CHICAGO -- Dot-coms come and dot-coms go. But the maker of the classic red wagon - the original sport utility vehicle - keeps on rolling.
Radio Flyer long ago entered the pantheon of toys along with such other children's icons as the Barbie doll, Slinky and Lincoln Logs. Today, though - don't tell the kids - more than ever it's grown-ups who use the little red wagons.
The days are gone when the primary use was youngsters driving or flying them off down the sidewalk to fantastic destinations. Now, adults pull tykes around in them or use them for gardening, yard work or taking out the recycling. Thirty-five percent of sales are to hardware and home improvement stores, says company chief Robert Pasin, the 31-year-old grandson of the Italian immigrant who founded the company in 1917.
"In a high-tech age, there are still certain fundamental products that go on and on and on," says David Miller, president of the Toy Manufacturers Association of America. "Their wagons are one of those products."
While its wagons helped inspire a 1992 fantasy film bearing its name, the story of Radio Flyer's founding is worth a Hollywood movie all its own.
A third-generation wood craftsman and cabinetmaker from a small town outside Venice, Antonio Pasin came to America in 1914 at the age of 16 with almost no money and a dream of setting up his own business, his grandson says.
Three years later he had scraped up enough money from various jobs to buy used woodworking equipment and began making wooden wagons by hand at night in a rented one-room shop. He eventually named his business the Liberty Coaster Co., after the Statue of Liberty.
Rising demand prompted him to switch to metal for mass production. In 1930, he renamed the firm the Radio Steel & Manufacturing Co., a name that held for 57 years until it took the name of its most popular product.
"Radio" derived from the biggest technological innovation of the time, invented by fellow Italian Guglielmo Marconi. "Flyer" was a nod to the wonder of flight.
But the success story almost ended in the Depression. With the company struggling, Pasin recounts, his grandfather Antonio bucked common sense and his friends' advice and took out a big loan to stage a huge exhibit at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. He worried for weeks over the decision, but the 45-foot-tall Coaster Boy model he built captivated fairgoers and his gamble paid off.
"That's when the Radio Flyer brand got on the map," Pasin says.
Today, assisted by his brother Paul as executive vice president, the self-described "chief wagon executive" manages a staff of 100 and a 300,000-square-foot factory-warehouse complex on Chicago's West Side that produces up to 5,000 wagons a day.
While the privately held firm doesn't disclose annual sales, they have risen modestly in the United States, says Pasin, who took charge of day-to-day operations four years ago from their father Mario, still the chairman. The popularity of things Americana has spurred rapid growth in Canada and Japan, where there's a new line of Radio Flyer toddlers' clothing.
But the common perception that Radio Flyer has returned from oblivion prompts a smile.
"For the past few years, people will say to me, 'Gee, wagons are coming back - I see your wagons everywhere.' I tell them 'That's because you have kids now,"' he says. "The truth is, our wagons have never really gone away."
Neither will the family ownership, apparently, any time soon. Pasin, who has a daughter of wagon-riding age, says he has rebuffed many offers and doesn't foresee selling.
That doesn't mean they won't tinker with their product line a bit. There are Radio Flyer tricycles, pedal cars, Christmas ornaments, snow globes and soon a "retro" scooter with training wheels.
But Radio Flyer is still mostly about wagons - dozens of kinds of wagons, from a keychain version to an alphabet block wagon to the basic Navigator for $59.99. Deluxe models feature cup holders, storage compartments and shock absorbers. The new SUW (sport utility wagon) has pneumatic tires, holds up to 350 pounds and sells for about $200.
And if parents or grandparents looking for a new toy find a new tool, that's all the better.
Wanda Wilson uses Radio Flyers to move books around the Chicago bookstore she manages and to display children's books.
"Every child says 'I want one of those, Mommy,"' Wilson says. But it's usually the adults in her neighborhood who use them, she notices, for towing kids, plants, groceries or household items.
Toy or no toy, she says, "It's a very convenient little item."
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