Home » Our Daydreaming Designer Imagines If A Favorite Tonka Toy Came To Life

Our Daydreaming Designer Imagines If A Favorite Tonka Toy Came To Life

Topshot 35b

Whether it be Pokemon or American Girl dolls, with kids there is often that desire for toys to come to life in some way. Pokemon has an augmented reality app. There are supposedly American Girl Doll movies where actors portray the dolls; children dress like their dolls and watch those movies (and the children’s moms might dress like that too; yes, I’ve seen this shit go down). However, for a GenXer like myself, the dream of a certain car plaything coming to life never happened. I wanted to see what it would look like if it had, so I made a few sketches.

Photo: Pokemon Go

If you’re thinking Hot Wheels toys, it’s obviously already been done. The one I’ve seen is the famous ‘Twin Mill’ dual engined car that was made into a life-sized vehicle:

However, the toys I have in mind are Tonka trucks. No, I am not referring to real life Big Three Bro-dozers with TONKA lettering on them rolling coal on the streets. The ones I am talking about we received as new or handed down to us from older siblings.

Back in the Malaise era, Tonka offered my bowl-hair-cut child self some cabover-style toy trucks in different sizes that looked nothing like what was on the road at the time. It was obvious that some car design school graduates got jobs at the company and decided to throw some futurism into the mix.

Lil Trucks

source: ebay and ebay

They look much like cool cabover show cars such as the Dodge Deora:

I dreamed of what these Tonkas might look like as real vehicles, of course, cutting taillights and side marker lamps out of construction paper and taping them on to make them street legal for the United States (are you proud of me, Torch?). Still, what if that dream came true? How could it happen?

The alternate reality I have in mind is a bit of stretch, but not totally impossible. If you look at the early seventies, the small pickup truck market was starting to heat up with Japanese imports, all of which were very traditional pickup in design. There was the VW Bus pickup, of course, but the infamous Chicken Tax made that too expensive to import.

General Motors needed a quick hit, so their choice was to import trucks from their partner Isuzu and brand them as Chevies. The LUV (light utility vehicle- get it?) was a minor hit, as were the captive import trucks from the other Big Three (Mazda for Ford, later Mitsubishi for Chrysler).


source: Bring A Trailer

However, what if GM did what it often used to do, meaning throw gobs of money into a brand new concept that only the world’s largest corporation would be capable of? A real clean sheet of paper approach instead of just scaling down a C10 or F150?

Also, years later, The General co-opted the Hummer name for trucks with great success. What if they had worked together with the famous toy company to make a Tonka branded small truck? Not only that, what if the truck looked like the toy your dad kept tripping over because you left it on the kitchen floor AGAIN, DAMMIT?

This style of Tonka truck always looked like something that you might throw onto a VW chassis, like a Brubaker Box. However, cool as it was, we know that General Motors had very limited success with their attempted Volkswagen Bus and Bus Pickup competitor, the Corvair Greenbrier with the available ‘rampside’ door that folded down:


source: Bring A Trailer

Still, it seems like some of the elements were there in the Greenbrier for a successful cabover-style truck if we were to alter some of the specifications, such as:

-The ramp is an interesting idea, but people really want a long, flat floor

-The rear engine is fine, but making it mid-engined would prevent any chance of snap oversteer, PLUS we could add a live axle for economically making greater load capacity cheaply.

-Air cooling has to go; Americans typically hate the noise and lack of a real heater. Also, the fan belt on the Corvair motor went at a ninety degree angle and broke regularly.

Here’s the layout:


source: ebay

Admittedly, it isn’t really a cabover in the traditional sense, which is better since you aren’t sharing space with the motor up front. Note that the spare can fit in back below the bed, a bump out below the tailgate (behind the rear license plate) providing room.

I would stretch the wheelbase to move the rear wheels back a bit to stop a hobbyhorse kind of ride. Since this layout is quite similar to the later Toyota Previa, this truck could do the same trick and use a power take-off/jackshaft to run accessories up front like the radiator fan, optional power steering, available air conditioning, and alternator. The engine would be essentially just like a Corvair flat six but with a water jacket, so this would have some power for the time (in a relative sense).

Still, the looks of the thing were what I found, and I’d want to do whatever I could to preserve it.

Main View

source: ebay

I’ve made some Photoshop changes to ‘productionize’ an example that I saw on ebay. This example of the toy is a bit beat up, likely because of crazy assed stunts that were done with it similar to what I might have attempted in the back yard circa 1977. Imagine one image being of the toy and the other being a scale model of the actual truck:


Making this as a real truck, certainly the big glass thing up front couldn’t work, so we’d need to add some breaks that could be painted black to at least help keep up the ruse of a big greenhouse in front. If we launch in at least late 1974 we could legally use four rectangular lights. You can see that I’ve added turn signals into the side openings, as well as bumper guards below

Fronts 1

I tried to integrate the side markers, signals, and rear lights into the look as best possible, just like I did with the paper stick-ons decades ago. Parts Bin Puzzler, go for it in the comments (clue- they’re all GM items) and I’ll let you know!


