Driving Childhood Memories: Collectors snapping up affordable American toy vehicles

Antique toy car collectors are revving up sales as more and more baby boomers seek to own the vehicle of their dreams.

Steve Butler, an avid collector and toy car expert, said many toy car enthusiasts collect the models they could not afford as a child.

“It’s a combination of nostalgia and personality,” said Butler, who savors his 1951 Chrysler convertible by Tootsietoy. Tootsietoys were the product of Dowst Brothers Company of Chicago, Ill. – which took the “Tootsie” portion of its name from one of the brothers granddaughters, whose first toy vehicle, made in 1910 was patterned after the French Bleriot plane and was produced in three successful versions.

“These Chryslers are scarce because they were only issued in toy sets with values ranging from $250 for the gray and $325 for the yellow model,” said Butler of York, Pa.

Like most toy car collectors, Butler enjoys the quest to find rare antique cars as much as owning them. His sand cast aluminum 1949 Willys Jeepster made by Toledo Brass and Casting using the name AL-Toy is rare because they were initially made for factory promotions. An estimated 350 were made and none were available in retail stores.
“The current value of my Willys Jeepster is between $1,850 and $2,150,’’ said Butler.

Of course, the older the better. The first American made toy cars and trucks were more primitive than their European counterparts. Until World War II, most American firms specializing in automotive toys used cast iron and light pressed steel along with tinplate.

Alex Gentile of Pittsburgh, Pa., reports that the Buddy L Manufacturing Co. made some of the finest pressed steel toys.

Gentile, who has collected toy cars and trucks for more than two decades, said the Buddy L Manufacturing Co. was started by a father who just wanted to make his son a toy truck for Christmas in the early 1920s. And the dream snowballed into a major U.S. manufacturing toy car sensation.

“The mammoth, finely designed, well-crafted line of Buddy L pressed steel and dump trucks, tankers, fire engines, moving vans and railroads were rugged outdoor toys capable of not only ruling the sandbox but of entirely rebuilding it,’’ said Gentile, who has a select cache of Buddy L vehicles.

Serious collectors say that pre-World War II Buddy L toys are what collectors with large shelves and a love of construction vehicles look for. Because they were meant to be played with outdoors, many Buddy L toys were left outside, where rain and time combined to corrode even the most rugged playthings.

Still, not all Buddy L toys were parked outdoors. John Hash of Arlington, Va., said he has two unusual Buddy L model T cars from the “flivver’’ series, made in 1919 and 1920. “My children were too old to play with them by the time my uncle gave them to me, so I just kept them because I knew they were special,’’ said Hash, who values the pair at more than $2,600 today.

By the late 19th century, after the discovery of huge amounts of iron ore in the U.S. boosted the amount of metal available, there was an influx of cast iron products, including toy cars, horse drawn carriages, trolleys, buses and trains.

The Hubley Manufacturing Company, founded in Lancaster, Pa., in 1894, was a major producer of cast iron toys, including buses, a fine line of motorcycles, several race cars, fire engines, automobiles, and construction equipment.

“Over the years, I have collected several interesting Hubley models,” said Bob Simon, owner of Royal York Auction Gallery in Pittsburgh, Pa. His Hubley racer is valued between $150 and $250.

Simon said the history of this country is written all over the face of antique toy cars. During the Depression, for example, Arcade stayed afloat on the back of the hugely popular Chicago World’s Fair souvenir edition of GMC’s trailer bus made for Greyhound.

Hubley was licensed by many companies and had much success making realistic, cast-iron toys modeled on old Bell Telephone trucks, Borden’s milk trucks and Harley-Davidson and Indian motorcycles (with rubber tires and spoke wheels). After World War II, it produced a few fire engines in cast iron, but switched eventually to the most affordable diecast metal and plastic. Hubley changed its name to Gabriel Industries in 1955 and continued making toys until 1978.

Starting in the 1930s, for safety reasons, a new alloy replaced the lead in diecast metal, mostly in the production of penny toys. This new metal, adopted by Tootsietoys and eventually by Dinky, was a zinc, aluminum and copper alloy with traces of magnesium. Called mazac, it is still used today.

“What we are seeing today is more and more people wanting to get involved with collecting but the real old toy cars are scarce,’’ said Robert Pierce, a member of the prestigious Antique Toy Collectors Club of America. Pierce recalls one rare Hubley toy taxi selling for more than $60,000. And one New Jersey-based toy auction dealer recently had a car toy lot sell in excess of $4 million.

“Not all collections are going to fetch that kind of cash,’’ said Harold Hovey, a retired truck driver from Springfield, Ill., who has a collection of Arcade toy farm equipment valued at about $3,000.

“The family farm is long gone, but I still have toy tractors and hay rakes to remind me of the good old days,’’ said Hovey. He has asked his grandchildren to bury him with his antique farm vehicles. “I’m never selling my collection.’’

That dedication to a dream and nostalgia is also part of Doug Johns mantra. The retired high school history teacher collects antique cars and trucks produced by Kenton Hardware Company, founded in 1890 in Kenton, Ohio. “I have a couple Kenton tankers,’’ said Johns of Dayton, Ohio. But he dreams of owning a Kenton Jaeger Drum-Type Concrete Mixer Truck produced from 1932 to 1941. The toy truck was fitted with the revolving nickel drum seen on real trucks (the revolving drum prevented the concrete from drying). Kenton ceased production in 1952.

“It all comes down to what you want and what you can afford,’’ said Pierce. “A passion for history and antiquity remain our impetus for collecting,’’ said Pierce, who admits to sharing his home with his hobby.


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