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The Story of the 'Baby Benz', the World's Most Coveted Toy

How mini drivable luxury cars entranced a generation – me included.

by Amelia Tait
17 December 2019, 10:00am

Photo: Jack Sullivan / Alamy Stock Photo

I blame – as those with good sense often do – Angelica from Rugrats.

In one episode, helpfully documented by rugrats.fandom.com, Angelica uses a hot pink electric toy car to run away from home. At the time, I thought the toy car was one of those things that had been made up for TV (I had, after all, previously learned a harsh lesson when attempting to run through a wall, leaving a silhouette of myself à la Wile E. Coyote). It was only later that I learned electric ride-on toy cars are very, very real.

I never got a rideable toy car for Christmas, because what my parents lacked in wealth they made up for in the belief that toys should be wooden. Was I deprived child? Obviously not – that wooden jigsaw was sick. But do I remain, to this day, spiritually deprived by the fact I have never ridden my own miniature plastic car like that monster Angelica? Yes. So obviously yes.

I’m not alone in my deep-rooted desires. In 1997, four adults from Maine were each fined $254 (£192) for aiding and abetting three young girls who stole a toy Jeep from a neighbourhood garage. The girls – all under ten – snatched the $500 (£378) pink toy, stripped its decals and painted it black, before its original owner placed "missing toy" posters around the town. When the girls' parents saw the posters, they – and please take a moment to prepare yourself for this – cut the car into little pieces, placed the pieces into bin bags and drove to a local dumpster to dispose of the evidence.

Ride-on toy cars have battery power, sure, but they also have power-power: the power to turn man mad.

So how exactly did these toys come to dominate the turn of the century, and how did one manufacturer – Power Wheels – sell over a million toy cars in 1990 alone? Where did they come from, and most pressingly of all: are they actually as fun as they look?

toy range rover
Photo: Vasyl Roha / Alamy Stock Photo

The very first battery-powered ride-on toy car was invented in the 1960s by an Italian company called Peg Perego, but the toys became widespread in the US with the birth of Power Wheels in the 1980s. Despite a series of safety recalls in the early 1990s (in October of 1991, the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission found that Power Wheels' mini-Porsche had a fault that left kids unable to stop their cars), the brand was purchased by Mattel in 1994. A year later, the Power Wheels® Super Talk™ Barbie Beach™ Patrol Jeep® was released – note the extensive number of trademarks in its name. Almost from their inception, children's ride-on cars were licensed imitations of adult counterparts: in the 80s and 90s, Lamborghini, Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar toys flooded the market.

"Youngsters just a couple of years out of diapers are wearing sunglasses and sport coats and sitting behind the wheels of baby Benzes and Jaguars," reads a 1998 article from the LA Times, which references a $18,750 (£14,208) mini Range Rover that was on the market back then. "Some people's real cars don't cost that much," a spokesperson for toy company FAO Schwarz told the reporter at the time, while a BMW employee admitted, "We haven't done market research on what two-year-olds want. This is for parents who want to buy it for their children."

Daniel Cook, a professor of childhood studies at Rutgers University-Camden, says expensive toy cars are historically as much a status symbol for adults as they are for kids. "The luxury aspect is as much the brand identity as it is how much they cost, how big they are. It's not only about who could afford them, but also where you would store them and where they would be used. What kind of size of home and space would you need? What kind of neighbourhood would you be in where these could possibly even be outside? What’s luxurious about it is not just that it's a Beemer or something like that, but all the other things you would need around it."

Cook says a shift in attitudes in the late 19th century meant that parents began to value toys as tools for amusement, not just education, and in the 20th century children's toys began to emulate adult life. "This is when you start having the kitchens and the hammers, chemistry sets, astronauts," Cook explains. "What's happening with these toys is they're not so much about what children will do, but who they will be. It's not about how you get to the BMW in your education and work life – it's that you're getting comfortable being in it."

Selling brands to babies can undeniably have slightly dystopian vibes ("Got a hot new Lamborghini, gonna take it for a spin, gonna tear it round the track and go back again," sings the narrator in a 1995 Power Wheels advert). Yet Kingsley Li, the UK business development manager of toy manufacturer Rollplay, says emulating adult models means toy cars can be more realistic and fun for children. The company currently has licensing deals with Porsche, BMW, VW, Audi, Mercedes, General Motors and MINI Cooper.

"Kids love imitating their parents," says Li. "They see their parents driving around in their BMWs, Audis and Mercedes, and they naturally want to replicate that. It's all about the badge!"

Li adds that the realistic features in Rollplay models – such as motor and horn sounds, opening doors, folding mirrors, working headlights and even speakers you can connect your phone to – appeal to young drivers.

With the average toddler unable to tell the difference between a BMW and a Porsche, it's details like these that make the cars so appealing. In the 90s, tie-ins with popular characters like Barbie, Spiderman, Batman and Action Man helped ensure ride-on cars were coveted by kids as well as their parents. Today, the market continues to follow trends: Frédérique Tutt, an industry expert on toys and vice president of market research company The NPD Group, says the best-selling ride-on this year is a battery-operated unicorn that retails for between £120 to £170.

After their late 20th century heyday, Tutt says ride-ons are now a small but steady part of the British toy market, worth £15 million a year (compared to £3.3 billion for the entire toy market). While these toys are now more affordable than ever before – Tutt says the average price of a ride-on is now £73 – they are still out of reach for many parents, while celebrities continue to flaunt the most luxurious options available. This summer, Khloé Kardashian's one-year-old daughter True Thompson got her first Bentley – a $2,000 (£1,515) glittery pink ride from the Luxury Kids Car Club.

mini BMW X5
The author, living out her childhood dream.

Now that I'm an adult, I control my own destiny, hence the £17.99 bag of freeze dried Lucky Charms marshmallows – sans cereal – sitting in my cupboard. To help me take charge of my unresolved trauma, Rollplay sent me its 6V BMW X5 SUV, intended for children between three and six years old, and boasting a max speed of 2.5 mph. The doors open just like a real car. The steering wheel has a very satisfying horn. The BMW logo glistens on the car bonnet.

It is a rare thing for dreams to come true, and rarer still for the realisation of your dreams to be as satisfying as you hoped. You may finally get the job you've always wanted and discover your boss likes to aggressively glide around the office on his chair and come up behind you to "have a word". Perhaps you finally wrote your book and no one read it – or people did read it and somehow it didn't feel as good as you thought. But with utmost sincerity, I declare that battery-powered ride-on toy cars are the dream that delivers.

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After the pain of putting it together, my first and only car was a thrilling ride. I took it to the local park and remained untroubled by the judgmental (jealous) stares. Cruising on the pavements in my plastic BMW was a delight. If I had been to war and also had a daughter, riding this toy car would have been the first time my sweet Isadora saw me smile since I returned from the battlefield.

In essence, then, there's no real mystery behind how these cars became popular: they're just really, really fun. Cook says they give children a sense of autonomy and mastery while also allowing them to emulate adults they admire. I say: beep beep, Angelica. There's a new driver on the road.

@ameliargh

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TOYS