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”)



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]

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Antique Germany Lehmann Autohutte 1920s Race Car Sedan Garage Orig Paint Tin Toy1$ Extr. Rare Volkswagen Vw Split Window Beetle Kafer 1/10 Promo Display ModelVery Large Tin Friction Starfire Jet Airplane Plane Original Box Yonezawa JapanAntique Marx Litho Amos N Andy Character Fresh Air Taxi Tin Automobile Toy1950s Gama 300 Battery Operated Pink Cadillac Convertible Working Tin Toy Car Vintage Tin-litho Red Batmobile / Batman Robin Battery Operated Toy / Rare Htf1959 Chrysler Station Wagon Speed Boat Trailer Ichimura Friction Toy Japan BoxedRare All Original Bing Hand Enamelled De Dion Runabout 8.5" LongFuturistic Xf-160 Space Rocket Jet Airplane Tin Litho Toy B/o Nomura Japan O/boxNos 1950’s Japan Linemar Disney Mickey Roller Skating With Original Box. Works!1870 Early American Tin Wind Up Toy Locomotive Jupiter Clockwork Mechanism Ives?Sss Shioji Tin Friction 1953 Gmc P.i.e. Truck & Semi Trailer 10" Good Cond W/boxBandai 1963 Cadillac Convert Japan Tin Friction Toy Car 17-inches All OriginalBiller Auto Union Tin Streamline Race Car Nr. 2 Us Zone Germany Very Rare 1945Antique Auto Union Mahle Magnesium Record Race Car Toy Prewar Germany Old 30s Tin Streamline Record Race Car Railton Wind Up John Cobb Bonneville Tippco Tco 50s Wind Up Tin Toy Car Western Germany Bus Express Advertising WorksExtra Nice 16" Karl Bub Electric Light CoupeTin Pressed Steel 1950's Auto Car Carrier Truck W Two Cars Marx? Technofix Space Ship Tin Toy Western Germany Friction Powered Orig. Ge 283 RareVintage Tinplate Tin Litho Friction Race Car (made In Japan)1$ Rare Near Mint Atc Asahi Toy Co Japan Tin Friction Space Patrol Car Or. BoxVintage Dux Bmw 501 Suicide Sedan Wind-up Bakelite Body Schuco Car1952 Ford Tin Toy Car Sedan 2 Door 10.25" Marusan San Japan Hit Friction CarSss Shioji Tin Friction 1953 Gmc S.i.e. - P.i.e. Semi Truck & Trailer 25"Vintage 15 1/2" Dc-7 American Airlines Aa Tin Toy Friction Plane Line Mar JapanVintage Tin Toy Car Japan Tin Litho Bandai Nash Rambler Wagon Friction 11"Vintage Marx Tin Litho Wind Up Balloon Tire Midget Race Car No. 7 In Blue Pa131950's Taniguchi Msk Japan- King Jet Racer-tin Friction-original Box-ships World1960s Tin Volkswagen Beetle, Japan Special Toy FrictionMarx Linemar Tin Friction 1956 Studebaker Allied Van Truck 13" Excellent CondNorthwest Airlines 14 ¼” Jet Airplane 4 Engine Tin Litho Friction Toy Alps JapanRare Haji Mansei 1960 Tin Ford 11 Inch Friction Opening Hood Spinning Fan N MintFg-786 Space Fighter Douglas Jet Airplane Tin Friction Toy Japan Works Org. BoxNylint No. 6601 Mobile Home Toy With The BoxLouis Marx & Co. Tin Racing Cars - Set Of 3 W/ Original Box!!!Vintage 1960's**rare** Marx Tin Litho Wind Up Moon Creature. Atomic Robot. WorksVintage Tin Friction Operated Hot Rod Century Roadster Japan?Vintage Marx Tin Litho Wind Up Balloon Tire Midget Race Car No. 7 In Red Pa14Rare Tootsietoy Around The World Speedy Aeroplanes Boxed Dowst Air Plane Set 1$ No Reserve Scarce 1950's Gama 400 Tin Friction Opel Kapitan Original Box1$ Rare 1930's Cr Rossignol Jep Cij Jrd France Tin Wind-up Boat Tail Race CarVintage Marx Litho Tin Toy Pathe News Car Movie CameraVintage Heavy Steel Tonka No.406 Dump Truck In Original BoxShell 1940s Tin Toy Truck Us Zone Germany Georg Fischer Gf 215 All OriginalNo Reserve 1960's James Bond Gilbert Aston Martin Battery Operated. Works!!!!15 ¼” Bell 47 Helicopter No 2 Friction Tin Aircraft Toy Nomura Japan O/box WorksVintage "sign Of B Quality" Tin Toy Friction Cadillac Japan 1950'sVtg Robot Tin Atomic Fire Car. B/op, By Nomura In Japan 60s. Working.Rare Vintage Marx Tin Friction Us Army Truck F.63 With CanopyTin Friction 1950's Firetruck Fire Engine Tin Wheels Yonezawa JapanVintage 1958 Dodge Tin Toy Car Made In Japan1$ Rare 1930's Tippco Tipp&co Tco Tin Wind-up Huge Tri-motor Airplane W LightsTechnofix 1930s Adler Wind Up Tin Toy Car Prewar Works Great Start & Stop DrpLehmann Gnom Auto Union 1930s Tin Toy Race Car Made In Germany Prewar OriginalVintage 1950's**rare**alps Japan Wind Up Sea Wolf Pirate Tin Litho Toy1960s Bandai Battery Operated Volkswagen Beetle 15" Tin Toy Car For Parts/repairTin Friction 1950's Safari Hunter Buick Convertible Car Driver Rifle Msk JapanBandai Land Rover 4 Door Station Wagon 1950s Tin Toy Car Rare Yellow #7020Scarce Vintage Toyopet Tin & Plastic Patrol Car Complete Mib Model Nichimo Japan