We never do nothing nice and easy


I would bet that if you asked anyone raised in the ’70s about the best toys of childhood, they would eventually come to remember the thrill of riding as fast as humanly possible on a low-slung, plastic, primary-colored dervish only to suddenly pull on a blue handbrake and spin doughnuts on the sidewalk.

Oh Big Wheel.

I love you so.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been working on a story for the Chronicle about the rise and fall of the Big Wheel, which took Suburban America by storm in the ’70s but fell from glory until only recently. One person I spoke to said they came to be considered “unsafe” — because falling 3 inches onto the ground is apparently too much for today’s parents. You can find Big Wheels now at Target and on Amazon, although the handbrakes have been removed.

Despite prices as high as $100 online, I had been meaning to order one and was waiting to do so until we got back from vacation. But poking around the Tenderloin today, Emme and I made our way to the back of the New Mission Rescue thrift store and found, shining in a corner, beckoning us, this beaten-down, abandoned contraption of summers yore.

For $6.

Sure, the pedal foot rests were missing, leaving just metal spikes sticking out from the wheels. And I swore there used to be rainbow streamers hanging off the handlebars. But it was still enough.

When she saw it, Emmeline stopped talking in mid-sentence and pointed. Clothes racks seemed to part before her, and sunlight miraculously glinted off the yellow handlebars.

“What is that?” she whispered, her eyes widening to take in the scene.

“That,” I told her, “Is a Big Wheel.”

“Can Emme ride it?”

“Hop on,” I said.

Looking back, it was a foolish mistake. I should have come back with the car.

I couldn’t get her off the thing.

Later, at home, she sat on the Big Wheel in the living room, her head resting on the center of the handlebars, a hand stroking a grip as if it were a new puppy.

“Emme likes Big Wheel,” she sighed.

“You do?”

She yawned and closed her eyes for a moment, beat.

“Emme wants to nap with Big Wheel,” she said.

I carried her off to bed, hoping, 30 years from now, she might one day remember a magical ride through the city and the sudden rush of finding a new, best childhood toy.


She rode from the store …


Through the ‘Loin …


Into the MUNI station …


On the train …


And finally, two hours later, home.


  1. that sweet baby is going to have this memory in 30 years…and hundreds more floating around in her head.

    what a great childhood you are giving her!

  2. It should be a law that all children are required to have a big wheel at some point in their childhood.

    By the way, what’s up with the removal of the handbrake? That’s the first thing I noticed when I put Matt’s together.

  3. I loved the Big Wheel as a kid. There is no better sound to accompany the memories of childhood than that huge plastic wheel running at top speed down the asphalt of the neighborhood street.

    That being said, neither me nor my brothers were ever allowed to own one. My memories came from riding the orange and yellow wonders belonging to my friends. Why were we not allowed to have them? Because they were unsafe. No my parents were not overprotective of us, and no, the three inch fall to the ground was not too much for my parents to bear. Rather, my dad had friends who found out in the hardest and most unimaginable way possible that the height of the big wheel put a childs head at the exact same level as a car bumper. And that a driver coming headlong into a big wheel has no way of seeing such a low slung child.

    They are fun, they are wonderful. Be careful…

  4. OHMYGOD!!! I LOVED my Big Wheel. I grew up in the 80s, and everybody had them then, too. Mine was a Cabbage Patch themed one with a little plastic bucket on the back (presumably for a favorite doll to ride in), but we also had a black and yellow one with “Suzuki” on the side. Man, I loved that thing. Neither of ours had hand brakes.

    Did anyone else flip the Big Wheel upside down and turn the pedals with their hands and call it the ice cream maker? I thought my cousins and I just made that up, but at some point I met someone else who did the same thing.

    I’m super bummed to hear they’re not available in every store nowadays. I’ll have to keep my eye open for one, so that I can stockpile it for my future spawn.

    Hooray for Emme and her new bike!

