Did you know one of the world’s most popular cars doesn’t even have an engine? It was probably one of the first cars you ever drove, and well before you even got your driver’s licence.
We are of course talking about the Cozy Coupe, which made its production debut in 1979 and continues to be seen in shopping centres and backyards today.
It’s not just a tall tale – the Little Tikes Cozy Coupe has been crowned as the best-selling car model in numerous jurisdictions and continues to be one of the most recognisable silhouettes worldwide.
Marked by an iconic red-and-yellow livery unchanged since its inception back in 1979, the Cozy Coupe is a ride-on toy that does things differently. Whereas toy cars before it relied on pedal power, the Cozy Coupe uses the Flintstone-style power of the feet to enable kids as young as 18 months to propel themselves along.
Key to the Cozy Coupe’s success was its accommodating dimensions that could fit children from toddlers through to five-year-olds. Conversely, pedal cars of the era were quickly outgrown and traded up for larger models as kids grew. The Cozy Coupe was a relative constant by comparison.
The original Cozy Coupe design was penned by Jim Mariol, an ex-Chrysler designer. Mariol penned items such as hubcaps, bonnet ornaments, and steering wheels for a time, before he was drafted to serve in Korea.
But Mariol’s genius wasn’t fully realised until he partnered with Little Tikes in the late 1970s. Speaking about the Cozy Coupe to the Smithsonian Institute, Mariol said he was inspired by the simple act of propelling himself in an office chair, leading to the implementation of feet power in the Cozy Coupe.
The rest of the design centred around a tail-heavy weight distribution that minimised chances of it tipping over, a working door, and a roof, which made kids feel as though it was the real thing.
Concept sketches were put forward to Little Tikes in 1979, before Mariol decided to build a full-scale model and engineer a plastic-moulded prototype. His own kids were understood to have been employed as the toy ride’s test dummies. Just a few short months went by from design to a production run.
Little Tikes founder Tom Murdough loved the cutesy looks of the prototype, but insisted Mariol change the roof colour from black to a bright yellow. This is how the classic red-and-yellow legend was born.
Sales soared soon after the Cozy Coupe’s debut in stores, initially beginning in the United States before garnering worldwide success.
By the early 1990s, the Cozy Coupe was the best-selling automobile in the US according to the Smithsonian Institute. It soared to even greater heights later in the decade according to the New York Times, outselling popular models like the Honda Accord and Ford Taurus.
Little Tikes leaned into this sales success with the marketing line “The best-selling car in America has to be home by bedtime”. Banner ads used in Australia also called it “Australia’s No.1 selling car!”.
The first major redesign came at the turn of the century when the roof was slimlined and the A-pillars widened. Importantly, the colour scheme and overall shape remained unchanged, so the product stayed largely familiar to kids and parents alike.
Cozy Coupe spawned a set of anthropomorphic eyes in 2009, further accentuating the design’s cute nature. At the same time, the original first-delivered-example Cozy Coupe was tracked down and donated to the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum in Cleveland, Ohio in celebration of the nameplate’s 30th birthday.
Image: Ryan Smith (Flickr)
Little has changed in the intervening years in terms of design, though the Cozy Coupe has gone on to spawn a number of variants that you can currently buy. These include an Ice Cream Cozy Truck, prehistoric-inspired T-Rex Cozy Coupe, a law-enforcing Cozy Coupe Police Car, and a work-focused Cozy Truck with a tray back.
That latter model is almost certainly tipped to become a best-seller for a ute-crazed Australian market.
Tom started out in the automotive industry by exploiting his photographic skills but quickly learned that journalists got the better end of the deal. He began with CarAdvice in 2014, left in 2017 to join Bauer Media titles including Wheels and WhichCar and subsequently returned to CarAdvice in early 2021 during its transition to Drive. As part of the Drive content team, Tom covers automotive news, car reviews, advice, and holds a special interest in long-form feature stories. He understands that every car buyer is unique and has varying requirements when it comes to buying a new car, but equally, there’s also a loyal subset of Drive audience that loves entertaining enthusiast content. Tom holds a deep respect for all things automotive no matter the model, priding himself on noticing the subtle things that make each car tick. Not a day goes by that he doesn’t learn something new in an everchanging industry, which is then imparted to the Drive reader base.