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A Small Fortune: The Rise, Fall and Return of Micro Machines

A Small Fortune: The Rise, Fall and Return of Micro Machines

When Kevin McCallister scattered Micro Machines across the floor as part of his defensive efforts in the 1990 family action movie Home Alone, the line of undersized toy cars asserted their status as a defining part of the cultural landscape of the time.

Their inclusion in Home Alone spoke in shorthand to parents and children alike. We all knew the pain of stepping on a Micro Machine. Kevin’s booby trap needed no explanation. More than that, though, the diminutive vehicles had become so popular that they functioned as a cultural touchpoint for youth and play. Micro Machines weren’t just convenient for sabotaging intruders; they spoke to who Kevin was, and the time he existed within.

To say the toy range did well is an understatement. While the quantifying data is hard to come by, it’s commonly cited that at the peak of their reign, Micro Machines sold in greater quantities than Hot Wheels, Matchbox and Majorette’s combined output. Galoob, the company behind Micro Machines, was not a truly modest operation at the time, but for a family-run business to temporarily dethrone giants like Hot Wheels was a remarkable achievement.

Galoob - also a distributor of Codemasters’ infamous Game Genie cheat cartridge - had been founded in 1957, but in the years prior to Micro Machine’s 1987 debut on store shelves, the company had reportedly become increasingly keen on claiming a slice of the profitable toy car sector. At the same time, independent US toy inventors Clemens V. Hedeen and Patti Jo Hedeen had been working on their own concept for a range of toy cars to rival Hot Wheels’ growing popularity. The Heedens toiled away in their toy store Fun City USA building 24 prototypes, complete with packaging, before approaching Galoob at New York Toy Fair with their new creations. They shared their idea for an expansive range of detailed undersized cars that were cheaper to manufacture, store and transport per unit than conventionally scaled offerings of the time. Galoob were clearly smitten, moving to signing a contract and getting to design and manufacturing with haste. Rumour has it that the Hedeens didnt even have time to approach a single other toy company.

And what Galoob saw in Micro Machines clearly resonated with a vast audience. In offering detailed, subtly stylised takes on a range of classic vehicles, the ‘Micros’ brought a doll’s house miniatures charm with much wider appeal. They delivered fantastic playability, were affordable and pocketable, commonly licensed real automotive brands, and offered youngsters vast collectible appeal. Equally, the range of colour schemes and paint jobs expertly reflected tastes at the time. Though the 1980s and well into the 1990s, Micro Machines captured the aesthetic zeitgeist.

Galoob also powered Micro Machine’s global spread with a characterful, energetic marketing approach that set the range apart. The infamous TV ads featured the then fast talking world record holder John Moschitta Jr. His rapid fire-style delivery framed Micro Machines as fun, unconventional and exciting through over 100 apparent commercials. Micro Machines were impossible to ignore, and quickly became a hit. Or that’s how it felt. In fact, a more detailed analysis of the toys’ story - and one detailed in the Bitmap-published Micro Machines collecting compendium Micro But Many - shows that Galoob struggled at times to balance the rise of their undersized vehicles with the profitability of the rest of their business. But one thing is sure - Micro Machines were something of a cultural phenomenon, at least to the point of being synonymous with their era. Just as the Raleigh Chopper can be used as shorthand for 1970s British culture, so too do Micro Machines speak to the time that spanned the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties.

Micro Machines rise was for a period engendered by constant innovation and diversification of the line. Certainly, the introduction of the likes of Insiders - where a truly tiny vehicle could be found inside an ordinary scale Micro Machine - helped. And then there were the video games, which came about through Galoob’s ambition. The toy firm had approached UK studio Codemasters - presumably via talks related to the Game Genie deal - with a view to make a game based on their cars. Arriving on the NES in 1991 with multiplayer and NPC AI that was considerably impressive at the time, it certainly wasn’t the first or only top-down racer. But thanks to quality handling, impressively detailed visuals and some of that Micro Machine’s doll’s house scale charm, the game became a hit, spawning numerous ports and  a couple of quality sequels before the series started to lose its way. Which is what also happened to the real Micros.

As the toys’ momentum grew, so too did Gallob’s capacity to secure profitable licensing deals. After offering so many real world vehicles, Micro Machines based on intellectual properties including Indiana Jones, James Bond, Star Trek and Power Rangers started to appear. And then Galoob secured what many licensors might consider the ultimate IP - Star Wars.

However, licensing Star Wars may have been the beginning of the end for Micro Machines - a toy brand that feels as if it vanished overnight in the late 1990s. It’s always seemed a little unusual that Micro Machines eventually disappeared from shelves. Certainly, by the middle of that decade they were no longer new or novel. Micro Machines had been about for around a decade. But at the same time, surely undersized, affordable, collectible cars should be a perennial hit? Why wouldn’t a kid in the year 2000 be just as interested in tiny automotives as a youngster in 1990? Surely they were just too good to ever go from toy stores?

In fact, while the Star Wars Micro Machines sold very well, they were part of a move that saw Galoob lose the focus that made Micros magic. One of the first Star Wars lines by Galoob certainly had plenty of appeal. The ‘Star Wars Tri Packs’ each offered three spacecraft from the original movie trilogy, and they remain coveted by collectors. Through the 1990s Star Wars Micro Machines were among the best selling toys based on George Lucas’ films. They did very well indeed.

But over time the Star Wars sets moved further and further away from what many see as the core appeal of Micro Machines; real world vehicles compatible with so much of our youthful imaginations. By the second half of the 1990s Galoob were putting out all manner of Star Wars branded action figures, toys based on the content of spin off novels, and playsets that weren’t meaningfully compatible with any vehicles - like the rather underwhelming ‘Mini-Heads’. Based largely on Star Wars’ more obscure characters, they offered a small head that could be opened up to reveal a modest diorama with a singular figure. And on the packaging, the Micro Machines logo was tucked in the corner while the words ‘Star Wars’ enjoyed all the attention. Galoob were still putting out conventional Micro Machines at the time, but the waters had become muddied.

What defined Micro Machines was becoming increasingly less clear. Rather than reflecting and capturing a zeitgeist, Micro Machines were feeling increasingly like an uncomfortable union of various small scale toys. To say ‘Micro Machines’ didn’t mean one defining, iconic thing, and the magic slipped away. Then, starting in 1999 and concluding in 2000, toy Giant Hasbro bought Galoob, apparently motivated by taking ownership of the former’s Star Wars output. From that gradually Micro Machines faded to almost nothing, aside from the occasional new Star Wars set, and a couple of insignificant revivals that failed to capture the original magic.

Then, in 2020, Micro Machines appeared at the New York Toy Fair once more, after the efforts of an outfit called Wicked Cool Toys, as licensed by Hasbro. The new range reproduces much of the original appeal, but the modern vehicles are a little less charming, a little more generic in terms of vehicle design, and not presently supported by real world automotive brands. Still, they are likely the best Micro Machines seen in two decades, and the range continues to expand.

However, few would ever assert that you can beat a late-eighties or early-nineties Micro. And that’s not just because of the toys themselves. Again, Micro Machines were a reflection of the time they existed in, and there’s no bringin back the past. Nostalgia is a powerful entity, and it can’t easily be designed into the Micros of today. When we pick up an aging Micro Machine off eBay, we’re investing in another time, when small meant mighty.

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