At first, it seemed like kind of a rotten deal. You’d saved up every last penny you could scrounge to buy one of Takara’s Penny Racers cars, and here they were, asking you to give up another cent just to play with it. Oh, but it was worth it. Matchbox and Hot Wheels were great for driving fast or for zipping along tracks and playsets, but for the spin-crazy, wheelie-happy, stunt driving kid, only a genuine Penny Racers would do.
Takara’s dinky little toy cars were originally released as Choro-Q vehicles in their native Japan. Brought over to the States as Penny Racers in 1981, the cars grabbed the attention of many kids, who saw the amazing tricks executed on TV commercials and knew they had to have one.
At its core, the Penny Racer was just a pull-back motorized car, something that had been around in one form or another for years. The gimmick was in the penny. A slot in the back of the car let kids slide in a penny to shift the weight around. Slide the penny to the right, and the car would favor that side, hitting quick spins before taking off in a new direction. Put the penny dead center, and chances are you’d see some two-wheeled wheelie driving. The package gave a few tips on tricks you might try, but experimentation was always encouraged.
A wave of Penny Racers in several styles hit the market in 1981, taking names like Van Man, Baja Blaster, Grizzly Gasser and Z Machine. Unfortunately, the gimmick wasn’t enough to sustain an international career. Takara continued to make Choro-Q cars in Japan, but American kids had to content themselves with similar models from major U.S. die-cast makers like Tonka. The toy was reborn, however, as a racing game for the Nintendo 64 in 2000.