Radio Flyer Inc.
Radio Flyer Inc.
Incorporated: 1923 as Liberty Coaster Wagon Company
Sales: $26.5 million (1998 est.)
NAIC: 339932 Game, Toy, and Children’s Vehicle Manufacturing
Radio Flyer Inc. is the world’s leading manufacturer of children’s toy wagons. Its principal product is an icon of American childhood, the classic little red wagon. The company is named after its most famous model, the Radio Flyer, a much-beloved article depicted in scores of advertisements and films. Although other companies, too, make red wagons, Radio Flyer has trademarked the shape of its classic model, and the exact red paint the company uses is a formula known only to itself. In addition to classic steel wagons, Radio Flyer also manufactures wooden and plastic wagons. The company makes wagons in varying sizes as well, including products sized for stuffed animals, and miniatures used as key chains. In total the company makes more than 50 wagon models. Radio Flyer also manufactures a line of wagon accessories such as seats, umbrellas, cooler packs, and handle extensions. Though a small company, Radio Flyer dominates the wagon industry, controlling approximately 70 percent of the U.S. market.
Radio Flyer Inc. was founded by Italian immigrant Antonio Pasin. Pasin’s family had been fine woodworkers for generations, specializing in furniture and cabinetry. Pasin grew up working in wood as well. But he longed to leave his small town outside of Venice and make a new start in the United States. His family backed his plan, selling their mule to raise money for Antonio’s ticket. He arrived in Chicago in 1914. Here he hoped to work as a cabinetmaker, but at first he could only find unskilled work, beginning as a water boy for a crew of sewer diggers. Eventually Pasin found a job that used his woodworking skills, finishing pianos in a piano factory. By the time he had been in the United States for three years, he had saved enough to buy his own woodworking tools and to rent one room to use as a shop. In the evenings, Pasin worked alone, crafting children’s wooden wagons. During the day, he walked the streets of Chicago peddling his samples. Pasin worked tirelessly and alone until 1923, when his wagon business had picked up enough that he was able to hire helpers. He incorporated his business as the Liberty Coaster Wagon Company, fondly naming it after the Statue of Liberty that had greeted him when he arrived in his new country.
Mass Production in the 1930s
Although Pasin’s background was in woodworking, he soon became enamored of a new technology, metal stamping. Henry Ford had used metal stamping in his automobile factories, where huge machines stamped identical pieces out of sheets of steel. Pasin believed the automotive method could be used for his wagons, enabling him to mass-produce a cheap, well-built product. By the late 1920s, Pasin had refitted his factory for metal stamping, and Liberty Coaster began putting out stamped steel wagons. Pasin named a 1927 model the “Radio Flyer,” capturing the excitement of the burgeoning radio industry. In 1930, Liberty Coaster changed its name to the Radio Steel & Manufacturing Company. This new name made note of both the new metal technology and the popular Radio Flyer model.
Pasin consciously studied Ford’s factory method. His aim was not only to adapt metal stamping to toy wagons, but to produce a quality product along efficient lines. Radio Steel grew to be a major employer, putting out at least 1,500 wagons a day in the 1930s. Even though this was the depth of the Great Depression, Pasin provided steady work to scores of people, mostly Italian-Americans like himself. The motto for Radio Steel’s wagons was “For every boy. For every girl.” This rang true, as the wagon was a basic toy that provided years of fun for all kinds of kids, not a fad product or something that appealed only to a niche group. Radio Steel churned out its thousands of identical red wagons just like Ford had produced the Model T, and Pasin won for himself the nickname “Little Ford.”
Already by the year 1930, Radio Steel was the world’s largest producer of children’s coaster wagons, and it set the standard for what a wagon should look like. Despite the Depression, which idled many other industries, Radio Steel worked at full capacity throughout the 1930s. Although the company made its mark with the classic, simple red coaster wagon, it also made more sophisticated products, such as the Streak-O-Lite of 1934, a wagon with control dials and working headlights. Another popular 1930s model was the Zep, which imitated the streamlined styling of the day’s fancy automobiles. Pasin passed on his success to his workers, initiating generous programs such as English language tutoring within the factory. He also provided interest-free loans to his workers so they could build houses, contributing to the stability of the mostly Italian neighborhood around the factory on Chicago’s West Side.
