Home » A Gun That Shoots Cars, Punchcard-Controlled Cars, And Tiny Gas-Powered Toy Cars: Weird Commercials Of Toys Past

A Gun That Shoots Cars, Punchcard-Controlled Cars, And Tiny Gas-Powered Toy Cars: Weird Commercials Of Toys Past

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I know the modern world is filled with all sorts of madness and injustice and looming doom, but when it comes to toys and entertainment, modern kids have it great. I got my kid a VR headset thing for Hanukkah, and if you were to describe that to me back when I was his age and then tell me that when I’m an adult, I’ll get one for my kid, my first question would likely have been “so how did I become Emperor of the Greater Earth?” But I’m not Emperor of shit. That’s just how good modern toys are. That’s not to say toys, especially car toys—this is a car blog, dammit—didn’t try their hardest in the past, because they sure as hell did. So, let’s look at some old commercials for these bonkers things, because what else are you doing?

Most self-propelled mainstream car toys today run on batteries and electric motors or, if they’re the smaller/cheaper/drugstore kind, little springs and clockwork you wind by pulling the car backward a few inches. But that wasn’t always the case! There were some pretty novel ideas employed to make toy cars go free of the cruel tyranny of Big Battery!

Like this one, the Tomy Air Jammer Road Rammer:

That’s a compressed-air-powered piston engine in there, driving that thing! The kid uses the included pump which pressurizes that conical bottle that forms the body, and then valves direct the air to drive a piston that drives the wheels and, you know, makes it go.

I like how in that ad the old dude is looking at those kids pumping up their cars with clear disdain and disgust:


He’s all, “Look at these miserable little shits all hopped up on goofballs with their HAM radios and their air-pumped cars, they’re going to be the ruin of our Great Nation.” But then the car takes off and he does that lower-the-glasses thing and all of a sudden he knows he can go home and get drunk in peace because the world is in good hands after all.

There was even a yellow Beetle called the Bug Scrammer:

Even the big teens with their real car are amazed by this air-powered wonder! Probably because of the oil crisis, and they’re tired of paying like 81 cents for a gallon of sweet, sweet gas.

But let’s say you don’t give a shit about running your car on something as pedestrian and mundane as “air.” I mean, that’s the same crap that rats suck into their lungs and roaches slurp through their spiracles! Certainly, you deserve better. You deserve real gasoline! Meet the Hasbro Great Gassers!

Yep, these things ran in an embiggened slot car-type track and had 0.027cc two-stroke engines that it looked like you had to sort of tune by sound. That looks tricky.


Being two-stroke, I’m guessing you’d have to mix lubricants and fuel? God, these things must have made a lot of exhaust. Could you even use them indoors? They’re tiny engines, sure, but they’re revving high and nonstop, I’m pretty sure you’d be feeling that two-stroke exhaust before too long. Did they get hot? Did they throw oil fluids all over that track? Did this whole setup become a crazy fire hazard after the first half hour? I have so many questions.

Okay, maybe air and fuel are still too boring for you: how about just shooting toy cars out of a motherflipping gun? Because that was an option, too! Behold Repeat’in Ricochet Tracer Racers!

Yes, why just roll a car down a track when you can shoot them from a fucking gun. The cars were pretty good-sized projectiles, too, about the size of a Hot Wheels car, and encased in a little hemicylindrical cartridge. I’m pretty sure one of these would hurt like hell if your brother or sister nailed you in the back of the head with one, but they had a little locking mechanism to keep it from firing unless it was in contact with the ground.

Rifle Instructions

I bet kids figured out how to defeat that, though, and many a purple, aching welt was given.

But what if you were, you know, a smart kid? Did you need more brain stimulation than just shooting cars at your siblings’ stupid faces? The 1970s had you covered, with the humid excitement of the burgeoning computer revolution and that most exciting artifact of that era, punch cards.


Thrill to the Amaze-A-Matics!

These things were wildly clever; essentially, they were battery-powered cars that could go forward and backward, turn right and left or go straight. Those actions, plus shifting to neutral made up a total of six possible commands, which could be triggered via notches in these punch-card-like strips that would be inserted and fed through the car.


As you can see, these also included blank template cards you could make yourself, cutting out notches for what actions you wanted, and in what sequence. There’s no actual computer in operation here, just a series of switches that are actuated by the moving of the card through the chassis. Still, it is a stored program that gets executed, but you can’t, say, have conditionals or wait for inputs. It’s more like the punchcards used in a Jacquard loom.

Okay, one more computing-based one, and the only one that I actually encountered in my youth, way way back in the Stupid Ages. The Big Trak.

The Big Trak was like an evolution of the Amaze-A-Matic, but this time had an actual computer that could store commands (up to 16) and thereby eliminated the need for a punch card. Also, it could understand units of distance and rotation and could flash lights and even dump stuff out of an optional trailer. This thing was hot shit.


