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]

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 Rare Japan Tv Space Patrol With Box Friction Tin Car RobotJapan Kosuge Marusan Four Door Sedan Cadillac Tin FrictionScarce Vintage Tin Friction Space Patrol Robot Car R8 Toy Atc Cragstan JapanVtg 1950's 13" Mt Modern Toys Tin Metal Car Wagon,camper,travel House Trailer1954 Chevrolet Belair 11” Japanese Tin Car By LinemarVintage Usagiya Linemar Tin Toy Lithographed Friction Space Car Rover VehicleVintage Marx Tin Litho Dick Tracy Police Station And Police Cheifs Car No ReservKingsbury Electric Lights Wind Up Tin Car 13" Long Auto Scarce Gely Germany Tin Wind-up 169 Express Van Truck Car 1930s Tippco Distler !Rare Vintage Bing Ford Model A Germany Toy Tin Litho Wind Up Car Antique T TruckRare! Vintage Mercedes Benz 300se 24" Japan Tin Friction Toy Car New Old StockVintage 1950s Germany Schuco 5301 Ingenico Tin Wind-up Buick Toy CarTin Toy Battery Operated (remote) Model Car Made In Japan 60´s "volvo Amazon" NmAmerican Flyer Pre War O Gauge Tin Lighted Passenger Car No. 3281Vintage Tin Litho 1950s Volunteer Fire Station And Fire Cheifs Car No ReserveVintage Occupied Japan Cigarette Lighter 1952 Buick Tin/brass Toy CarKingsbury Keene Wind Up Tin Car 12" Long Auto Vtg 1950's 13"set Japan Car , Mrk Logo Travel House Trailer Tin Metal ToyT.n Nomura Tin Convertible Police Car Battery Operated Japan 60s Top ConditionVintage Tonka Airlines Luggage Tractor W/ Trailer Metal Tin Steel Toy Truck Car 50s Nomura Tn Battery Op Tin Space Atomic Fire Car Police Working JapanAmerican Flyer Pre War O Gauge Tin Lighted Observation Car No. 3282Marchesini M.l.b. Coupe' Car Tin Made In ItalyAmerican Flyer Pre War O Gauge Tin Lighted Passenger Car No. 3281Marchesini M.l.b. Family Car Tin Made In ItalyMarchesini M.l.b. Cabriolet Car Tin Made In ItalyJulius Chein Usa Junior Bus No. 219 Vintage Prewar Tin Toy Car 1920s New Jersey Vintage Japan Tin Friction Front Engine Dragster Drag Race Car - Rare Hot Rod Empire Made Lincoln Breakdown Truck & Box Vintage Friction Tin Toy Car Japan Vintage Lehmann Open Air Wind-up Tin Touring Car - 1920s/1930sVintage 40's Unique Art Mfg. "artie" Clown Driving Jeep Tin W/up Car No ReserveHot Rod Bandai Tin Car Almost Mint ConditionVintage Japan 1960 Ford Fairlane 500 Remote Control Car Tin Toy Convertible Vintage Tin Battery Large Kingsize Cadillac Convertible Iwaya Red Sedan Car ToyBandai 1960s Volkswagen Beetle 2 Door Sedan - Battery Operated - Japan Tin1950's Tin Friction Starfire Open Wheel Race Car Racer W Driver Marusan JapanTin Toy Clock Work Model Car Wv Pick Up Made In Japan 60´sAntique Tin Windup Toy. Rocket Racer Car. Outstanding! No Reserve. Low Start.Tin Toy Battery Operated Model Car Made In Japan 1960 "ford Thunderbird"Lin Mar Vintage Toy Tin Car007 James Bond Car 1960s Gilbert Old Vintage Batterty Tin 1964 Gi JoeVintage 1960's Toy Tin Car Isetta Bandai JapanMilton Berle Marx 1950's Tin Wind Up Crazy Car Box Only Condition Is GoodSchuco Studio Mercedes Grand Prix 1936 Wind-up Tin Car Original Box W/tools RaceVtg 1950s 9-1/2" Japan Xk-120 Jaguar Tin Metal Friction Toy Car Yonezawa?nomura?Tin Toy Battery Operated (remote) Model Car Made In Japan 60´s "mercedes" NmVintage 50's Marx Walt Disney "donald The Driver" Tin Lithographed Wind Up CarVintage Sunbeam Tin Motor Cycle With Side Car. 2-speed System With Light.Vintage Line Mar Battery Operated Tin G-man Patrol Car With Original Box Works!Marx Tin Litho Windup # 5 Racer Vg Condition -- 1940s Toy Race Car Ltd Toy Stamp & 1950s Vintage Marx Tin Litho Volunteer Fire Dept Chief Car S241930s Meccano Train Hornby Series Tin Yellow/blue Snow Blower Plow Plough CarBandai Japan Mercedes Benz 300 Sl Gull-wing Vintage Tin Toy Car 1950s Vintage Tin Litho Friction Tn Japan Ford Skyliner Retractable Convertible CarMt Masudaya Japan~ 65 Ford Galaxie~ Tin Toy Friction~ Firechief Car With SirenLionel 'o' Tin Passenger Car Unit Lot ( No Motor)#antique Toy# Alps Bandai Beetle Vw Volkswagen Police Car Japan Plastic TinOld Tipco Tin Toy Car Original Friction Made In Occupied Japan Auto Not SchucoAoshin Asc Japan Chevrolet Police Patrol Vintage Friction Tin Toy Car 1960s Marx Tin Early Sedan