No checkered Flag – The (failed) Friends Kart Racing Series

Something that has been on my mind for a while is that I always wanted to do an article on what I consider the LEGO Friends failed kart racing series. I know, these are strong and bold words, but before digging into the details, allow me to elaborate on why I think this sub-theme has bombed – strictly limited to what I can determine from my own observations as an adult here in Germany.

To that effect I have packed the reviews of the Service & Care Truck (41348), Drifting Diner (41349) and Creative Tuning Shop (41351) into one article to make it easier to follow my arguments and draw your own comparisons. I will also share my thoughts on the remaining two sets based on studying the digital building instructions, photos and having seen them (and in part played with them) in stores.

The Reasons

As with any such thing you have to consider both the economic side as well as the actual contents and quality of the sets because they are intrinsically linked. Detractors will of course be quick to point out that a lot of that is subjective and I’m not going to deny that, but with a bit of common sense it should not be too hard to follow my arguments. Let me begin with the business stuff.

The sets don’t appear to sell well at all and as far as I can tell never really have ever since they were released last year. There are a few strong indicators for that:

  • Prices for these sets slumped immediately after release.
  • The sets are still sold on permanent relatively heavy discounts.
  • At this point several online stores and retailers already do no longer even list them, despite their being part of the current catalog still.
  • Whenever I’m out and about in stationary stores, sets seem to recognizably sit on the shelves for a long time, i.e. you can find out individual boxes based on damage marks you already saw a few weeks ago.

All of that can be seen as a sign that if it weren’t for the continuously ongoing promotions and low prices those sets, they likely would sell even worse. The counter thesis to prove this even further would be that even something as popular mundane LEGO City sets sell at higher average prices due to stable demand.

Since a basic rule of economic science is that demand drives prices, yet it seems the general public doesn’t really care for this series, the pertinent question naturally has to be what could be wrong with the design and contents of the sets that makes them unappealing. There are a few common themes to that as well.

  • Despite discounts, the sets often feel like you may not get your money’s worth. A lot of the pieces are smaller standard parts that don’t justifiably contribute to that perceived volume for money thing.
  • The designs appear hugely inconsistent. Aside from some shared standardized stuff the whole thing doesn’t feel like a proper series at all. It’s like literally every set was designed by a different person, completely ignoring what their peers did.
  • Construction wise, a lot of the builds feel unsophisticated and flimsy. In addition to posing structural problems while handling the models this also impacts play value. It just doesn’t make sense how some elements have been put together.
  • The sets lack internal logic as in “That’s not how this stuff works/ should work in the real world.”

On top of all that one could add the more general dislike of Friends prevalent in certain crowds, too, naturally. Middle-aged men with no kids around just can’t get get behind the crazy colors and re teed off, even if they may appreciate the underlying overall concept. Which brings us to a point…

The short version of summarizing the kart racing theme would be: It’s a neat idea, but it has been done as part of the wrong product line. That is all the flaws I already pointed out notwithstanding, of course. Unfortunately, a lot of the good stuff is hidden in details whose ingenuity you only realize when actually building. It also stands to note that personally I appreciate how at least they were trying something fresh. It’s just that they were way too often inconsequential to go through with their ideas and also likely were too constrained by budget and marketability considerations. Before I lose myself in even more pondering, let’s delve into the actual contents.

The Karts

LEGO Friends, Drifting Diner (41349), Kart Left View LEGO Friends, Service & Care Truck (41348), Kart Left View
LEGO Friends, Creative Tuning Shop (41351), Kart A Left View LEGO Friends, Creative Tuning Shop (41351), Kart B Left View

One of the better parts across all the sets are the actual carts themselves – strictly speaking in design terms. If you were to purchase all the sets, you’d have a full eight of those little vehicles. As should be evident from the images, the basic construction is always similar with variations of colors and elements used thrown in to add individual distinctiveness. The colored elements are plugged onto black chassis plates that already have pins attached and also include the vertical studs onto which the bumpers go. This allows for an extremely flat, yet very sturdy construction. Except for the protruding parts, most of which are attached using clips, this should make the models very safe and prevent them from falling apart too easily even if kids throw them around like crazy.

