Written/Created by: Matt
Posted on 2.28.03.

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Takara's 'Penny Racers' might've come out a little before your time, but they're worth talking about since they're the only toy cars powered by coins. I couldn't have been more than five-years-old when I got my first and only Penny Racer - a gift bestowed on myself and two other childhood friends when our mothers walked into the backyard to find us doing some kind of erratic dance while screaming at the top of our lungs. Nothing fishy was going on - we just stepped into a nest of Yellow Jackets.

At the time, getting stung by approximately 65,000 Yellow Jackets didn't seem like the makings of a great afternoon, but our mothers bought us off with Penny Racing Presents. Later in life, I'd purposely infiltrate the known nesting areas of assorted bees and wasps, confident that my pain would be compensated with more new toys. As it turned out, the gifts were a one-time-only affair. I really wish someone would've explained that to me before I started hopping all over a castle full of hornets, but at least all the new stings helped me build character. And look lumpy.

The Racers had a gimmick that sounded fantastic in theory, but didn't really pan out all that well when you actually got the things home. More on that in a minute, but if nothing else, Takara always remained consistent. The guys and gals who worked for this company were toy geniuses. Never settling on the mundane, Takara typically took the simplest designs and made 'em magical. And while I'm sure I'm in the minority who'd call these Penny Racers 'magical,' I think you'll agree that they were pretty creative...

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The cars, which were a little over an inch in length, had a slot on the back bumper to fit a penny into. The idea was that the car would perform 'tricks' based on the position of the penny, affording you the chance to make it spin in circles or do leftside-favoring wheelies once you pulled the tires back and let the thing rip. It worked to some degree, but you couldn't make the cars do anything like what the commercial suggested. Actually, at best, all you really could do was make the car flip over midway through a fast run. Usually, the penny was too much for the car to handle.

After realizing this, most kids tried out other coins. If you could get a dime to stick in there, they worked much better than the pennies. Quarters wouldn't stay put for more than a second without falling out, but everyone had to try 'em at least once since kiiiiids looooove QUARTERS! Though according to Takara, it was pennies or nothing. The mechanism worked better or worse depending on the shape of the car you bought - and there were a lot of these cars. It was almost like some grand contest between all kids to see who had the best instincts to pick the car most suited for penny-enhanced action. Those with the right skills didn't win any prizes, but they did get to scold their friends for 'picking a sucky car.'

So how did you choose the right car? It wasn't easy...

There were zillions of 'em. They were almost as numerous as the more famous Micro-Machines, but Penny Racers were usually sold one-per-package. Unless you were really obsessed with penny-powered toy cars, chances were good that you wouldn't be collecting even a fraction of them all. Your first choice was important. If you picked the wrong car, the penny would do nothing but detract from its abilities. But with the right car, you'd be tearing up the kitchen floor in no time.

Since their heyday, there's been plenty of imitators and challengers to the throne. Tons of toy cars that've come out over the years have used the same gimmick, so I assume that Takara either forgot to put a patent on the things, or felt that the glory was too great to limit to a single company. In any case, none of the clones were anywhere near as cool - Takara's cars were well-made, highly detailed little monsters. Of all the stupid toys I had as a kid, the Penny Racer is one of the very few who's survived with me to this day. I don't know what kind of black magic was utilized in keeping these guys so durable, but I've had real cars that didn't last anywhere near as long. The world would be a much better place if we could all drive around in jumbo-sized Takara Penny Racers. Mostly because we'd finally have a just reason to create ultra huge pennies.

When I was a kid, my interest in the Penny Racers stemmed from the incorrect belief that they actually ran on power soaked from coins. As far as I was concerned, the cars wouldn't be able to roll around after being pulled back without the mysterious aid of an even more mysterious penny. That was my attraction - I thought the penny was some kind of secret energy source that only Takara knew how to tap into. Finally, someone showed me the awful truth: the cars would run just fine, with or without the damn penny. I was crushed. Mortified. Undignified. And, still a little lumpy from the stupid Yellow Jackets. The cars lost their mystique after this, and I moved on to other toys that weren't going to confuse or depress me.

To this day, I still can't look at a penny without feeling a little bit angry and misled. How could they trick me like that? I thought Abe was supposed to be honest. These cars didn't run on penny power any more than the Symbionese Liberation Army runs on penny power. The pennies were a sham. I've got strong feelings about this, folks. This fiasco is why I still won't pick pennies up off the carpet before vacuuming. I do it for the quarters, dimes, even the nickels. Hell, I do it for the thumbtacks and, if they're still fresh enough, the Pepperidge Farm goldfish crackers. But not the pennies. Never the pennies.

Nope, don't like them pennies.

The line of toys, like so many others, first gained notoriety in Japan. Jeez, is there any fad that didn't somehow start in Japan? What's their secret? Sadly, the Penny Racers were far more popular in their homeland, and we got stuck with a bunch of poor quality substitutes and blatant ripoffs once Takara gave up on trying to make these things profitable in America. It's sad, but not too sad, y'know? I'm not crying, but I'm frowning. Kind of.

The picture above shows the star of the Penny Racers commercial - a gruff youngin' named Hank who loves cars, pennies, and haircuts that make him look like an enoki mushroom. Why is he turning off the lights? Is he seeking to become a little more intimate with his Penny Racers? No, but it's almost as good...

Some of the Penny Racers glowed in the dark! I'm not sure that total blackness is the right environment in which to race little toy cars, but this certainly is an impressive feat. As said, the things are about an inch long. In that single inch, they've managed to cram a pullback motor, a penny, phosphor-enhanced plastic parts, headlights, and they still had enough space leftover to brand their copyright crap on the car's underbelly. I don't know if they give out awards for achievements like this, but if they don't, we're championing the wrong things in this world.

All in all, Takara had a winner with their Penny Racers. They're not one of the more iconic lines of yesteryear, and to date, they haven't shown up on any retro t-shirts lined with pink glitter. Still, they deserved a small tribute. They're the only toy cars that doubled as change purses.

Before I go, I just remembered an old game my friends and I use to play with these toys. We'd line up our cars, have ourselves a little race, and the winner got to keep all of the losers' pennies. I must have raked almost fifty cents in a year's time, which was almost one-seventh of what I'd need to buy a brand new Penny Racer. Fortunately, I was more than able to make up the difference by raiding under the couch cushions in our living room. Even if I didn't find any change, there was a good possibility that I'd find an old pretzel worth eating. Between you and me - I liked pretzels even better than Penny Racers. Don't tell Takara. They're thin-skinned.

PS - Looks like they're back. Now the whole world can enjoy Penny Racers again. Doesn't it make you wanna go to church?


Remember that Nike Transformers contest we were promoting a few weeks ago? Well, several X-E readers took home a prize. See, not all contests are fake and nasty. UGO's running another one, this time giving away a brand new Sony Watchman every day in February. It's free to enter, and you won't get spammed by doing so. Click heah yo to throw your name in the hat!


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