It wasn't long after the Corvette arrived that toy versions starting showing up in stores. At first they were mostly crude, die-cast iron or tin replicas, but as plastics caught on in the '50s, companies flooded the market with styrene-plastic kits of miniature airplanes, boats, ships, and, yes, cars. These companies formed a close relationship with carmakers, and by the mid-'60s, some car kits were being released simultaneously with their real, full-sized counterparts. While Matchbox was making vintage and European cars, Hot Wheels began to popularize muscle cars, race cars, and Corvettes in die-cast.
Two developments in the toy industry occurred in the late '80s and are still being felt today. As tool-and-die manufacturers in China started to gain proficiency, we saw $100-plus, pre-assembled die-cast cars with details that rivaled the more difficult plastic kits. Second was the introduction of toy-grade radio-controlled cars and trucks from Taiyo, Tyco, Nikko, and others, all with prices under $100.
Then a new player arrived, and it had a profound effect on the toy-car market. Build-A-Bear Workshop took the traditional teddy bear to a new level in 1997, when CEO and founder Maxine Clark created a chain of stores that invited girls to come in and make their own customized bears. It wasn't long before Clark was swamped with all sorts of "build-a-toy" ideas. She even outlined her own DIY model-car line, but she was too busy overseeing her existing business to make it happen.
In 2005, entrepreneur Larry Andreini pitched Clark his own build-a-car concept, which he called RIDEMAKERZ. Andreini's background in financial services, customer-loyalty programs, and experience at bringing a brand to reality convinced Clark to collaborate with him, and RIDEMAKERZ was launched.
The concept follows Build-A-Bear, but with lots of diamond-plate aluminum and edgy, urban-style graphics in place of fake fur and tiny clothing. The plan was to create a cool, fun miniature-garage environment where boys (and girls) could build their own custom rides, just like the ones they see on popular TV shows like Overhaulin'.
RIDEMAKERZ shops offer 14 different body styles that measure 10 to 12 inches, including trucks, sports cars, race cars, and even muscle machines. All of the bodies fit onto two different chassis-4x4 off-road or street machine. While not over-the-top caricatures, certain characteristics of the 1:14 to 1:20 scale models are exaggerated and enhanced for dramatic effect. Bodies are pre-painted, so no glue or paint is needed, and all the parts snap on and off.
Kids can choose the stock push-around chassis, or go motorized with a 27-MHz R/C chassis and controller. Next, they choose from six sound chips; 31 wheel styles; four street or four off-road tire designs; three plug-in engines; four hood scoops; seven front-grille guards; wheelie bars; nine exhaust tips; roof items such as rally lights, nitrous tanks, and surf boards; three ground-effects glow kits; five side pipes; three running boards; seven spoilers; and 11 different truck-bed covers. RIDEMAKERZ says there are more than 649 million different combinations, not counting decals.
So, how does something like this come together? RIDEMAKERZ worked closely with GM, Ford, and Chrysler on all of the body designs and licensing. The team from Kick Design was brought in to create the RIDEMAKERZ logos, store design, and Website. (Kick is also the force behind Corvette Racing's "Jake" and BadBoyVettes.com.) Andreini tapped Scrambled Eggz Productions to create concept sketches for the body and accessory designs, control drawings (used to make tooling patterns), and graphics for the decals and packaging. I was privileged to be a part of this team effort through Scrambled Eggz, and I worked on several of the control drawings and designs for the accessory parts. A custom toy-car line needs a high-profile spokesman, so Andreini also brought in Chip Foose, renowned car designer and Overhaulin' host, as a technical advisor.
With the spread of cars ranging from the Dodge Ram to the Mini Cooper, two chassis lengths were needed. The chassis pans have connection points on the sides for side pipes, running boards, and ground effects. The attachment points for the front and rear, meanwhile, are integrated into the bodies. The base chassis is a flat pan with undercarriage details. The chassis for the R/C version looks the same, but with the R/C hardware on the top side. The static versions have a built-in sound chip, and head- and taillights that are activated with a button located in the hood. Clearance for the electronics and battery was no problem on the trucks, but for cars such as the Corvette, care had to be taken to ensure adequate clearance.