A major shortcoming are the steering handles in the sense that no matter how you bend your mini dolls they remain out of reach. There is simply no position where they fit perfectly into the hands without the figures looking like they have a broken spine. This may seem like a non-issue, but here’s the thing: The karts have no real driver’s seats, either and in fact it’s just a white curved slope, so without anything to hold on, they just flip-flop around loosely and will of course fall off easily. It’s hard to fathom how nobody seems to have noticed this during testing, even more so since by their nature mini dolls have no stud holes on their legs/ buttocks that would allow them to be affixed this way.

Service & Care Truck (41348)

LEGO Friends, Service & Care Truck (41348), Box

I got this set as a gift from my beloved brother who picked it up spontaneously during his grocery shopping. It’s a well-meant humorous stab at my LEGO obsession that has become sort of an insider gag in my family. The set was – once again – on discount during a weekly promotion and you can get it for as cheap as 13 Euro, which given that the next lower tier of LEGO sets is the 10 Euro range makes this actually a good proposition in terms of what you get for your money. On the other hand I wouldn’t necessarily consider it for its full price of 20 Euro. It’s a bit too scant for that.

LEGO Friends, Service & Care Truck (41348), Overview

The truck on first sight seems simplistic, but well-executed nonetheless. It’s apparently kind of based on a low-rider pick-up truck mixed with design elements found on many cars from the 1960s, in particular the protruding snout/ motor hood. It’s a welcome deviation from the more conventional trucks found e.g. in the City series that are typically based on more modern designs.

LEGO Friends, Service & Care Truck (41348), Truck Left View

While it looks okay, the set is not without issues and little annoyances. due to the large side openings the cockpit at first glance seems quite accessible, but actually getting your mini dolls seated inside is another matter entirely. It’s basically the same issue as with the karts: How do you get a small rounded bum to rest on a smooth surface? The figure tend to topple over and then you spend your time fiddling around.

Removing the roof is also not always a good option. Ironically, by using the grey plate as an intermediate, the clutch power becomes too strong. That’s good for stabilizing the whole thing, but slaps you in the face once you need to remove the piece. It tends to drag either the windshield or the back along due to them being made up of large parts, too, that are not fixated any further on the chassis. It’s certainly not ideal.

LEGO Friends, Service & Care Truck (41348), Truck Right View

The roll-on ramp is a functional feature, yet it doesn’t exactly make sense due to the absence of a winch. At that steep an angle you could neither push a kart onto the platform nor would it be able to get up there under its own power. This is a strange design decision, even more so since likely in reality you would lift the vehicles using a small crane or a forklift onto regular trucks of this class with removable side boards.

LEGO Friends, Service & Care Truck (41348), Truck with lowered Ramp

What totally rubbed me the wrong way with this set is the poor construction of the chassis especially in the aft section and the hinges for the platform. If you’re not careful it’s way too easy to break off the clips when lowering the ramp or causing gaps in the stack of plates forming the beam when you push down the flatbed again. This is certainly not ideal.

LEGO Friends, Service & Care Truck (41348), Truck Bottom View

While it’s by far not the worst of the lot, the little flaws in this set pile up and make me go *grmpf*. It’s one of those cases where the set easily could have been a lot more elaborate and better and not squandered its good premise. Had they targeted the 30 Euro range and included more parts, they could have achieved this and perhaps even succeeded to the point of making it relevant for people who don’t typically buy Friends sets (assuming they also used a little less crazy colors and omitted the pink parts). The image of the kart is for reference, so you know which set it belongs to.

LEGO Friends, Service & Care Truck (41348), Kart Right View

Creative Tuning Shop (41351)

LEGO Friends, Creative Tuning Shop (41351), Box

Where do I even begin with this one? It’s full of lovely little ideas, yet a total mess in terms of execution.

Let me be clear: I got this set strictly for parts. I have a project I’m working on where I’m potentially going to need a bunch of large transparent panels, so I got it into my head to kill two problems with one stone, so to speak. Rather than buying separate parts on Bricklink I wanted to use the opportunity to also get another set for potential reviews on this very blog. The question you may immediately ask is whether the economics add up, and yes, they do.

