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    

Tonka Jeep And Clipper BoatAntique Buddy L Pressed Steel Tank Tanker TruckEarly Tonka Toys Ford Cab Power Boom Crane Truck 60's Super Rare Nice Original1920's Republic, Dayton, Turner Toys Pressed Steel Friction Cars In GarageTonka Toys Ford Round Fender Cab "mm" Service Tow Truck 50's V Rare Nice Orig.Tonka Restored 1957 Gasoline Tanker Truck1920s Turner Pressed Steel Toy Car 18 1/2 Inchs LongSmith Miller Gmc Coke Truck--new Old Stock In Box--original Cases--mint Original1958 T.f.d Tfd Tanker Tonka Fire Department # No. 5 Pressed Steel Vintage Toy1920's Large 23" Girard Toys Pressed Steel Auto Transport Truck W/ 3 CarsVintage 1920's Pressed Steel Cor-cor Dump TruckSmith Miller L Mack Merchandise Van--very Good Original Condition--no Reserve--1954 Tonka Star Kist Box Van 1956 Custom Tonka Road Sanding TruckBuddy L Race Car Transport Truck 1930s Marx Siren Police Patrol Car Tin Wind Up Pressed Steel Toy P.d.Vintage Tonka Interchangable Stake Bed Steel Toy PartEarly Tonka Toys Ford Coe Lowboy Tractor Trailer Truck 50's V Rare Nice Orig.Original 1930's Large 32" Turner Toys Pressed Steel Aerial Ladder Fire TruckSmith Miller L Mack Blue Diamond Hydraulic Dump Truck--exc Orig--no Reserve--Early Model Toys Doepke Jaguar Xk 120 Sports Car 50's V Rare Mint RestoredDayton Toy Company / Sonny 1920's Us Army Transport Toy Truck Tonka Flat Bed TrailerVintage 1954 Tonka No 5 Aerial Ladder Fire Truck Whit Ladders Pressed Steel !!Ny-lint 1960's Ford Pick Up Farm Truck With TrailerVintage Girard Pressed Steel Toy Wrecker - 1930s(?)Vintage Eska Ertl John Deere Tractor Bulldozer Crawler Steel Construction ToyRare/vintage Tonka Lowbow Trailer 1950's State Hi-way Truck Low ReserveMighty Tonka Bottom Dump --excellent Original --near Mint--Scarce Large 31" 1934 Structo Toys Pressed Steel Combination Steam Shovel TruckJi Case Ih Farmall Mccormick 1958 Farm Toy Tru Scale Eska Carter Nib Very Rare1960 Tonka White Aa Wrecker Good++ No Reserve Original Vintage Buddy L Pressed Steel Texaco Tanker Truck 1950'sVintage 1940's 50's Buddy L Truck 16" Long Very Good Pressed SteelTonka Ford Round Fender Cab Suburban Pumper Fire Truck V Rare 50's Nmint+ Orig.Vintage Pressed Steel Ride-on Hydraulic Dump Truck Toy HugeTonka Restored 1961 Sanitary Service TruckBuddy L Sand And Gravel Truck Prototype 7 3/4" Pressed Steel1928 Metalcraft Truck...cw Brand Coffee Tonka Lumber Platform Stake Truck Semi W/pup Trailer (pup Trailer Only)Vintage Original 1960's Nylint U-haul Ford Pickup Truck 3-pc Pressed Steel Toy S1940's Buddy L Pressed Steel Army Bomber Tank Transport Airplane Toy1955 Custom Tonka G.fox & Co. Semi Truck And Trailer1958 Tonka Wrecker Tow Truck & BoxVintage Tonka Pickup Truck 50's-60's Pressed SteelVintage Tonka Toys 13 Inch Pressed Metal Toy Dump Truck W/ Trailer &sandloader +1932 Metalcraft Truck...kroeger Food Express1920s Sturdyitoy Army Truck In Original Condition.Vintage 1960's Tonka Drag Line Crane, Yellow In ColorVintage Eska Ertl John Deere Tractor 2 Row Corn Picker & Combine Pressed Steel 1920s Buddy L Baggage Line Pressed Steel Toy Large Rare Buddy K Restoration1932 Metalcraft Truck...rite-way Food Stores1940's Heavy Tin Or Light Pressed Steel Toyland Garage Toy Car GarageVintage Eska Ertl John Deere Tractor Bull Dozer Crawler Steel Construction ToyBuddy L Auto Wrecker Truck Nos W/box 1930's 1940's Stunning Pressed Steel Rare Buddy L Extension Ladder Fire Truck Ride On 30" Long NrLincoln Toys Gmc Cab Private Label Coca-cola Truck 40's V Rare Mint RestoredVintage 24 Inch Long Pressed Steel Buddy L Texaco Tanker Toy Truck Wyandotte Large Sedan Nash Streamlined Rare Pressed Steel Wood Wheels 1940'sTonka Farms 1965 Pressed Steel Horse Pickup Dodge Truck 13" Old Repaint Exc.