Pedal cars for children first appeared in the late 1880s, when Karl Benz introduced his three-wheel Patent Motorwagen for adults. By the early 1900s, pedal cars were widespread, especially in the United States, England, France, and Australia.
One of the first companies to make three-wheel velocipedes for children was Whitney Reed, whose wooden horse pulling a sulky is a classic of the early form—the horse’s jointed legs moved when the operator pushed the pedals. Because automobiles are the main type of pedal toy sought by collectors, pedal toys like the early Whitney Reeds can be surprisingly easy to acquire.
Around the same time, Butler Brothers was making “Juvenile Steel Automobiles,” which is how the company described the pedal cars in its catalog. These cars had sheet-steel bodies, open steering systems and bottoms, and double-spoke wheels. Models included the Scorcher, the Wizard, and the Speedwell. The pedal version of the best-selling Ford Model T was especially popular among kids, and is highly prized today.
Before the war, the Bon Marché in Paris had been selling pedal cars designed after Grand Prix Peugeots. After the war, French toy maker Eureka continued this trend, making pedal cars fashioned after Peugeots, as well as Renaults and the Citroen Rosalie.
The U.K.’s Lines Bros offered its customers 30 pedal cars in its 1937/38 catalog, from the basic Prince, which was designed for 2-to-4-year olds, to the Electric Rolls, which had a wooden body and a 12-volt electric motor driving the rear axle. Naturally the car had working brakes and headlights, real Dunlop tires (including a spare), and chrome-plated rims. As for its performance, it could travel 12 to 15 miles on a single charge and had a top speed of 5 mph.
The heyday for pedal cars in the United States occurred between the World Wars. For example, pedal cars were fixtures in Sears catalogs. Unfortunately, they could only be sent to customers who lived near railroad tracks because mailing a steel car, even a small one, was simply not possible. Other companies that made pedal cars in the ’20s and ’30s included American National Automobiles of Toledo and Steelcraft of Murray, both based in Ohio.
Among other products, Steelcraft made GMC pedal trucks, as well as Mack dumptrucks, Model T Roadsters, Dodge Runabouts, and a Chrysler Roadster, which had bullet-shaped headlight...
Today these prices sound cheap, but the toys were not cheaply made. In fact, they were often as lavishly detailed as the real things. The steel was typically enameled to ensure rich colors, while pedals were adjustable to give young drivers a comfortable ride. Like the cars that adults drove, models ranged from economy (Whippet) to luxury (Studebaker). On the better models, steering wheels and other solid parts were custom cast.
After World War II, the J-40 (or Junior Forty) made by Lines Bros. in Wales by retired miners and modeled after the 1949 Austin A-40 was probably the most popular pedal car in England. In the 1950s, the company offered 33 pressed-steel-body pedal cars, its heavily chromed Tri-ang Centurian being the top of the line.
By the early 1960s, the company experimented with novelty cars such as the Noddy, which was like a small go-kart, but as the decade progressed it reverted back to pedal cars based on real automobiles such as the MG Midget.
Pedal cars were also popular in Australia. In fact, they have such a rich history there that the government recently issued a series of toy-theme stamps, including one with a red Cyclops pedal car from 1953. Though based in Australia, many of Cyclops’s pedal car designs were based on U.S. models and manufacturers, from Buick and Chevrolet, to Pontiac and Packard.
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Recent News: Pedal Cars
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People Loving People auction, BBQ this SaturdayTherogersvillereview, August 26th
“You know, it is almost 'Football Time in Tennessee' and we have a beautiful Tennessee Vol Pedal Car that we will be auctioning, as well as many other nice pieces. We encourage everyone to attend and make a bid on these one of a kind items. It is not...Read more
Letters to the editor, Aug. 27: Downtown NashvilleThe Tennessean, August 25th
Pedal car after pedal car of rowdy young ladies, drinking to excess while patrons of the multilevel bars holler at them from above. The sidewalks were packed with drink-holding adults while the homeless and young children entertain the throngs of...Read more
Local Happenings: Pleasanton's Firehouse exhibit features area plein-air paintingsSan Jose Mercury News, August 25th
Weekend happenings include more than 2,500 American-made and/or powered rods, customs, classics, muscle cars and trucks of all years; Veterans Day celebrations; a swap meet; a model and pedal car show; and free kids' entertainment. Alameda County ...Read more
City recordSidney Daily News (subscription), August 25th
-2:15 p.m.: theft. Sidney Daily News personnel reported 20 newspapers, valued at $25, were stolen from a newspaper machine at 1010 Wapakoneta Ave. -1:40 p.m.: theft. Cynthia Longcoy, 1527 E. Court St., Apt. D, reported a bicycle, valued at $60, was ...Read more
Royal Oak OKs pedal pub minus the boozeDetroit Free Press, August 19th
Royal Oak is poised to become Michigan's next downtown with a pedal pub — but without the pub. City commissioners gave their unanimous support this week to allowing the quirky bicycle built for a crew, which in this case could be as many as 10...Read more
Get set for pedal car spectacular in EllonEllon Times, August 15th
The pedal car race is in the afternoon and there will be stalls in the Market Street car park and some unusual cycles in Neil Ross Square. The Royal British Legion Pipe Band will lead the pre-race procession. Town centre roads will be closed between...Read more
Gainsborough: Pedal Car Grand Prix at Queen Elizabeth's High SchoolWorksop Today, August 4th
A Pedal Car Grand Prix is taking place at Queen Elizabeths High School on Sunday, August 9. The two hour endurance race, made up of 12 teams of 10 members, has been organised by the Rotary Club of Gainsborough. The event starts at 11am with the ...Read more
Gratiot Cruise set to hit the pedal to the metalC&G Newspapers, July 29th
The big welcoming on the day of the event begins at 11 a.m. at cruise headquarters with the national anthem and the commencing of the pedal car cruise. The parade will start at noon, going from Metropolitan Parkway and Gratiot Avenue, making the loop...Read more