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.