North County Times – September 17, 2000

By Gary Warth

 

Local inventor riding Chariot to success

No matter what you do, no matter how much you like your job, Mark Rappaport probably likes his job more.

Rappaport, 41, makes toys. That’s all he’s ever done, really, except for a few years when he owned a candy-making company.

Nice work if you can get it. " I invented my first toy when I was in the fourth grade," he recalled.

Unfortunately, his proposed marble maze did not catch the interest of Mattel, even though his father worked in the toy company’s marketing department.

Years later, the Long Beach native was attending UCLA on a wrestling scholarship, unsure of what to study, when he met a Mattel toy maker through his father.

"It was like being in heaven," Rappaport said. "I suddenly realized what I wanted to do."

Rappaport owns the successful California Chariot Co., which ships its namesake scooter around the world from its Carlsbad headquarters.

The Chariot, a hybrid he calls part BMX bicycle, part skateboard and part shopping cart, brought the company about $2 million last year.

Rappaport got the idea for the Chariot after tinkering with a friend’s tricycle and coming up with an inspired concept: one skateboard for each foot in the back, and handlebars and a bicycle wheel in front.

The low center of gravity makes the Chariot almost impossible to tip over, and the space between the boards is ideal for kicking the ground to accelerate. The design is so unique that Rappaport holds a patent on it, which he is now defending in federal court after another company introduced a similar scooter.

Rappaport said his career has been one of innovations, never duplications, but even he can’t ignore the popularity of the sleek new collapsible aluminum scooters.

His answer to those scooters will be the Flatboy, which will be released before Christmas. The Flatboy will have the Chariot’s two-skateboard design, but also will have handlebars that fold down, like the Razor-style scooters.

Rappaport also plans an electronic model, the Escooozie, which will sell for about $500 or $600.

Starting his own company meant not following his own advice, said Rappaport, who always tells inventors to pitch their ideas to established companies rather than doing it all themselves.

Rappaport, who moved to Rancho Santa Fe since starting his company, began his career at toymaker Mattel after he graduated from the Art Center in Pasadena, where he studied design at the advice of the toy designer he met through his father.

"I lived and died by being creative and unusual rather than slick and refined," he said about his work in Mattel’s product design group.

"I was the youngest guy," he said. "My boss probably knew the dinosaurs personally."

Rappaport had a blast for about a year and a half, although none of his inventions were ever produced. He stayed at Mattel four years, leaving to start the California Critter Company, which made animal-shaped candy.

Somebody made an offer for the company at about the same time he was ready to leave his job as a candy –maker. He then moved to Boston to be near his wife while she attended school, and he took a job at Parker Brothers, where he developed the Nerf bow-and-arrow.

After two years, he returned to Southern California and founded What If? Toys in 1989. He moved to Carmel Valley about seven years ago and began making toys that were knock-offs of the successful line he had made for Parker Brothers.

After designing the Chariot, Rappaport knew he was on to something. He formed his company in 1997 and found a maker in Taiwan to build the scooters to his specifications.

"Everybody was asking what my business plan was," he said. " I didn’t need a business plan. If I only made 50, how badly hurt could I be? There was very little risk when I started."

Rather than pitching his scooter to bike stores, Rappaport took one to Mission Beach and began riding in front of Hamel’s Action Sports Center until the owner came out to ask him about the contraption. The owner agreed to stock the Chariot.

"He called me up the next day and said, ‘Hey Mark, we need some more of these,’ " Rappaport said. " I knew they were going to sell. I didn’t know they’d sell that fast."

Thinker Things in Del Mar was the second store to carry the Chariot and still sells more than any other store in the nation. Today Rappaport’s Carlsbad warehouse is stocked with rows of boxes containing scooters, stacked so high that he calls the walkways "Chariot Canyon."

Rappaport runs his company wearing denim shorts and works behind a desk cluttered with toys and a jar containing every imaginable ball that could fit inside. But he insists that it’s not all fun, and that a keen business sense is necessary for success.

And then he hops on a scooter and rides it around the front lobby to demonstrate just how much fun his product is.

 

The Chariot’s ‘Star Trek’ Connection

 

Mark Rappaport’s California Chariot holds the distinction of being used in "Star Trek:Voyager"

In the new book, "Star Trek: Aliens and Artifacts" by Michael Westmore, Alan Sims, Bradley M. Look and William J. Birnes (Pocket Books, $22.95), the authors explain how they created special effects for the sci-fi TV show.

For the "Child’s Play" episode, a bicycle suitable for the 24th century was needed. Sims had no luck finding a prototype until he visited a high-end bike store in Los Angeles. "Suddenly, there in the corner was a bike called ‘California Chariot,’ " wrote Sims, "and I knew I had found what I was looking for."

He bought a three-wheeled Chariot and tricked it out to look even more futuristic.

"The bike spent about three minutes, or three script pages, on camera and was very successful," Sims wrote.