The holidays get us thinking about toys, and when car people think about toys, a few things are bound to come up. Hot Wheels and Matchbox, sure—maybe even Micro Machines. But for a younger (and broader) set of kiddos, the Little Tikes Cozy Coupe might have been the first car in their life. Maybe it was in yours. It’s not possible to quantify the impact these early car toys had on budding enthusiast psyches, but we can peek into the origin and evolution of this timeless kick-powered toy.
Its iconic shape isn’t merely friendly and aesthetically pleasing—it’s also far more clever than it would first appear. The original Cozy Coupe prototype was the brainchild of Jim Mariol, a designer who had a stint in auto design. There’s a fantastic profile of Mariol by the University of Cincinnati, of which he was an alum, that details his career—and a closer look at his career in the auto industry over at Hemmings. But we’re interested in his later design work for Little Tikes.
The most clever part was the overall conception: a pedal-car-like experience without the pedals, called a foot-to-floor toy. Something kids too little for pedal cars could also enjoy without excluding older kids who could also fit inside. Mariol was inspired scooting around on a wheeled office chair, using his feet—something within the power of an average little tyke. The design was more than just cute: The roof made it, indeed, cozy and more like a real car than a typical roofless pedal car. And the larger rear wheels and bulkier rear end meant it would be harder to tip over backwards. Add in the long, swoopy door, which of course opens, and you have a primeval car experience, delivered to Little Tikes for consideration in 1979.
Mariol told UC he did more than merely design the car, also performing all the engineering involved in the prototype (pictured above). But there was one big change to be made before production: The black roof had to go. While it might have been more true to the vinyl-clad roofs of its era, it lacked a certain whimsy. Little Tikes accepted the overall design enthusiastically, but for production a yellow roof took the place of a black one. A classic was born.
The original Cozy Coupe features slender A-pillars in black, a decal emulating square sealed-beam headlights, and a little “trunk” out back. It’s no sports car, but the visibility afforded by its ample greenhouse is peerless. By the early 1990s, the Cozy Coupe was selling briskly enough to be called “the bestselling car in America.” More than 10 million units have been sold worldwide.
Not that the Cozy Coupe hasn’t changed with the times. In 1991, it was tweaked slightly—the A-pillars changed to yellow, the molded seat design was altered, and the black wheels became white. The fundamental Cozy Coupe idea didn’t get a serious revision until 2003, when its roof shrank while the A-pillars grew significantly. The proportions changed, too, with larger front wheels hoisting that end higher off the ground. Round headlight decals gave it a friendlier, almost anthropomorphic face—a foreshadowing of what was to come.
In 2009, the Cozy Coupe sprouted eyes. At first, they were conjoined before being separated a few years later. A response to a certain 2006 Pixar film involving anthropomorphic cars, perhaps?
Both the 2009 and the 2017+ versions are certainly friendly and fun, but they represent a different idea of a toy than the original. This is a friendly companion rather than an adorable conveyance—not better or worse, but a new approach. Exactly what decade in its 40-odd-year history the Cozy Coupe imprinted itself on your consciousness may determine how divergent the current model is from your ideal—but every iteration is an icon.