Ron Sturgeon and Rodney Ross discuss collecting rare toy cars, including early tin, wind-up, pressed steel and other models. Ron Sturgeon is the founder of the DFW Elite Toy Museum in Austin, Texas, a member of our Hall of Fame. Rodney Ross is the curator.
Ron Sturgeon: I had an automotive repair shop in about 1976 and spent a lot of time repairing Mercedes. About 1979 I decided to start collecting Mercedes toy cars. I was young and naïve and thought I could own every Mercedes model ever made. I’m still very interested in Mercedes, and that is the bulk of my collection, but I’m into a lot of things these days, more quality and very rare models. This is an important tip, to be more discriminating in stead of buying the cheapest. The higher quality, rarer items are always going to be better and I don’t think a lot of newer collectors realize that.
Collectors Weekly: What was the first significant toy you bought?
Sturgeon: I bought an expensive little toy Volkswagen made by Tyco, at the time it was the most I’d spent for a toy, 300 dollars. Now it’s worth about 1,500. Then I was in London in 1984, on Bond Street and there’s a Sotheby’s auction house and there was a toy auction there. I registered and bought a Marklin truck with a trailer for about 200 dollars. Its one of the more significant toys I’ve bought. I ended up bidding against a famous toy collector from Europe, David Pressland, who wrote a book called The Art of the Tin Toy. His knowledge base is in really old toys, Marklins and old steamships from before the 1930s.
Although I didn’t start out collecting such unique toys, I just bought them here and there and now can’t believe how many rare toy cars I have. In the early 1990s I bought some toys that were hand made by Michele Conti. He later became well known as an expert craftsman and toy builder, but when I bought them they weren’t worth that much, but now they’re some of the most valuable in my collection.
I also have some large scale models by Jeron, like the Chrystler Imperial in red and blue. I have a whole case full Tyco World War II era toys. The most interesting toy on my site, that also spawns the most amount of controversy is the Eva Braun car. A lot of historians say that Hitler would never give his girlfriend a car, and question if the car existed. I get a couple emails a month from around the world saying that Hitler never had a girlfriend and so on. Really I’m just interested in the rareness of the car and it’s historical value.
Collectors Weekly: How do you do your research?
Sturgeon: In the early days I started building a little computer database and when I saw cars advertised or sold at auction I would put them in this database. I also have a curator, Rodney Ross, who has been with me for 15 years. He hangs around and buys himself some toy cars, and helps me maintain my real cars. We have a whole bookcase full of books and I send Rodney emails everyday with the questions people ask me. If I find something I’m interested in, he looks it up and does some research.
Collectors Weekly: What about your early driving school models?
Sturgeon: I bought my first driving school model from a man named Terry McDonald at a toy show 10 or 15 years ago. It was interesting and heavily machined, and since I’m a gearhead type of guy, I was intrigued by it and decided I should try and find more of those. Driving school models are interesting because in Europe you couldn’t just go and take a test and get your license, you had to actually know something about the cars. So the models were used as guides to teach the students about the parts of a car.
Collectors Weekly: What eras do you collect?
Sturgeon: I almost never buy modern toys. I get a lot of chances to buy large scale where the builder is still alive and there may be a series of 10. I believe that like a new car, they drop in value and don’t come back up for a very long time. I’m guessing that makes me a little different from most collectors. I was a car salesman and then spent my whole life in the auto salvage business and bought most of my toys then. I’m just an old horse trader and I always try to buy something I think has the potential to be an investment.
Some people buy toys because they’re passionate about the toy and I’m not saying I don’t enjoy the toy, but I won’t buy a toy that is way overpriced or is likely to go down in value. I pay crazy money for a toy that is extremely rare, because my experience says that it’s so rare there will always be someone willing to pay.
Collectors Weekly: Do you restore the toy cars you buy?
Sturgeon: No, I never restore anything. If I buy something that’s in poor condition, which is rare, I leave it the way it is. All my toy cars stay in their cases, and everything is inventoried in the computer. From the beginning I’ve done this. Each one has a number on the bottom and the information is programmed like when I bought them and how much I paid.
It amazes me that people spend up to millions of dollars on collecting and never bother to inventory their toys. If they die, what happens, they just go into a garage sale. Some of the stuff is so obscure that only the collector knows what it is, and that knowledge is worth a lot. We keep a folder on the toys that are worth 5,000 dollars and documentation. I think people should keep their toys inventoried, even if it’s only hand writing it in a little journal.
Collectors Weekly: What challenges or obstacles have you faced in collecting toy cars?
