In this interview, “Vintage Slot Cars” author Philippe de Lespinay talks about his collection of Japanese tinplate automobile toys. He discusses manufacturers such as Marusan, Bandai, and Alps, and explains how the export of these tinplate toys gave a major boost to Japan’s post-World War II economy. De Lespinay can be reached via his website, tsrfcars.com/toys.html.
I used to have a huge collection of diecast 1/43rd-scale Dinky Toys, Corgi Toys, and things like that. I had so many that it got to the point where the collection was no longer interesting to me. So, in 1990, I sold all of it to a Los Angeles-based collector of Dinky Toys. With the money, my wife and I decided to start investing in tinplate toys. I bought a lot of them, sold some, and continued to upgrade. Over the past 20 years, we’ve built a substantial collection.
Most of the pieces in the collection are tinplate toys made in Japan. Some were made in Germany and a few in France. Virtually none of them were made in the U.S., where Tonka, Smith-Miller, and other companies made toys out of heavier diecast or pressed steel. The U.S. toys were rather crude looking, but the Japanese went a completely different direction. Their toys had all the accessories of the real car, and they looked great. So that’s what we decided to collect. We did a lot of research and chose the ones we wanted.
In general, 99 percent of all Japanese toys are junk, but the ones that aren’t are very rare and expensive. We were lucky to get what we have without paying too much. Like all the collectibles in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, some went up and some crashed along with the economy at various points. We really didn’t care because they were already paid for through the sale of the diecast toys. We just liked them and collected them.
Collectors Weekly: When did the Japanese start making tinplate toys?
De Lespinay: The Japanese tin-toy industry began in the 1880s with inexpensive copies of European toys, mostly German ones. At that time, Germany absolutely dominated the world of toys. The Japanese started by making rudimentary models of ships from the Russo-Japanese War, plus novelty items. By 1905, they were making models of the first automobiles from lithographed and hand-bent sheet steel. By 1914, they’d tripled their exports. This trend continued into the 1930s, and the quality of their toys really improved while the German toys declined.
The U.S. was producing large, heavy, pressed-metal toys, mostly utility vehicles. They started making crude automobile toys out of cast iron after World War I. Between the two wars and during the Depression, the U.S. toy industry was strangled by costs and low retail prices. The 5- and 10-cent models produced by TootsieToy dominated the market at that time.
By 1939, a few Japanese companies like CK, or Kuramochi Co., were producing large and splendid models of American cars such as Graham-Paige, Packard, Buick, Plymouth, and Chrysler. Simple but effective clockwork motors powered these toys—some even had electric lights. They made them in three sizes, from four to 12 inches, and they’re highly sought after today.
Collectors Weekly: Do you have both pre- and post-World War II Japanese tinplate?
De Lespinay: Yes. Actually we began by collecting tinplate toys from Germany—pre-1914 and pre-1939 German toys, and then postwar toys. At the beginning, we had a lot of pre-1914 classic toys by Märklin and Carette. We had big limousines, boats, and things like that, but we quickly realized that the people collecting this stuff were elderly and dying off. The values were going down instead of up. So we sold all of it.
Then we concentrated on postwar American automobiles made in Japan, or German automobiles made in Germany, because we thought they’d become the future classics. Between 1950 and the early ’60s, automobile technology and beauty reached a peak, but in toys, things went downhill as tinplate was replaced with plastic.
Collectors Weekly: How did the Japanese toy industry get back on its feet after World War II?
De Lespinay: The American military put the Japanese toy industry back in business. The Japanese people had no money and couldn’t afford toys, so an enormous toy export industry was created. They revived some of the prewar companies and created new ones. The industry’s labor force was mostly comprised of women, who assembled pieces at home and brought them in for final assembly to a local factory.
