Prior to the mid-19th century, toy model cars and trucks were generally made by hand from wood or thick card stock. As sheet-metal technology and factory capabilities improved, toy makers began to utilize various types of metal to produce their goods in a faster, more affordable manner. European manufacturers favored thin steel sheets coated with tin, known as tinplate, while Americans relied on uncoated steel, which was typically pressed into shapes for specific parts used in combination with cast iron.

Tinplate or tin, as it's frequently shortened, had numerous advantages over steel. Tinplate was lighter, which made it cheaper to ship. In addition, its finish provided a shiny, reliable surface for color printing using the standard lithographic processes of the day. Sheets of tinplate were simply run through a printing press to quickly and efficiently decorate the toys.

Finally, timing favored tinplate. At the end of the 19th century, it was often easier to import goods from across the Atlantic than to rely on suppliers from within the continental United States, as the American rail network was still limited. This allowed overseas toy companies to take the lead in the U.S., despite being farther away from their customers. By the beginning of World War I, the most sought tin toy vehicles in the U.S. were produced by German manufacturers such as Märklin and Bing. The city of Nüremburg, which had a long history of toy making, became the locus of this burgeoning German trade.

The German tinplate toy industry as we think of it today began in 1859, when Theodor Friedrich Wilhelm Märklin produced doll-house accessories made from lacquered tinplate in Göppingen, Germany. Märklin soon added toy production, and became famous as a producer of realistic model railroads. Theodor was killed in 1866, so his widow Caroline ran the business for the next 20 years, expanding her company's tin-vehicle line to include limousines, trucks, and even zeppelins. Today, in part because of the company’s reputation for its model trains, early Märklin tin cars and boats tend to fetch high auction prices for their rarity, quality, and attention to detail.

The Bing toy company, based in Nüremburg, got its start manufacturing kitchen utensils. In 1880, it expanded production to include tin toys, and by 1905 Bing boasted the largest toy factory in the world. Bing cornered much of the high-quality and oversized toy market at the time, and their products are identifiable by the GBN initials, for Gebrüder Bing Nürnberg.

Bing even produced a series of tin Motor Car Figures, available in three sizes and outfitted in real clothing to mix and match with different vehicle models. Shortly after World War I, though, increased export tariffs, inflation, and growing anti-Semitism in Germany eroded the company's dominance. After multiple attempts to re-establish its markets in America, Bing finally closed in 1933.

Another German firm, Lehmann, began producing its toys around the turn of the century. Lehmann stood apart from other tinplate manufacturers by focusing almost exclusively on ove...

Other Nüremburg tin model car manufacturers of the early 20th century include Arnold (established in 1906) and Schuco (1912). Arnold was known for its highly detailed tin toys, though these are often difficult to identify as they lack factory markings. Though their facilities were entirely destroyed by air raids during World War II, Karl’s son Ernst was eventually able to revive the company, making its windup Mac 700 motorcycle one of the most popular toys of the 1950s. Less than a decade later, Arnold stopped producing tin vehicles entirely to focus on model trains.

Schuco based most of its products on expensive luxury cars like BMW and Porsche. These toys typically featured working parts like brakes, gears, and steering wheels. One particularly interesting example is the Command Car from 1937, which would automatically start or stop if one simply blew air onto a panel on the car’s roof.

Märklin, Bing, Schuco, and others are known for their high-end tinplate cars. The most basic tinplate cars, though, were called “penny toys.” These inexpensive playthings were made from a simple tinplate cutout assembled with small folded tabs. Imported to America in huge quantities, penny toys ranged from horse-drawn buggies to fighter planes. One of the most important German penny toy manufacturers was Distler, which was founded in 1900 and was known for its crazy-action cars.

Amid the imports, numerous U.S. toy companies also thrived. The premier domestic tin toy manufacturer of the 20th century was Marx Toys, founded by brothers Louis and David Marx in 1919. Marx quickly grew to be the largest toy manufacturer in the world, making everything from Marx trains to wind-ups. An ingenious early partnership with The Walt Disney Company helped the company grow, and by 1955, Louis Marx was being hailed as "The Toy King" on the cover of "Time" magazine. For a brief time, Marx produced model cars with both tin and plastic parts, like Dottie the Driver, which featured a plastic Dottie behind the steering wheel of a tin racecar. But Marx eventually phased out tin production in favor of various synthetic materials.

In general, the lower cost of producing tinplate toys allowed the German toy industry to successfully weather the Great Depression (Bing being the glaring exception) and do well in the 1930s. World War II interrupted that ride, and after the war, German toy production declined as Japanese companies rushed into the toy marketplace to meet increasing world demand. By the 1950s, German and Japanese tinplate toy companies were even making models of cars like Volkswagens or Toyotas for export to America. In the years immediately following the war, such models were only marketed to children in their home countries.

Like much of the German tin-toy industry, Japanese manufacturers had been around since before the turn of the century. Their expansion following World War II was encouraged by the occupying American military. The subsequent growth of the Japanese toy industry helped rebuild the Japanese economy because it created a steady stream of cheap toys for export to the United States. Today, Japanese tinplate toys marked “Occupied Japan” or “OJ” are highly sought by collectors.

