Plastic Cadillacs: Going upscale in the sandbox

Simplicity. Functionality. Durability. This trio of words, for the most part, has disappeared from the promotional blitz of modern toy cars. In our Swiss-army-knife-is-so-yesterday-unless-it-comes-with-built-in-GPS-and-carbon-dating-capabilities rush to capitalize on advancing technology, even among childrens’ toys, the plastic play cars from the late 1940s through the early ’60s reminds us of these three very important characteristics.

With a minimum of moving parts, getting mud, sand grit on one of these early plastic cars could be remedied easily with a dunk in a nearby rain puddle. Little or no downtime for maintenance meant more fun time actually playing with the car. And no need to be worried if little brother got ahold of your car and ran it down the basement stairs or your dog clamped it in his teeth. The plastic car bodies were tough and survived little brother “I didn’t do it” accidents and dog slobber just fine.

Also, just as Mom and Dad had a variety of makes, models and body styles to choose from for their daily transportation, kids of the post-World War II era had an equal depth of choice for their plastic toy car selection. Ford station wagon? Check. Studebaker coupe? Certainly. Packard taxi? Yes. And for the more worldly child, Jaguar XK-150 convertible or Mercedes-Benz 300SL gullwing coupe? Why, of course.

Within this range of plastic toy car offerings, it was inevitable there would be some duplication. One of the more copied makes available was Cadillac, the focus of the examples pictured. Possibly in a strategy of one-upsmanship to overcome this duplication, one of the subject Cadillacs is based on a body style not offered to the motoring public.

According to Angelo Van Bogart, Old Cars Weekly editor and author of Cadillac: 100 Years of Innovation, in 1949, for a customer in the Middle East, the Derham Body Co. of Rosemont, Pa., constructed a one-off convertible sedan based on a Cadillac Series 86 commercial chassis. In its stretched form, it had a wheelbase of 163 inches. Not long after, Lapin Products Inc., of Newark, N.J., offered a 1:32nd-scale Cadillac convertible sedan that resembled the desert-bound droptop.

Other toy makers after World War II that offered plastic Cadillac play toys — based on conventional road cars — included Hubley, Ideal (Fix-It series), Keystone Toys, Marx, Processed Plastics, Renwal and Wyandotte.

Injection mold origins

While the post-World War II years saw a huge increase in the production of plastic toy cars, their origin can be traced back to prewar times.

According to Bill Hanlon in his book titled Dimestore Dreams, the first plastic — specifically termed “injection molded” — toy car was produced by the Kilgore Manufacturing Co. of Westerville, Ohio, in 1937.

Hanlon writes, “The evolution of the plastic toy car closely followed the acceptance of plastics by the auto industry. In 1932, the Tennessee Eastman Co. introduced Tenite, the first commercial-grade cellulose acetate that could be both compression and injection molded in unlimited colors.

“The first injection-molded toy car was made out of cellulose acetate and was part of a new toy line introduced by the Kilgore Manufacturing Co. at the March 1937 International Toy Fair held in New York City. … Kilgore’s new line of plastic vehicles was called ‘Jewels for Playthings’ and included a sedan, coupe, taxi, express truck and airplane. The line got its name from the ‘jewel-like’ luster of the plastic. With a suggested retail price of only five cents each they were one of the big toy hits of 1937.”

Give or take an inch

Another important aspect of the postwar boom in plastic Cadillac toy cars is their varied lengths or scales. While most people think of road-going Cadillacs as large cars, this was reinforced through Ideal’s “Fix-It” series Cadillac convertible. It measured 13 inches in length. Both Lapin’s 1949 Cadillac convertible sedan and four-door sedan were offered in lengths of both 6 inches and 8-3/4 inches. For many of the “smaller” plastic Cadillac offerings, the more common scales fall between 1:30th and 1:43rd, particularly among the cars offered by Processed Plastics.

Resources

In addition to the aforementioned book Dimestore Dreams, which is a reference to plastic toy cars all makes, there is a Cadillac-specific reference titled Greenberg’s Guide To Cadillac Models and Toys by Jeffrey C. Gurski. Out of print, but available on the secondary literature market, this book covers the range of miniature Cadillac offerings, including plastic, rubber, ceramic, tin, die-cast, promotional and model kit examples. It also lists both domestic and foreign Cadillac toy and model makers, and is generously illustrated.

Another broad resource is Andrew Ralston’s The Collector’s Guide to Plastic Toy Cars of the 1950s & 1960s. It, too, is heavily illustrated and comprehensive in both domestic and foreign offerings.

One of the other benefits of both the Gurski and Ralston books is that they both include values for each of the plastic Cadillac toy cars mentioned. For the majority of the Cadillac examples, regardless of length or scale, even mint condition cars can be purchased for between $15-$25 each. Many of the smallest-scale examples are $10 or less. ?

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