From Canberra to California, it seems that any child who’s worth a dime – or, penny, to be precise – is tearing around the neighbourhood on a Penny Skateboard. Lightweight, glow-in-the-dark and practically indestructible, they’ve caused a skating resurrection, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Marty McFly rode them back into popular culture in the 80s.

Only this time we have an Australian, Ben Mackay, to thank for the revivification of this uber-cool street sport. A cabinetmaker by trade, Mackay morphed his craft skills with his long-held love of skating to recreate a 70s icon using 21st century knowhow and savvy marketing nous. Now he’s sending fresh-minted Pennys and Nickels to the US.

“I was five years old when my dad bought me my first skateboard,” says Mackay. It was from a garage sale and he couldn’t wait to get it home and take it apart. “We stripped it down, repacked the bearings, cleaned the wheels, we even sprayed the deck,” he says. “It was rad! That’s how I got into skating.” Like so many kids in that era, he spent his waking hours tweaking his board setup, constructing ramps, bombing down hills and living and breathing skate.

Fourteen years later, Mackay was working as a cabinet-maker, using his father’s timber crafting machinery to make ply ramps and boards on the side, and far preferring his side hobby to the bread-and-butter day job. “It was at that point,” he says, “that I drew a line in the sand and thought, I’m going to make skateboards and I’m going to do it here in Australia”.

The mid 80s saw a skateboard in almost every Australian garage. With decal-covered decks and open cage bearings, skateboards had evolved from the timber boards and metal rollerskate wheels of the 60s to production trick boards with urethane wheels. Urethane provided more traction and control and better durability than the original metal wheels, while lighter, plastic decks were developed with waffle grips cast in for better traction – all the better to ollie with.

The Australian Government responded to the rising culture of skateboarding by rolling out parks around the country. The number of skate parks that were constructed across Australia is second only to the United States.

Although the industry at the time was tight knit, the timing ultimately worked in his favour. Mackay worked tirelessly and after prototyping more than 400 boards in timber on his dad’s machinery, and experimenting with fibreglass and carbon fibre inserts, he decided to revisit the once-ubiquitous, old-school all-plastic short board. “That’s when I realised,” says Mackay, “that little plastic skateboard my dad bought me when I was five years old, it needed to come back”. Melding his skill on the tools, an eye for what works and years spent immersed in the practice and culture of skating, Mackay created Penny Skateboards.

Launched in June 2010, the original Penny is, according to Penny marketing front man Tim Vaughn, a “small, trendy, retro board that works really well”. Those original brittle plastic boards were made redundant by timber, but Mackay is using a sophisticated and tight-held secret brew of plastics to create a very solid yet flexible injection-moulded all-plastic deck. Mackay wanted the Penny to look like an old-school plastic board, but be way better – with improved durability, more speed and a super-responsive grip – all the while exuding fun.

Unlike the bold, painted-on graphics of conventional skate decks, the Penny decks are solid, and the bright glow-in-the dark colours are designed to mix and match with the coloured wheels, decks and trucks to create custom Penny combinations. The board is shorter and narrower than most. Vaughn says that they are aimed squarely at the youth market, where portability is key.

While the build quality is really solid, the omnipresent Penny branding is brilliantly executed with an embossed ‘P’ on the tail, engagingly wonky, type-style brushed metal contrast font on the trucks, ‘Penny’ precisely moulded on the deck and the wheel rims. Originally moulded in Queensland, the Penny momentum has developed so fast that Mackay shifted production offshore and began setting up distribution across the US and Europe.

Understanding their target market, the Penny strategists have eschewed the traditional skate crossover into street wear, and instead translated their waffle deck into a fetching, colour-matched plastic iPhone cover. This is part of the Penny push into the non-skate market where it’s not only for skateboarders. “It’s about creating what we know and what we know works – 
for people,” says Vaughn.

When the Penny was first released, it was “the most picked-up board in shops, but the least sold,” says Mackay. Now the Penny, and its stable mate, the slightly longer Nickel, are ridden in at least 35 countries and the company is riding high in the US, the spiritual home of skateboarding and home of the original plastic boards.

West Coast skater Lance Mountain, an 80s freestyle legend, has observed that the trend, as seen in Australia and the US, towards ‘lo-fi’ simple, retro skateboards is illustrating the re-emergence of the skateboard as a simple toy, rather than a finely tuned, pros-only piece of equipment.

“I think it’s a better introduction to skateboarding for kids – having it as a toy,” says Mountain. “Playing on it first is a way to fall in love with it. That’s what it was for us (growing up). It was a toy – you played on it – rather than something that teaches you that this is sport, or a way to make a living or a way to beat or outdo someone. I think that’s why they’re having a little resurgence right now.”

Penny has used social media – a single, retro video featuring Mackay talking about his skating roots, Facebook, an upcoming co-promotion with Go Pro cameras – and the eye-catching pop colours of the Penny boards to relive that love and cement the brand with its youth demographic.

In a US market accustomed to longer, maple or bamboo-cored boards, the Penny is memorable, and reports on its ride are favourable. It’s a highly competitive market, though, and Mackay has something extra special – and very Californian – up his sleeve: the Penny Organic biodegradable board.

Again, the secret formula that allows a plastic board buried in soil to slowly decompose is shrouded in secrecy and there is no word on whether Penny is using an oxi-biodegradable, or a cellulose additive.

Vaughn notes that some consumers were concerned that the biodegradable boards might be less robust, or prone to breaking down with just a thin layer of dirt, but that generally the feedback on the degrading concept is positive. No doubt, some Penny fan will bury the board and track its disintegration on Instagram any moment, and no doubt the tuned-in Penny people are ready to tap that feed when it happens.

The idea is simple and effective, and so is Mackay, who sums his work up neatly: “I just love making skateboards”.

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