These tiny battery-powered trucks embody the monster truck craze of the early 1980s. And also, they’re awesome.
Dec 21, 2023 at 5:00pm ET
I have no memory of actually playing with Stompers. I blame my older brother, who modified the tiny off-roaders to run on 9-volt batteries instead of a single AA. That required cutting up the bodies, which didn’t upset me then because a big battery sticking out of a toy truck was the six-year-old’s equivalent to having a blower sticking above the hood.
Welcome back to Toys of Yesteryear, where we rediscover the cool car toys we played with in our youth. It was a time when instant smartphone access to all manner of car videos didn’t exist, and the best racing game was an eight-bit rendition of Fuji Speedway on Pole Position. Playing with cars was largely a hands-on experience, and we go hands-on once again to play with toys help preserve this era of automotive history.
Now, however, is a different story. Hidden for decades in an enormous cardboard box, I found not one but two Stompers playsets of my youth still in original packaging. Hoping to find a plethora of Stomper trucks inside, I was unfortunately greeted by just five. Actually, there were only three because two of them were knock-offs from other brands, specifically Rough Riders and Soma.
While I don’t remember playing with them, I do remember having them and I distinctly remember more than three. The rest were apparently sacrificed to my brother in his quest for more power, which is unfortunate because some of these sell for hundreds of dollars in used condition these days. Find one new in original packaging and the price could top $1,000. So yeah, I’m a little upset now. Or rather, I would be if I was intent on selling them. Which I am not.
Made by a company called Schaper Toys, the original Stompers arrived in 1980 to coincide with the insanity that was burgeoning monster truck scene. These were toy trucks that could power themselves through dirt, rocks, grass, and yes, there were all kinds of playsets available for “off-road” fun indoors.
Faster Stomper IIs arrived in 1983 with two speed settings and neutral if you wanted to just push it around. Playsets abounded, body styles ranged from pickup trucks to 6×6 semis, and there were Stompers offshoots that ranged from much larger trucks to top-fuel drag racers that really had nothing to do with the original concept.
And of course there were all kinds of knock-offs trying to steal some of Stompers’ market share. Rough Riders was arguably the largest competitor, and there was even some legal action involved before all was said and done. Speaking of being done, the Stompers craze seemed to fade away as quickly as it rose. Schaper Toys was acquired by Tyco in 1986, and some Stompers variations continued into the 1990s. But whether due to the wider availability of radio-controlled toys, the video game revolution, or the internet, the fad essentially died out with the ‘80s.
How Do They Work?
The concept is simple: take a small electric motor, put it in a plastic chassis with gears turning four oversized tires, and create a few body styles to snap on top. A small bulb at the front fits into a clear plastic housing to create a working headlight effect, and a simple on-off switch makes the magic happen. Stompers were slow (even the second-generation two-speed Stomper IIs) and the front wheels didn’t turn, so these tiny trucks would just keep going until they hit something or the battery ran out.
Or, you could purchase one of several playsets that were designed to “steer” Stompers around 180-degree corners, keeping them on a plastic track fraught with bumps and obstacles that only a 4WD machine can conquer. It may sound boring in the context of 2023, but 40 years ago, it was heaven.
My Current Collection
Or at least, I think it was. As I said, I don’t remember playing with these things, but I do remember getting the Stompers Earthquake Alley playset for Christmas so I must have been super excited about it. That set is still in its original box, along with a second playset called Tumbleweed Trail. Toy collectors love boxes, and these are pretty decent given their age.
And the playsets are in decent shape, too. One corner piece has a broken guide which I’ve already glued back into place. I have no idea if all the parts are present because I found a gazillion parts in an old bag – fasteners for the track, fake rocks, movable fake rocks, and so forth. I even found a small orange cone that may or may not be part of the set. But it’s there, it looks cool, and I easily have enough parts to set up a sizable track in my basement playground. So that’s what I did.
As for the actual Stompers, I have an old Ford Ranger in all its boxy glory, a Chevy Scottsdale pickup that’s also nice and boxy, and an AMC Eagle SX4 that wasn’t cool back in the day but sure is now. Two of these bodies – the Ford and AMC – are from the second-gen Stomper II run. The Chevy is an original first-gen body, though I don’t have a matching chassis for it. Furthermore, only two of the three work. One chassis has the motor removed and gears are missing. I suspect this may have been targeted by my brother at some point.
The two knock-offs in the group are a Rough Riders semi-truck and a Toyota SR5 from Soma. Curiously, the Toyota body fits neatly onto a Stomper chassis but in the spirit of staying true to the brand, I shall keep this story focused on the Stompers. My knock-offs don’t work anyway.
And you know what? The Stompers don’t work so well either. I’m not talking about actual functionality, because they sprang to life with impressive vigor despite 40 years in storage. Tackling the Earthquake Alley playset was a different story entirely, where the Ranger and Eagle struggled to overcome the small hills. And the small fake rocks. And the corners.
Ironically, the only thing these could climb (with reckless abandon no less) was the sides of the track. None ever escaped the course, but they usually flipped over like a Mustang leaving a car show. Perhaps this is why I don’t remember playing with them.
In theory, with two corner pieces attached, these Stompers should’ve been autonomous off-road superstars with perhaps an occasional mishap requiring my attention. Instead, after an hour of nostalgic playtime diligent testing, I was unable to achieve even one clean lap. Methinks the 40-year-old rubber tires don’t grip like they used to. Except on smooth vertical plastic walls, anyway.
Fix, Preserve, Or Pitch?
I already mentioned patching up the track, and I did a bit of mending on the Ranger’s blue body to fix a partially broken tab. So fixing has already happened and I’m certainly not pitching this setup. Things are largely in good condition, and perusing the interwebs for some Stompers research, I learned there’s quite a bit of nostalgia for these toys.
I was surprised to find a blue Ranger in a similar condition to mine selling on eBay for $100, then was gobsmacked to find original first-gen Stompers going for over $500 in used, loose condition. One auction had a collector’s case and two OG Stompers unopened on the card, and it sold for $1,281.
The verdict, then, is to fix and preserve. However, unlike my Super Spin Car Wash, this takes up copious amounts of space with the track fully assembled. Unfortunately, that means most of the collection is once again relegated to storage until I pull the trigger on more cabinets in my growing toy museum. But the actual Stompers are small, and I’m happy to say they look supremely cool tucked into a display case.
Given my experience using them on the track, this is probably for the best.
Check out Motor1’s Rambling About Cars podcast for more on Stompers and other automotive chat, available below.