With the mechanical parameters determined, the real fun for the designers began. The RIDEMAKERZ team determined that it did not want the body styling to be too cartoonish. All of the cars received larger rear tires, except for the off-road chassis, which uses even bigger monster-truck-type rubber. The bodies were given a slight forward rake and made wider in the back than the front. Front 3/4 pencil drawings were created to establish the attitude of the body. After preliminary approvals, the next step was to create side, top, front, and rear mechanical drawings to define the body shape. The completed five-view drawings were then sent to the pattern makers for sculpting. After the final changes were approved by the team, the images were sent to the licensors for approval.
While all this was going on, there were hundreds of sketches being created for all of the other parts. Wheel and tire tread designs were created and worked out. Accessory parts were conceptualized and drawn in 3/4 view. Decals and box graphics were sketched out and reworked. All of the cars were given blinking head- and taillights coordinated with their sound chips. First, there's the car-alarm chirp, followed by the sound of the engine idling and revving. After that, the horns blare, the tires screech, and finally the whole presentation ends with another alarm chirp.
Upon licensor approval, the green light was given to start cutting steel tooling. Here's where serious money was committed, as steel tooling for a toy of this size can cost as much as $100,000 for one body. The accessory parts were another matter, with parts grouped into common molds wherever possible. Special spray masks (for use in painting) had to be created for some of the wheels and bodies.
No details were overlooked. Look behind the wheels of a RIDEMAKERZ toy, and you'll see brake rotors complete with holes and slots. The underside of the chassis has relief details depicting a perimeter frame and suspension details. The engines have fuel lines, belts, and working butterfly valves. The R/C controller design had to be worked out as well. (When I was a designer at Tyco and Mattel, we sometimes joked that we spent more time looking at the toys than any child ever would.)
While the cars, parts, and graphics designs were being worked out, the Kick Design team created the packaging and a kid-friendly store environment. First, the storefront had to look cool and be inviting. Inside, product racks, displays, decorations, and work and play areas all had to be designed from the ground up. Each store was given an assembly area with battery-powered screwdrivers that hang down like impact wrenches in a real garage. Trained RIDEMAKERZ "mechanics" are on hand to assist.
A basic car ranges from $10-for a "Wedge Tuner"-to $29 for a red, black, or yellow C6.R Corvette. A la carte accessory parts cost between $2 and $15 each. Wheel sets are $5, and an R/C chassis for your RZ will set you back $25. A tricked-out, remote-controlled Corvette comes in a little under $90. (Too bad the full-sized hardware isn't this inexpensive.)
The RIDEMAKERZ Website received equal attention from the design team. A Flash animation shaped like a billboard shows cars and stores, and there are plenty of car sounds, free videos, and wallpaper images of RIDEMAKERZ vehicles. There's even a "Riderz Ed" area with subsections covering the history of cars, muscle cars, manufacturing, and more. But the big fun comes in the form of an interactive five-step process that allows kids to customize their own rides online.
This spring, the company launched its new RIDEMAKERZ Virtual Experience. The team joined forces with The Electric Sheep Company to create an on- and offline experience that allows kids to learn about cars through vehicle-oriented online games and off-line activities.
From the beginning of the RIDEMAKERZ enterprise, the C6 Corvette was high on the company's must-have list. But early on, GM was flooded with licensing requests for the latest Vette. At the time, the car was so new that company officials weren't receptive to a highly stylized version. But as the Pratt & Miller C6.R continued its winning ways, and fans embraced the edgy new "Jake" paint design, GM warmed to the idea.
Fortunately for purists, the C6.R is one of the least "characterized" of all the RIDEMAKERZ cars. The car itself is already something of a caricature of the Z06, and its front air dam, racing hood, vented fenders, side skirts, and rear wing are natural elements for a RIDEMAKERZ model. The C6.R is available with or without the R/C option, and can even be had with the 4x4 off-road chassis. All of the accessory items-with the exception of the truck-only gear-will fit, and the body can be finished in candy-apple red, matte black, or even a "Jake" paint scheme.
RIDEMAKERZ toys can be purchased at the company's website or at any of 12 stores around the country. Considering the traditional popularity of Corvette scale models, you might consider rounding up the kids and letting them customize their own before word gets out. And if you decide to build one for yourself while you're at it, well, that's OK too.