Collecting miniature model cars began for me when I attended my first collector's toy show back in 1972. At that time no more than ten tables were available at a show and collectors were very small in numbers. Today over 300 tables are common at toy shows with attendance surpassing the 3,000 mark due to the wide usage of the internet.
The idea to scale model cars to promote real automobiles goes back to the 1920s when a company by the name of Arcade Manufacturing of Freeport, Illinois produced a 1924 Chevrolet cast iron model for the dealerships and toy store markets.
In the late 1930s, a toy manufacturer called The Auburn Rubber Company produced small rubber toys including Fords, Oldsmobile's, and others to use as promotional models as well. In 1934, a company by the name of National Products produced a 1934-35 Studebaker sedan along with a Land Cruiser and truck models to pass out as giveaway items and for sale to the buying public. Studebaker in 1933-34 also decided to have a toy version distributed at the World's Fair in Chicago. Also, in 1935, the Tootsie Toy Company produced the Buick and LaSalle toy models that were used for promotional usage and for the buying public.
Other toy companies who also produced model cars for dealerships and the consumer market were Master Caster, Banthrico Industries of Chicago and the Cruver Manufacturing Company, who produced a plastic1949 Oldsmobile for General Motor dealerships.
Pot metal models were very popular in the late 1940s when many Chevrolet models were being produced. In 1948 the Hudson Motor Car Company produced a one-sixteenth scale, precision built 4-Door sedan that was only marketed through Hudson dealerships, explaining the importance of the step down automobile design for the consumer.
The half-transparent models were for demonstrators only or window displays and were sold or given away to customers, and for other promotional purposes. The models were a big hit among the public because plastic was just becoming available for the new merchandising toy markets.
Ford introduced the slogan "There’s A Ford in Your Future" in 1948, the AMT Corporation (Aluminum Model Toys) produced many models for the Ford dealerships. In 1949, AMT produced a Ford model in tenite plastic. This was also the beginning of the remote control model car that was becoming very popular among the youth.
During the late 40's and early 50's , Product Miniature Company in Wisconsin, and Johan models in Detroit produced many Chrysler, Chevrolet, and Cadillac promotional models for the dealerships and the toy store trade. Many of the Johan models offered working torsion bar suspensions for many of its Chrysler products during the 1950s and 60s. Bill Swartz, John Haenle, Harold Fro, West Gallogly Sr. and Carl J Holliver were some of the individuals that started the AMT and Johan models. I knew Bill Swartz, John Haenle and Carl Holliver personally and heard many of the stories they told about how it all began.
By the late 1970s, model manufactures were beginning to decline due to the price of the materials to make model cars, and the European toy markets for tin toy and die cast model cars were then being produced and distributed around the world. The late Bill Swartz once told me that by 1962, the Japanese tin toy cars were beginning to take over many of our markets and we saw the change among the buying consumers.
Today many model car pioneers who started the American toy car companies are gone, but their legacy will always be remembered among collectors.
A special thanks to Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher, for donating the story to the MotorCities Story of the Week program. Photographs courtesy of Bob Tate's personal collection. Please do not use any photographs without the permission of MotorCities. For further information contact Robert Tate at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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