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    

Very Large 17" Tin Friction 1961 Cadillac Hardtop Car Bandai JapanVery Rare 1958 Renault 750 Yonezawa Japanese Tin Sedan Factory Orig. Condition !1957 Ford 16” Japanese Tin Police Car W/original Box Nr 30's Marx Streamlined Coupe "drive~ur~self" Tin Litho Wind Up Toy Car No Reserve Schuco 5700 11" Tin Electro Synchromatic Packard Hawk West Germany Toy Car Auto1961 Cadillac 4-door Hardtop Japanese Tin Car W/original Box NrAntique 1914 - Lehmann Oho German Tin Wind Toy Car Auto - Open Tourer - Nice! Vintage 1929 Pressed Steel Tin Friction Car18" With Driver Rare 60's Bandai Japan Red Corvair Bertone Tin Battery/op Toy Car No Reserve Yonezawa 1962 Cadillac Tin Toy Friction Car Japan Huge 22 InchesVintage Tin Friction Gama 300 American Cadillac Car Made In Germany1940's Marx Dick Tracy Lm-52 Squad Police Car Tin Litho Battery/op Wind Up No/reVintage Tin Toy Model Car Battery Operated "racing Car" Made In JapanNomura? Japan Tin Friction Red 11.5” Thunderbird 1956 Toy Car Nice Shape!1918-20? Chein-mohawk Tin Auto Van Delivery TruckVintage 1961 Tin Friction Japan Bandai Chevrolet Impala Car. Nice & Works No ResVtg 1950's Japan 10" Sss Shioji Car,camper, Travel Tin Metal Toy House TrailerVintage Tin Clockwork Indicator Saloon Car, Jnf, Us Zone Germany, Vgib, As FoundTin Nmib Friction Monogram Racer Race Car W Driver Original Box Nomura Tn JapanNomura Japan Tin Friction 11.5” Thunderbird 1956 Toy Car Restore Or PartsRare Vintage 1960's Marvel Marx Mighty Thor Tin Friction Super Hero Car Mint MipVintage 1950's Lincoln Xl-500 Sun Deck Concept Tin Friction Toy Car YonezawaOld 1964 Bandai/sears Tin Battery Op Shift Mustang Conv. Car W/box. A+ .works.nrVintage Tin Toy Model Car With Clockwork "ambulance" Made In JapanBandai Tin Friction Toy Hot Rod Racer #7 - Race Car Japan Rat RodVintage Tin 1940 Marx Toy Dump Trash Truck & Railroad Train Car Made In UsaVintage Fontaine Fox Toonerville Trolley Tin Windup CarLtd Toy Stamp & 1950's Hoch & Beckmann Auto Scooter Bumper Car Tin Wind-up SetWyandotte 1930s Coupe Pressed Steel 6" Tin Model Car ToyYonezawa 1963 Corvette Tin Battery Operated Vintage Japanese Toy CarOld Tin Wells Toy Car *vintage 1930's Wind-up *made In EnglandOld Tin Toy 1956 Car *vintage Japan Toy *10.5 InchesOld Tin Bandai Corvette Stingray *vintage Japan Toy CarRare 60's Bandai Volkswagen Sedan #970 Clear Motor Hood Tin Litho Batt/op In BoxVintage 1960s Bandai Japan Oldsmobile Toronado Battery Operated Tin Toy CarRare Vintage Wind Up E.f Trademark No. 2 Race Car Litho Tin Toy , JapanVintage Bandai Of Japan 6 1/2" Tin Toy Isetta Car Ex Vintage 60's Sss. Japan Tin Friction Automobile Carrier Toy + 2 Cars No ReserveGescha Porsche Nr. 557 Sixmobil Western Germany Wind Up Tin Toy Sports Car 1950sOld Tin Wyandotte Transport? Car *vintage Pressed Steel ToySchuco 1010 Works Vintage Wind Up Tin Toy Car Made In Us Zone GermanyVintage Marx Tin Double Car Garage Circa 1950s/60sAntique Tin Toy-1930's Camo Car Germany Hausser Army Military Wwii - ElastolinVintage Kiddies Metal Toys Oh-boy! Tin Toy Racecar Car Vintage Bandai Chevrolet Chevy Impala Tin Friction Toy CarVintage Marx Dick Tracy-wind Up-litho-tin Car In Original Condition No ReserveOld 1960 Bandai Giant Tin Battery Op Volkswagen Car. 100% Original. A+ .works.nr1930s Mickey Mouse Race Car Original Tires Tin Wind Up Toy #5 Schneider? Vintage Bandai Japanese Tin Jaguar Xke Toy Car Battery Operated- Works- Video!!!1958 Bandai Mercedes Benz 219 Tin Friction Sedan Near Mint In BoxOriginal Schuco Ford Barbham Bt 33 Formel 1 Wind Up Tin Toy Car $12 ShippingO Gauge Prewar German Tin Gasoline Rank Car - Bing Fandor Bub UnknownKsg Kasugi Occupied Japan Tin Wind-up 1940s Auto Nice Original Partial Box1960’s Tin Friction Ford Sedan / Boxed2nd Generation Schuco Bmw 327 Cabriolet Wind Up Tin Toy Car $12 ShippingOld Tin Lehmann? Girard ? Wind Up Car Back Wheels MissingMarx Untouchables 1961 Tin Litho Rolls Royce Sedan & Tooring Car W/boxes & Bag Vintage Technofix Cable Car W Germany Tin Wind-up Tin Toy W Original BoxVintage Red China Universe Car Space Ship Me 089 With Box B/o Tin ToyVintage 1960s Battery Op Ford Thunderbird Convertible Japan Tin Cragstan Toy Car