A good example of this model was the Marusan Company Ltd. In 1952, it produced one of the most beautiful toy automobiles ever made, the 1951 Cadillac, in various versions and colors. It was made of something like 175 pieces. Every piece of the real car is on the toy. The dimensions are slightly different from the real car and more toy-like, but they look wonderful. The toy is about 12-inches long. Some are friction-powered, some electric-powered. It was a big seller, so this toy still comes to auction all the time. It was a good start for the Japanese industry.
Marusan produced all kinds of toys. Today they make plastic Godzilla monsters and toy robots. They’re one of the few early Japanese toy companies to have survived until today. Many others briefly hit it big, but didn’t last. Marusan continued their production of Cadillacs and started making Chevrolets and other cars. Although their later toys were very good and are appreciated by collectors, they never again quite reached the level of that first Cadillac.
Yonezawa, another big company in the 1950s, produced thousands of different toys, including some friction-powered Cadillacs that are up to 18-inches long. They made a classic 1960 Cadillac Fleetwood, a four-door sedan.
They pressed the body in one piece with a separate roof, putting celluloid windows in the front and rear—they rarely made toys with side windows—then stamped metal parts for the windshield frame, rear window frame, side trim, door handles, and lower trim on the side of the car. They’re not models, and they’re no longer toys because they’re too nice. They sold thousands of these toys, but a lot of adults bought them for themselves.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of your favorite pieces from this period?
De Lespinay: I have an incredible example of a Marusan toy that I bought from a 92-year-old woman about two years ago. In 1958, Marusan made a model of a two-door Ford Fairlane (it’s kind of a hybrid of the ’56 and ’57 Fairlane) in three two-tone versions—cream and blue, cream and yellow, and cream and red. It’s about 14-inches long, and it’s all handcrafted stamped metal and painted or plated in nickel.
The woman bought a ’57 Ford Fairlane—a real one—when she was much younger. One day she found a model of her same car and bought it, too. She put the toy on the shelf in her home and never touched it. Eventually she put it on eBay, thinking she might get a couple of hundred dollars. She paid $4 for it new, and sold it to me for $4,400. That was one-third of the standard value of this toy at the previous auction, so it was a real bargain.
I have quite a few toys in my collection that came from people who kept them in good condition. A good part of my prewar TootsieToy diecast collection—LaSalles and Grahams—came from someone not too far from me in Huntington Beach, California. This guy was 90 years old, and he and his brother bought a whole bunch of toys when they were kids in the 1930s. They had toy soldiers, TootsieToy automobiles, and a huge collection of various other toys in pristine condition.
Collectors Weekly: Do you think those kids were budding collectors?
De Lespinay: It was very unusual for kids to be buying toys just to collect them during the Depression. Back then these toys cost 10 cents, so they were played with, but these toys are absolutely mint. For whatever reason, in 1939 they were wrapped in paper, put in shoeboxes, and never saw the light of day until 2008.
I bought a lot of them directly from the man’s son at auction after I contacted him. I ended up helping him identify a lot of pieces, so he sold me a lot of them at a good price for both of us. In his collection of TootsieToys, we found some colors that I never knew existed.
One of the few pre-World War I tin toys we have is a Carette limousine. Around 1910, Carette made a series of limousines in three sizes, each with a little driver. They range from lithographed tin cars with rubber wheels to completely hand-painted vehicles of heavier metal. Carette made many variations over a wide price range.
One of my favorite Carettes is a medium-sized gray limousine with a tin chauffeur behind the wheel and a tin lady riding in the back. It was very dusty but in very good condition. When I was cleaning the passenger compartment, I found a tiny, three-by-three-inch letter under the backseat. It was addressed to Father Christmas and had a cancelled three or five-cent stamp on it. A little girl had written the letter in pencil asking Father Christmas for the toy car, which she’d seen in a toy store window.
Collectors Weekly: What was the tin-toy industry like after the war?
De Lespinay: As in Japan, toys also became a big export industry in Germany. The American military put prewar companies such as TippCo, Distler, and Märklin back in business. The U.S. was the biggest market for both the German and Japanese toys.
