The Story of Micro Machines: Not Just For Stepping On!

James Logie
photo via Pinterest

Toy cars have been a popular item since the dawn of toys. Was there any way to put a unique spin on an unoriginal idea?

Micro Machines are a line of miniature toys originally made by Galoob.

They were conceived by a man named Clemens V. Heeden Jr and were made up of micro-sized cars and playsets.

Guinness Book of World Records fastest talker, John Moschitta Jr famously advertised them.

Hot Wheels are a mainstay in any kid's toy collection and many grew up on Tonka Trucks.

There’s something about machines that will always have an appeal. Probably because you're not allowed to go anywhere near them.

For toy manufacturers, however, how do you still tap into the popular toy car market but create something different?

Every car ever has already been made into toy form and how do you compete with a juggernaut like Mattel's Hot Wheels?

You shrink them down.

This was all it took to create a new line of car toys that caught on like wildfire and would end up making hundreds of millions of dollars.

Micro Machines spawned an epic video game and a substantial place in a classic Christmas movie.

The History of Micro Machines

The story starts in the frozen tundra of Wisconsin and a guy named Clemens V. Heeden Jr. He owned a toy shop in the greatest name of all time, Fun City USA, in Sturgeon Bay WI.

Not long after opening Fun City, USA Heeden started coming up with the idea for Micro Machines.

He had regularly gone to toy fairs and ended up meeting someone from the old toy company Galoob.

Realizing Heeden was an inventor, it was mentioned to him that Galoob wanted to get into the toy car business.

But they wanted something that was new, and that also would be reasonably priced.

Heeden would come up with a way to make the cars more affordable: cut down on the size.

Shrinking the form factor would reduce the cost of materials and allow for a cheaper price point.

He worked with a model maker/designer and didn't take long to come up with 24 designs for some microcars along with the packaging.

Heeden might have been able to shop around this new idea but he was committed to providing something to Galoob. It turns out they loved the idea.

Galoob wanted to sign a contract immediately and get these little cars on the market.

Marketing Micro Machines

Micro Machines had one of the best--and most memorable--marketing campaigns ever.

Every kid would become aware of Micro Machines and this was all due to the work of Saul Jodell and David Galoob.

These two were the masterminds behind the marketing for Micro Machines.

From day one, their vision for the toy line would be seen through resulting in it becoming an overwhelming success.

Micro Machines would be introduced in 1986. Their success might have been because of their unique, miniature look: but also a fast talker.

John Moschitta Jr

You might not have known his name but you know exactly who I’m talking about.

The face--and more importantly the voice--of Micro Machines, would be centered around Guinness Book of World Records' fastest talker, John Moschitta Jr.

Moschitta Jr was born in 1956 and was a singer and actor who had the ability for extremely rapid speech delivery.

He can articulate 586 words per minute and held this record until it was broken in 1990 but a guy who could do 637 words per minute. And then again in 1995 by 655 words per minute.

He would end up appearing in over 750 different TV and radio commercials and burst onto the scene in a FedEx commercial in 1981.

He also appeared in a ton of shows that you may or may not remember including:

  • Saved By The Bell
  • Garfield and Friends
  • Sesame Street
  • Pinky and the Brain
  • Robot Chicken

And most importantly to kids of the ‘80s: he was the voice of Blurr in the Transformers Movie.

His involvement in the Micro Machines commercials made them stand out compared to pretty much everything else at the time.

They did not enhance his dialogue in the commercials in any way and what you’re hearing is actually John Moschitta.

The Micro Machine Toys

Micro Machines came out in 1986. Right off the bat, they included quite a lot of varieties.

They were based around popular cars and trucks at that time and would also include vehicles like:

  • Trains
  • emergency vehicles
  • Tanks
  • Boats
  • Helicopters
  • Airplanes

They also included some pretty cool playsets which were also sized down and could act as a carrying case for the vehicles.

Along with that, they also released color-changing cars and “Private Eyes” where you peek inside and see some illustrations.

In the ‘80s, they would introduce the “Insider Series” which would include a small vehicle inside the standard Micro Machine.

They connected the body and chassis with a hinge and you could lift up the larger Micro Machine and find a smaller, and completely different, car underneath it.

It was a pretty creative toy line when you think about how unique Micro Machines were to begin with.

Put this all together and it worked well for Galoob.

From their introduction in 1986, Micro Machines was the largest selling toy car line in the United States for the next 3 to 4 years.

It exceeded the combined sales of Hot Wheels, Matchbox, and Majorette combined.

The Micro Machines Video Game

A bunch of versions would come out over the years but we'll focus on the original one for the NES.

Codemasters developed it and also came out on systems like the Amiga, Sega Genesis, and even MS-DOS.

There were some licensing issues with Nintendo, and Codemasters would use part of a previous game called “California Buggy Boys” as the base of the game.

The game was released but with a major glitch that happened when you reversed at the start of the first race. This caused the game to crash.

Micro Machines would be released for the NES by Camerica. Nintendo wanted development halted because Codemasters didn't have a license from them. They would sue Galoob over the sales.

The courts ruled in favor of Galoob and this would cause lower sales than Nintendo had been hoping for.

This was a top-down racing game, meaning you observed from above and not in the car.

It used a variety of vehicles and took place in various unconventional tracks. It was basically like "Honey I Shrunk The Kids"--but with a sports car.

Some of the epic tracks would include a pool table, a garden, and a table with some spilled breakfast cereal and giant Cheerios.

There was a bathtub course where you would race boats, tanks that could shoot, and Formula 1 cars.

If you went off the track, you would be placed back on it. You could also compete in a Micro Machines Challenge against computer racers or a head-to-head challenge.

The game received critical acclaim. Many critics praised it and it appeared on a lot of top game lists.

Micro Machines Cameo In Home Alone

And then they made their big-screen debut. Aside from Lego, there might be nothing worse to step on than a Micro Machine.

This feature was used as a tool in the original Home Alone.

In setting up a defense of his house, Keve McAllister would place Micro Machines on the floor around Christmas ornaments--and you know the rest of this.

There were concerns by parents that kids were going to start copying the booby traps from Home Alone and leave traps containing Micro Machines all over the house.

Wrapping It Up

Micro Machines would develop over the years and into the ‘90s. They would start tying in other properties, such as Star Wars, Star Trek, James Bond, and Indiana Jones.

Galoob would become part of Hasbro in 1998, and Micro Machines didn’t fare too well.

They tried to repackage the toys, but it didn't really catch on. By 2006 the only time you would see the brand name of Micro Machines was on the detail panel of the Star Wars and Transformers Titanium series.

When the Force Awakens came out, Hasbro released a new set of themed Micro Machines. But it only lasted a year.

Micro Machines were a great toy, a great video game, and probably existed at some point in your house.

You may not even remember buying them, or getting them as presents, they just sort of appeared. Like Lego.

They were kind of a novelty but had a charm about them. In the long run, they probably won’t replace Hot Wheels or Matchbox--but they definitely made a huge dent in the 1980s toy market.

And on the bottom of your foot.

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Personal trainer, podcaster, Amazon best-selling author. Writing about some health, a little marketing, and a whole lot of 1980s.


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