Tonka Winnebago: A Million Miniature Miles

The Winnebago Chronicles are predominantly about the adventure of bringing life back to a 1966 Winnebago Lifetime Premier motorhome, but it’s also about the open road and exciting adventures. Well that “open road” was much narrower in the early 1970s as I bought my very first Winnebago. 

Well, it really wasn’t truly a Winnebago but a model of one created by the toymaker Tonka who capitalized on the 1970s RV craze and created a model of a Winnebago Indian RV complete with a full interior, awning and Win and Winnie and their little dog Scamp. That’s from the box, which I no longer have. 

As a kid I was caught up in the RV craze as well and spent many hours at the Los Angeles County Fair where there were RVs on display. Even though it would be years before I would be old enough for a drivers license for even a compact car, I already was drooling over the fact that you could have a vehicle that you could both travel and live in. 

I know that other kids would bug their parents for tickets to all the rides at the Fair but I split my time between the RVs on display and the model railroad exhibit. Nobody ever accused me of running with the pack. If I could have taken an Uber from my house to the Fair I would have done so just to spend time looking at all those fantastic RVs and asking the salespeople annoying questions that a ten year old asks. 

After a few years of going to those shows, collecting mountains of brochures I wish I still had and asking more questions than anyone whose budget is limited to what could be earned washing cars and mowing lawns should be allowed to ask, I finally found myself being more knowledgeable than many of the salespeople there. It’s amazing how much research and information I could collect without there being any hint of smart phones or Google. 

So I saved all those nickels, dimes and quarters I got from my various jobs, none of which I was very good at, to finally get myself that fancy Winnebago I had seen at Fedco. Considering I probably earned 50¢ for washing a car the $20 that that Winnebago cost represented a lot of poorly washed vehicles and badly mowed lawns. But I persisted, pulling a red wagon around with either car washing equipment (a bucket, a sponge and a few towels) or my parents’ push mower andrake, knocking on doors and begging work from people who probably really just paid me to go away. 

I can still remember the day at Fedco when I picked up the Winnebago. They had been sitting on a floating aisle for some time and when I went back there, no Winnebagos were to be found. I was devastated. But it turns out that they had been moved to the back of the toy department and I got one of the last ones. Happy day!

That Winnebago and I went on all sorts of adventures throughout the neighborhood with me making funny voices for Win and Winnie and sending them on incredible imaginary journeys. Upon arrival, the fold-out awning would be put into place and out they’d come for their latest adventure. 

Considering that these were dolls as they hadn’t really coined the term “action figures” yet, I got some curious looks from other kids and even adults when I showed them my favorite toy. But who cares - their wary glances could easily disappear on another imagined vacation were adventure awaited Win, Winnie and Scamp. 

At one point the adventure became too much and poor Win broke his leg at the joint. My dad, ever the incredible engineer, was actually able to fix the leg to where it bent better than it had when Tonka originally built Win. Win’s a survivor!

As big as it was, I was able to convince my parents to let me bring that Winnebago with me on vacations where we would actually visit the places of my imagination all over California and the west coast as we added miles to our Volkswagen Squareback.

I still have that Winnebago and it’s still in really great shape. When we get the ’66 Winnebago in running order I’m going to bring that Tonka Winnebago along with me. While Win and Winnie have long since disappeared, there will definitely be more miles put on my favorite childhood toy. And now I just make funny voices for the dog, so even that talent is still in full use as well.

Stories and photos by Anthony Barthel