In the mid-1950s, as both the German and the Japanese economies recovered from the war, they began making models of domestic cars for use in their own countries. The Germans began making Mercedes-Benzes, Volkswagens, and Porsches, while the Japanese started making Toyotas and Nissans.
It’s very difficult to find tin toys of Japanese cars. In many cases, they’re more expensive than the big American cars that they made for export. The Japanese cars aren’t always that interesting or detailed, but they’re still highly sought after.
ATC Asahi made a beautiful, 14-inch 1962 Chrysler Imperial in black, red, and royal blue. Both the black and red are much rarer than the blue, but they’re all expensive. A new record of $28,500 was reached on this particular car—mint, in its original box—less than a year ago at an online auction online. I believe Sotheby’s had sold one in the 1990s for $25,000. A lot of these toys have sold for $15,000 to $25,000 in the past 20 years.
I’ve got two of the blue ones. I paid $5,000 for one and $6,500 for the other. It’s friction-powered, so it has a kind of flywheel system inside. You rev up the wheels on the floor, drop it, and off it goes.
It’s very detailed. There’s no doubt that it’s a ’62 Imperial, although the proportions are incorrect. In the 1950s or even before the war in the 1930s, car advertising in magazines never used photos; it was always drawings or paintings of elongated cars. They had exaggerated shapes, longer hoods. That’s the look the Japanese copied for their toys.
Collectors Weekly: Were the colors also exaggerated?
De Lespinay: To some extent. For example, that beautiful 1951 Cadillac by Marusan was also made in white, black, red, and gold. The Japanese took the idea for that last color from the Judy Holliday movie “The Solid Gold Cadillac;” they sold quite a few gold Cadillacs to kids. Most of those were played with and destroyed, so they’re tough to find.
Many more of the gray Cadillacs survived because adults bought them. Another very rare variation is the electric one, which is pale yellow with a green roof. The car had electric lights, front and rear, with batteries under the chassis. There’s a remote control version with a cable, as well as a free-running version.
Marusan also made a friction-powered ’54 Chevrolet Bel Air in two colors: a gray body with a black roof, and a red body with an orange roof. These cars are relatively common because they were very popular. You can often find them on eBay. But the electric version, the battery-powered version, is very rare. It sells easily for five times the price of a friction version in the same condition.
Things began to change in the late 1950s. Injection-molded parts in clear plastic replaced celluloid stamped windshields and rear windows. That’s when plastic was introduced to these cars. The steering wheels were no longer tinplate. By 1963, the Japanese and Germans were having a hard time selling tinplate toys because plastic had taken over. So the Japanese began replacing, for example, the tin hubcaps on their wheels with chrome-plated plastic. With that all the charm and value went away. The sophisticated collector has no interest in these toys.
The last great tinplate toys were made around 1963. That’s also when the largest ones were made. Bandai, which started in the early ’50s and is still one of the largest toy companies in the world, made some very large 1963 Cadillacs. They made four-doors in sedans or convertibles, eventually adding functions like hoods that opened or a key on the dashboard that would power some kind of mechanism. Those became more like toys rather than the semi-models they’d been before. Because they were oriented to kids, they are not as popular with collectors.
Collectors Weekly: Who were some of the other manufacturers, beside Bandai and Marusan?
De Lespinay: At that time, Yonezawa was also in the business. They made the largest toy cars, including a 22-inch-long, ’62 Cadillac. Although those cars have a tinplate body, they have fewer details than the smaller cars.
Collectors generally only want tinplate cars that are at least 12-inches long, but they don’t want the biggest ones. I have a few large ones, and I like them, but they they’re not as detailed. Most of the Japanese production was at a smaller scale, about eight inches long or so. There are zillions of those on the market.
A company in Japan called Alps, which now makes electronic printers for computers, was a toy company in the ’50s. They made a series of 15-inch-long Packard automobiles. Some of these models have a little tin driver at the wheel. They also sold a non-deluxe version at a lower price. Then they had a midline version with more detail and color.