Sturgeon: Finding the toy, and getting the price right. I’ve spent a lot of money for toys and I’ve never been cheated. The most money I’ve sent around the world is 25,000 dollars and that’s pretty scary if you think about sending that over to someone in Norway that you’ve never heard of and only talked to on email. I’ve always been impressed with the quality of the people I’ve worked with while collecting.
Its also very important to have insurance when you ship toys. I bought some toys in Switzerland from a big auction house. They crated everything in little wooden boxes and put all those boxes into one big wooden box and they shipped it. When it got here, a forklift had poked a hole in the side of the outer crate, damaging a 20,000 dollar toy. I had insurance to cover them and it paid for the toy. Most people don’t think to find out about insurance, and it can cost a lot, but it’s worth it.
Part Two: Rodney Ross, Curator, DFW Elite Toy Museum
Ross: About eight years ago when I started working for Ron, his collection was getting huge and the fellow who was helping him retired. Just by handling the cars and moving them around I really got interested. It’s Ron and being around his collection that really sparked my interest in the hobby.
I like many types of toys. German wind up toys and figures of various types, Schuco for instance. Toy motorbikes too. Ferris wheels and the merry go rounds, the figures that wind up and walk and do all kinds of crazy things. Clowns. I also collect cast iron toys, and banks. Mostly made in the U.S., of course. By Kilgore, Pratt and Letchworth, for example. Horse drawn items as well, I really do like them all.
I’m fascinated with Lewis Marx (New York) products, they cover everything in the toy range from windup toys to dolhouses. They’re one of the most accessible toymakers of our time, for sure. I’m also interested in other American manufacturers, especially those that you can find on the internet. Like Wolverine and Dent Hardware (Dayton). I think the early friction pressed steel toys with wood, made in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, are great. Like the Hill Climber toys, I like those.
I’m not so much into the Dinkys and similar diecast cars. They made billions of those, it’d take me forever to learn what they’re all worth. I like the Buffalo toys, the tin wind ups…Ives, obviously. Ives is fabulous. But also the French and the German manufacturers. I like the Marx tin lithographed windup cars more than any other company simply because they made so many of them, and so many variations, you name it they made it. The Japanese prewar and postwar toys are fabulous too. We could go on and on and on.
Collectors Weekly: What can you tell us about the history of model cars?
Ross: They go back to when cars were first invented back in the late 1880’s. During the heyday of Henry Ford they built model cars to give to dealers which they would in turn give to children who came to the dealerships with their parents. They’re called promo cars, and they’re very popular to collect right now. For obvious reasons, trademark infringement and what not, a lot of them were made to look like a Model T, but they couldn’t say “Ford” on it. So you’ll find variations of a toy which is obviously a ’57 Chevy, but there’s no ‘Chevy’ on there.
The Japanese are famous for knocking off cars and not making anyone angry. Everybody can relate to cars and most collectors at one time or another had a ’51 Hudson Hornet or a Model A or Model T. You can put a lot of toys in one space, and the real deal is too big, too expensive. Guys just love cars. Race cars, regular cars, trucks, you can fit a lot of models in one area. And really they’re just fascinating how they’re built from one manufacturer to another. Clockwork (windup) motors are amazing and they can do several functions. Wind up a car and the door opens up and a driver gets out and then gets back in and then the car takes off. Things like that.
Collectors Weekly: Which manufacturers do you collect personally?
Ross: My modest collection is modest for a reason. I can’t afford what I really like. That’d be the Tipco toys, the prewar stuff, some of the large Japanese tin from the 50’s, you know that are 30” long, and sell for 3 to 6,000 dollars. Its just hard for a regular collector to afford. They’re very desireable. I’m surrounded by fabulous toys, I’ve got the best job in the world. I’m in heaven. Just yesterday I received 6 models that Ron purchased at Pebble Beach last weekend from Bonham’s auction. I just love unpacking them and making room in the museum and setting them up to display them.
I’m the curator at the museum. I take care of the cars that come in, take care of inventory, and display them. It’s a full time job: we’re up 3,000 pieces or better, not to mention a ton of driving school models. We probably have the largest collection in the world here under one roof.
Collectors Weekly: What’s the difference between the prewar and postwar model cars?
Ross: Before the war, people needed metal. A lot of toymakers here in the U.S. started making wooden toys during the war and then went to plastic afterward and other materials that were cheaper and easier to make. The lithographed tin toys made before the war were just fabulous as far as the lithography and details go. After the war, they continued to produce tin toys, but then started molding things and making diecast. The tin and pressed steel toys kind of went away, and that’s what makes them so collectible today.
“I’m not so into Dinkys and similar diecast cars. They made billions of those.”
