Welcome to Super Saturday, a new ongoing weekly column that will pay tribute to the animated classics of yesterday, and will be offered on Saturday mornings, a period that many of us remember being the only time animated kids’ programming was offered. Hope you enjoy and feel free to leave any feedback or personal remembrances in the comments!
With Christmas approaching, I thought I would take a look at a few cartoons that were based on toy lines, but the first shows I am profiling may need some explanation. In 1969, ABC began airing ‘Hot Wheels’ and ‘Skyhawks’ based on the classic Mattel toys. (Well, Hot Wheels are classic toys. I can’t find any info on ‘Skyhawks’. I assume they were airplanes.) Ken Snyder Properties, in association with Pantomime Pictures, crafted the animated programs, which made their debuts on September 6, 1969, on ABC.
These shows are largely forgotten today and are ironically mainly remembered for why they were taken off the air, giving them a significant place in cartoon history. At this point in time, many action cartoons were being axed because they were considered too violent, but that wasn’t the case with ‘Hot Wheels’ or ‘Skyhawks’.
After a complaint filed by Topper Toys, makers of the rival Johnny Lightning toy cars, the Federal Communications Commission determined that ‘Hot Wheels’ and ‘Skyhawks’ were 30-minute toy commercials, which ultimately drove (no pun intended) ABC to cancel them and they have never been rerun or released on video in any format. There are a few clips on Youtube, and bootlegs exist. If you want to see them, those are pretty much your only options.
‘Hot Wheels’ and ‘Skyhawks’ weren’t alone. The FCC also went after live-action preschool series ‘Romper Room’, which had an accompanying toy line, and ‘Linus the Lion-Hearted’ a cartoon which starred the mascots of Post cereals.
These FCC regulations were removed in 1980, after Ronald Reagan was elected President. This led to the onslaught of toy-based cartoons of the ’80s (and beyond), starting with ‘He-Man and the Masters of the Universe’ and exploding from there.
In ‘Hot Wheels” defense, it doesn’t seem to be as blatant a toy commercial as a lot of the ’80s ‘toons. ‘She-Ra’ is one I remember as being particularly egregious, with “new toys” squeezed into shots for no other reason than to show them off. New characters would be seen but not speak. New vehicles and accessories would appear, but not be utilized.
As for the actual shows, ‘Hot Wheels’ followed a group of clean-cut teenagers, led by Jack “Rabbit” Wheeler (voiced by Bob Arbogast). “The Hot Wheels Racing Club” worked at Jack’s father’s garage after school and each episode climaxed with a race between Jack in his Jack Rabbit Special and his rival Dexter Carter (Casey Kasem), who led a rival gang called Dexter’s Demons.
The Hot Wheels Racing Club also included Jack’s girlfriend, Janet Martin (Melinda Casy); best pal Mickey Barnes (Albert Brooks); Mickey’s girlfriend, Ardeth Pratt (Susan Davis); the stocky Tank Mallory (Kasem); and Kip Chogi (Brooks), the son of an African diplomat. Kip was one of the first two black cartoon characters on an ongoing series. The other was Pete Jones, who appeared on ‘The Hardy Boys’, which also aired on ABC in 1969. Since Kip was actually from Africa, that makes Pete the first African American cartoon series regular.
This is believed to have been the first professional acting job for Brooks, who voiced Mickey and Kip. He would go on to star in ‘Taxi Driver’, ‘Private Benjamin’, ‘Terms of Endearment’, ‘Lost In America’, and many more. He was nominated for an Oscar for ‘Broadcast News’. He voiced Marlin in ‘Finding Nemo’ and ‘Finding Dory’, and numerous characters on ‘The Simpsons’.
Kasem voiced Dexter and Tank, but his most famous cartoon voice was that of Shaggy from ‘Scooby-Doo’. He also voiced Robin Filmation’s ‘Batman’ and Hanna Barbera’s ‘Super Friends’, Alexander Cabot on ‘Josie & the Pussycats’, various Transformers, and numerous others. He is probably most famous as a DJ, having hosted the American Top 40 countdown every weekend for decades, as well as other radio shows, before finally retiring in 2009 at the age of 77.
Kasem and some of the other ‘Hot Wheels’ voice actors also lent their voices to ‘Skyhawks’, which followed the adventures of World War II pilot Colonel Mike “Cap” Wilson (Michael Rye), who ran an air transport company. The cast also included Cap’s dad, Pappy (Dick Curtis), a World War I flying ace, Cap’s 17-year-old twins, Steve (Kasem) and Carolyn (Iris Rainer), his two foster kids, 14-year-old Baron “Red” Hughes (Curtis), and 9-year-old Cynthia or “Cindy” (Melinda Casey), Cap’s girlfriend, Maggie McNally (Joan Gerber), and mechanic Joe Conway (Kasem). The Skyhawks’ chief competitor was the unscrupulous Buck Devlin (Arbogast).
There were 17 episodes of both ‘Hot Wheels’ and ‘Skyhawks’ and despite the controversy, they aired for two years, from 1969-71. ‘Skyhawks’ was split into two shorter stories, and each episode ended with a brief clip offering facts about flying.
These shows’ cancellations are the most remarkable thing about them. Had they not been forced off the air by the FCC, they would probably be completely forgotten. The artwork is crude, even by ’60s Saturday morning standards. Unlike other ‘toon teens, the Hot Wheels Racing Club didn’t solve mysteries. All in all, it’s just a bland cartoon. ‘Skyhawks’ seems like it was a little more exciting, but the quality is still rough, although the planes are beautifully drawn.
Reportedly, Ken Snyder Properties was used to producing animation for commercials, so crafting two ongoing series put a big strain on them, so maybe it was okay that these shows didn’t last for too long.
DC Comics published a ‘Hot Wheels’ comic book, which lasted for six issues, illustrated by the great Alex Toth. This is ironic because Toth did extensive design work for rival animation company Hanna Barbera including ‘Space Ghost’, ‘The Herculoids’, ‘Birdman’, and the ‘Super Friends’.
In addition to the comic, there was a ‘Hot Wheels’ record album released by Forward Records, featuring music from and inspired by the series by Mike Curb and The Curbstones. It also included the ‘Skyhawks Theme’. Other than the theme songs, these songs didn’t actually appear on the shows.
Perhaps stinging from these cancellations, Mattel did not throw a new ‘Hot Wheels’ cartoon on the air in the ’80s, during the boom in toy-based cartoons. It wasn’t until 2009, when Cartoon Network launched the computer-animated ‘Hot Wheels: Battle Force 5’ that this toy brand existed in cartoon form again. That series featured human racers competing against mutants from another dimension, and lasted for two seasons/52 episodes, ending its run in 2011.
Here is the groovy intro to ‘Hot Wheels’:
And here is the intro to ‘Skyhawks’:
As stated, Youtube or bootlegs are the only way to see these ‘toons nowadays.
Do you remember either ‘Hot Wheels’ or ‘Skyhawks’?