  5. Now that you mention it Oatmeal … I had to stop the Big Wheel on Dolores Street, a major thoroughfare, because there was a driver who clearly did not see us.

    And yes, VBG, I turned the BW upside down all the time — almost as much fun.

  6. I love that last picture. Adorable.

    I wish Big Wheels would have come back while my kids could have ridden them. Living vicariously and all that.

  7. Big Wheels, Slip-n-Slides and make up my most favorite summer memories, including the one time we tried to combine them. To this day I have no idea how, in my Big Brother neighborhood, no parent saw what we were doing and stopped us before Terry ended up with 15 stitches in his leg.

    Way to go on finding one for her!

  8. Wait til you see the Christmas in July present I got for you guys – Jarts. Viva la ’70s!

  9. My brother clearly loves his one and only niece …

  10. Hurray for Big Wheels! Just out of curiosity, is the one you found old enough that it still has a handbrake, or is it gone?

  11. Sadly, no handbrake. I think it’s of the new generation of Big Wheels. Aside from the missing pedals and streamers, it’s in really good shape.

  12. Oh there were many a skinned knees and elbows to be had from Big Wheel races and wrecks. My Grandparents have a huge sloped driveway on there farm that is driveway #2. We used to run and jump on the seat of the big wheels and ride down. It was so awesome…until Brent lost control and hit the barbed wire fence one day.

    I had the Powder Puff big wheels that was pink. My Dad recently found a thrift store (more like a thrift yard) that has the Powder Puff. He bought it for our daughter who just turned 1 and is anxiously awaiting her first ride!

  13. We also used to take the seatback off and use it like a scooter, with a foot on the seat and the other one pushing. That was the way that I hurt myself the most, looking back. Wiping out while trying to scooter my Big Wheel in really fast circles on the patio.

  14. That one came back real quick when I put a foot on the back, leaned over to grab the handle bars and made the thing do a gigantic wheelie that almost sent her sprawling. She loved it.

  15. Wasn’t there something similar called something along the line of a big green machine? I need to google that. I seem to remember riding those with my cousin.

  16. My nephew (11) has the green machine now. Only it’s my brother(his dad) who plays with it most. The whole point of the green machine is to spin them. I’m a purist, I’ll take the Big Wheel any day. Sort of bummed to hear they’ve pulled the break; perhaps we should start a business to “pimp your Big Wheel”; bring back the break and all. 😉 Dude that would be cool!

  17. I just realized that if you B/W the background of the photos you totally have a Knuffle Bunny book going here. Cool! Now you just need to work in some of the speak easy’s and you’re dialed.

  18. Oh man, emme would love that — knuffle bunny is her favorite. Good idea!

  19. This post is so great on so many levels…the Big Wheel! the colorful outfits! I am awash in the rosy glow of remembered love for my own sparkle pink big wheel from when I was a kid, back in the early 1700’s.

  20. Awww…what a great Dad you are!

    Did this procession strike up conversations with strangers? I can’t imagine that your adventures don’t create some interesting encounters.

  21. Those guys you see in the background in the ‘Loin picture actually stopped to cheer. I told Emme she was in another parade. Another guy carrying a heavy chain, the kind you use to anchor boats, called her a “blue eyed devil.” Par for the course in the ‘Loin, I think. The MUNI cops busted us on the train and made her sit in a regular seat. But people were generally pleased to see a kid on a Big Wheel downtown. One man took her photo.

  22. I also had a Powder Puff big wheel. What an awesomely unsafe excellent toy. And I had Jarts, too – what fun is a backyard party if nobody loses an eye?

    Jillian’s 2nd b-day is coming up (less than two weeks? HOW did that happen?) and I’m going to see if I can convince my parents to shell out for a Big Wheel.

    Too bad they don’t make them in adult sizes!

  23. Those photos are AWESOME!

    I loved my Big Wheel. It will always have a soft spot in my heart. Next up for Emme? The Mean, Green Machine. Do they still make those?

