Tonka Clutch Popper

These were/are an 80’s toy car that you revved up by pushing them along the floor several times to spin up the internal flywheel, then set them down and pushed the button on the top (the “clutch popper”), at which point they took off like a bat out hell usually until they smacked into something doing it some damage. The car itself was/is seemingly indestructible.

But hey, at the end of the day these are just toy cars, and really pretty simple, but simple done very well, a lot of fun!

Keen to have your kids ditch the screens, flashing lights, batteries and plastic for a bit?. Clean one of these up, follow some of the stuff I’ve put on the maintenance page and it’ll be good as new, with just some real-life character patina – you pay good  money for that in Jeans:) And with these cars it actually suits them, it’s what they’re all about. Here’s a cool example. Better yet you could make that a little project to do with your kid.

These are the main features of these cars that make them awesome (even today):

  • Solid pressed steel body with a pretty decent paint job
  • High density & thick plastic base including front and back bumpers – a very good choice for these cars
  • Uniquely powerful, steel framed flywheel motor with clutch mechanism that engages the gear and flywheel
  • Rubber tires (back) for good grip & speed
  • No batteries required
  • Crazy fast for a friction powered toy car
  • Took an absolute hammering and kept on going, and keeps on going even today (40 odd years later)
  • Made in Japan to a high standard

All models based on the original 1978 Tonka Clutch Popper series (Chevy Monza – Red, Chevy Vega – Blue, and Chevy Chevelle – Yellow), excluding the Indy car & below variants, have the same basic format, all made in Japan, and made up of the following:

  • A heavy duty plastic wheelbase/chassis with incorporated steel framed flywheel motor (riveted – but possibly not always, I think there may have been two different factories that produced these things).
  • A motor dust cover
  • A pressed steel body
  • A plastic window section and button.
Tonka 1978 catalogue page

That’s basically it! A simple but effective combination, these were toys that were built to be played with aggressively and have proven to outlast many of the toys of their era. There are intricate, realistic toy models of cars around, prized when they are in perfect condition. These are not those toys. These are almost the opposite. Where those toys are treated carefully, these are up for pretty much anything a kid can throw at it, even now. Putting these things on a shelf not to be touched is a mistake and not really how they were intended to be used. Tonka toys are some of the most play-worn and beat up toys you will come across, that’s a success in my book. I think they look great beat up (once given a bit of a clean-up), all those scratches and dents tell a story, a good one. In the non-battery powered, motorised & durable toy world, these things are part of a select few. If you’ve got one that is not functioning properly, it could be a relatively simple process to give it a new life, check out the maintenance page of more info.

There is the same motor in all these main models (the Chevy types), a steel flywheel friction motor, brass and nylon gearing’s, with a single (sometimes double – on the Dune buggy) clutch mechanism that engages the flywheel to the rear wheel axle. Where there is variation it is in the body type (base & body) for each of those main 3 models, then also the steel used and decals for later models (1985 ish-87?).

The other main model variants in the Tonka Clutch Popper series, also made in Japan between 1980-87, are (some of which do have a different friction motor):

The above are all really sideline models to the core Chevy models which are the ones you’ll find the most of on Ebay and the like, including the mini versions. I’ll update the pages on them as I get a hold of any and/or get around to it!

Most of these were intended for ages min 5 or 6 to 100:), though the mini ones have a wider age range, little kids can have trouble revving the larger models up without pressing the button, same with the oldies:p.

A photograph of a Tonka Clutch Popper, Chevy Chevelle
Tonka Clutch Popper – Chevy Chevelle