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.