  24. My parent bought me a Big Wheel as my “Big Sister” present when my sister was born in 1974. 34 years later I STILL vividly remember running right past her little newborn self on the couch toward its red and yellow perfectness. Good times.

  25. I found a great nostalgia site offering tons of old timey Big Wheel photos — including the elusive CHiPs big wheel and the Q-Bert big wheel. Did anyone actually have a bubble machine big wheel? That’s my version of heaven.


  26. Oh wow…how cool. My son had a Knight Rider Big Wheel and he loved that thing. I don’t even know what happened to it, but I’ve always thought that when he finally had kids, I’d be buying them each one. Heck, for a grandkid, I’d pop $100 to get them one. Wouldn’t have spent that much on the Boy when he was a kid, but that’s different 😉

  27. LOVE that glint of pure adventure in her eye!

  28. debinsf says:

    awwww yeaaaaah!

    she looks like a total badass! (and I mean that in a good way)

  29. Jessica says:

    Looks like she had a lot of fun. I LOVE her outfits.

  30. Okay, I didn’t have a big wheel in the 60’s, but I seriously remember the sound of those wheels on the sidewalk when I was trying to sleep in – in the summer! Argh-h-h!

    Different memories, eh?

  31. The sleeping in part – would have been 70’s and 80’s too maybe.

  32. Are you talking about the handbrake that was on the side? I used to love those things. I’m going to the thrift store tomorrow.

  33. What a wonderful story. Thanks for the memories.

  34. That is so cool, I loved BigWheel, but I have to second Oatmeals comment — I was nearly run over while riding a BigWheel, I think I gave the old lady driver a heart attack. She got out of her car, gave me a scolding, and after that we were limited to riding on the sidewalk and walking it across streets. Be careful.

    The guys in the Loin cheering, man, I miss SF so much some days it hurts.

  35. My mom wrote me an email advising me to get a flag. I’m sure she’ll have one with her next time I see her …

  36. I love early childhood where the rule is 3 wheels or no wheels.

  37. Okay, so that is totally impressive for a two year old ride…that thing was made for her. Or maybe it was made for you. Sounds like a fun opportunity to be a kid again.

  38. I couldn’t be having more fun if I robbed Dunkin Donuts for a living.

  39. I had a Big Wheel and I truly loved it. It was a gift to just see it again in your pics–all t hat yellow and red glory of it.

  40. "MamaSxia" says:

    I had a semi dorky pink and baby blue big wheel. (WITH NO HANDBRAKE!) What did my parents think? That I was a girl or something? On the “tachometer” (sticker), it said KM/H… I thought they had gotten my initials wrong by one letter… (KMW)

    Oh, but I did love my friend’s Knight Rider Big wheel, with handbrake and all.

  41. that one is in fantastic shape – looks better than my son’s did a week after he starting riding it!!

  42. I am so sad that I didn’t get to see that little face while I was invading your city

  43. I remember pinching my hand in that darn handbrake.

  44. OMG OMG OMG!!!! BIG WHEELSSS!!!! Loooooove em! (As if you haven’t heard that 43 times already. Duh.)

    We used to turn ours upside down and put rocks in the holes of the wheels. Then we’d spin the wheels and wait for the rocks to come flying out. Amazingly, no one (that I know of) ever lost an eye.

    I must find one for my boy!

  45. *sigh* I’m just old enough, and from a traditional enough family that I didn’t get one. ’cause I’m a gurl. (I also did not get a chemistry set, instead received a barbie make-up kit. ugh)

    My older brother had one, back when the big wheel was BIG, and when he out grew it, I rode it a lot. Our younger brothers had littler big wheels as did our cousin around the corner. Those 3 guys raced between our house and his so much they actually wore through the hard plastic wheels.

    So, dad and uncle set off to get them BIG big wheels like older brother had, cause they were bigger now. Couldn’t be found. So, they got bikes. And we all rode the one BIG big wheel until it fell to pieces.

  46. i loved my big wheel. i think you can order parts online