This set is perhaps the most stand-out example for the almost ridiculous discounts you get with this series. All I had to do is wait for the right moment and then snatched it up for just shy above 20 Euro. Mind you, the MSRP is 40 Euro. This translates to something like 47 percent off, or in simpler terms half the original asking price. That being the case, it’s easy to see that even the large panels will reach a price level that is near equal to what you would have to pay on Bricklink, anyway, with the other parts then becoming kind of a welcome bonus on top.

LEGO Friends, Creative Tuning Shop (41351), Overview

The biggest issue with this set is literally “easy to see through”, i.e. this being a glass palace with the transparent items simply having been plugged together without any additional structures in-between. While this type of construction might certainly be possible using modern types of sandwiched glass, it’s probably not used that widely due to the associated cost (I would imagine). Regardless, even then there would still have to be some extra load-bearing columns or beams somewhere IMO.

LEGO Friends, Creative Tuning Shop (41351), Front Left View

Worse still is the fact that this is just a facade in the most negative sense. I would even argue that if the curved panels wouldn’t require a certain depth, they would have made it just six studs deep instead of eight. The problem here of course is that this is supposed to be some kind of show room/ VIP area/ driver’s recreational zone with a small customization workshop, but completely feels like you wouldn’t actually want to visit it. In other words: It feels cheap and as if the designers couldn’t settle on one subject.

LEGO Friends, Creative Tuning Shop (41351), Right Left View

If you get my drift: A square show room with no roof – fine. A twelve studs deep show room with a celebrity center on the second floor – be my guest. A fully decked out workshop – absolutely. All of the above as a half-assed mishmash – not so much. I really feel there’s at least two separate sets to be had here and splicing them out would have allowed for much better execution of the theme.

LEGO Friends, Creative Tuning Shop (41351), Back View

As far as those interesting details I keep mentioning go, the signage (the wrench and spray can) is pretty cool and the sliding garage door is not half bad, either. If you adapt the concept using more mainstream colors this could possibly even look nice on the latest Corner Garage (10264) Modular Building. The corrugated panels in Light Aqua could be used for a small back alley shed, a garden house or even a large special purpose dumpster. Interestingly enough, this set also includes the 1 x 1 yellow Post it! tile, which oddly enough aside from the Old Fishing Store (21310) always only appears in the weirdest Friends sets. Go, figure!

LEGO Friends, Creative Tuning Shop (41351), Kart A Left View LEGO Friends, Creative Tuning Shop (41351), Kart B Left View

This particular set comes with two karts – one matching the main color scheme for Emma and an alternative one for the male protagonist, Dean. As a side build there is a repair ramp that actually can be elevated and lowered with the turn of a knob. This boosts the play value notably, though it’s not really the set’s saving grace.

LEGO Friends, Creative Tuning Shop (41351), Kart A on Service Ramp

LEGO Friends, Creative Tuning Shop (41351), Kart A with Service Ramp

Tying into the customization workshop theme there are a bunch of extra parts that you could swap out on your carts. In my personal opinion it’s kind of superfluous because why would you even want to do that? Given the smallness of the bits and bobs it would be hugely disruptive to the flow of whatever play scenario your kids are involved and ultimately parts would get lost in the long run – either the ones you rip off the kart or those on the bar. Somehow it doesn’t make much sense even though I’m happy to have those extra parts.

LEGO Friends, Creative Tuning Shop (41351), Kart Replacement Parts

Overall this set is quite a disappointment on its own merits. However, admittedly it did work for me as a parts source and no matter how shoddy the set is, I still learned a trick or two in building it. If you consider buying the complete kart racing series, perhaps this could and should be your lowest priority item. I’d always consider it the most dispensable as it really brings nothing to the table that couldn’t be had by buying other sets.

Drifting Diner (41349)

LEGO Friends, Drifting Diner (41349), Box

The Drifting Diner is easily the best model in the whole series. It’s not extraordinary or special in any way, but its generic nature plays to its strengths. It could just as well be a burger stand in your little non-Friends city and with a few modifications and color swaps would fit a lot of themes. Of course that applies to many of the restaurants/ diners we have seen over the years. The overall level of innovation to be found here is pretty low, but then again there’s only so many ways to skin a cat.