Japanese companies like Marusan, Bandai, and Yonezawa primarily focused on versions of popular American vehicles like Ford or Chevrolet, as well as American Army tanks, Greyhound buses, and New York taxicabs. These wind-ups were frequently highly realistic, marked by numerous intricate details. Eventually wind-up motors were replaced by newer Japanese model cars and trucks that advertised their “Mystery Action,” which simply meant they had battery-powered motors that steered the vehicle randomly in a wild zig-zag pattern. Batteries were also used to power car lights and even horns. But by the late 1960s, Japanese companies began moving away from metals like tin toward even cheaper materials, especially plastics, effectively ending the era of tin toys.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Antique-Tintoys

Antique-Tintoys

Juergen Sinkels stunning collection of German tin-plate toys circa 1900 to 1930. Features high resolution, almost-l… [read review or visit site]

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    

Large 1929 Pressed Steel " Inter City Bus " 24 In. All Original NrGama German Tin Friction 1954 Cadillac Series 62 Sedan 12" Excellent With Box1960 Buick Invicta 17.5” 4-door Hardtop Japanese Tin Car By Ichiko NrRare C.1950's Marusan/kosuge Tin Cadillac Battery Operated Toy Car 2 Tone Paint1961 Plymouth Belvedere 2 Door Hardtop Japanese Tin Car By Ichiko Nr1930’s Marx Wind Up Tin Litho Toy Car Blondie’s Jalopy Dagwood 17" Key Wind Tin Friction 1956 Unusual Two Tone Ford Open Convertible Car Haji Mansei Japan50’s Bandai Japan Friction Chrysler Imperial Car - Glass Tail Lights Large 1920 -30 Pressed Steel " Dump Truck " 24 In. All Original NrVintage Hot Wheels Diecast Car Redline Lot L .maserati Mistral Gold W Tin TagVintage Battery Operated Karmann Ghia Volkswagen Tin Toy Japan - Working!Toy Stamp & 1950s Marx Toy Town Van Truck Tin Litho / Plastic Near Mint In BoxBandai Tin Friction 1956 Chevrolet Pick Up Truck 9.75" Very Good Condition W/box1950's German Coca-cola Toy Truck1950's Bandai Tin Friction Ford Fairlane Ranchero Pick-upCragston Tin Friction 1951 Buick Lesabre Concept Car 13.5" Very Good W/box1956 Lincoln Continental Mark Ii Parts Car By Kaname Nr 1960's Studebaker Avanti Japanese Tin Car By Bandai Nr 1930’s Marx Litho Tin Wind-up “joy Rider” Crazy Car - Nice1920's Distler Double Decker German Tin Toy Bus W/ Driver, Clockwork MotorMettoy Large Mechanical Racing Car Vintage Clockwork Tin Toy Racer 19501950's Gm Concept Turbine Car JapanVintage Tin Toys Fire Dept. 3019 Motorcycle Made In Japan Masudaya 1950Large Iy Metals, Yonezawa? Sanyo? Tin Friction Motorcycle Condor1930's England Tippco Mettoy Tin Wind Up Limousine Car, Works, No Reserve1961 Tin Friction Plymouth Station Wagon Made In Japan By IchikoExcellent '50's Japanese Tin Friction 9" 1958 Edsel Pacer Hardtop White/blueTin Friction Flying Jeep W Three Drivers Outer Space Toy Atc Asahi JapanNomura Tin Friction 1960 Jaguar Xke Coupe Rally Car 11" Excellent Cond With Box50's Tin Friction Home Laundry Truck Van Celluloid Driver I.y. Metal Toys JapanRarest Marx Japan Tin Battery Operated B-58 Hustler Jet Plane Rockets Boxed MintVintage Marx Dagwood The Driver Wind Up Tin Toy Carzy Car Litho Works!1920's Keystone Packard Coal Chute Dump Truck Crank Up Bed Pressed SteelVintage Saalheimer Strauss Pre War Motorcycle Armored Car Tin Wind Up Toy SideVintage Hot Wheels Diecast Car Redline Lot B ..heavy Chevy Burgandy W Tin Tag Very Unusual 1940's Tin Wind-up Clown Circus CarErtl Stock No. 821 Ford 9600 Dual Wheel Farm Tractor With 3 Point Hitch !Rare 1930's Marx Tin Sedan With Original Wind Up And Wooden Wheels 6 InchSato Tin Friction 1952 Chrysler Windsor Convertible 10" Very Good Cond With BoxRare Japan Tin Litho Boeing 707 Air Force One 26000 Battery Op Tin AirplaneRare Antique C1910 German Germany Tin Wind Up Toy Man Pulling Woman In CartVintage Rare Japan Tin Toy Car, Litho Friction 1958 EdselVintage Buddy L Tin Dump Truck ToyHuge Lot Vtg 50s Hubley Car 24 Service Truck Airplane 32 Chevy Roadster W/ Box1960's Tin Battery Operated Oldsmobile Toronado Car From Japan TaiyoArnold Cable Driven-steer Car-us Zone Germany- Two Ton Gorgeous!Volkswagen Vw Transporter Bus Bandai Japan Tin FrictionToy Freight Truck, Louis Marx East-west Coast Fast Freight (number 320)Vintage Hot Wheels Diecast Car Redline Lot J .maserati Mistral Redish W Tin TagVintage 1960's Buddy L Die Cast "auto Wrecker" Tow Truck With Original Box!1950's Unique Art Tin Lithographed Jewel Tea Circus CarSchuco Ingenico Toy Car, 5335 Us Zone Late 1940s Germany, Cream Color, Box, DbgmWorking 1940s Marx #3 Police Squad Motorcycle Tin Litho Wind-up Toy1959 Cadillac Bandai Friction ToyVintage Milton Berle Tin Crazy Car Wind Up Toy 1950's Louis MarxVintage Linemar/ Marx Co 1950s Tin Lizzy In Original BoxVtg 50s 60s Marx Japan Jetspeed Racer Tin Litho Battery Operated Toy Race Car NrVintage Hot Wheels Diecast Car Redline Lot K .maserati Mistral Aqua W Tin TagVintage Tin Wind Up Unique Art Clown Crazy Car - Not Working Bandai Tin Friction 1959 11" 4 Door Flat Top Fleet Wood Cadillac Japan N/r