World War II and Beyond
When the United States entered World War II, many industries converted to making wartime products. Radio Steel halted its production of wagons to manufacture so-called blitz cans. These were five-gallon containers used for either fuel or water, mounted on tanks, trucks, and jeeps. Radio Steel’s blitz cans saw service in Europe, the Pacific, and Africa.
After the war, the factory went back to making wagons and developed several new models in tune with the times. In the era of the station wagon, Radio Steel began producing its Radio Rancher Convertible, a high-capacity wagon with removable steel stake sides. Beginning in 1957, the company branched out, for the first time making garden carts. These were not toys, but metal carts designed to haul yard waste, perhaps a shrewd line extension in view of the growth of suburbia and suburban gardens. Soon the company also began making wheelbarrows.
Yet the classic little red wagon continued to be the company’s mainstay. Radio Steel continued production unabated, even though the toy industry in the United States began to change. In the 1970s, the industry consolidated, with many small, private firms being bought out by bigger competitors. These large firms, including Mattel and Hasbro, made inroads into the wagon market with branded products of their own. By the 1980s, the market had swayed away from simple, classic toys to increasingly high-tech items like video games. Big toy companies also poured money into faddish toys and toys that could be marketed through licensing tie-ins to movies and television shows. Despite these developments, Radio Steel plugged away in much the same way it always had. In 1977, the company improved its core product with several patented safety features. These included a new ball joint between the wagon handle and the undercarriage in which fingers could not get pinched, and a controlled turning radius to prevent accidental tipping. It also deployed new toys, such as the Fireball 2000, a 1970s children’s car. The company also made bicycles and tricycles.
Changes in the 1990s
In 1987, Radio Steel & Manufacturing changed its name for a third time, to Radio Flyer Inc. This name immediately brought to mind its most popular product. By this time, the company was a distinct anomaly in the U.S. toy industry, because it had remained privately owned and was still run by the family of its founder. Mario Pasin had succeeded his father Antonio, and Mario’s sons Robert and Paul also were involved in the firm. Larger companies had made competitive inroads in the wagon business. One competitor was Rubbermaid, mostly known for its kitchenware, but which produced a line of plastic wagons through its Little Tikes division. In the 1990s, Radio Flyer worked to expand its product line and step up its marketing to maintain its market share. It used the Radio Flyer name on toy bicycles, such as the Totally Rad Flyer Bicycle. Its name received wide press in 1992 with the release of a movie called “Radio Flyer,” the story of the imaginary journeys of two boys in their Radio Flyer wagon. The wagon image also was used extensively in advertising, and the Radio Flyer was featured in advertisement campaigns by car makers Porsche and Chevrolet and in ads for the insurance company Northwestern Mutual Life.
In 1996, Antonio Pasin’s grandsons Robert and Paul took over management of the company from their father, with Robert succeeding as president and Paul as executive vice-president. The third generation of the Pasin family moved aggressively to build new types of wagons. In addition to classic red tricycles and steel wagons of various sizes, the company put out plastic wagons with updated designs. In 1996, Radio Flyer introduced the Voyager wagon and the Trailblazer, two plastic wagons that retained the classic red color but were otherwise quite different from the company’s standard product. The trailblazer was a very sturdy wagon, ten percent larger than competitors’ similar models, but with unique features that made it easy and compact to store. The Voyager was a wagon shaped more like a little car, with an asymmetrical body. It had two seats, one rear- and one front-facing, accessed by a hinged side door. The Voyager also featured a built-in storage compartment and an arched canopy roof. Radio Flyer acted to protect its new wagon features with patents. In 1996 Little Tikes, the wagon division of Rubbermaid, challenged a patent issued to Radio Flyer for a storage system it used. Both companies had wagons with similar storage systems, but only Radio Flyer held a patent. In all, Radio Flyer held 30 patents on various aspects of wagon design, and it had even trademarked the shape of its classic Radio Flyer.