LEGO Friends, Drifting Diner (41349), Overview

The side builds are well intended, but not really in any way meaningful or essential. The video screen is more or less just a glorified bookend/ stand for a mobile phone, but without such a device at hand is pretty useless. Even if you put the sticker on the large grey slope the appeal is low. Perhaps it would have been better to build this as a billboard advertising the restaurant rather than – again – muddying the waters by mixing the idea of an open air cinema with that of the diner.

LEGO Friends, Drifting Diner (41349), Details LEGO Friends, Drifting Diner (41349), Video Screen

LEGO Friends, Drifting Diner (41349), Kart with FlipperThe color scheme is based on Andrea, which is my least favorite of all the girls. In particular the extensive use of Magenta somehow always ruins these sets, as it’s a very “heavy” color that tends to overwhelm everything. Especially on a small build like the kart this stands out even more.

 

LEGO Friends, Drifting Diner (41349), Kart Left View LEGO Friends, Drifting Diner (41349), Kart Aft View

The building follows the pattern of a ninety degree corner built on a 16 x 16 plate with the interior being therefore entirely open and accessible. The burger signage feels a bit too large for a model of this size. The front would have to be wider and taller to really accommodate this monster and ideally it would be offset from the roof by placing it on a protruding platform or some sort of truss at an angle. In fact I think one of the main reasons it feels so heavy is the perfectly perpendicular alignment. Perhaps then even the flags and decorative elements left and right would have made more sense?

LEGO Friends, Drifting Diner (41349), Exterior Left View

Inherently due to the support columns being built from inverted slopes you have to be careful during construction and the model will be rather unstable. Only when you insert the window panels and cover their edges withe plates will this stiffen up. The same could be said for the checkered wall made from 1 x 1 bricks. To say some delicate handling may be required somehow seems redundant.

LEGO Friends, Drifting Diner (41349), Exterior Right View

As usual, the interior is rather sparse and just hits all the stereotypical beat you’ve come to expect – a coffee machine, a grill/ stove and some seating. I really wish they’d make these buildings larger and outfitted them with genuine separate kitchen areas and full height walls. At least the kid’s seat based on a small car piece is something original this time around.

LEGO Friends, Drifting Diner (41349), Interior

One thing that bugged me about this set is its “noisyness”. The intense colors are quite distracting and get annoying after a while. I would have preferred some parts in more soothing colors like the Bright Light Orange roof bits being conventional Blue or Dark Blue. I also think that the White and Light Aqua parts on the columns could have been made more distinguishable by adding a separation line in a similar dark color.

Once more the original price of around 30 Euro seems unjustified, but you typically can get this set for around 20 Euro. I got mine for even less around 17 Euro, again strictly based on the idea that I would be using the parts for something else later. Whether that’s worth it to you is entirely your decision.

The Rest of the Lot

Finally let’s have a few words about The Big Race Day (41352) and the Spinning Brushes Car Wash (41350). When the series was new last year the former was put up in some places as a showcase model together with the service truck. I looked at it and decided that it would not be worth a second thought.

Having looked at the building instructions and marketing photos again for this article has reaffirmed this view. It simply feels too much like an add-on set that isn’t essential. The start tower is tiny and I don’t think anyone needs an arch for the finish line when you can simply draw it on with chalk, pencil or mark it with sticky tape.

The car wash is a set I might consider still buying yet if the price drops just a little more to what I would be willing to pay. This isn’t meant to say it’s particularly good or that I’d endorse it, but for my way of thinking it makes sense due to some parts it contains that are not that widely used elsewhere. Could make sense.

I got a chance to play with the set a bit when it was propped up in the play area of a toy store way back then. Unfortunately actually playing with it doesn’t work that well. As you may already have guessed, trying to get the kart through the washing mechanism without it getting jammed is pretty hit & miss. Even minor misalignment can block the toothed gear mechanism or get the vehicle stuck in the rotation brushes because the mechanism doesn’t move out of the way.

Conclusion

As I wrote in the introductory paragraph already, my biggest issue with this series is that it tries to be more than it can deliver. Many of the ideas behind it are barely fleshed out, others are only executed with a minimum of effort resulting in those huge differences in appearance and quality of the sets. Ironically some of them would be halfway decent if you took them out of the context of kart racing and just sold them as bog standard Friends fare sans the vehicles and extras. It’s this forcing them into this sub-theme that doesn’t work at all…