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    

Son-ny Parcel Post Truck 26" Screenside Sturditoy Keystone Buddy L Kelmet N/r!Vintage 1950,s Tonka Aerial Ladder Hydraulic Fire Truck All American Toy Company Heavy Hauler From The 1950s Truck & TrailerBig Mike (tonka State Hi-way Dept) Toy Dump Truck (1957)& Hydraulic V-plow (1956Original Antique 1930's Buddy L Greyhound Pressed Steel Wind Up Bus-model #855 1960's Vintage Pressed Steel Buddy L Gmc Aerial Ladder Firetruck W/ Orig Box NrVintage Goodrich Silvertown Service Truck Toy Wrecker ? Metalcraft Steelcraft ?1958 Tonka State Hi-way Custom Tandem Axle Equipment Hauler With Bulldozer Nr Smith Miller Mack 10 Wheel Dump Truck Restoration Parts Hydraulic Dump Truck1958-59 Tonka No. 18 Aa White Wrecker Tow Truck Pressed SteelOriginal Antique 1930's Buddy L Greyhound Pressed Steel Electrical Wind Up Bus. Keystone Packard Coast-to-coast BusErtl White Cab Over Engine Redi-mix Cement Truck Very Rare Near Mint Original1950s Buddy-l Mobile Repair It Unit Wrecker "good One" No Reserve"Custom 1957 Tonka Truck With Lowboy Trailer 1950's Tonka Fire Department Pickup TruckVintage 1950s Tonka Green Giant Toy Tractor & Trailer Semi TruckEarly Mechanized 20's Structo Toys Rare Open Coupe Pressed Steel Toy Car No/rsrvVintage Smith Miller Smitty Fruehauf Semi Trailer Delivery Truck Toy 27"Antique Rare Buddy L Pressed Steel 28 Inch BusEarly Tonka Ford Jet Delivery Pick-up Truck 60's Super Rare Nice 100% OriginalTonka Ford Coe Private Label Allied Van Lines Tt Truck V Rare 50's OriginalBuddy L Pressed Steel "express Line"Smith MillerVintage 1960's Buddy L - Fisherman Set (no.5316) Chevy & Boat/trailer - L@@k!!1959 Tonka Pick-up Truck W/stake Bed Trailer Complete SetOrig.1961 Tonka #46 Pumper Fire Truck-near Mint/unplayed WithBuddy L Flivver Open Cab TruckSmith Miller M I C Hydraulic Dump Truck--exc Original--no Reserve--Cor Cor Bus Pressed Steel Working HeadlampsOld Vintage Custom Tonka Log Truck With Logs Very Nice TruckTonka Fire Dept. Rescue Squad No.5 Van 1955-1956American National Co. 1926 Richfield Oil Tank Truck - Estate Find!Buddy L Flivver Model T Pick Up Truck - Black Original Condition 1920'sBuddy L Ford Cab Heavy Machinery Service Truck 50's Nmint V Rare 100% OriginalVintage Shark Nose Wyandotte Tractor & Trailer "clean"no Reserve"Kingsbury Rumble Seat Convertible Coupe Pressed Steel 1930.sSmith MillerTonka Toys Ford Cement Mixer Truck No.120 V Rare 60's Mint Original Box Best!!Tonka - Allied Van Lines - Truck / Tractor Trailer - Vintage 1961Vintage Pressed Steel 1950's Buddy L Pick Up Truck-100% Orig And Ex-no Resv-wowVintage Lincoln Canada Toys Car (coupe) Pressed Steel Original Paint Complete1950's Tonka Dump Truck, Restore Or Parts, NrVintage 1929 Pressed Steel Tin Friction Car18" With Driver Tractor Trailer Lincoln Van Lines 1960 Boys Or GirlsSmith Miller1955 Red Pickup Truck Tonka Excellent-vintage Wyandotte Construction Dump Truck-pressed Steel-nr-nice PaintTonka Toys Ser-vi-car Airport Cart Truck No. 201 V Rare 60's Mint Original BoxVintage 1950's Pressed Steel Buddy L Gmc Brinks Armored Truck Bank Alarm Works!Nylint Uhaul Box Van For Custom Or RestorationBuddy L "d" Series Wrecker Old Vintage 1959 Tonka Log Truck With Logs Very Nice TruckAntique Smith Miller Gmc Calif. Kraft Foods Co. Delivery Toy TruckOriginal 1960 Tonka #18 Wrecker W/box-near Mint/unplayed WithBuddy L Dozer Metal Toy From The Late 60's Or Early 70'sStructo Corvair Rampside Pickup Truck - Vintage 1965Tru-scale International Service Trailer Service Body Original Pressed Steel Toy1950's Tonka Truck Pickup Cab Only Parts Original Ford 1957Rare Structo Cab Over Studebaker Army Truck - Original