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Playmakers Part I: Radio Flyer Wagons

Liberty Coaster Debut: 1917
Little Red Wagon Debut: 1933
Inventor: Antonio Pasin (1897–1990)
Company Names: Liberty Coaster Wagon Company, Liberty Coaster Manufacturing Company, Radio Steel & Manufacturing Company, Radio Flyer, Inc.

Learning to Fly
Today it’s one of our most identifiable pieces of Americana, but the Radio Flyer wagon actually started its long journey toward icon status 4,000 miles from the United States in a small town near Venice, Italy. From there, a 16-year-old boy named Antonio Pasin boarded a boat with no more to his name than his talents as a wood craftsman and a dream of owning his own business.

On April 19, 1914, Pasin landed at Ellis Island in New York Harbor within the majestic shadow of the Statue of Liberty. With a cousin in Chicago, his aim was to eventually find work in that city’s cabinetmaking trade. For three years the immigrant boy took whatever odd job turned up in a tight labor market. He served water to a crew of sewer diggers, washed vegetables, finished pianos and even posted watch at a cemetery.

Finally, by 1917 he had saved enough money to buy some used woodworking tools and started constructing handcrafted wooden wagons at night in a rented one-room workshop. During the day, Pasin lugged a ragged old suitcase containing an unassembled wagon from store to store, and when a prospective buyer would allow, he’d assemble the parts to illustrate just how well his wagons were made. By 1923, he was successful enough to hire several employees and founded the Liberty Coaster Wagon Company, named after the statue that had welcomed him to the land of opportunity.

The company succeeded and changed its name to The Liberty Coaster Manufacturing Company, reflecting its expansion into other childhood vehicles. By 1925, the Liberty line included wooden scooters and tricycles. As word spread of his well-built playthings, Pasin realized that he would never be able to continue crafting them in wood and still meet the growing demand. Incorporating the mass manufacturing techniques of the auto industry, Pasin began making metal wagons out of stamped steel in 1927. He was inspired by the proliferation of the relatively new invention of radio and by Charles Lindbergh’s solo, non-stop flight across the Atlantic that same year. Combining those two marvels, Pasin christened his new metal wagons Radio Flyer.

Using the assembly line methods pioneered by Henry Ford, Pasin’s company grew exponentially and in 1930 he renamed his business the Radio Steel & Manufacturing Company. The shift from wood to steel allowed him to retain his old-world standards of quality (his steel-bodied wagons were virtually indestructible), while increasing production and lowering the price. Pasin’s vision allowed him to make an affordable wagon, as his slogan read, “For every boy. For every girl.” He was given the nickname “Little Ford” by the steel companies who sold him the raw materials necessary to transform 25 pounds of metal into a toy that transported many of us through childhood. Just 16 years after setting foot in America, Pasin’s vision and hard work had transformed him from a penniless, immigrant teen to the world’s largest producer of coaster wagons.

In 1987, the company was renamed Radio Flyer, Inc. after its best-selling wagon. Today, Robert and Paul Pasin, grandsons of the company’s founder, run the 86-year-old family business. Except for safety features like a patented “no-pinch” ball joint where the handle attaches to the undercarriage and a new controlled turning radius that prevents tipping, Radio Flyer wagons have not changed much over the years. The distinctive shape of their #18 model (in continuous production for over 70 years) remains trademarked and the company keeps up with the changing times by adding new models to their line. Their designs are covered by 30 patents and they continue to release versions that reflect our contemporary popular culture.

In 1927, it was Radio and Lindbergh. In 2003, it’s Land Rovers and Hummers. Radio Flyer, Inc. now makes an “ATW,” or All-Terrain Wagon, with wide, air-filled tires for both a quiet ride on pavement and smooth transport over loose ground, such as a trip to the beach. For kids looking for more cargo space, there’s the extra big “SUW,” or Sport Utility Wagon, with room for twice the Girl Scout cookies and three times the rock collection they’ve ever carried. Although the Pasin family continues to add to their legacy, they remain true to their origins with a toy that’s both the center of child’s world and an invisible prop in a much bigger play.

Our little red wagon possessed the selfless ability to blend into the background. We remember it, but even more than that, we remember what was carried in it, who was pulling us along, where we were going and what it became through our imaginations. We recollect the pumpkins it collected, the Mason jar menagerie of bugs it carried and that litter of kittens it held. We remember our older siblings or our parents as they pulled us along and it’s those images that bring the memories flooding back. We went down to the corner grocery store, to the 4th of July parade, across a field to a park, or barreled down our old neighborhood street. We loved our Radio Flyer because its familiar shape transformed into a lemonade stand, a covered wagon in a western shootout or, filled with water, a swimming pool on a hot summer day. Your mom may remind you that you once pulled your Radio Flyer full of dolls, but you remember it as a school bus full of kids. Because of the Radio Flyer’s rare ability to become less, in our minds and hearts it has become so much more.

The Radio Flyer story is a tale of transportation both real and imagined. It’s mules and boats and the auto industry, but it’s also spaceships and flying carpets. According to Webster’s dictionary the word transport means “to carry from one place to another,” but it also means “to move to strong emotion.” This is our little red wagon, the transporter of dreams.

  • Even the Depression couldn’t halt the demand for Antonio Pasin’s wagons. He often boasted that through those terrible economic times, his company made 1,500 wagons a day. What did stop production was World War II. From 1942–1945, Pasin’s company produced “Blitz Cans” for the war effort. They were five-gallon, steel containers designed to transport fuel and water to troops stationed overseas.
  • As a piece of Americana, Radio Flyer received the star treatment in 1992, when it served as the centerpiece of the Richard Donner film, Radio Flyer. Starring Elijah Woods (and featuring an uncredited Tom Hanks), the movie chronicles the story of two brothers and their fantasy travels as they use their little red wagon to escape a troubled family life.
  • In 1997, Colin Powell founded America’s Promise, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of our at-risk youth. The symbol the organization chose to represent their efforts was a Radio Flyer wagon. (Visit America’s Promise at:
  • Antonio Pasin passed away in 1990. In 2003 he was inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame.

© 2004 Keys Publishing Co., Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission from The Playmakers: Amazing Origins of Timeless Toys, (Keys Publishing 2004). Photographs © 2004 Herb Booth, unless otherwise noted. Photographs of Antonio Pasin, Coaster Boy and Neighborhood wagon courtesy of Radio Flyer, Inc.

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