Rick Gurolnick - Toys, Porsches and Baby Baths
My art is very commercial. Little of the art I have created is “Art for Art’s Sake.” It all had to do with designing a product or presenting an idea or a business. I’ve been an independent designer and inventor of toys and other products for over 30 years now.
I know it sounds almost ludicrous, but as a teen I was having more fun playing with and building cars and motorcycles I almost forgot to go to college. I went to a typical business school at a small Midwestern college. I would fix the Residence Assistant’s motorcycle at the dorm I lived in, so I was golden. College seemed to be an opportunity to goof off like I’d never had before! That all came crashing down around me one day while at a shopping mall looking at record albums and picking up some holiday gifts when I saw this guy working in a tie and cheesy clothes and I realized with a giant shock of anxiety “Crap! I’m going to end up the manager at a Sears!”
(Future inventor Rick Gurolnick at the 7th GradeScience Fair: First Place!)
Fortunately I had my eyes and ears open when a chance chat with a friend of my Dad changed my life. Frank was a nice man and I would help him with his car or advise how to buy or sell one. Frank was in Personnel at a place outside of Chicago called Universal Oil Products, and he traveled the country recruiting engineers.
“Rick,” he said, “I’ve noticed this new program in an area called Industrial Design. Every product comes from a designer at some point. Essentially he’s the guy that designs and gets stuff made. I think you could be really good at it. Its part art – to communicate your ideas – and part engineering to get stuff made. Most Industrial Design degrees come from an art or architecture background. What I like about this new program is it is in the Engineering Department, so your ideas are a lot more based in the reality of getting it made. I have an idea: I’m going there in a few weeks. Ask your parents if you can join me and lets go visit the place.”
We catch a flight to Phoenix to visit Arizona State. By the end of my first tour of the I.D. department I knew this was for me.
I had a lot to learn in Design School, but I loved it. Pulling an all-nighter seemed like a normal thing to do. Oh I was still young and immortal. A smartass, long-haired boy driving a ’69 Charger out from Chicago to the redneck desert of Phoenix. But I loaded up on courses and even sat in on Marketing classes just to understand how it worked making a deal with the teacher that if he let me sit in there I would do lectures for his classes about Industrial Design and how we approach product design.
My junior year Product Design class was a semester project: design a product for feeding, sleeping or cleaning an infant. In 1977 there were no anthropometric studies done of people scale, but there was one child car seat: the General Motors car seat. So I figured if GM would release that product they must have known it was pretty well designed, so I thought about that as the “environment” for a baby. What was a good workstation? Not kneeling on the wet, cold bathroom floor bathing a baby in a bathtub designed for able-bodied adults. The kitchen sink made more sense as the bathing environment. I melded the dimensions of the GM car seat with a plastic dish strainer and made a prototype. Meanwhile the professor said “Rick I don’t think that is going to work. This is a semester project – it’s a big piece of your grade – you better get started on something else right away!” “I don’t know about that,” I replied. “I think it will work. I’m going to stick with this idea and continue on.” It was the beginning of a kamikaze run on a certain GPA suicide mission. And it was where I first learned to follow my heart and to have confidence in my opinions and decisions.
The next year I polished up my student portfolio and went looking for a job. A man named Bob Greene at a design studio in in Laguna Beach, California, said to me, “I like this idea. Let’s make it! I’ll put up the money, you put up the idea and I’ll pay you a royalty. Whaddaya say?” This young 22 year old soon to be college grad says “Yeah, sure. Ok.”
I ended up moving back to the Chicago area and getting a job at a small studio there. Seven months later I was “let go” from my first job. I went home and went out to the mailbox. Among the bills and junk mail was my first royalty check for the Cradlebath, as we called it. I could only smile and nod at this check for $12,000. At 23 years old on Feb. 9, 1979, I was in business.
(Daddy's Design Office)
The Gerry Cradlebath was truly the first sink mounted baby bathtub. It was the Juvenile Product Association’s “Product of the Year” year after year. In the following three decades of becoming an accomplished toy designer and running one of the top Toy Inventing firms with a design college student friend and long time partner, Bob Knetzger, we filled a lot of landfills full of plastic. But maybe this Cradlebath was my one good thing to change the world. At least a little bit. While I was busy changing the world, I ended up getting about 11 years of royalties until our own customer employed an engineering firm to get around my patent. (Which is often how it goes, as I found out.) But the Cradlebath gave me the financial basis to do all kinds of stuff, buy a nice home and a couple of Porsches, including a 1960 Porsche 356 Roadster race car. It was run in E Production with log books going back to the early 1970s in the SCCA San Francisco Region. It has some other great lore: it took part in racing sequences of Disney’s Herbie the Love Bug, shot at Riverside Raceway in Southern California. This 356 is quite a simple machine, yet utterly charming in so many ways. This was the beginning of what became my next automotive passion: vintage racing.
