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Wednesday, 20 December, 2000, 12:01 GMT
Presents of Christmas past
In the first of a special three-part series, we look at the cool presents from years gone by. On Thursday we look at what is cool this year, and on Friday do a bit of future-gazing.

Did Santa bring you a tangerine and a wooden hoop when you were young? Not if you were a child of the 1970s.

The 1970s gave us more than flared trousers, punk and the Village People. The decade saw the rise of the sorts of toys you'll find under the Christmas trees of 2000.

Action Man

Though a big hit in the late 1960s, this British version of America's GI Joe action figure came into its own in the 70s, according to enthusiast David Higson.

Action Man
"This tunic's too tight under the arms. Have you got one in red?"
"They had doubts about launching Action Man. The 60s were macho days, boys played with toy soldiers, not dolls."

By "copying the Barbie" formula, the 12-inch Action Man figures and their accompanying accessories "changed boyhood", says Mr Higson.

"By changing the figure's outfit you could make him into whoever you wanted him to be. It stretched the imagination, it made boys think about clothes and accessories."

While GI Joe was firmly rooted in the military, the Action Man of the 1970s could become an explorer, diver or spaceman.

"You were still at the mercy of what outfits were available, but boys could watch TV or films and dress up their Action Man like The Man From Uncle - with the help of the imagination."

Modern Action Man
New man: I come in peace
Growing anti-war sentiments and the release of Star Wars further hastened Action Man's move into civilian life. Still popular today, the relaunched - and muscle-bound - Action Man is more likely to come with a skateboard than a machine gun.

The fully-jointed Action Man was the prototype for today's plethora of action figures (many based on TV and film characters), says Mr Higson.

Evel Knievel

For collector Steve Whitehouse there was only one action figure of note in the 1970s: "There was an Evel Knievel stunt bike under every Christmas tree in the country. It single-handedly saved the ailing 70s toy industry and knocked Action Man and Barbie off their pedestals."

Evel Knievel stunt bike box
He jumps, he wheelies, his names rhyme
Mr Whitehouse says that unlike some other toys, the Knievel stunt bike fully lived up to children's expectations.

"It did exactly what it said on the box. The figure looked like Evel and the stunt bike looked just like his Harley. It could jump and wheelie just like the real thing too."

Propelled by a hand-cranked launcher, the stunt bikes shot down staircases, negotiated garden paths and chipped the paint off skirting boards across the UK.

Considering the punishment they took, Mr Whitehouse says the toy proved surprisingly durable: "It could really stand up to a beating."

Evel Knievel toy
He crashed just like the real Evel
That the model Evel rarely landed on his two toy wheels only added to the realism. As Evel himself has said: "Anybody can jump a motorcycle. The trouble begins when you try to land it."

Mr Whitehouse says Knievel's success rate - resulting in at least 34 broken bones and 14 trips to the operating theatre - did not detract from his star status.

"For kids he was a comic book super hero come to life. He seemed to fail at most of the jumps he attempted, but he did it with style."

Atari 2600

The Atari 2600 games console, launched in 1977, was the granddaddy of today's Playstations and Dreamcasts.

Tom Houston, from the "retro" department of London's Computer Exchange, says the machine "brought games back into the home".

1970s Atari advert
"So much fun, Dad, and made from wood too!"
No longer did children have to trek to the local arcade to play such popular games as Pacman, Pong and Space Invaders.

However, the Atari 2600 was a self-conscious invader of our domestic space, says Mr Houston.

"Computers in the home were not common. The Atari had wood-effect panelling, perhaps to make it seem more homely and to fit in with your tables and chairs."

You didn't have to be a rocket scientist to appreciate the console, says Mr Houston. "The first game was Pong, a basic bat and ball game. It was very simple, very fun. I still love it today."

Hi-tech? It was once
Its simplicity didn't ensure its longevity. The console soon lost ground to the new programmable home computers, such as Sir Clive Sinclair's ZX81 and ZX Spectrum.

Though the ZX range has been credited with rearing a generation of programmers, the Atari arguably got the ball rolling, making children comfortable with electronics.

The Atari also proved the appeal of hi-tech toys, from the educational Speak and Spell, through the programmable Bigtrak vehicle, to today's Teksta robotic dogs.

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