|By Ryan Padgett
A plastic toy that needs an incline to make it come alive might not fascinate today’s plugged-in child, but for many a Baby Boomer, ramp walkers were fascinating.
These character toys were primarily manufactured in the 1950s and 60s by the Louis Marx Co. While the plastic ramp walkers are what most people remember, earlier versions were made. According to the book O’Brien’s Collecting Toys, ramp walkers date back to the late 1800s. The first ramp walker was a cast-iron elephant. In the early 1900s, the materials used for these walking toys transitioned from wood to plastic. While the beautifully crafted wood and composition Wilson Walkies’ and international-manufactured variations are fun to collect, the variations of the plastic character walkers by the Marx – particularly the pop culture characters – make them desirable. With sizes ranging from 1½ to 5 inches, they are perfect for collectors who don’t have a lot of display space.
Simplistic in design, they were crafted with a stationary body with two attached swinging legs that, when gently rocked side-to-side, would waddle down inclines. If a makeshift incline was not available, many of the plastic ramp walkers have a small loop attached to the front where a string could be tied to gently pull the figure forward.
And this attached loop is important to serious collectors. Given the propensity for the walkers to tumble, it is common to find figures with broken loops, cracked bodies, stagnant legs, or missing paint. These imperfections can significantly impact the value of even the most collectible ramp walker. And like any collectible, there are rare figures that command a decent price and commons that are often overpriced.
Ramp walkers overlap into multiple collecting genres. There are the purists who seek to have a complete set of the Marx walkers, while Disneyana collectors seek out Mickey and his friends or cartoon collectors, and they will pay slightly more for the Hanna-Barbera characters. These more desirable walkers drive prices, but there is a disconnect between the prices realized in online auctions and common pricing guides. In addition, the rarest of the plastic walkers are unique not only because of their scarcity but the fragileness in their design. The frontiersman with dog ($100-$150) is holding a very thin gun that is often broken. Spark Plug the horse ($100-$150) has a sticker along its side that is often peeling or missing. The robot pushing a computer cart ($150-$200) is extremely rare and only comes up for auction a couple times a year.
Popular ramp walkers such as the Disney characters are more common, including Donald Duck pushing a wheelbarrow (with attached loop and clean paint, you can find one for $10-$15), Mickey Mouse pushing a lawn roller ($15-$20), and Pluto ($10-$15). Characters coupled together or riding an animal or vehicle are often more desired, such as the Mad Hatter and Rabbit ($25), Donald and Goofy riding a vehicle ($30), and the rare Big Bad Wolf and Three Little Pigs ($125-$150).
Disney characters may have been some of the more common ramp walkers whereas the Hanna-Barbera characters are a little trickier to find. A complete George Jetson and Astro ($35-$40) is highly desired because Astro’s ears are often chipped off. Fred Flintstone riding a dinosaur ($35-$40) has very bright colors and stands out on a shelf, as does Yogi Bear and Huckleberry Hound ($25-$30).
The Marx series of animals with riders are highly collectible. The details in the molding of the animals and the bright paint colors of the riders give each walker a unique sense of character. Caution should be given when collecting this series; riders were glued on to the animals and the glue often weakened over time. Notwithstanding, the dinosaurs with riders (ranging from $25-$35) and lion with clown rider ($25-$30) are must haves for any collector.
Many sought after favorites are often the random character figures that scream in personality. Finding a sheriff dueling an outlaw ($40-$50) on one day and a baseball player with bat ($25-$30) the next are what make collecting these characters so intriguing. Variations in some of the common animal characters are also sought after, including paint color variations in the elephant (standard brown or gray is $10-15, while the “I Like Ike” variation commands much more) and mother duck with ducklings (different painting variations range from $12-$20).
If you’re looking to complement your collection of ramp walkers, Marx (and their subsidiary Charmore Company) made tin ramps for the figures. Approximately 12-inches in length, these tin lithograph ramps display a colorful scene that often accompanied a walker. Loose tin ramps vary in price depending on rarity, but common ones such as Dick Tracy’s Nursemaid with Bonny Braids ($25-$30) and Hap and Hop ($30-$35) are still desirable. Tin ramps complete with original cardboard box and figure are highly sought after.
Some seasoned collectors are seeking ramp walkers in their original clear-plastic wrapping with paper instruction insert. Over time, the plastic wrapping becomes extremely brittle, with many surviving examples having tears or holes. While unique to have these walkers “new in package,” there’s something about being able to display a walker standing on its own two legs that gives it that sense of movement. Ramp walkers that came in sets, for example the Marx circus horses, come packaged in a beautifully designed and colorful cardboard box. While the circus horses are somewhat uncommon, the box in good condition alone is worth approximately $40-$50.
Perhaps collectors who grew up with the emergence of computers and video games will find appeal (and perhaps a little irony) in these simplistic plastic toys. Give a ramp walker to a child now, and it will likely entertain them after only a couple of tries. Perhaps it’s the nostalgia or simple respect for gravity as a form of entertainment that many new collectors today are drawn to them. With dozens of different characters and paint variations, collecting ramp walkers can transcend many generations and types of collectors, including vintage toy, Disneyana, animals, and many more. There are also price points for entry-level collectors that make it easy for anyone to begin collecting. At least you know going in that the gravity is free.