That 356 came back to the Midwest as a basket case and Mark Eskuche built it into a running race car. I had never driven on a race track before but took the school with Midwestern Council of Sportscar Clubs in the mid-1980s at Blackhawk Farms Raceway, a fun, under 2-mile club track that will always have a warm spot in my heart. Blackhawk is the perfect short, twisty track – with a couple of straights – on which to learn how a great handling, low power car can become a crowd pleasing “giant killer.” Some of my favorite early accomplishments are the little things that form the lifetime memories: winning my class at the 1989 Motorsports Weekend; passing a 12 cylinder (is there such a thing?) Ferrari from the 1970s (he got me back a lap later on the front straight); outbraking a V8 Shelby GT350 Mustang into Turn 6, making the turn and seeing the cloud of dust in my mirrors as the Mustang ventured into the weeds.
It didn’t take long for Vintage Racing to draw me in: The (original!) Chicago Historics at Road America, The Walter Mitty Challenge at Road Atlanta, and my first SVRA event, Mid Ohio in the late 1980s. The weekends consisted of much more than slaving over my car – there were festivities, big dinners in tents, car shows called “Concours” and lots of new friendships to make on and off the track. I was intrigued by the way you could enjoy these amazing works of automotive art in the way they were intended to be enjoyed, at times over 100+ miles per hour! We towed two 356s in a 24’ trailer with one ramped up over the other looking like a couple of bullfrogs humping. But we had a ball. Every event was an adventure.
Little did I know I’d soon be headed for marriage, twins and an RV, pulling a 28’ trailer with a golf cart. Luckily I was making a few bucks in the toy design business. In 1994 we developed an idea I pitched to Tyco Toys in New Jersey. Comprised of a mad scientist character who had a series of lab sets, which made all kinds of gross and disgusting concoctions. But the big twist was that you could eat everything you made. Brains bubbling out of skulls, drinks changing colors, edible warts and lots and lots more. Tyco brought out the product line under the name Doctor Dreadful, and it was a huge toy hit.
Soon after, I was at the Roebling Road track in the Savannah area for their vintage event and on the prehistoric, gigantic, wired-in cell phone in my Chevy Suburban being interviewed by the Washington Post for their Sunday edition. Ted Koppel read the article and, the next thing I knew, ABC’s Nightline came knocking on my door to do a whole piece on how an idea becomes a hit toy product. Never underestimate the power of television. Doctor Dreadful was a big hit. Come April the next year, we went to The Mitty at Road Atlanta getting set up for another fun weekend. Martin Westley showed up at the track with a couple of pieces of a cut vinyl design featuring the Doctor Dreadful logo. We slapped them on my race car. Later, I’m working on my race car in our paddock area and I hear this guy dragging his kid around and saying, “son, that’s Phil Hill in a $1 million Ferrari.” The kid couldn’t care less and yanks back on his arm blurting out, “Look there Dad! That’s Doctor Dreadful’s car!” Wow.
Traveling in an RV raising twins and racing around the country in a Vintage Porsche was about the greatest time I could possibly imagine. One thing the twin’s Mom and I did agree on was that we weren’t going to let school get in the way of our kid’s education. I had tubs full of toys and bubble making inventions in the RV for kids of all ages to play with at the tracks we traveled to. The kids grew up with friends all over North America. About that time I met Vintage Racing Quarterly editor-in-chief Pam Shatraw, and had a great time racing with her series, The USRRC Tour.
Fast forward about 15 years later, and we’re still running a vintage sportscar. David and Robbie are in college, and I’ve had the opportunity to see my daughter Robbie, enroll in the Vintage Sports Car Drivers Association (VSCDA) Spring Brake Driving School at Gingerman Raceway in South Haven, Michigan with my 1960 Porsche 356. A very emotional day. Robbie took right to racing that car and later that year, for her 18th birthday, she raced that 356 in her first SVRA event at Mid-Ohio. She rocked it, Tony Parella, CEO and Owner of Sportscar Vintage Racing Association came by to congratulate her on being in the next generation of young women racers coming up.
(Rick with his twins Robbie and David)
And so, 30 years later, the circle of family racing a little Porsche 356 is complete and continues on. We can’t wait to wake up in our little RV at a race track to those magic words: “Driver’s Meeting in five minutes!”
See you at the track!
NOTE: This article was originally written for a column on how artists and designers get into Vintage Sportscar racing in the January 2016 issue of Vintage Racing Quarterly (VRQ) the magazine of the Sportscar Vintage Racers Association (www.SVRA.com). Hope you enjoy it!