Backstories

Why write about these Tonka’s?

I guess some kids never grow up:)

So first things first, why am I even bothering with this stuff? I wonder myself sometimes! Well this has been a bit of sanity project in these covid crazy times, and it’s a bit of fun, I thought I could help anyone who had one of these lying around get into back into the hands of a kid somewhere to enjoy, these Tonka’s (and most of the other old steel models) aren’t made to sit on a shelf. Thought I’d make the blog a bit like a mini garage/workshop type theme, with the old run down cars coming in for a service, cleanup and test drive, gotta have a bit of fun with it! And I have actually really enjoyed putting this together. 

toy cars in a box

It was after I pulled out some of my old childhood toys to share with my young kids, that I came across a couple of these old clutch poppers. I never really knew what they were called to be honest, I just knew them as a Tonka with a button. I remembered them as being crazy fast and basically indestructible, and was surprised to find I was still pretty impressed with them, as far as friction powered toy cars go:). With a little bit of simple maintenance (essentially a clean inside around the axles and some light penetrative lube like CRC 556), these ran like new.

My kids thought they were awesome, adults I showed them to thought they rocked and wanted to know where to get them – not knowing they were 40 years old!

So I thought I’d go online and find out a bit more about these cool toys.

~~*~~~~~~*~~*~~~*~~~~~~Internet tumbleweed.

They do pop up regularly on Ebay and the like, but often it seems like the people that have them don’t really understand how they work, or may not realise how easy they are to fix if they are not working properly. There seemed to be no good catalog/guide/reference for these things. So I thought I’d set this straight, be a good netizen, and hopefully save a few of these from going to the landfill (or just sitting in a box somewhere), which would be a criminal waste as one of these cars could be enjoyed by other generations of kids with a little bit of smarts.

And I guess that’s part of the other reason, I like things that are built to last, with simplicity, and that can be be repaired/maintained (i.e. not disposable), and I do enjoy fixing stuff. These had/have all of those qualities, in a consumer space where these days the majority of stuff ultimately ends up getting chucked out, and is made mostly of cheap plastic. These were quality built even though they sold for just about $5 each at the time (1980). That in itself is also awesome and shows that Tonka was something pretty special back then (and for 30 years prior to these), before they sadly lost their way and were taken over by Hasbro.

There is a reasonable amount of info out there about some the old classic steel Tonka trucks, which is understandable as they had a 30-40 year production life. I have a few of those as well and they are cool, so will create some content about those models (main ones – there are hundreds and I don’t have that much time!) once I’ve dealt with the 80’s stuff which is more my era.

Models

Back page of the 1979 Tonka Toy catalog (‘Look Book’)

A bit of Tonka history

Below is a relatively brief summary about Tonka, there is a fair bit more information out there that has been pieced together over the years, I’ve put links to what I’ve found.

Originally founded as Mound Metalcraft in Minnesota in 1946, they mainly made garden implements, but also made a sideline of childrens toys using the same high grade steel. These were so popular with families that this became their primary business, and they changed their name to Tonka Toys Incorporated in 1955 (derived from the Dakota Sioux word ‘tanka’ for great/big).

Their primary principle of ‘built tough’ is something they stuck with, and stood by, for over 30 years of creating trucks, cars and toys for kids out of solid steel with often simple designs that reinforced that principle. There is a good interview with Gordon Batdorf, one of the early founders of Tonka here, :

“I had signs placed in every location of the plant that read: We are proud of our people, our product and our plant”.

This plant was the Minnesota factory where many of their toys were manufactured right up to and through the 80’s.

Many of those trucks from the 60’s and 70’s are still in wide use even today, and due to their high grade steel nature, can be restored to almost new, even decorated with the retro decals available online.

By the time Tonka got into the 70’s they had accumulated a significant market and had begun to diversify and try some different things, one of them was their new “Action” range, toys that moved using non-battery powered friction motors. The first were the “Scramblers” of 1972, but the ones that really took off (literally) were the Clutch Poppers of 1978-1980, three cars – a red, blue and yellow, really set the standard for this series, and to be honest were never really bettered by other models from 1980-85. These cars still had those core Tonka qualities, of solid simple design, timeless style, built tough, but with some added extras – a powerful little flywheel motor (also built tough). They were made in Japan which in this case delivered a decent quality result and enabled these cars to be sold at what can been seen today as a bargain price. Japanese factories did, and in many cases still do, manufacture quality consumer goods, electronics and mechanical components to a high precision and often (not always of course) a commitment to quality. They did anyway in this case it seems.

There were a range of Clutch Poppers, all made in Japan (the cars were, the scrambler cycle and drag racer were made in Hong Kong, and it shows), that came out over that 7 year period, and all of them good, some of them great.

1985 and 86 were Tonka’s most profitable years in its history, and in 1987 after a review about how to best utilise the company’s assets to grow and become more modern, they purchased two other toy companies – Kenner Parker and Palitoy, borrowing heavily to fund it. This would turn into their downfall, and a great tragedy for this multi-generational company. Unable to service the debt after profitability issues with their new acquisitions, Tonka itself was acquired by Hasbro in 1991. There is a great chronology of Tonka here, this is the final entry:

“On May 7th 1991, Tonka Corporation, the nation’s third largest toy company, was acquired by the nation’s number two toy maker, Hasbro Incorporated, for $516 million. Tonka’s corporate headquarters staff of 242, based in St. Louis Park MN, a suburb of Minneapolis, was eliminated on September 30th.”

Tonka’s primary principles and “DNA” were dissolved into the Hasbro soup, the company as many generations remembered it, was essentially gone.

That ending is a bit of a sad story, however it is due to the original company’s commitment to quality and longevity that their products are still around today, and still perfectly capable of delivering their purpose – good times, and some kick-ass fun for kids, and adults:)

Tonka’s on the production line – photo from NeatOldToys.com