Wednesday, October 11, 2006


In the 1970s, people were looking for the modern equivalent of the Old West Cowboy, someone who was strong-willed, courageous, independent, and played by his own rules. You could see it in the romantic representations of truckers in songs, movies, and television. You could see it in just about every good ol’ boy character Burt Reynolds ever played. And you could see it in the real life persona of Evel Knievel.

The Daredevil from Montana looked every bit like a modern day version of Roy Rogers, with the flashy red-white-and-blue leather jumpsuit and motorcycle helmet replacing the white Stetson and ornately decorated cowboy shirt. His custom Harley-Davidson motorcycle was just as familiar as Trigger. The major difference was that, instead of proving his manhood by catching cattle rustlers on the plains, Evel Knievel jumped his bike over stuff – big stuff! And instead of singing ballads about the prairie, he lectured impressionable young kids about the evils of drugs in a plain speaking drawl that conveyed confidence with splashes of well-placed humility. In an era filled with public figures you loved to hate, Evel Knievel was one person who really embodied the image of a hero.

Each time the motorcycle wrangler launched his bike over a pile of cars or school buses or flat-paneled trucks, I watched at home with exhilaration whether he crashed or landed safely. Both outcomes brought about tremendous excitement. I couldn’t fathom at that age that he could ever really die. The hero never dies.

I gave this lengthy preamble only to give some sense of why the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle was the hot toy of the 1973 Christmas season. Every boy wanted one, and they were near impossible to find. Parents were literally beating each other up in stores, fighting over the remaining stunt cycles. My father scoured every toy store, discount store, and department store in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. corridor, but could never land one by Christmas time. I was mightily disappointed. My Aunt Nora, who thought my parents would get me the stunt cycle, gave me the Evel Knievel Winnebago. With no Evel figure to drive the thing, it was a heartbreaking reminder of what was missing.

Ironically, my Aunt Nora was the one who finally found the toy I longed for. On a balmy Saturday afternoon in March, she came to our house bearing that oblong box with the action painting of Evel flying straight at you on his tricked out Harley. Immediately, I ran in the backyard, set up the ramp on the back of the red-white-and-blue Winnebago, and forced Evel to jump that thing repeatedly. For the next year or so, I shot Evel and his Harley over just about every rock, ditch, and Tonka truck I could find.

As an action figure, Evel Knievel wasn’t much: a wire-framed, rubber figure about six inches tall like Major Matt Mason. The stunt cycle was the real attraction. The bike was so well balanced, once you wound up the rear wheel with the cranking device and set it loose, the bike would pop wheelies, flip, bounce, and always land on two wheels. I really have to hand it to the guys at Ideal for designing such an amazing vehicle. They came out with other vehicles for Evel to crash around in, but the stunt cycle was always the best in my opinion.

My mania over Evel Knievel came to an abrupt end on September 8, 1974, when he attempted to jump the Snake River Canyon. Watching Evel strap himself into the makeshift, Popular Mechanics rocket he called a “skycycle,” he no longer appeared heroic, merely foolhardy. Anyone could’ve gotten into that thing provided he had a sufficiently strong death wish. I was actually relieved to see the parachute deploy prematurely as I had no confidence that the rickety projectile would provide a safe landing on the other side. I was glad that Evel survived the jump, but suddenly the emperor was decidedly naked.

Unaware of my disillusionment, my parents got me the toy version of the skycycle for Christmas. Since I also received a complete set of Mego’s Planet of the Apes figures that same Christmas, I found that the skycycle made a nifty spacecraft for the Charlton Heston figure (okay, Mego said it was a generic astronaut, but we knew better).

All these years later, it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about. I mean, this guy jumped a bike over stuff and occasionally got smashed up in the process. But every once in awhile, I pop in my VHS tape of Viva Knievel and rediscover a little bit of that 70s vibe.

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