Automobile dealer promos were 1/25th-scale versions of cars and trucks that salesmen would show off to their prospective customers. While car companies have always made small replicas of their products, the heyday of these salesman's samples was the 1950s, ’60s, and early ’70s.

One of the most prolific makers of dealer promos was Banthrico, which spent much of the 1930s making cast-metal piggy banks in the shapes of buildings and animals. After the war, Banthrico turned its attention to dealer promos for Chevy and other companies. In a nod to its roots, some of Banthrico’s dealer promos, which featured authentic factory paint, had slots in their bases so they could be used to squirrel away coins.

Paint is actually a key differentiator between a factory-authorized dealer promo and a regular model car. Especially in the postwar years, auto companies had a difficult time supplying their dealers with cars in every available color. Dealer promos, which were released annually just like the full-size cars they were based on, were a way for salesmen to make their pitch, even if they didn’t have every color on their lot. In contrast, toy car model makers such as AMT (which also made dealer promos), Monogram, and Revell produced vehicles whose colors were close but not necessarily true to the real thing.

As the promos themselves became more popular, the models were used to convert window shoppers into buyers. For example, in the 1950s, AMT made plastic dealer promos of the Ford Edsel that were given to precocious children after their parents had taken a test drive. Companies such as Johan (also spelled Jo-Han) made friction-drive promo cars that kids could race around a showroom floor while the adults haggled and bargained.

In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Johan also made a promo with a torsion chassis for Chrysler, to coincide with the Torsion-Aire Ride suspensions being marketed by the automaker. In the 1960s, at the height of the transistor radio craze, Ford and other companies built AM radios into their promos—naturally Ford’s featured Philco radios, which was a division of the auto giant at the time.

By the 1960s and ’70s, as the differences between promos and toys began to blur, muscle cars became the most desirable dealer promos to collect. The Ford Mustang was an obvious favorite, but Thunderbirds and Galaxies were also in demand. Chevrolet had offered promos of its Bel Air in the 1950s, but that was also the decade for the first Corvette, which along with the Impala and Camaro was, and is, a widely collected car.

The condition of a dealer promo is important, so new collectors should look for a number of traits before purchasing. First, check for signs of damage caused by the tools that we...

Finally, sometimes the plastic body of a car will warp but other parts will not. For example, Johan bodies tend to warp upward on the sides but the grills, which are made of a different material, do not, which gives the front end of the car the appearance of a smile. This problem is so common it is known among collectors as a "Johan smile."

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