Big Track was based on a Texas Instruments TMS1000-series four-bit microcontroller, complete with 32 bytes of RAM memory to store commands. That’s less than what it would take to store this sentence.

Here are all the commands you could get a Big Trak to execute:

  • Forward/Backwards: Move forward or backwards in units of body length

  • Left/Right: Turn left or right in units of 1/60th of a full rotation

  • HOLD: Pause in 1/10 of second time units

  • FIRE: Fire the light bulb “laser”

  • CLR: Clear the program

  • CLS: Clear Last Step

  • RPT: Repeat a number of steps

  • TEST: Run short test program

  • CK: Check last instruction

  • Out: Dump optional trailer accessory

  • In: Reserved for future expansion

It looks like maybe the “in” function might one day have added some kind of sensors to the Big Trak? As it was, it was completely blind to the world, so if your program drove it down some stairs or off a fire escape or into traffic or lava, it would not have minded.

Also interesting: today, people hack these things with Arduinos and make them into much more robust robots. Well, robots at all. Incredibly, people were doing that back in the day, too! Back in 1981, an article in Byte came out with instructions to let your computer control Big Track via wire or even radio! Hot damn.

Car toys are amazing now, no question. But it’s good to remember that people have been wanting badass car toys at least since the Babylonian era, and it’s incredible how many creative and absurd ways were tried to achieve just that. There are reasons why we old bastards get all nostalgic about dumb stuff, after all.


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Hot Wheels Has Never Made A Brubaker Box Toy Car. It’s Time To Fix That

(Thanks to Peter for all the research!)

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44 Responses

  1. I’ve honestly never heard of any of these I’m not sure how. I was born in 1975 ffs I’m not sure how they got past me. I am currently searching eBay for a set of Great Gassers however…

  2. “I’m guessing you’d have to mix lubricants and fuel?” Nah, just pick up an orange and white can of Cox Glow Power glow fuel at K-Mart or Ben Franklin! It had castor oil mixed right in with the methanol and nitromethane.

    I don’t remember these cars (and I would have bugged the SHIT out of my parents if I had ever seen one!), but I experimented with control line planes and an RC car using .049 2-strokes, and a free-flying helicopter with an .027. The upward facing propeller would provide enough thrust to lift the chopper into the air, and when it ran out of fuel it would autogyro down.

    1. Terrifying memories! I had a Cox .049-powered P-51 Mustang: it always seemed to be about 1 second away from plummeting into the ground due to the simple but sketchy nylon control line. What’s flying a control line plane like? Imagine attaching dental floss to the steering knuckles of your car and then driving around a skid pad at high speed while steering by using proper flossing technique instead of a steering wheel.

    2. I had a control line plane! Looked like a Spitfire. My dad picked it up at a garage sale.

      Everything was great until the control line broke. It disintegrated upon impact with the road next to the parking lot we were flying it in. Dad ran into traffic to save the engine. He hot potatoed it back safely. I think he figured we’d find something else to put it in, but may next fuel powered toy ended up being a go kart.

    3. Those Cox engines scarred my preteen self. Hard to start and hard to tune little cuss words. Plus the castor oil inevitably made a sticky mess once the nitro had evaporated. I still love remote control stuff, powered by lipo batteries that is.

    1. How about Tonka TNT Racers?

      They were similar to Burnin’ Key Cars, except they used a pump-like launcher.

      I have a few of the models, including the 1984 Chrysler Laser coupe and Dodge Caravan CV panel van. these two were actually promotional for Chrysler’s two new 1984 models. Matchbox already had the Dodge Daytona and Caravan, so Tonka settled for the lesser models.

      The only tompers I have are the AMC Eagle SX/4 coupe, Jeep CJ-7 and a 1984 Chevy S-10 4×4. I have a few Burnin’ Key Cars too, but only the original Kidco models. The current Maisto versions just don’t cut it for me.

  3. As a kid I always wanted a Big Trak Sadly, never got one Fortunately, as an EE in college in the 90s, we got to build an RC car, add sensors and a microcontroller to get it, and program it to self-navigate.

  4. Only one of these I remember is the Amaze-a-matics. I hade one (the Chrysler) and remember programming it myself with the white cards. I am surprised I never even heard of the rest of them since I have always been into toy cars.

    1. I can still remember the little 7-note boop-beep song when it would start and the RRRRR sound it made while driving. And also the way it would never track in a straight line. I’d totally Arduino mine if I still had it.

  5. I grew up in the 70’s and these commercials brought back some great memories. Some elements totally bypassed me at the time, such as the inherent sexism of the Great Gassers commercial: “For you and your son!” I desperately wanted one of those Repeat’in Ricochet Tracer Racers, but we couldn’t afford such luxuries when I was a kid. Ahh, good times.

