12 Things You Didn't Know About Tonka

Tonka trucks have been the undisputed kings of the sandbox for decades. Built on the notion that “a toy shouldn’t break just because a child plays with it,” they’re sturdy and heavy enough to be used as legitimate weapons if you swing one at someone’s head. Back in the '70s, Tonka even had an elephant stand on one, just to prove their point. But if you've ever held one, you already know how indestructible they were -- here are 12 things you probably didn't know.

1. Tonka actually began as a company for gardening tools

Mound Metalcraft began business in the fall of 1946, working out of an old schoolhouse in Mound, Minnesota. The focus of the business? Making gardening equipment. But the three proprietors also had the foresight to buy the rights to some big, metal toys designed by the building's previous tenant. 

2. It’s known for it now, but at first, Tonka didn’t make a single dump truck

Not that it mattered much: they may have only made a steam shovel and a crane (pictured in the advertisement above), but they sold over 37,000 of them in the first year alone.

3. The name itself comes from Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota

The city of Mound is essentially a peninsula jutting into Lake Minnetonka, and “tanka” is the Sioux word for big. Make a logo to capitalize on the double meaning (note “Tonka” over the waves in the ad), slap it on an oversized metal toy, and by 1947, Mound Metalworks had a hot ticket.

4. The company didn’t change its name for nearly 10 years

Needless to say, toys took priority over gardening, and in 1955, the whole company was renamed Tonka.

5. The early Tonkas were made out of automotive-grade, 20 gauge steel

If you had one of the metal trucks growing up, you could leave it outside for months, and worst-case scenario, the only thing you’d have to do is get a tetanus shot.

6. The company actually benefitted from WWII

After the war, there was a bit of an excess in the supply of steel, which made producing the oversized and metal-laden toys cheap to produce. Considering they retailed for the equivalent of $30 ($140 in today’s dollars), they were also quite profitable.

7. Need a grill? Get a Tonka, naturally

The Tonka Firebowl seems a bit out of left field, but to be fair it was pretty slick, especially for the 1960s. It even included a rotisserie feature for even cooking. 

8. The iconic Tonka Mighty Dump Truck didn’t come out until 1964

Of course the company made other, less yellow dump trucks before then, but this is the one it's really known for. It's estimated that as many as 15 million Mighty Dump Trucks have been sold over the years.

9. And it was way too heavy for little kids

For the first year and a half of the Mighty Dump Truck’s production, it came with solid rubber tires that weren’t exactly light. To make it more kid-friendly, the company drilled into the tires to remove excess material and weight. Still, the whole vehicle weighed about 11 pounds.

10. In the 1980s, Tonka was the official marketer of Sega in the US

It makes perfect sense when you think about it. 1. Buy a Tonka truck. 2. Buy a Sega. 3. Accidentally smash the Sega with the truck. 4. Buy another Sega.

11. And Tonka made... Ferraris?

Actually, it made quite a few things that any child would rightly be chided for if they took them into the sandbox. Over the years, Tonka built everything from ice cream trucks to IndyCars.

12. Tonka employees get a pretty badass company car

There is an entire fleet of real-life trucks used for promotional purposes. You can’t exactly order one from a dealership, but some of the employees actually get to drive these to work every day. Presumably, they prefer to spend their morning commute off-roading.

Aaron Miller is the Rides editor for Supercompressor, and can be found on Twitter. He would definitely drive a Tonka to work every day.

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