Italian-born Antonio Pasin began making handcrafted wooden wagons in 1917, three years after his arrival in America. By 1923, Pasin’s wagons had been dubbed “Liberty Coasters” (after the Statue of Liberty), and thanks to mass-production techniques adapted from the automobile industry, the Liberty Coaster Company was able to manufacture steel wagons for thousands of kids across the country.
It was the early 1930s “Model #18” that gave Pasin’s wagons the name that would become synonymous with childhood: “Radio Flyer” (named for the relatively-new phenomenon of radio).
With a promotional campaign that included a 45-foot ‘Coaster Boy’ at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, Radio Flyer was soon the world standard in wagons.
The tot-toters became icons of childhood, used to pull kid siblings, to deliver newspapers, to race down hills with that funky reverse-handle steering, and so on.
For the more adventurous tykes, Radio Flyer produced several fancy variations on its classic ‘little red wagon’ formula. In the 1930s, there was the aerodynamic ‘Zep’ and the ‘Streak-O-Lite’, which featured control dials and working headlights.
The 1950s brought the ‘Radio Rancher’, the first Radio Flyer wagon with high sides to keep the wee ones from spilling out en route. The early 1970s introduced the ‘Fireball 2000’, a brightly-coloured dragster of a wagon that even had a spoiler.
Customised options were bountiful – air tyres or rubber ones, small bed or large, high sides or low – and the innovations continued well into the 1990s.
Steel and wood wagons were still available, naturally, but Radio Flyer also introduced plastic-body wagons into its line-up with names like ‘Trailblazer’ and ‘Navigator’.
Today, literally dozens of models are available, including everything from models with shock absorbers, ‘Wagon-Barrows’ for garden work, and in a true sign of the times, even a SUW (that stands for “Sport Utility Wagon”).
Shapes, sizes, features and even colours may vary, but there’s no getting away from the little red wagon. It’s a classic, immortalised in collectables, ornaments, mini-models and even a 1992 Radio Flyer feature film. It’s a fair bet that nearly every man, woman and child in America has at least taken a ride in one, proof that after more than 80 years, Radio Flyer’s legacy is alive and well.