  6. Milton Bradley’s Big Trak came out during my last year of college and was designed right down the road from my university. A number of them were donated to the computer information science (COINS) school to teach basic programming logic before moving on to punch cards and keyboards. One of my roommates was a COINS major and annoyed everyone for weeks by programming the Big Trak to show up at inopportune moments such as rolling out from under a bed during “intimate” assignations or creeping under stall doors in the bathroom when said stalls were occupied. Only the Big Trak’s $40 price tag saved it from an ignoble fate, since none of us ever had $40 bucks to waste. That’s a lot of beer and pizza.

    The Big Trak also appeared on a toy shelf in Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.

  7. Here for the correct usage of the biological term “spiracles.” You are now officially in the top decile of science journalists, Mr. Torchinsky. Congratulations.

  8. When I was maybe 7 years old I got a little car about 15″ long that looked like a sprint car from the 1950s. I’m sure it was made of pot medal. It had a standard fuel burning model airplane engine in it that drove the rear wheels. It was attached to a cord on that end and a stake you hammered into the ground on the other end. The little car just ran around in circles until it ran out of fuel. Those were pretty simple times.

  9. I played with a Big Trak once, and was rather frustrated by poor response, this one did have the optional trailer though.
    Things I recall not on the list include the early 70s battery powered Hot Wheels that were charged with the Juice Machine that was a gas pump full of D cells. I also recall some sort of water powered car from TV. In the 70s you could still find Cox gas powered cars that ran circles on a control line.

  10. I had those Ricochet Racers and can confirm defeating the safety mechanism. But it wasn’t really worth it. In the 70s there so many other good projectile-launching toys that it wasn’t necessary. Yes, I have both functioning eyeballs.

    But the toy that really worked as advertised was the wind-up Evil Knievel motorcycle set. The flywheel on that thing was so heavy that it could jump over all kinds of home-made ramps, land clean, and roll on for another 40 feet. But the actual ‘Evil’ action figure that came with the motorcycle only lasted a week or so before the internal bendy metal snapped. We had to tape him down to the bike for all his big stunts.

    1. This is the first toy mentioned thus far that I remember my family having (no idea if it was mine, as the youngest of seven, anything that was mine would get quickly co-opted if cool enough.)

  11. I believe my brother and I had the VW Air Jammer. I distinctly remember the fantastic motor sound it made.

    I also had two uncles less than 10 years older than me, and they had a Big Trak. I think it eventually migrated to my parents’ house….where I happen to be right now. Looks like I’ve got some basement spelunking to do.

  12. They still sell a Nerf version of the car gun. My kids have one and it is a blast. The cars are soft (at least in this version) so they don’t hurt at all.

    I bet it was fun when one of those Great Gassers jumped the track and ended up 3 towns over before you could catch up with it.

  13. Anyone remember Estes Land Rockets? Very light plastic rocket-propelled cars. You filled the little cylinder in the rear with Cold Power* and they were guided/kept on the ground by a string you secured by nails at either end. Boring. Much more fun when you throw away the string and use a black powder model rocket engine-then you understood why they wanted you to use the string.

    *turns out that was R-12 refrigerant

    1. My brother was an amateur rocketeer and had a several Estes rockets that he launched at the disused small airport nearby. He also got the land rockets, too. Without string or guiderail, it was hard to make sure they didn’t veer off or jumped over the surface irregularities as they shot from the standstill. After breaking a couple of them and gluing them together many times, he gave up on the land rockets.

      To give them a proper send-off, he strapped a couple of D engines on each vehicle. Then, we bet on how many feet they would go straight before veering off or breaking apart. All of us lost the bet as one miraculously went on and on to the end of long runway (no idea how one managed to stay on course for so long). D engines were too much for two others; they went astray fast and bounced all over the runway, destroying themselves incrementally.

      1. My nephew was gifted a monster two-stage Estes kit with (as I recall) D engines. He did a fine job of building it and, come launch day, he/we (but probably I, as the adult present) mixed up the motors. Plan called for 1st stage liftoff with burnout followed instantly by firing of the 2nd stage, then a coast to apogee and time-delayed deploy of the recovery chute.
        In the event the first stage went into delay, the rocket gracefully nosed over, then the 2nd stage ignited, drilling the thing into the ground!
        A spectacular one-off — we’re fortunate no one was injured. A cardboard accordion was about all that remained.

  14. Wow, that ricochet car rifle brings back some memories. It may (or may not) be in the garage rafters at my parent’s house, where they had a habit of storing old junk.

  15. Kids these days have no idea how good they have it. The remote control cars are fast and durable, planes can be quickly glued together, and they have more computing power in the smart plug than Apollo astronauts landed on the Moon with.

    1. Replying to myself: some of the older gents at my RC plane club can indeed tune a glow engine by how it sounds. Brave souls, having their hands inches away from a propeller whirling at 10k RPM tuning a high power setting.

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