Making Better Toys
by Thomas Day
I was trying to squeeze my bike, the SV, between the center post of my garage door and the back end of my wife’s Pathfinder. I had almost made it when the left rear turn signal touched the center post and shattered into a half-dozen pieces. It’s not as if I have never experienced the fragility of motorcycle plastic before. I have a long history of frustration with Japanese plastic, all the way back to my 1971 Kawasaki Big Horn. However, taken in context with my week’s experience with other sorts of toys I have lost patience.
My last bike was a 1992 Yamaha TDM. The TDM was the coolest bike I’d ever owned, with the exception of the crappiest plastic I’ve ever suffered. Great motor, perfect riding position, wonderful suspension, terrific handling, and plastic that had the durability of weathered corrugated cardboard. The fairing mounts were about as tough as a Texas politician. Even though their fasteners were all rubber mounted (a completely different engineering screw-up), the fairing mounts snapped off anytime the bike rolled over a speed bump. When and while the fairing mounts were littering the highway, the fairing and side panels were cracking into small shards of decomposing plastic. When I sold my TDM, I included a box of new and repaired plastic parts, including a complete fairing, two front fenders, and a side panel. If I had finished out the season, all of those parts would have been used up.
But this rant isn’t about the TDM’s crappy plastic or my Suzuki SV’s crappy plastic, it’s about what plastic can do when real engineers design it.
I have a couple of grandkids; a nine-year-old grandson and a one-year-old granddaughter. I hang with them anytime they will tolerate me. This last weekend, after dealing with the busted taillight lens and paying a small fortune for the replacement piece, I watched my granddaughter bash her toys against a tile floor until a chunk of the floor cracked. She has a little mace-shaped toy that makes a groaning noise when you whip it from side to side. It also has a whistle on one end and a bubble-blower on the other. The handle end is isolated from the mace end by a flexible mount, sort of like a modern motorcycle signal light. Unlike the modern signal light, this toy is practically indestructible. Kids and adults alike whip this thing from side to side, whacking it against furniture and floors, and it keeps making its groaning noise and blowing bubbles and whistling. This toy takes more abuse in an afternoon than motorcycle plastic receives in a year of road racing.
“Weather,” you might remind me. “What about weather? Motorcycle plastic has to withstand sun and rain and air pollution.” Ok, I can accept that the baby mace might be subjected to less environmental stress than my crappy tail light. I’m still unconvinced that toy manufacturers are expected to produce less durable products than motorcycle manufacturers.
When he was little, my grandson’s favorite toy was a small rocking horse that provided a set of wheels as a backup transportation system to crawling. He rode that little horse all over the house, up and down the driveway, and all over the yard. It lived outside all summer long and spent several winters in the garage, just like my motorcycle, until my granddaughter came along to torture test it all over again. I garage my bike and keep it covered anytime I’m not riding it. That little rocking horse has seen at least as much sunlight and suffered more weather changes than my bike and it hasn’t shown the slightest inclination to crack at any of the expected stress points. The wheels are almost transparent, they’re so worn out, and the rockers are open on the bottom from overuse, but the horse is still rolling and rocking. If you throw in the Hot Wheel trike that he put at least 40,000 miles on, we’re talking completely different levels of durability and weather resistance.
When I listen to sport bikers talk about their vehicles, the one thing that comes up, consistently, is their frustration with fragile, expensive plastic. Drop the bike at 5mph and, poof, there goes $2,000 in plastic. Bump the taillights on the garage door and, snap, away flies $70.
What we need to do is to find a toy manufacturer and convince them to make toys for us. Mainly, plastic toys that resemble sport bike parts. Even after the National Safety Council has ensured that the parts are safe for little kids to play with, they’d still be a zillion times more durable than the crap we’re getting from the Japanese Big Four (or the Are-They-Still-In-Business? One in England or the Really Expensive German One or the Always-Going-Bankrupt Italian One). Most of our bikes are Pokeymon-colored, so they probably have the right colors in stock. Compared to toy molds, bike shapes are going to be too simple to occupy much of their designers’ time, so they can keep making kids’ toys and their skills won’t deteriorate. We wouldn’t want toys to become as fragile as motorcycles.