About a year and a half ago, somebody sold a mint Alps Packard in the box on eBay for $17,000. I was still bidding at $12,000; that’s how much I wanted it. It was an exceptional toy. Most of the toys being sold on eBay are in the $20-to-$30 range, although some go for between $150 and $200. Actually, I did buy a large Cadillac the other day for $2,500 because it was an exceptionally rare color and new in the box. I’m not made of money, but I needed that car because it’s better than the one I had. It’s a constant upgrading of the collection: That’s what we do.
Collectors Weekly: Were there any well-known tinplate toy designers?
De Lespinay: On my website, you can read about Matsuzo Kosuge of Japan. He was a master of stamping thin sheet steel into shapes and making one-piece bodies without splitting the actual sheet metal.
Before the war, he designed beautiful models of American cars by makers like Packard, Graham-Paige, and Buick. They ranged in size from four-to-12-inches long. Many of these toys ended up being donated to the war effort for the metal. Also, many of them were destroyed because they were Japanese, and anti-Japanese sentiment in this country was very high.
After the war, Kosuge went to work for Marusan, where he made the beautiful 1951 Cadillac and ’57 Ford I mentioned earlier. He was one of the greatest toy designers ever.
The Japanese also made a lot of toy motorcycles in tinplate. Those fetch very high prices, as do the prewar German toy motorcycles. These are strictly tinplate, and the bigger they are, the more expensive they are.
Collectors Weekly: What were some of the most prominent German companies?
De Lespinay: Schuco made all kinds of toys before and after the war. They started making mechanical toys in about 1920, including mechanical teddy bears. They made inexpensive toy cars before the war and a series of gorgeous 1957 Mercedes-Benz convertibles after the war. I think they went out of business in around 1970.
Another company, Distler, lasted a little longer. Gama, which bought both Schuco and Distler, has nice replicas of these toys, which are now made in China. They cost a couple of hundred bucks each and are obviously designed for adults.
Märklin did the same thing, and then created new toys. Now there are so many reproductions out there that it’s starting to hurt the value of the old toys. People are competing with each other to sell these replicas on eBay but the collectors don’t want them.
One exception would the 1957 Cadillac Brougham—two-door, air suspension, stainless steel roof—that Marusan made a few years ago. They came in three different colors and sold new for $250. These days they might cost you as much as $600 because they were a limited edition.
Collectors Weekly: Did different Japanese companies specialize in different cars, like Chevrolets or Fords, for example?
De Lespinay: Yes. It depended on the licensing deal they were able to get. Yonezawa made a superb toy of the car that won the 1952 Indy 500. J.C. Agajanian, who was very famous in racing circles, owned the real car while a young guy named Troy Ruttman was the driver. So Yonezawa made a superb toy of it and put both Agajanian’s and Ruttman’s names on it. For a while it was distributed in the U.S., but Agajanian went ballistic and had them recall and destroy the toys because they hadn’t gotten permission to use his name.
The Yonezawa Company immediately reissued the same toy without the Agajanian or Ruttman name and called it Champion Racer. It said “Indianapolis Style” on the side. They sold a zillion of them. They’re all over eBay and generally go for between $1,200 and $2,000, depending on their condition. They’re gorgeous, are about 18-inches long, and have rubber tires and a tin driver. I have one of the Agajanian ones. Those are very rare.
The other companies making Cadillacs or Chevys quickly learned that you had to have licensing. For example, Cadillac demanded that Alps stop making its 1951 Cadillac convertible, so Alps made some changes and reissued the toy.
Some companies specialized in Cadillacs, others in Chevrolets. A Japanese company called Ichiko specialized in Buicks. The first one they made was the ’58. It was a two-tone, in orange with a cream roof. They also made a gold one with a pale blue roof. This was from 1959 to ’63.
