Even though American toy companies did not make the shift from cast iron to pressed steel until the early 20th century, the groundwork for this transition had been laid in the late 1850s, when the Bessemer refining process was introduced. Steel was both more malleable and stronger than cast iron, and less likely to rust or crack. For manufacturers, this meant the metal was easier to work with; for consumers, it meant goods lasted longer.

Expanding sales of automobiles coincided with major improvements in pressed-steel technology. Suddenly, large sheets of thin steel could be pressed into curved or angled forms using a heavy die. By the 1920s, this widely used manufacturing technique was downscaled to create miniature model cars and toy trucks in the same fashion. Thanks to pressed steel, model vehicles were both more durable and realistic than ever before.

International politics also spurred the use of pressed steel in the United States. In 1914, trade embargoes with Germany created an opening in the flourishing domestic toy market, which was quickly filled by American and French entrepreneurs. French automobile producer Citroën had an entire division called Jouets Citroën, devoted to the production of small scale models of their own life-size cars. Jouets Citroën produced beautifully crafted toy vehicles, with extremely realistic scaling in all their interior and exterior details. Another French manufacturer, Company International du Joets, or CIJ, created models of the famous Alpha P2 racing car. The sharp-looking 21-inch vehicle had working steering, a hinged gas cap, and a clockwork motor.

By the 1930s, though, U.S. policy makers decided to insulate the struggling U.S. economy from foreign competition by raising the tax on imported goods. The result was growth in the American toy industry. One U.S. firm that benefited from these trade policies was Kingsbury, which was founded as the Wilkins Toy Company in 1890 before being purchased by Harry Kingsbury in 1894. Kingsbury produced cars in cast iron as well as pressed steel, eventually gaining acclaim for its large (up to three feet long) pressed steel luxury cars, which featured disc wheels and white rubber tires. Later Kingsbury pressed steel vehicles even included battery-operated lights and Swiss music box "radios."

During the 1920s, Kingsbury was one of several manufacturers to turn their attention to race cars. As speed-record mania reached a peak at the end of that decade, Kingsbury capitalized on the craze by creating models of these sleek, futuristic automobiles. Its red Sunbeam was released in 1927, with rubber tires vulcanized directly onto the wheels for smoother movement. That first model was followed by the Bluebird II, which included a rear fin and aerodynamic wheel covers, and the Sunbeam Golden Arrow, a low, angular beast with a vertical tail that screamed speed.

During the 1930s, Kingsbury joined with Chrysler to release a new model car annually based on Chrysler’s latest design updates. Some of the most collected vintage Kingsbury vehicles from this series are ones bearing the famous “Body by Fisher” insignia.

Other domestic pressed steel model car makers included the All Metal Products Company, founded in 1920 in Wyandotte, Michigan. Though it got its start in toys by making play guns...

In fact, model trucks were a favorite form for pressed steel toys. Structo made working construction vehicles, Kelmet’s sold “Big Boy” trucks, and the Sturdy Corporation of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, offered a Sturditoy line of working vehicles like dairy trucks, police cars, and mail delivery vans. A 1927 advertisement for Sturditoy claimed its cars were “Oversize, overstrong, and overwhelming favorites in the fine toy field.”

Oversized pressed steel model cars and trucks, with working components, allowed children to act out their playtime fantasies. Keystone’s hydraulic lift dump trucks really dumped, while Sturditoy’s model fire engine had hoses that pumped water from an accompanying tower.

Because pressed steel was stronger than tinplate and other materials, large models could also fully support a child’s weight. Naturally, companies marketed these toys as tough and unbreakable. The Structo company was rumored to have actually encouraged factory workers to skate around on the wheeled toys they produced in order to test the vehicles’ strength.

One of the most popular oversize model car brands between the world wars was Buddy L, which was founded as the Moline Pressed Steel Company. After a deal to make full-size farm vehicles fell through, owner Fred Lundahl looked close to home for an alternative product. His son, nicknamed Buddy L, was the inspiration for the emerging toy line.

Buddy L vehicles included a concrete mixer that actually mixed cement, while its line of oversize cars and trucks were up to three feet long and made of thick 22-gauge steel. Buddy L’s toys typically had fully functional steering and were sometimes sold with a bicycle-style seat so children could ride them in comfort. Though they were expensive for the time, these pressed steel vehicles were still more affordable than rival pedal cars.

The post-war baby boom in America created a huge market for toy autos, and manufacturers continued to respond with bigger and more complicated models as the years went on. During the late 1940s, the Mound Metalcraft Company of Mound, Minnesota, which primarily sold lawn and garden tools, expanded into toy construction equipment. In 1956 the toy division received a new name, Tonka Toys (after nearby Lake Minnetonka), which was soon synonymous with toy trucks.

