The old-school Christmas wish list for your car-obsessed loved ones

The impending demise of Sears weighs heavy on those who remember when the giant Sears Wishbook served as a roadmap to the future of motoring enthusiasm. There was nothing like peering into the Christmas catalog for the latest automotive creations from the brain trusts at Aurora, COX, and similar companies that had tapped into the real automotive and motorsports worlds.

Besides, Sears delivered. Filling up a COX .049 engine with nitromethane or hopping up slot cars with sticky tires delivered a greater payoff than ordering from a comic book and checking the mailbox every day for a year, only to suffer the crushing disappointment of the tiniest footlocker of army men ever or the unspeakable tragedy of the Sea Monkey family.

AFX Race of Champions 4-Lane Set

Sears/ slot car track

HO scale slot cars hit peak technology and authenticity in the early ’70s as skinny tire Aurora Thunderjets gave way to Aurora Factory Experimentals. AFX cars featured inline motors in a monocoque chassis topped with realistic bodies from Can-Am, Indy, Trans-Am, F1, and NASCAR racing. Wide tires and magnets strong enough to hold the cars to the track with an electromagnetic version of aerodynamic downforce made the AFX G-Plus and Magna-Traction cars the fastest ever.

The new slot cars were so popular that Aurora moved $45 million worth of AFX in 1976. The giant four-lane, four-car, four-controller AFX Race of Champions set came along about the same time as quadraphonic sound systems and was certainly on the wish list. AFX popularity endured into the ’80s before slot car manufacturing declined into unfortunate glow-in-the-dark wall-climbing weirdness in an unsuccessful effort to compete against video games and remote control cars.

Nitromethane for the kids

Sears/ gas powered toy car

Leroy Cox created a lasting legacy of scale motoring and flight with a series of cars and airplanes powered by the tiny COX .049 engine that burned up the same explosive nitromethane as Top Fuel dragsters and fire-breathing Funny Cars. Cox sold his company to Leisure Dynamics in 1969, who tapped into the exploding West Coast Volkswagen custom scene and equipped Dune Buggies and Baja Bugs with the .049 engine for great success into the ’70s.

Filling up the tank with an exotic blend of nitromethane, alcohol, castor bean, and klotz oil, lighting up the glow plug, fine-tuning the tiny screaming engine, and cutting these cars loose often resulted in horsepower-induced total loss of vehicular control. That or a sweet jump. None of this knowledge stopped our future and newly licensed selves from spinning brodies in a snow-covered parking lot many years later.

Screamer: Hot Rod Bicycle

1979 Pontiac Trans Am from the Hunter
Carlyle Motors

Drag racing, hot rods, and customs were it in the late ’60s and the front-engine Top Fuel dragster was at the top of the pack. Only an intrepid few drove supercharged on nitromethane rail jobs past the 200-mph mark, but thanks to Sears, aspiring hot rodders could grab the bars on a pedal-powered machine packed with peak ’60s AA/Fuel dragster style.

The Screamer was equipped with a cheater slick, torsion and coil spring suspension and butterfly steering handlebars so you could pull up the front wheels just like Big Daddy Don Garlits in his Swamp Rat! In retrospect, the five-speed shifter sure looked bitchin, but its location could be troublesome for dismounts. Used or restored Screamers and their Schwinn Orange Krate and Lemon Peeler hot rod bicycle contemporaries are still coveted today and a staple collectible at swap meets.

Radio Control Revolution

Sears/ remote controled car

Back in 1989 when Atari, SEGA, and Nintendo were locked in a global fight to the death for home console video game dominance, the Sears Wishbook pages offered another Japanese import that brought digital microprocessor technology and scaled-down analog automotive technology together for high-speed nitromethane-fueled motoring away from the flickering Zenith cathode ray tube.

Radio control technology advanced quickly in the late 1970s and ’80s, and as the cars and kits became more affordable, high-performance jobs from Nikko and Koyosho including the radical COX .049-powered Nissan GTP racer here were the first steps to later automotive and motorsports involvement for countless kids. Also shown is the absolutely no-controls whatsoever COX helicopter. Nitromethane strikes again!

Minibike Mayhem

Sears/ mini bike

After multiple summers pushing Tecumseh-powered lawn mowers around, it comes as no surprise that the most highly sought-after gift from the Sears Wishbook was the minibike. The same engine that mercilessly spun a sharp blade and cut down grass in its prime mounted in a spindly steel tube chassis with small diameter wheels and tires delivered a level of danger unmatched by pedal-powered bicycles or gravity-propelled skateboards. In other words, fun as hell.

Minibike centrifugal clutches and two-speed setups would either slip for reasonably safe if not dull acceleration or grab unpredictably resulting in concussion-inducing contact with the closest deciduous hardwood tree or lawn shed. As such Sears offered a helmet available at extra charge, and the minibike often led to the first set of Craftsman tools the following Christmas.

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