So Ichiko made Buicks and Cadillacs, ATC made Chryslers and Buicks, and Marusan was a little bit of everything—Fords, Cadillacs, and Chevrolets. Chevrolet toys are the most difficult to find, while Fords are the most common. Bandai made a lot of them between ’56 and ’62.
Another company, Haji, made a series of eight-inch-long Fords between 1956 and ’59. They also had sedans, two-door coupes, and convertibles. All these companies, especially Bandai, made many European cars, too—Saabs, DKWs, Renaults, MGs. They were called Cars of the World, and they were sold in the same type of box with an individual illustration. Those are some of the easiest toys to find.
In 1980, Amar Toys, an Indian company, produced a crummy-looking copy of an Asahi 1954 Pontiac. There are literally thousands of these damn things all over the Internet, and the people selling them often misrepresent them. They’re still being made today. You can buy one in New Delhi for $2, but they’re trying to peddle them here for $20 or $25. Some have been advertised as “prewar” at a cost of $4,000 apiece.
Here’s a better story: In 1959, a company in Japan called Suda made a 1959 Buick Electra four-door sedan. It had a flat roof with a wrap-around window and big fins on the back. That was one of the last cars designed by Harley Earl of General Motors. I think this model was one of the few toy cars that company ever made. It’s big, more than 17-inches long. I’ve never even seen one in a book.
Then, about a year ago, one showed up on eBay. The bidding was heavy, but I got it for $2,200. The seller turned out to be a woman in Alabama. She found this toy car and thought it was the most wonderful thing she’d ever seen, but she needed to sell it because her business was buying and selling dolls and toys. She said it was the hardest thing she’d ever sold in her life, so she was happy to know that it went to a collector who really cared about it.
Collectors Weekly: How do you take care of your toys?
De Lespinay: Sometimes rust will eat up the toy under the paint, so you need to buy these toys in very good condition and maintain them in showcases with humidity-absorbing boxes. Those are the only precautions you have to take.
Collectors Weekly: How important are the original boxes?
De Lespinay: The boxes are very important. Sometimes the value of the box is double the value of the toy itself, especially the very large boxes for the big cars because very few of them have survived. The boxes of Japanese toys are generally beautiful because they’re graphically interesting and made to appeal to children. Collectors like that aspect.
Collectors Weekly: Were certain artists known for designing boxes?
De Lespinay: Well, it’s very difficult to know who did what. Some of the paintings on the boxes are signed, but so far nobody has really researched that. I’m beginning to do that myself because I want to write a book about our collection. I’ve got some friends in Japan who are going to help me.
It’s the same with the German toys. Märklin always had beautiful graphics on their boxes. In contrast, many Distler boxes are just plain gray while others have colorful illustrations. Box illustration is becoming a very big thing now.
Collectors Weekly: Were most tinplate toys made in production lines?
De Lespinay: It’s hard to say what happened in Japan because even the Japanese don’t know. We have photographs of women assembling ’51 Cadillacs at a shop of Mr. Kosuge, who was subcontracted by Marusan to make these cars. You can see a picture on my website. There are 8 or 10 women assembling black Cadillacs. They worked eight or 10 hours a day assembling these toys because the demand was so great. There’s a lot of handwork on these pieces.
Collectors Weekly: Do a lot of people collect these cars or is it pretty specialized?
De Lespinay: There are a lot of collectors in Japan and France, but not as many in Great Britain. They’re more into Dinky Toys. Great Britain was never a big producer of good-looking tinplate toys. There are also toy collectors in Mexico, South America, and Australia.
In the U.S., there are probably only about 100 or 150 collectors who are as serious as I am. There are better collections than mine in the U.S., but the people who own those collections are presidents of big companies and things like that. They’re more discreet; they don’t publicize their interest. I don’t have that problem; I’m just a little guy.
(All images in this article courtesy of Philippe de Lespinay of tsrfcars.com/toys.html)