That same year, Tonka released the highly functional Suburban Pumper, a fire engine with a working hydrant that could be connected to any standard garden hose. Tonka’s famous Mighty Dump Truck debuted in 1965 and quickly became its best seller, firmly establishing Tonka's reputation for indestructible construction toys.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

DFW Elite Toy Museum

DFW Elite Toy Museum

Ron Sturgeon's excellent gallery of fancy model cars and other vehicles. Nice high resolution shots with classy mus… [read review or visit site]

The Show Room

The Show Room

This gallery at Dave's Show Rod Rally features model show rods from 1960 to 2001. Favorites include the 1958 Thunde… [read review or visit site]



Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Rare 1920s Buddy L Pressed Steel Sand And Gravel Truck - Nice!Vntg Early 1920s Turner Toy Pressed Steel Fire Station + Pumper & Ladder TrucksOriginal Buddy "l" "shell" Pressed Steel Gasoline Tanker Truck 21" Large1968 Mattel Hot Wheels Custom Mustang Redline Purple OriginalVintage Redline Hot Wheels 9 Total Blister Packs 19691975 Hot Wheels Redline Flying Colors Alternate Tampo Custom Volkswagen OriginalVintage Hot Wheels Redline Redlines Big Lot!! 112 Cars Rare! 1967 1969 1970 1968 Hot Wheels Redline Us Custom Camaro Light Ice Blue W/ Dark Interior LotBuddy L 1920's Hydraulic Dump Truck For RestorationVintage Dinky Toys Gerry Anderson Space 1999 Eagle TransporterOriginal Dinky Toys Foden Flat Truck With Tailboard 903 Vgcb Orange W Green HubsVintage Original Hot Wheels Redlines Car Lot Prudhomme Snake Mcewen Mongoose1973 Hot Wheels Redline Enamel Dark Blue Mongoose 6969 All Original Top Shelf!1958 Tonka Custom Allied Van Lines Box Truck With Floating Tandem Dual Wheels NrVintage 1934 Deco Kingsbury Pressed Steel Windup Chrysler Airflow Toy Car Original Dinky Toys 2nd Cab Foden Flat Truck With Chains No 905 Vgcb Red & Grey.Smith Miller L Mack Blue Diamond Hydraulic Dump Truck--in Original Box--Original Hot Wheels Redline Aqua Evil Weevil Black Canadian Bp Tough Spoilers VwVintage 1949 To 1953 Tonka Official Service Tow/wrecker Press Steel Toy Truck1957 Tonka Custom Built Service Truck With Working Boom And Winch "nr"1950s Smith Miller Mack Stunning Tandem Truck And Trailer Unused Store DisplayHot Wheels Redline Custom Camaro In Blue New On Card Very Nice (rt)1968 Hot Wheels Redline U.s. Custom Camaro In Ruby Red All Original Tab Base P/tVintage 1950's Tonka Red No.5 Fire Pumper Truck Great Clean Shape With Accessory12a "very Rare" Lesney Matchbox "superfast" #12 "blue" Safari Land Rover Mib Hot Wheels Redline Era Flying Colors Alternate Gray Corvette Stingray Original!Rare Antique 19thc Tole Painted Tin, Clockwork Automobile Car Toy, NrAntique 1920 S Kelmet White Big Boy Pressed Steel Tanker Truck 1977 Original Hot Wheels Black Redline T-totaller Set Only! Flying Colors Sweet!1974 Hot Wheels Redline Flying Colors Alternate Red Porsche 917 Original Clean!Original Dinky Toys 2nd Cab Foden Flat Truck With Chains No 505 Vgc Boxed MaroonSmith Miller Auto Transport Mack Truck In Original Box With Instructions Vintage Mic Smith Miller National Automobile Tow Truck ~for Parts~1971 Bye Focal Hot Wheels Redline - LimeRare Large 1920s Structo Pressed Steel Clockwork Crawler Tractor - 12" X 7" X 6"1971 Bye Focal Hot Wheels Redline - MagentaVintage Original Corgi Toys Red Hub Batmobile & Glastron Batboat VgcHot Wheels Redline Magenta Olds 442 Near MintVintage Smith Miller Mack Toy Truck For Parts Or Restoration.Vintage Lesney Matchbox 1950's & 60's Grey Wheel Vehicle Lot & Silver Wheel #271954~tonka Toys~pressed Steel Vintage Ford Dump Truck Toy~mound Metalcraft Inc.~Tonka Stake Truck And Trailer 1950s-60sHot Wheels 7649 Bw Super Van Malaysia Red Speed Machines MocVintage Buddy L Rea Express Truck Van With Original Box Pressed Steel Tin Nylint Ford U-haul Big Track Racer Set In Box--exc Original--no Reserve--Vintage Mattel Hot Wheels Redline Lot Of 28 Cars 1968-1974 CollectionHotwheels Redline Rainbow Lot 28 Cars Demon Classic 32 Ford Vicky Custom PythonRare Tonka Truck 1959 Lumber Good Used Condition No RsvEarly Tonka Toys Ford Cab "mm Service" Tow Truck 50's V Rare Nice 100% OriginalTonka Farms Stake Rack Flat Bed Truck--exclellent Original--1960--no Reserve--1968 Hot Wheels Redline U.s. Custom Corvette In Windex Blue All Original Sweet!1968 Hot Wheels Redline U.s. Custom Camaro In Emerald Green All Original Chromy!Vintage Matchbox Lesney Carrying Case With 43 1950's & 1960's Cars & TrucksOriginal Dinky Toys 2nd Cab Foden Flat Truck 502 Qgc / Gcb Yellow & Green ScarceOriginal Dinky Toy 2nd Cab Foden Flat Truck With Chains 505 Vgcb Maroon Red HubsRare Mib Corgi 266 W Box All Original Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flying Car NrVintage Original Dinky Toys 2nd Cab Foden 14 Ton Tanker Truck 504 Vgcb Red Fawn.Vintage Dinky Toys Diecast 078 Dublo Trade Box 6x Lansing Bagnall Trailers 17471954/55 Tonka Livestock Semi 'clean & Complete" No Reserve"1926 Pressed Steel Turner Packard Roadster