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]

VW Toys and Models

VW Toys and Models

A comprehensive site completely dedicated to miniature Volkswagen vehicles. Browse hundreds of toys by country, man… [read review or visit site]



Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage Original 1958 Tonka Toy Gasoline Tanker Truck ToyVintage Tru Scale International Utility Body Green Service Repair Truck Ih Ts1950's Doepke Model Toys Heiliner Scraper Earth Mover Pressed Steel W/box Rare!Vintage Circa 1940 Doepke Model Toys #2017 Sports Car Kit New Condition W/o/box1931 Erector Set No. 8 Hudson Locomotive EngineLot Of 2 Vintage Tonka Thunderbird Express Tractor Trailer Truck Semi Cab SteelVintage Buddy L Railway Express Agency Truck Serve Ice Cream Rare 21" Long1960s Tonka Gooseneck Low Boy "good One" No Reserve"Vintage Pressed Steel Tonka 1955 Ford Green Giant Brands Semi Truck & Trailer VgScarce 1926 Buddy "l" Stock Car ~ Gorgeous Paint ~ 100% OriginalLg Lot (2) Antique 1930's Steel Cor Cor Passenger Car Pullman Ride On Train Toy1920s Original Buddy L Truck - Ready For RestorationRare 1926 Buddy L Box Car ~ Nr Mint Condition ~ 100% Original ~ Stunning !Smith Miller Smitty Toys Flat Bed TruckVintage Pressed Steel Buddy-l Gmc Freight Hauler Semi Truck And Trailer 1950'sCustom Buddy L 1958 Gmc State Highway Wrecker Tow TruckToy Missile Launcher Nylint W/box Attic Find Tonka Buddy L Structo No Reserve1920s Buddy L Toy Chain Dump International Truck3- Pressed Steel 1930's Wyandotte Cars Nice Original Condition 4-1/2" Long1963 Tru Scale 1/16 Pressed Steel Ryerson Steel Tractor Trailer Stake Truck SemiOriginal 1960's Tonka Outboard Boat MotorVintage Nylint U-haul Truck And Trailer. All Original. 1960'sVintage Rare 1959 Tonka Air Express Box Truck And Pup TrailerOriginal 1960's Tonka Sportsman Boat & TrailerVintage Tonka Toy Round Fender Ford State Hi-way Dump Truck - 1956Tonka Ramp Hoist--excellent Original-- No Reserve ----Vintage Pressed Steel Nylint 3700 Street Sprinkler Truck Toy Ford Tanker W BoxRare 1926 Buddy "l" Cement Mixer 100% OriginalVintage Pressed Steel Tonka State Hi-way Snow Plow Truck Dodge Ford Dump ToyVintage Tonka Cargo King T-t Truck 1956 Metal Toy Semi Trailer OriginalVintage Tru-scale International Pickup Truck +low Reserve+Vintage Structo Toy Semi Truck And Trailer Like Tonka 1960s Good ConditionSmith Miller Smitty Toys Logging Trailer TruckVintage Tonka Aa Wrecker Truck - 1960-61Vintage Lincoln Toys Tow Truck - Original Paint & DecalsVintage Hubley Bell Telephone Truck-8" W- Org Box & Org Acc's-vintage ToyAntique Smith Miller Bekins Mack Pressed Steel Toy Semi Moving TruckLtd Toy Stamp & 1940s Smith Miller Mack Fire Dept Ladder TruckTru-scale International Harvester Freight Dump Tt Truck 50s V Rare 100% OriginalVintage Pressed Steel Tonka 1961 Ford State Hi-way Dept Mobile Clam CraneAntique 1930's Pressed Steel Locomotive & Tender Steam Engine Cor Cor Train ToyTonka Toys Ford Tractor Trailer Truck - Cab Only 50's Mint RestoredVintage Old Pressed Steel 1950's Wyandotte Grey Van Lines Tractor Trailer TruckRare Wilkins Phaeton Clockwork Automobile Pressed Steel & Cast Iron (dakotapaul)Nylint No. 5400 Truck, Camper, Boat And Trailer From The 60's In The Box Ready4uDoepke Model Toys # 2012 D-6 Caterpillar Bulldozer - 1953 VersionTonka Truck Semi Trailer Thunderbird Express Semi Cab Steel Good/great Condition1959 Tonka Platform Stake Truck/utility Truck1955-56 Tonka Stake Bed / Lumber TruckMic Smith Miller Wrecker Excellent ConditionOld Vintage Custom Tonka Log Truck With Logs Very Nice TruckVintage ~ Tonka Service Utility Truck ~ Pressed Steel 1950's1950s Buddy L Pressed Steel Toy Texaco Oil Tanker Delivery TruckVinatge Tonka 1960 Fisherman Pickup Truck.Vintage 1950's Tonka Toys Hi-way Dept Dump Truck Pressed Steel AntiqueLtd Toy Stamp & 1950s Marx Lumar Utility Service Truck In Box StunningSmith Miller Teamsters Road Star Fruehauf Truck And Trailer50s Smith Miller Gmc Kraft Foods Company Box TruckTonka State Hi-way Dept Dump Truck1930's Marx 6" Pressed Steel Car For The Honeymoon Garage