Evel Knievel, The Times and the Toys

Evel-Knievel-pic-1-copyBy Robert Reed
   If Evel Knievel could be considered a legend of the 1970s, then the toys created in his name clearly were legendary.

   Knievel became America’s number one daredevil during that decade and at the same time evoked more than $300 million worth of toys and related merchandise. Some experts go as far as to say that the motorcycle maniac almost single-handedly managed to jump-start the stalled toy industry of that time.

   The Ideal Toy Corporation certainly sold tens of thousands of action figures, stunt cycles and similar Evel Knievel items. But that’s not counting all the rest from alarm clocks and belt buckles to walkie talkies and waste paper baskets.

   Before the “era of Evel” had ended there would also be bicycles, radios, watches and even pinball machines bearing his colorful and controversial likeness.

Evel-Knievel-pic-2-copy   “I came along at the right time in the right place,” Knievel told an interviewer many years afterwards. “America was down when I came along and needed somebody who was truthful and honest, someone who would spill blood and break bones, somebody who wasn’t a phony.”

   Robert Craig Knievel was born in Butte, Mont., with a talent for promoting himself and a likewise knack for putting himself at risk. Over the years the daredevil broke bones and also broke laws.

Reportedly he assumed his professional name based on modification of the earlier jailhouse tag of Evil Knievel.

   The pioneer motorcycle jumper first soared to fame in 1969 as he attempted to clear the fountains at Caesar’s Place in Las Vegas. Evel cleared the fountains, but crash landed. By the early 1970s he had managed successful motorcycle jumps in a number of cities including Seattle and Houston.

   In 1972 Hollywood released a film about the daring performer. “Evel Knievel the movie,” about “the last of the daredevils,” starred George Hamilton and Sue Lynon. That same year Ideal launched their first Evel figure. The seven-inch plastic doll and accompanying Stunt Cycle were a major seller.

Evel-Knievel-pic-3-copy   The first heavy-plastic Stunt Cycles bore the familiar Ideal logo and the copyright date of 1972.

   By 1973 the real Knievel was making several widely acclaimed motorcycle jumps with varied success. There were crashes along with some achievements. At the Los Angeles Coliseum that year, he amazingly cleared a stack of 50 old cars in the center of the site.

   Meanwhile the Ideal Corporation was now manufacturing a much broader array of Knievel toys. Evel action figures (basically bendies) came in assorted costumes and with a removable helmet. The boxed figure was sold individually in red, blue or white cloth outfits. Eventually a fourth choice, Teenage Stuntman Robbie Knievel in dark blue outfit, was added by Ideal.

   Evel Knievel was arguably one of the most famous characters in the entertainment and sports world in 1974. Plastic model kits issued by Addar that year included Evel Knievel’s Ramp Jump, Evel Knievel’s Wheelie, and best of all Evel Knievel’s Sky Cycle X2. Proclaimed the Ramp Jump box, “there can only be one Number One and Evel’s it.” Most of their boxes of snap-together parts came with folded 8×10 photographs of Evel himself.    The sky was the limit at Ideal Toy Corporation, too.

Evel-Knievel-pic-4-copy   Evel’s red, white and blue Scramble Van came with a cycle ramp and stunt bike. The Evel Knievel Road and Trail Adventure set was even bigger and included the Evel figure, trail bike, pick-up truck and cycle trailer. Many of the sets also included a giveaway comic book produced by Marvel Group Comics.

   Other EK packages from Ideal eventually included the Arctic Explorer set, the Racing Set, the Rescue Set and the Stunt Stadium, which included a full-color vinyl carrying case and numerous Evel accessories. Ideal’s Evel Knievel Stunt Game was another remarkable item which provided a board game and stunt cycle set which allowed players to race a toy motorcycle around a track and perform stunts.

   Ultimately the Ideal Toy company would also produce an appealing series of Precision Miniatures also saluting Knievel. Basically, four-inch die-cast vehicles came packaged with a plastic figure of the daredevil rider. Among the boxed choices were the Jet Cycle, the Racing Cycle, the Sky Cycle and the Stunt Cycle. For a time the Stunt Cycle was offered as a mail-order premium with proofs of purchase of other Ideal/Knievel toys.

   Of course, there was other Evel merchandise as well. Aladdin Industries marketed a very graphic lunch box depicting Knievel on the front and the Snake River jump on the reverse. Ben Cooper had a Knievel jumpsuit Halloween costume, and Topps (the gum card people) released a set of 60 trading cards featuring the exploits of the popular motorcycle rider.

   Evel even made the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine early in September of 1974.

   But for all of the promotional toys and for all of the public attention, Knievel’s most famous jump of the 1970s was pretty much a failure. Evel used a specially constructed Skycycle in an effort to clear the Snake River Canyon in Idaho. The rocket-powered vehicle at first soared into the air, and was then pulled back by a malfunctioning parachute. The event was a major disappointment for the daredevil and his fans.

   Still the remarkable performer was not finished. In May of 1975 he drew a record crowd of 90,000 at Wembley Stadium in London, England. His attempt to jump 13 double-tiered buses ended in a crash, but by the following October Evel again won acclaim by leaping his motorcycle over 14 Greyhound buses at King’s Island in Ohio.

   Evel was seriously injured in a crashed attempt to jump over a tank of live sharks at the Chicago Amphitheater in 1976. Knievel had broken more than 30 bones over the course of his career, but after the ’76 incident he never fully recovered physically or professionally.

   In many ways Evel’s fortunes were much like the dolls made in his image.

   “The Evel Knievel stunt doll on his stunt cycle could be categorized as both a success and a failure,” observed Judith Izen in the highly comprehensive book, “Collector’s Guide to Ideal Dolls.”

   “The doll was a big seller in the late 1970s, and each year there was a slightly different gimmick such as his Stratocycle, Chopper or Supercycle,” said Izen. “However, in 1978 Evel Knievel, the stuntman, was convicted of a crime which brought a marked drop-off in sales. Ideal was left with many dolls in the warehouse.”

   The crime, assault on his former manager, briefly put the American hero back in the jailhouse.

   Today author Mark Rich (“100 Greatest Baby Boomer Toys”) and many others rank the Evel Knievel toys among the best of the 1970s. Collectors still seek them out, especially the more elusive items including the tire-shaped radio, Ideal’s life-sized Evel stand-up and Knievel-related clothing for children.

 

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