Originally created 12/18/97

'Flyers' in search of memories

In1914 Antonio Pasin was 16 when he left his family in Italy to come to the United States. Like millions of other immigrants, he was poor, but he had energy and a dream.

Antonio's family had designed and built fine furniture for generations in Italy. In America, he first built wooden wine cabinets and phonograph cabinets, but soon began crafting wagons. He named his company the Liberty Coaster Co., after the Statue of Liberty.

He could not mass-produce wagons using his own hands, so he looked to the auto industry and, in 1927, began using metal-stamping technology.

They became, as his slogan said, "For Every Boy. For Every Girl."

By 1930, Antonio's company, now named Radio Steel & Manufacturing, was the world's largest producer of coaster wagons. His wagons had several names, including one that captured the spirit of the times, the Radio Flyer.

He used the name "radio" because radio was the high-tech invention of the time and Antonio was enamored with technology. It didn't hurt that a fellow Italian was the inventor. The word "Flyer" gave a nod to the wonder of flight.

"He always wanted to ride on the other exciting things of the times," said Mr. Pasin. "I don't think we can appreciate what a buzzword it was at the time."

ANTONIO'S WAGON BUSINESS thrived, even during the Great Depression. In 1933, Antonio built a 45-foot-tall "Coaster Boy" for the Chicago World's Fair. A showroom featured the latest wagons and offered visitors miniature wagons for a quarter.

In 1934, the Streak-O-Lite, complete with control dials and working headlights, was modeled after the then-popular streamlined Zephyr train.

It took World War II to bring Radio Flyer's wagon-making to a halt, and then only temporarily.

Today, up to 8,000 wagons a day are produced in the same west side Chicago factory Antonio built in the 1930s. But now, many Radio Flyers look very different from Antonio's.

Among the newest are the Navigator, a plastic wagon with a door, a fat, extra long handle and heavy-duty front casters for tight turns, and the Voyager, also plastic, with a door and a removable vinyl mesh top.

The best sellers, according to Pasin, are the Trailblazer, a large plastic wagon with removable sides that can be turned into a flatbed; the Town & Country, an all-wood luxury model, and the largest classic steel model.

When making plans to celebrate the company's 80th anniversary, the brothers looked to their grandfather for inspiration. Remembering the giant "Coaster Boy" from the 1933 World's Fair, they created the world's largest wagon, which was a hit of this year's Toy Fair in New York.

The wagon is 27 feet long, 13 feet wide and 21 feet tall from the wheels to the top of the handle. Its wheels are 8 feet in diameter, and it weighs 15,000 pounds.

"The key was it had to be a totally functional wagon," said Mr. Pasin. "It's absolutely to scale, nine times the size of the classic."

"I have never seen a Liberty Coaster," said Mr. Pasin. "My grandfather always said, `I sell wagons, not collect them.' "

So Radio Flyer is asking Americans to share their favorite little red wagon memories as part of a contest. A grand-prize winner receives an all-expense paid trip for four to Walt Disney World. The first runner-up receives two round-trip airplane tickets to anywhere in the contiguous United States. Other finalists receive Radio Flyer products.

Mr. Pasin's favorite is a story from a man who wrote to request replacement parts for his wagon.

"He and his wife had parked their station wagon in their driveway on a hill and left the back tailgate open. The kid was in the car and put the car in neutral. The station wagon rolled backward down the hill and the wagon rolled out and got wedged under the wheel of the car. It stopped the car, preventing it from going out in the street and saved the life of the child.

"The wagon was hardly damaged. We gave them the part at no charge."

`Flyer' MemoriesTo enter the Radio Flyer Memories contest, send an essay of 100 words or less or a photo to "Memories Contest," 625 N. Michigan Ave., No. 2400, Chicago, IL 60611. Entries must be received by Jan. 15.


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