Located on Chicago’s Far West Side, Radio Flyer is the world’s leading wagon maker, manufacturing high-quality products for children since 1917. The makers of the original little red wagon, Radio Flyer is the only company to produce plastic, steel and wood wagons. Radio Flyer is one of the oldest remaining national toy companies still owned and operated by the founding family.
In 1997, Radio Flyer marked 80 years in the wagon business. For a promotional celebration, the company produced what it billed as the “World’s Largest Wagon,” a 27-foot-long, 15,000-pound behemoth that then visited cities across the United States. Radio Flyer stepped up its marketing at this time. In 1999 it introduced a new model plastic wagon, which it called “the most innovative wagon ever created.” This was its Quad Shock, a plastic vehicle shaped much like the classic Radio Flyer, but mounted on steel wheels served with four heavy-duty shock absorbers. The company followed the Quad Shock with a Radio Flyer Sport Utility Wagon, capitalizing on the popularity of the Sport Utility Vehicle among suburban families. Radio Flyer also entered licensing agreements with other toy makers. In partnership with Enesco, it produced a series of Christmas ornaments featuring teddy bears and other animals seated in Radio Flyer wagons. It made Radio Flyer train cars, key chains, and refrigerator magnets, and in partnership with Danbury Mint, it produced miniature wagons to go with that company’s line of collectible porcelain dolls. Radio Flyer also worked with Mattel, one of the two largest American toy companies, licensing its name on the popular Hot Wheels brand of toy cars to make what appeared to be a souped-up race car-type wagon. Other licensed products included a toy Radio Flyer wagon that held a stuffed toy of the beloved Curious George monkey, and another similar toy with a Gund brand stuffed bear.
Aware that the company was a rarity in the fiercely competitive toy business, the company announced at the 2000 International Toy Fair that it would step up its licensing plans to spread its well-known brand name. The company had plans in 2000 to build two new model tricycles, and it conceded that it was considering launching a series of children’s books. President Robert Pasin remarked in a February 15, 2000 interview in the Chicago Tribune that the company had stayed true to its original product line while nevertheless responding to changing tastes. He said: “When consumers wanted big air tires on their wagons, we gave it to them. When they wanted plastic wagons with cup holders, we produced that. We’ve continued to innovate, while staying close to the consumer.” Although still a relatively small company, Radio Flyer had managed to maintain its position since 1930 as the world’s largest producer of children’s toy wagons. In spite of increased competition, the company still held an estimated 70 percent of the wagon market as of the year 2000. Under the leadership of the third generation of the Pasin family, the company seemed ready to adapt to further challenges.
Rubbermaid Incorporated; Mattel, Inc.
- Italian immigrant Antonio Pasin begins producing and selling children’s wooden wagons in Chicago.
- Pasin founds the Liberty Coaster Wagon Company.
- Company is renamed Radio Steel & Manufacturing.
- Radio Steel converts to wartime manufacturing.
- Firm extends product lines beyond toys, to garden carts.
- Radio Steel changes name again, to Radio Flyer Inc.
- Company begins producing new line of plastic wagons.
Chiem, Phat X., “Blazing a New Wagon Trail,” Chicago Tribune, February 15, 2000, pp. B1, B4.
Frankston, Janet, “Radio Flyer Inc., Little Tikes Co. in Toy Patent Dispute,” Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News, August 1, 1996, p. 8010045.
Neville, Lee, “Toy Story,” U.S. News & World Report, October 20, 1997, p. 12.
“Product Recalls,” Consumers’ Research Magazine, November 1992, p. 36.
“Radio Flyer Rolls Out New Wagons,” Playthings, July 1996, p. 46.