiest, scariest fistfuls of muscle,” these models were the brainchild of twenty-eight-year-old Dennis Johnson from Euclid, OH. Entering his unique creations in a contest sponsored by MPC at the Detroit Autorama in 1970, he won best of show. His unique creations were adopted by MPC and put into production in 1971.
Kids flocked to the crazy-looking model cars and the Zingers® took off like a dragster bolting off the line. Capitalizing on the craze, MPC hired builder Chuck Miller (famous for his Red Baron hot rod) to make ½ scale versions of the Zingers® with life-sized engines for promotional purposes. Zingers® model kits are still available today at hobby shops although made now in China. The original 70s Zingers® (made in the USA) model kits can go for well over $50 for an MIB (mint in box) model, or $25-$35 for a pre-made original model.
2. Kenner® Toys was an American toy company that produced some of the best toys of the 70s and 80s. One of the most notable was Kenner's® SSP Smash Up Derby set. Consisting of two cars fueled by Super Sonic Power (a zip cord that revved up a gyro wheel), the set also included two ramps which you would position facing each other. Once you pulled the zip cord, you positioned the cars to speed up the ramps and POW!, they would smash into each other. Because the cars were made of special breakaway pieces, when they collided, parts would explode everywhere. Due to the nature of the toy, finding these in mint condition today is almost impossible. While this toy is no longer in production, you can still find it on eBay. Expect to pay anywhere from $50 - $100 for an incomplete set (often missing doors, wheels, hoods and/or rip cords) and up to $300 for a complete set.
3. Made in the early 60s by Marx, Nutty Mads® were molded plastic toys inspired by the wacky characters popular in comics and the custom hot rod world of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. Bight colors and goofy faces were the signature of these characters, which included Roddy the Hot Rodder, Donald the Demon and All-Heart Hogan, a policeman. Nutty Mad® cars were later available to race your figures around in. These battery-operated tin cars featured painted-on wild eyes and grimacing mouths with huge teeth. Only in production for a few years, these collectible toy figures can be found for around $25-35 depending on the character. The cars are a lot more difficult to find. Expect to pay up to $200 for one of these hard-to-find toy cars.
4. The California custom car scene in the early 60s inspired a series of model kits called Weird-Ohs®. They were designed by Bill Campbell and manufactured by the Hawk Model Company from Chicago, IL. Six characters were created: Daddy, driving a custom coffin; Digger, driving a dragster; Davey the psycho cyclist; Huey Hot Rod; Endsville Eddy, driving a suped-up funny car; and Wade a Minute, The Timeless Timekeeper. The models became so popular they spawned a series of books, comics, records, stickers, and puzzles. Eventually several more sets of characters were created, deviating from the hot rod theme and latching on to the California surf craze with characters such as Silly Surfer and Sling Ray Curvette. The Weird-Ohs® models are still in production and available at hobby shops. The original models can be found in their great vintage boxes on collector sites for around $60-$100. If you just dig the artwork, you can often find the empty original model boxes for around $20.
5. Long before video games, kids spent hours racing slot cars. Originally designed in the early 1900s by Lionel® (better known for their toy trains), these little metal cars had a small wheel sunk into a trough in the metal track and powered by a battery. By the mid-60s, cheaper electric sets hit the market. These cars could be controlled individually, and that’s when the toy really took off. Slot car races were a regular event with kids gathering in basements and neighborhoods to race each other. Eventually, professional slot car teams formed, each focused on their favorite brand of car and track. Throughout the 70s and 80s, many different tracks and types of cars were in production, including sets based around popular TV shows such as The Dukes of Hazzard®, Batman®, Speed Racer® and Back To the Future®. Slot car sets are still available at hobby shops and many towns have dedicated clubs that continue to race today. Because of the longevity of this popular toy, prices for vintage slot cars and tracks can go for hundreds of dollars, but if you just want to see what all the fuss is about, you can easily pick up a pretty decent complete set for around $30.
All photographs © 2017 by Michelle Haunold. Toys are from author’s private collection
- Valvoline does not endorse any of the products or manufacturers listed above. Use at your own risk.