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    

Meccano Constructor Auto #2 - Prewar Tin Clockwork / Wind Up Race Car / RacerBeautiful 1962 Chrysler Imperial Made In Japan Tin Toy Car Rare1953 Packard 4 Door With Rare Driver Made In Japan Tin CarTipp & Co. / Tippco Tin Friction 'phantom' Futuristic Concept CarRare Near Mint Marusan Ford Fairlane Club Tin Car Made In JapanJ Chein Wind Up LimousinesRare 1958 Buick Century Made In Japan Tin Car With Original BoxBing Tin Clockwork 'de Dion' Race Car - Rare Prewar German Wind UpTin Friction 1950's Billy The Space Traveler Rocket Ship Masudaya M.t. JapanLehmann Tin Clockwork / Wind Up 'tut Tut' Auto - Prewar Large 1920s Girard Tin Wind Up Bus 1950's Buick Lesabre Concept Car With Original Box Made In Japan Hess Tin Friction / Flywheel Race Car - Prewar German RacerBeautiful Rare Version Buick Invicta With Rare Original Box Made In Japan Tin 1960 Cadillac Made In Japan By Marusan Tin Car1955 Lincoln Tin Car Made In Japan 4 Door Sedan1960 Ford Starliner With Original Box Japan Tin Toy Marusan Large 12” Marx Buck Rogers Rocket Fighter Space Tin Lithograph Wind-up Toy Mar1960 Buick Invicta Made In Japan Tin Toy Car1959 Chevrolet 2 Door Convertible Japan Tin Car Original Box1930s Attr. Nonpareil Tin Wind Up "speed King" Roadster / Racer / Race Car1959 Chevy 2 Door With Original Box Made In Japan Tin Car Rare 1962 Yonezawa Japan Tin Battery Operated Toy Unmarked Police Car W/box 1950's Tin Battery Op Police Motorcycle Tricycle W Driver T.n. Nomura JapanRare 1950’s Bindschedler Imprimeto Dream Car Convertible Germany Prewar Toy1950's Mercedes Benz 220 S 4 Door Made In Germany By Tipp With Driver Made In Japan 1950's Cadillac With Original Box Tin ToyTin Friction Early 1950's Comet Open Race Car Racer Futuristic Driver Alps JapanTipp & Co. / Tippco Tin Clockwork / Windup Staff Car W/ Cannon Trailer - PrewarAttr. Hess Tin Flywheel Taxi With Driver - Prewar German 1951 Cadillac Tin Car Made In Japan By Marusan1960 Cadillac 2 Door Made In Japan By Marusan Original Box Tin Toy1950's Ford Futura Concept Car Made In Japan By AlpsPrewar Bing Tin Clockcork Open Roadster Race Car - German Wind Up RacerMedium Size 1950's Tin Friction Starfire Airplace Plane Jet Yonezawa JapanRare Batman & Robin Batmobile Race Car Tin Friction Toy Ichimura JapanRare 1953 Packard Convertible Made In Japan By Alps Tin Toy Car1950's Buick Lesabre Concept Car With Original Box Made In Japn Tin ToyTin Friction 1959 Cadillac Convertible Open Car Big Fins! Bandai Japan1950's Xl-500 Concept Car Aka Sun Deck Convertible Made In JapanSy Japan 1964 Tin Mechanical Jumping Rocket Robot Fully Working Original BoxTin Battery Op Flying Saucer Outer Space Ship W Astronaut Driver Yoshiya Japan1960's Cadillac Tin Toy Car With Original Box Made In JapnRare 1960 Ford Starliner Made In Japan Tin Toy1930's Rare Mohawk Toys Made In U.s. Tin Litho "yellow Taxi" 6" Large No Reserve1$ No Reserve Rare 1930's Chad Valley 10004 Tin Wind-up Harborne Saloon CarJ Chein Tin Wind Up Taxi1956 Licoln Friction With Battery Made In Japan Tin Car1958 Edsel Wagon Made In Japan Tin Toy Car Vtg Metal Toy 1940's 22" Truck Cab &trailer Hauler Auto Transport W/ Car & Ramp1955 Buick Roadmaster Made In Japan Tin Toy1960's Tin Friction Open Wheel Racer Race Car Sears Exclusive Sss Shoiji Japan1$ No Reserve Tippco Tipp&co Tco Tin Wind-up Stop Door Streamline Saloon Coupe Antique Vintage 1930's Marx Toys Rocket Racer Tin Litho Toy Race Car OriginalRare Tin Friction Ice Cream Truck Spinning Sign Cragstan L@@k1957 Ford Fairlane Made In Japan Tin Toy Car Original Box1960 Ford 2 Door Hardtop Made In Japan With Original BoxVintage 1920s A.g. Gunthermann Tinplate Airplane Toy Flip Over Germany Wind Up1953 Gama Cadillac Made In Germany1961 Plymouth Fury Tin Car With Original Box Made On Japan