There would be space left over flanking the engine below the bed, and we could make it accessible for storage with doors on the rocker panels that open to small bins:

Img20221203 23503553

That interior of the toy always struck me as particularly funky, especially the TONKA letters molded on the dash visible to the outside of the toy:

Front Window

source: ebay

Also, the double-sculpted dash does not appear to have anything directly in front of the driver and passenger, so my interpretation would be to have storage bins there and the gauges and controls mounted on those center and side pods that extend closer to the occupants. Speedo and fuel are at the center of the dash. Switches, knobs will all be recognizable as GM parts bin shit. You’re looking at a fully optioned truck so you can imagine that a stripped out one would have a dash full of blanking panels and ‘coin tray’ holes like on the passenger’s side ‘pod’. Yes, it’s a seventies GM product so the optional A/C would include ‘ball coolers’:


Also, I did a search but Tonka never did a van version of the bigger toy (that I could find), but you just KNOW that we would have to do make one, beating the Caravan to market by a decade and undercutting the price of the much, much slower Volkswagen Type 2.  We’d have a window version and an ‘if-this-is-rocking-don’t-come-knocking’ bubble window edition as well.


Look, I’m well aware that this thing would cost far more to engineer and develop than just importing some reliable-as-hell (but-rusts-out-in-ten-minutes) Japanese body-on-frame conventional truck. Still, the idea of a long bed in a short overall length is appealing, and with the mid-engine and show car styling, comparing this thing to some leaf-sprung Ford Courier would be like comparing a Winnebago to a GMC Motorhome.

Ultimately, I just don’t care about sales. I just like the fact that as a kid you could have had a pressed steel Tonka toy truck and your mom could have owned an IDENTICAL purple truck, but it would be real. That is, if your parents were cool like that. The fact that my mom drove stately-ass stuff like a Volvo 245DL and that E39 wagon Mercedes Streeter drives now should tell you that was never, ever going to happen for me.

Regardless, my primary goal was to make a dream come to life, and if others bought into my weird vision, all the better. If moms can take their daughters to hundred-dollar lunches at American Girl Cafés with their dolls, there’s no reason we can’t have real Tonka trucks.

1975 Tonka H6 Pickup

Base Price: $4,548
As Shown: $5,370
Options Shown on Photo Car:
Air Conditioning
Power Steering and Brakes
DuraPower Upgrade Motor
Automatic Transmission
AM/FM Radio
Gauge Package
White Spoker Wheels

2800cc OHV horizontally opposed 6 cylinder, 115HP (4 Barrel Carburetor)
3 speed automatic transmission (4 speed manual standard)

Double wishbone independent front suspension- coil springs
4 Link live axle- coil springs
Front disc/rear drum brakes
Recirculating ball steering

0-60:  11.2 seconds
Top speed: 104MPH

All illustrations by The Bishop

Read more on The Autopian

Share on facebook
Share on whatsapp
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on reddit

37 Responses

  1. So basically you asked yourself how to build a thing that has already been built? The Deora already did this as a slick concept and Dodge, Chevy, Ford, and even Willys all built a version of this that makes more sense than this one does from an engineering standpoint when it comes to making it all work.

    Why would you go to all the trouble of having a PTO to run the accessories up in the front cutting into cab space when you could just use an existing traditional acc drive system and keep them on the front of the motor? And if you are really going pie in the sky with the concept why go to the trouble of a front mount cooling system? Use the area inside the double-wall bedside to mount a radiator with a cool duct on the outside and an electric fan…

    1. notorious- the vans you mentioned had the engine basically sharing space in the car which adds noise, heat, and a lot of weight up front when unladen (I also believe that you coudn’t have a front bench seat if you wanted to). The Deora had the motor in the front of the bed, if I recall, and it took up space. The flat motor helps solve for that.

      Side radiator? Now that’s an idea that could likely work (a la Ferrari Testarossa) if I put it in the space where the side storage compartments are now, we could even put a frunk up in the nose. Good thinking.

      1. They share space in the cab because you need that to have a viable driveline to the rear axle if you use a live rear axle.
        The setup drawn above is not actually viable; the engine sitting that far back with a live axle and a 4-link is going to leave you without a useful driveshaft unless you have close to zero suspension travel. You’d need a transaxle or solid-mount IRS setup for that placement to work out.

