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    

Vintage Pressed Steel Tonka Lumber Truck W/ Interchangeable BedVintage Tonka State Hi Way Toy Steel Tractor Trailer Semi Lowboy Truck W DozerVery Nice Vintage 1950's Tonka Sportsman Truck With Boat & TrailerVintage 1963 Tonka Ramp Hoist Truck - Beautiful Condition, No Res, Lqqk & See!! Very Nice Vintage 1950's Tonka Pick-up TruckVintage Red Tonka Farm Truck & Trailer Pressed Steel 60's Toy Nice!!Buddy L Express Line Moving VanGendron Pioneer Sampson, 26 In Hoop Transport Truck Original As Found ConditionVintage Tonka Press Steel Toy Articulating Forklift Truck Nylint Structo Buddy L1920’s Buddy L Flivver Pressed Steel Car Restoration ProjectVintage Tonka State Hi Way Toy Ford Pick Up Truck Orange High Way MaintenanceLitho Pressed Steel Tin Wyandotte #505 American Airlines Airport Station 101 205Nylint Ford Econoline Pickup TruckTonka Ford Style Side Pick-up Truck & Stake Trailer Set 60's V Rare MintVery Nice Vintage 1950's Tonka Carnation Milk Truck RestoredBuddy L Gmc Interestate Highway Commision Truck & Shovel - No BoxVintage Tonka Farm Truck Stake Bed & Trailer Nice Pressed Steel Tonka ToysOld Antique Vintage 1950s Metal Coast To Coast Tonka Stake Dump Cargo Box TruckSuper Nice Viintage Structo 1950s Pressed Steel Yellow/blue Pickup Truck+trailer1950s Tonka Bruce Floor Wax Delivery Box Van Vintage Toy Truck Private LabelAntique 1930's Cor Cor Toys Graham Paige Pressed Steel Car To Restore NrTonka Power Boom Part Crane For Flatbed TruckEarly Nylint Toys Ford Bronco Truck No. 8200 60's V Rare Mint In BoxAntique Pressed Steel Tow Truck Sit-ride Buddy L Or Metalcraft 1930sCustom 1960 Tonka Gasoline Truck TruckVery Nice Vintage 1950's Tonka Star-kist Utility TruckVintage Tonka State Hi Way Toy Steel Truck Dump Stake Delivery Body OrangeVtg Ruehl Caterpillar Tractor D7 Bulldozer & Ripper Toy Cat Dozer Antique 1930's Structo Toys Fire Department Ladder Truck Pressed Steel Toy Rare Very Nice Vintage 1950's Tonka Aaa Wrecker Truck Tow TruckVintage Wyandotte Green Pressed Steel Toy City Delivery Truck 11"1960,s Tonka Gambles - The Friendly Store - Pick Up Toy TruckVintage Tonka Farm Pickup Truck Blue White Pressed Steel Stake Rack OriginalVintage 1960's Tru Scale International Harvester Scout Pressed Steel TruckStructo Pressed Steel Dump Truck Early Tonka Farms Ford Cab Farm Stake Truck 60's Nice V Rare Custom 1964 Tonka Carnation Milk Pick Up TruckEarly Tonka Toys Ford Cab Suburban Pumper Fire Truck V Rare 50's Nmint OriginalVintage Pressed Steel Bronze Tonka Hydraulic Dump TruckVintage Smith Miller Ironson Mic Pressed Steel Tow TruckOriginal Complete Vintage Buddy L Repair It Unit Wrecker Tow Truck Pressed SteelBuddy L Gmc Green Airway Express Van - No BoxVintage Wyandotte Grey Van Lines Pressed Steel Toy TruckSuper Nice 1956 Tonka Log Trailer For Truck Original ConditionSuper Nice Viintage Structo 1950s Pressed Steel Yellow/blue Pickup Truck+trailer11 Vtg 60s Hot Wheels Redline Cars Snake & Mongoose Nm + Cougar Python King KudaBuddy L 1960s Car Hauler With 4 Original CarsSuper Nice Original 1956 Tonka Semi Cab Tractor TruckVery Nice Vintage Buddy L Mister Buddy Ice Cream Delivery TruckVintage Pressed Steel Buddy L Model A Hot Rod Pick Up Truck Ex. ConditionVintage 1950's Ford Tonka Lumber Truck Original Bronze ColorVery Nice Vintage Buddy L Bordens Milk Delivery TruckVintage Pressed Steel Tonka Cargo Kingo Grain Hauler Trailer OnlyOriginal Vintage Tru Scale Toy Farm Implement Silage Cutter Blower MachineryStructo Flat Bed Tow Truck With Winch And MotorTonka Vintage Green Giant Truck & TrailerTonka Ford Cab State Hi-way Dept. Lowboy Tt Truck 50's V Rare Nice 100% OriginalVintage Pressed Steel Tonka Square Fender Semi Truck Cab OnlyBuddy L Pink Merry Go Round Truck - No BoxVintage Tonka State Hi Way Toy Steel Crane Digger Clam Shell For Lowboy Truck