Diecast is kind of like cast iron. It’s a finer, whiter metal, and the toys are heavier. Like Hot Wheels. Lets face it, when a manufacturer can put out 1,000 rather than 50 in a day, they’re gonna do it. They just evolved. Again, that’s why the tin and windup are so valuable. And of course they went battery power also.
The tin lithographed are the most sought after. Also the gas powered tether cars they used to call spin dizzies. They have a gas motor, and a line that goes to a tether pole. They fire ‘em up and they go around in circles. It’s kind of a nickname, ‘spin dizzies,’ same motor as model airplanes. There are so many niche areas in toy collecting that it’s mind boggling. That’s why this hobby is so much fun.. every day is different.
Ron has a passion for very fine models. We’re talking display type models, not toys. Michele Conti, who is a master model maker, passed away a few years back. He’d make one, maybe five of each model, but never any more than that. And we just bought one. It’s a ’65 Ferrari 250 TR. That model was right at 20,000 dollars. That’s one of many that we have up in that range – and some more. We just got a Dusenberg made by Gerald Wingrove, who’s in the same category as Michele Conti. So, yeah, we’ve got some really neat stuff.
Collectors Weekly: Where do you find all this stuff?
Ross: Before eBay came along, it was word of mouth, reading, getting collector magazines, and going to toy shows. There used to be a ton of toy shows. There still are, the Chicago toy show being probably the biggest. It’s kind of hard to stumble across anything from garage sales these days. Most of them are damaged or in poor condition. But that’s not what we want. But now with the Internet we can buy in Japan, in Russia, in Germany. The floodgates have opened. We have friends in Germany and in the Netherlands, and if they see something, they’ll email Ron a picture.
Collectors Weekly: In terms of the early American model cars, where were most of them made?
Ross: New York and Pennsylvania mostly. 100 years ago, there wasn’t much here in Texas. Up north is where all of the foundries, factories, and shipping harbors were. And a majority of, I hate to say sophisticated but I will, sophisticated people lived up there. That’s where the manufacturers were. And a majority of the cast iron and the tin was made up there. Very little of it was made anywhere but the Northeast.
The German tin cars…the makers were just craftsmen. They put so much detail into building them, they’re pretty hard to compete with. Its like a Mercedes and Chevy, it’s fairly easy to see the difference. I think they used a different type of lithography, their paint was different over there, their clockwork mechanisms, like I said, are just like Swiss watchmakers. They really get intricate, the craftsmanship, that’s just how they are. They built a Mercedes, and we built Chevy’s. Not just automobiles, but toys too. The Germans are extremely talented and just fabulous craftsmen.
I think they stopped using the lithographic process in model car making in the early 1900’s…maybe 1905, though I could be off 10 years here. Then they used paint, but the cars weren’t as colorful and bright as the litho toys. And fun. Let’s face it, they’re fun. Toys are supposed to be fun. The kids come through the museum and you know, they’re toys, you hate to say ‘please don’t touch that.’ They’re made for kids. Us big kids, too.
Collector Weekly: What are the most common model cars to collect?
Ross: Probably friction style cars like the Japanese-made. They made millions of them, of every description. Cadillacs, Fords, Chevy’s. And of course they still make friction model cars. They’re the most popular and easy to maintain models. There’s no real clockwork mechanism to tear up. They’re utilitarian. They built them a little stronger, a little heavier, the lithography is pretty strong on them.
Collectors Weekly: What advice do you have for aspiring model car collectors?
Ross: Go to garage sales, flea markets, estate sales. Look for the good stuff. You can never get hurt buying the nice stuff. Nice stuff will always get more than stuff with rust on it. It doesn’t have to be old, maybe ’60s or ’70s stuff. Start out slow and don’t spend a whole lot of money at first.
Read everything you can. The best book for toy collectors is probably the O’Briens Collecting Toy Cars and Trucks. It’s a huge book, that’s the one we use mainly. There’s several editions. It gives descriptions, pictures, and price ranges. It’s around 40 bucks but can save you a fortune. It covers cast iron and Japanese and all the Americans and the Germans and the French and other toymakers of the world. I highly recommend it.
Look for brands and quality and materials. It’s so much fun, but you gotta kinda take it easy and be careful. There are a lot of reproductions out there. There a lot of things made in China that could have been made five months ago, but it looks like an antique. Handle them and visit museums and get with other collectors. Most other toy collectors are gracious and happy to invite you into their homes or their shops and let you look and learn. We don’t charge a dime for our museum, we want anybody to come see and learn. Open to the public. We do tours, cub scouts, boy scouts, troubled youth, senior citizen groups, car clubs. You name them, we’ve had them come through.
(All images in this article courtesy Ron Sturgeon and the DFW Elite Toy Museum)