          1. You realize the Previa engine was under the driver, right?
            They were a service nightmare far worse than even the worst of the forward control vans and early Econolines.

  2. I had a purple Farmer Charmer in the 70s too, although I never gave a great deal of thought to engineering. I guess I assumed a front engine like a Dodge A100
    I was much more interested in my raspberry metallic Freeman Intercity Commuter Matchbox toy which was a sort of futuristic minivan..

    1. kingduct- it’s no different than something like a VW Bus, just slightly more complex hinges. The front side glass would open with the doors so it isn’t a weird L shaped door that you might first imagine.

    1. Skwimjim- I was told that drawing skill of a person was inversely proportional to their ability to spell. I think that’s crap but I’ll take it.

  3. Cybertruck and Elon eat your heart out. Here is the true Cybtertruck. Load that up with an electric motor or two and some batteries and it’s 2023, baby.

  4. Literally the first toy I can remember is one of these red Tonka cabover pickups. This would have been late ’60s, so they made these for a long time. Anyway, all the feels.

    1. I also had one of the cabover pickups as one of my earliest toy memories. My memory is kind of fuzzy on the color though. I think mine was orange, but I might be remembering the color of a different stamped steel toy.

      1. Lightning- by the time a lot of us inherited these they’d been sun faded from sitting in the sand box for literally years so the original color was unknown, and we were too young to know paint correction techniques.

    1. Mark Tucker- If I recall there were firetrucks, car transporters, and all sorts of different Tonka vehicles with this same front end on it. I’ve seen even more than I remember when looking at ebay, thankfully with my credit card more than within an arm’s reach.

  5. I’m not sure you could really make a solid rear axle work with a mid- or rear- engine because of how short the driveshaft is. It would have to undergo a huge change in angle as the axle moved up and down, which not only will the U-joints hate, but it would force a very big relative change in the driveshaft length which was typically ignored in vehicles of the time (end-play in the splined shaft in the transmission output was generally enough).

    Also, the swing-arm rear suspension and its resultant drastic camber changes, coupled with the cost-cut missing anti-roll bar, were the real reasons for the Corvair’s oversteer/roll-over issues. The fact that it was rear-engined made these worse, so a switch to a mid-engine location would help a little bit, but limiting the rear suspension roll if the swing-arm rear half-shafts were kept, or a change to a SLA/mcpherson/multilink suspension design with much less camber change with jounce/droop would be the real solutions.

    1. topless- you might need a slightly longer wheelbase or move the motor a little more forward, but the Toyota Previa indeed has such a setup. Also, the later 1965-69 Corvairs had a trailing arm type suspension if I recall that eliminated the swing axles, and that could work here as well if we chose too (pickup with fully independent suspension).

  6. The vans are fantastic, but they’re missing an essential visual cue: the Corvette-style chrome side pipes with the filigree heat-shield. And maybe a body colored sun shield over the windshield.

    And, thanks for the massive hit off the nostalgia pipe.

  7. Way back in the day, was on the lookout for a Pontiac Tempest Transaxle and mate that to a Corvair Six in the front, and drop that whole mess into a Vega or Sunbird.
    Never got all those pieces together

  8. This kind of weirdness right here is exactly why this site is going to be successful.

    I’m still of a mind someone needs to mass produce a version of the original Lost In Space series “Chariot”. That thing would be the ultimate off road machine.

    Fortunately, Canoo seems to take a bit of inspiration from the Chariot so, it’s a win if they survive.

  9. This kind of weirdness right here is exactly why this site is going to be successful.

    I’m still of a mind someone needs to mass produce a version of the original Lost In Space series “Chariot”. That thing would be the ultimate off road machine.

  10. I like this a little better as a retro truck with a modern hybrid range-extender powertrain – you can have a small inline three or four laid flat somewhere, possibly between the seats, a skateboard battery under the front of the bed.

  11. One thing GM *wouldn’t* have done is mold the branding into the dash like that. That would’ve been a separate plastichrome piece stuck on top, no need for color-keying it with the “chrome” finish, and no need for separate Chevrolet and GMC dash molds.

    1. nplnt- I know on some trucks they did molded logos on the dash but there was a rectangular reveal line around it so they could switch out brands (like on a glove box lid).

  12. The Dodge A100 pickup with a healthy Chevy small block swap was the scariest vehicle I ever driven.
    It has removed my desire to own cab over vehicle ever since.
    The mid engine does over come a part of the problem, you definitely need a decent front suspension though not a Tonka beam axle.
    A real bonus for the driving one, that never really wears out, is watching people’s reactions when they look in their rear view mirror in a traffic line up. (-=

Leave a Reply