When asked where our earliest memories of car enthusiasm come from, we usually pinpoint influence from our parents and gifted toys like Hot Wheels. If not from family, maybe our friends stoked interest later in life. When I think about my earliest car memories, one big influence from when I was about five years old sticks out: Little Tikes.
Little Tikes is well-known for its scoot and pedal-powered vehicles. You’d probably recognize a Cozy Coupe today even if you didn’t have one as a kid. My yuppie Chicagoland parents spoiled the hell out of my older brother and I growing up, so we had a bunch of these hand-eye-coordination-improving toys, including the quintessential Go Green! Tractor (pictured above) and Cozy Coupe. And today, they wonder why I’d rather have a garage or yard full of cars than children of my own.
But it’s not the Cozy Coupe I want to talk about. Little Tikes actually sold (and still sells) something far more badass and engaging called the Sport Coupe. When I was big enough to get behind the pedals of one, things changed forever.
Sleek Sports Car Styling
My own red Sport Coupe was so cool, but unfortunately, we could not find photos of me driving it around. If my research is correct, it seems this small hunk of automotive engineering debuted in the early ’90s, a few years after the original yellow one came out in 1988. It had a sleek, lightweight, plastic sports car body, a single center seat, narrow-width “tires”, and what I referred to at the time as “shifters.” Who knew a dullard like me would be so far ahead with his vocab choices at such a young age?
The term “shifters” kind of applied, as shifting the port-side handle forward and starboard-side handle backward made it turn right, and vice versa. Or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, it effectively shifted the load from side to side. You can see how Little Tikes engineered this brilliantly simple toy to maximize hand-eye coordination. It was simple to use and probably had fewer pieces of hardware than a rudimentary steering rack — I imagine this also made it inexpensive to produce. This video demonstrates its function pretty well.
Engineering for Children
Digging way too deep into the Sport Coupe’s engineering, the weight sat almost entirely on the rear wheels, which did the steering as well. The front wheels pulled it forward via a simple foot-crank design that’s common on kids’ mobile interactive toys. This meant a child (or drunk adult trying to get a hilarious photo op) had good rear-end traction, a comfortable seating position, a great turning radius thanks to being rear-steer, and safe stability. Well, traction and acceleration were limited in certain situations; I recall leaning way back and taking weight off the front end, which caused the front tires to scrape and struggle for grip. Any sensation of being on the edge of grip was indeed a thrill, at least for my young mind.
Helping with stability and steering was possibly the most staggered wheel setup ever fit to a mobile chassis. Seriously, the rear wheels sat way out from the body and made it look like some kind of hybrid of a sports car and an ’80s F1 car, except with wheels that shared the same width and diameter. They also kind of looked like seven-slot wheels found on a Porsche 928. The caster, camber, and toe settings were probably set to zero from the factory and changed depending on the weight of the child behind the wheel, er, pedals.
Everything a Young Millennial Needed to Learn Performance Driving Basics
Looking back, I found the Sport Coupe incredibly fun. I can say with much confidence that it built a shallow-yet-sturdy foundation for getting into autocross, track days, and other forms of fun motoring later in life.
The weird dual-lever steering system, while hard for my young mind to get a hang of at the time, taught the basics of steering inputs. Smooth inputs ensured the tires weren’t overloaded, which could cause dreaded understeer. If I recall correctly, the thing would plow like a son of a gun if I were to turn sharply while still accelerating. Jerky inputs did have some benefits, though. Slamming the levers in opposite directions really upset the weight balance. Yes, I’m talking about slides.
I’d accelerate with all my might to get up to a decent clip and then slam the levers in opposite directions while simultaneously stopping the pedals. This would cause some spectacular drifts. I didn’t have the mental wherewithal or coordination to rip a sick drift and then power out of it and continue down the sidewalk, so I’d just put it into a big spin and have a hearty giggle until it came to a stop. Sometimes I was able to spin it 180-plus degrees on wet tarmac.
Sewing the Seeds of Vehicular Fun
Who knew around 30 years later I’d have the grown-up joy of sliding around a bunch of different cars, from a Toyota 86 to a Lexus IS 500 to a BMW M2 CS to a Jaguar F-Type R. The accompanying hearty giggles haven’t changed.
It’s wild to look back on the engineering of the Sport Coupe and compare it with the physics behind car control. Or rather, lack thereof. It’s a testament to the fact that all four-wheel chassis have ultra-basic similarities, with weight transfer being universal. This is something we all learn in one way or another, it just comes from different sources for different people.
All Kids Should Experience the Joy of These Things
Luckily, Little Tikes still sells the Sport Coupe, albeit with some ergonomic and styling upgrades. It’s actually called the Little Tikes Sport Racer now. It looks more like a modern car with a bigger backrest, and I bet it would outperform the one I had 30 years ago. I’m not going to lie, part of me wishes I could still fit in one.
I don’t plan on having kids, but you better believe I’ll be looking to build some Cool Uncle cred and buy one for the rugrats in my extended family. I have to pass on the motor-skills building, and maybe, hopefully, the love of driving. We can’t all afford to get our children, nieces, and nephews into the expensive hobby of karting, but there are other ways to enjoy a set of wheels. Starting your sprouts on pedal-power still helps build motor skills, and could really help build a basic understanding of grip, steering input, and weight balance.
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