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    

Extra Rare Mettoy England Tin Wind-up 3084 Racing Car #7 In Box Racer Tinplate !Fine Wind Up Tin Toy Bus Truck Car Japan Ca 1950s Trademark Gm In DiamondAntique Marx Popeye Olive Oil Handcar Train Toy Tin Litho Wind Up Vtg Hand CarVintage Marx Armored Trucking Co Toy Tin Litho Wind Up Truck Antique Car LinemarUnique China Tin Wind-up Ms 883 Space Radar Car In Box Red Chinese Robot Japan !Vintage Antique Germany Bing Tin Litho Ford Model T Windup Toy Car Taxi W/driver1959 Cadillac Convertible 11.5” Japanese Tin Car W/original Box NrRare Vintage Marx Busy Bridge Toy Tin Litho Wind Up Truck Antique Car Linemar1956 Mercury 2 Door Hardtop Japanese Tin Car By Alps/iwaya Nr60s Unique Tin Battery/op Red Batmobile Batman Car Mystery Action Full Working 1957 Ford 16” 2-door Hardtop Japanese Tin Car By Yonezawa Nr Marx Whoopie Car Tin Wind Up With BoxGem Super Racer 42 Montlhery 46 Cm Indy Rare 1950's Tin Toy CarVintage Tin Friction Nsu Record Rocket Car - Motorcycle - Bandai Made In JapanVtg Marx Corbett Space Cadet Toy Tin Litho Wind Up Space Ship Antique Car Truck~ Ltd Toy Stamp & 1950's Mr Magoo Battery Opp Tin Car In Great ConditionRare 1960 Ford Fairlane Tin Friction Car With Opening Hood ~ Made In Japan1938 Marx Charlie Mccarthy Benzine Buggy Tin Wind Up Toy Car Rare Red WheelsVintage 1930s Marx Amos N Andy Fresh Air Taxi Tin Wind Up Toy Car - Works GreatAlps Japan Tin B/o Lincoln Police Highway Patrol Car In Box Yonezawa Tinplate !Marx 1930's Cadillac Coupe 11 Inch Car Tin Wind UpVtg 1950's Japan Car And Mt Modern Toy Travel Tin Metal Toy House Travel TrailerUnique Japan Tin Friction Jet Space Racing Car Concept Yonezawa Robot Masudaya !Vtg 1940's Japan Wind Up Car,1950s Ichimura Tin Metal Toy House Travel TrailerOld Tin Rocket Racer *vintage Japan Toy Race CarOriginal Vintage Alps Packard Convertible Japanese Tin Toy Car FrictionRare China Tin Friction Mf 868 Car Transport Truck In Box Chinese Red Tinplate !Old Tin Mobile Gas Station W/jet Car *vintage Japan ToyVintage Antique Bumper Car Tin Wind-up Buffalo Toy Co. Lindstrom "skeeter Bug"Antique Early Bing O Scale Mail Express Tin Toy Train Car Functioning Trap DoorsOld Tin Girard Car *vintage Pressed Steel ToyAntique Vintage Marklin 1 Gauge G/1 Passenger Coach Car 1 All Original Tin Car Tin Friction Go Kart Vehicle ( Soap Box Derby Push Car) 50s Top CondtionVw/intage Db5 James Bond Aston Martin A.c.gilbert Tin Toy Car W/amoc Cap1960s James Bond "007" Aston Martin A.c. Gilbert Car Battery Op Tin Toy Japan !!Rare Vintage Prewar Wind Up Japanese Litho Passenger Tram / Cable Car Tin ToySss Shioji Sears Tin Battery Op Indy 500 Watson Offy Race Car 14"Chevrolet Corvair 1960 1961 1962 Tin Toy Car W/ Friction Motor - Made In Japan Vintage Marx Tin Plate #1614 Coal Dumping Station & #567 Side Dump CarMarx Train 6" Tin Olive Drab Military Flat Car With Vehicle Clip 4-wheel T&sVintage Bandai Triumph Tr3 Tin Friction Toy CarAntique Baseball Tin Lithograph Toy Car With Baseball Player Driver Trickey Taxi,tin Car,marx,wind Up,vintage,old Toy,tin ToyLg Japan Bandai Tin Friction 1959 Cadillac Convertible Car. A+ Cond. Works. NresOld Pressed Steel Car Unknown / Wyandotte ?? / Marx ?? *vintage Tin Toy / RedBandai Tin 1962 Thunderbird Friction Car Near Mint In BoxC1950 Tin Metal Wind Up Toy Packard Car By Distler Toys U.s. Zone Germany Vintage Japan Tin - Battery Operated Mercedes Benz Jungle Safari Radio Toy CarT.n Nomura Tin Bumper Car (speed Star) 60s Japan Top ConditionRace Car,ambulance,tank,plane,lot,small,vintage,old Toy,tin Toy,japan,friction,Vintage Very Rare Kellerman Tin Toy Motorcycle. Rare With Out Side Car. 1930'sAntique Tin Toy Friction Car Made In Japan Neat CarVintage Japan Hot Rod Dream Boat Battery Operated Tin Toy CarVintage Tin Litho Wind-up "crac' Auto" "crash Car" - Me-mo Paris W/ KeyVtg 1960's Bandai Renault Dauphine Tin Toy Friction Car Japan - Parts Or RepairFord Falcon 1960 1961 1962 Tin Toy Car W/ Friction Motor - Made In Japan Rare 1964 Technofix #308 Tin Litho Wind-up Lift Garage Set 3 Car Working Great Tin Or Aluminum Wind-up Race Car, Runs Great + No Reserve +Old 19" 1967 Marx Tin Friction Ford Car Hauler W/mustangs. A+ Cond. Works. NresOld Tin Wyandotte Car W/star Hubcaps *vintage Pressed Steel Toy