Invented by a former auto designer, the foot-powered kids toy still outsells engine-powered cars
Can you name the best-selling cars of all time? Think about them carefully. Made your picks? Well, you probably missed an important one.
The top three spots worldwide are held by Toyota Corolla, Ford F-Series pickup and Volkswagen Golf. No surprises there. However, close behind them is Cozy Coupe. Yes, the “Flintstone“-like car produced for children by Little Tikes is a consistent top-seller, year in and year out.
In fact, Cozy Coupe outsold all engine-powered cars in Great Britain in March. More than 85,000 were purchased that month as parents faced the prospect of being trapped at home with energetic toddlers during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Though current sales figures are not available, on the 30th anniversary of the invention of Cozy Coupe in 2009, Little Tikes reported annual sales of 457,000 cars—easily outselling Toyota Camry and Honda Accord that year. In 2012, a toy industry trade publication stated the company had sold a total of 22 million cars around the world since the first one left the factory floor.
The little red car with the yellow roof that is propelled by foot power has been a hit with young children since its creation in 1979. Inventor Jim Mariol, who was granted a design patent for a “Toy Automobile” in 1982, was inspired to create the toy as he scooted around on his office chair one day. It was an “eureka” moment for the former automobile designer, who realized almost immediately that his functional yet fun car would be ideal for kids 18 months and older to scamper around in.
“Dad knew it would be a big hit from the start,” says one of his sons, John Mariol, who worked for a time at his father’s industrial design firm, Design Alliance Inc. in Cincinnati. “He was designing toys for Little Tikes and took it to the president, Tom Murdough. They decided to get it into production as soon as possible. Dad built a full-scale model and did all the engineering for the plastic-molding process.”
Before Cozy Coupe rolled off the assembly line, the inventor made sure the toy would be a perfect fit for young hands. John says his children were the “test dummies” to see if proportions were right for smaller bodies.
“My kids got to test the Cozy Coupe model,” he recalls. “Dad would take photos of them in the car to see how they fit into it.”
It took just a few months to go from drafting table to production. Soon after it turned up in stores in 1979, sales started to soar—first in the United States and then around the globe. By 1991, with an annual production of 500,000, Cozy Coupe was America’s top-selling automobile. Toddlers craved the cute car with a working door, trunk and independent rolling wheels. Even children who couldn’t walk squealed with delight as their parents pushed them around in it.
Mariol blazed a trail into a new market for the toy industry. Prior to Cozy Coupe, there were few large toys that toddlers could enjoy. Most were smaller handheld playthings that didn’t provide the mobility of a foot-powered car. According to Michelle Parnett-Dwyer, curator of toys and dolls at the National Toy Hall of Fame, it was the right product at the right time.
“There weren’t many moving toys for younger children,” she says. “Certainly none like the Big Wheel, which was designed for older kids. Cozy Coupe was an opportunity for little ones to experience what adults do. Kids love to mimic mom and dad. It was perfect for toddlers.”
Creating Cozy Coupe was a dream come true for Jim Mariol. He was fascinated by cars growing up in Cincinnati during the Great Depression and wanted to become an automobile designer. A car concept he developed as a teenager earned Mariol a scholarship in 1947 to the University of Cincinnati, where he was a co-op student designing hubcaps, steering wheels and hood ornaments for Chrysler. Sadly, he didn’t get to finish his education because he was drafted into the U.S. Army for the Korean War.
After military service, Mariol founded Design Alliance and came up with ideas for shop vacuums, air compressors, radios and campers for clients like Proctor & Gamble, Crosley Corp. and Emerson Electronics. Securing contracts and making payroll for his own business was challenging, and Mariol realized he needed a big design to generate sales from royalties. Cozy Coupe was his ticket to success.
“That got it started, but Dad had a lot of other important ideas,” says one of his daughters, Tina Mariol. “He came up with a ride-on electric train for Little Tikes that was a big seller. It was really cool.”
In addition to the car and train, which was marketed in the 1980s, Mariol received patents for other popular toys he designed, including folding dollhouses with handles for carrying, activity sets, sand and water tables and the ever-popular Party Kitchen where little ones could practice their cooking skills.
Still produced by Little Tikes, Cozy Coupe continues to be a popular toy around the world. The product line has grown to include a fleet of vehicles, including police cars, fire trucks, racecars, even those with ladybug and dinosaur designs. The basic model still includes a red chassis and yellow roof but now features eyes for headlamps and a smile on the front grill. The manufacturer’s suggested retail price is $54.99.
Over the years, Cozy Coupe has been recognized as one of the most successful cars manufactured in the United States. In 2009, the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum in Cleveland, which houses historically significant cars, airplanes and bicycles, acquired an original 1979 Cozy Coupe as well as a 30th anniversary edition for its collection. That was one of Jim Mariol’s proudest moments.
“I’d have never thought that I’d wind up designing a toy car, let alone one that turned out to be as famous as that Cozy Coupe,” Mariol said in an interview that same year.
Success never changed the inventor. Tina says her father was the gentle sort who took it all in stride. All he really wanted to do was design toys and cars.
“Word got around pretty quick,” she says. “People would come up to him and say, ‘Aren’t you the guy who invented that kids’ car?’ He was real laid back and very quiet. He never bragged.”
Mariol eventually retired after a long career and died earlier this year at age 89. Family, friends and admirers gathered for his funeral and to celebrate his life in January. The inventor was given a final honor for his big sendoff.
“The funeral home made a Cozy Coupe with flowers,” Tina says. “It was a really nice surprise. I think Dad was happy.”
David Kindy is a former daily correspondent for Smithsonian. He is also a journalist, freelance writer and book reviewer who lives in Plymouth, Massachusetts. He writes about history, culture and other topics for Air & Space, Military History, World War II, Vietnam, Aviation History, Providence Journal and other publications and websites.