Antique Toys & Trains
By the turn of the 20th Century, technological progress made it possible to produce toys quickly and efficiently. Long before the rise of action figures and franchise-driven toys, vintage toys enthralled children all across the world. Today, toys like trains and porcelain dolls that were once cherished items are now valuable collectables.
Wind-up toy mechanisms first appeared in the 15th century when German inventor Karl Grod developed a mechanical fly and eagle. In 1509, Leonardo da Vinci created a clockwork lion as a greeting for King Louis XII of France when he visited Italy.
Later, in the 16th and 17th centuries, large-scale and toy-sized automaton figures were created with intricate and elaborate wind-up mechanisms that were used to produce lifelike motions.
By the early 19th century, mechanical clockwork toys gained traction in Southern Germany which was the home of the first great toy producers of Europe at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The majority were centred around Bavaria, famous for its clock-making tradition, with Nüremburg becoming the centre of the toy industry.
The first factory for the production of tin toys can be traced back to the firm of Hess in 1826, with the firms Marklin following in 1859, Gerbruder Bing in 1865, Guntherman in 1877, Lehmann in 1881 and George Carette in 1886.
Toy trains were first created in Germany during the 1840’s. With a keen commercial eye on the export market, the German manufacturers realized that the interest in toy trains in post-Civil War America had grown enormously in popularity. The principal toy companies of Marklin and Gerbruder Bing dominated the market for toys and trains in all shapes, scales and sizes and offered a formidable array of lineside accessories. These two companies alone controlled over 70% of the toy and train market during this time.
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the tin toy had become a truly wonderful plaything, with advanced toy factories producing complex train sets, stunning boats and automobiles. With ingenious devices for automatic steering, whistles, cannons and either clockwork, steam or electric motors, these tin toys were objects to be played with rather than to be looked at, and consequently the vast majority were destroyed or damaged by their youthful owners.
Today, items that have survived are highly prized and their period of production up to the outbreak of the First World War is known as "The Golden Age of Toys".
The evolution of toys and how much they sell for today gives us a glimpse into how the childhood experience has changed over the decades. Such cultural relics give collectors an insight into our historical relationships with toys, and provide a hint at where the future of toys and toy making is headed.
Diecast toys came in all shapes and sizes and are made from zinc alloy, and offer a healthy dose of nostalgia. At the peak of their production, these vehicles (normally 1/43rd scale), and typically no larger than the palm of a hand were carefully modelled after real-life designs produced by many of the world’s automobile manufacturers. For collectors in the market today, diecast cars perfectly marry two popular collecting categories: vintage and classic cars.
Car enthusiasts may find they can fit a few more 1/43rd scale diecast cars in their garage than full-scale Ford Pontiacs, for example, and toy collectors may find joy in the careful details offered by each of the major manufacturers of diecast toys. And, just about everyone can find joy in rolling diecast cars down imaginary roads.
What is a Die-Cast toy?
A diecast toy (sometimes written as die castor die-cast) is any toy produced through the die casting method of metal casting, and is typically made of a zinc alloy (or, in some cases, lead). Die casting is a process in which a molten metal alloy is forced under high pressure into a mold creating a product similar to injection mold plastic but made of metal. This relatively simple method was perfect for mass-producing toys of all kinds in the era before inexpensive plastics were developed. In addition to diecast model cars other vehicles such as planes, trains, motorcycles and even spaceships have also been produced. Japanese toy manufacturer Bandai first developed the ‘Chogokin’ (the Japanese word for “super alloy”) line of diecast giant robot toys that have been in production since the 1970s. The pain staking process for creating these toys is the same as in the production of classic carlines.
One major appeal of diecast cars is how brands have been able to authentically recreate full-size cars at a much smaller scale. This has been the case since the early days of die casting. Many famous car brands such as Chrysler, Ford, Rolls-Royce and Volkswagen have also been captured in miniature size. Trucks are also a popular style among collectors, and branded models like the Heinz truck from Dinky Toys are particularly sought-after.
A true pioneer of the industry, Dinky Toys began producing diecast toys twenty years before any of the other major players even entered the market. As a result, for collectors seeking out a pre-war antique toy car, Dinky Toys is likely the relics’ manufacturer. Established by Frank Hornby in Liverpool in 1908, the company was originally named Meccano Ltd. and produced primarily model trains and construction sets. In 1933, the company began to sell miniature accessories to complement their train line under the name Meccano Dinky Toys. By the following year, they dropped “Meccano” altogether and officially became Dinky Toys. That same year they produced their first diecast car.
The first diecast toy cars were sold in a set of six cars together: a sports car, a delivery van, a tank, a sports coupe, a truck and a farm tractor. These six cars were cast in lead and were based on a generic version of the listed car. The cars proved popular, and soon Dinky Toys was producing dozens of new models including diecast planes, diecast tanks and diecast ships. For twenty years, Dinky Toys was the only name in diecast cars, until a little company named Corgi Toys introduced “the ones with windows”.
Corgi Toys were first introduced as a sub-brand of Mettoy Playcraft, and was named after the eponymous dog breed that also hailed from the company’s headquarters in Swansea, South Wales. Mettoy Playcraft specialized in metal toy production, but had primarily focused on tin plate toys, not diecast toys. Their products were initially popular, but in 1956 they shook the industry by developing glazed plastic windows, an invention so essential it’s hard to imagine a time before they existed. Corgi Toys was so confident in this new innovation that they sold the new toys with the simple slogan “the ones with windows”. Their initial 1956 line comprised of eight classic vehicles of the period including the Ford Consul, the Morris Cowley, the Austin-Healey 100 and the Triumph TR2.
Both Dinky Toys and Corgi Toys produced cars in O scale, harkening back to their origins in model trains. O scale refers to the zero gauge size O model trains, which are the smallest available. Dinky Toys was already working in this scale, so they sized their cars accordingly and Corgi Toys later followed suit. O scale for cars ranges from about 1:43 diecast cars to 1:48 diecast cars, depending on the model.
Soon after Corgi introduced transparent windows, another British company, Lesney Products, unveiled “Matchbox” cars — what would soon become a household name. These cars, named for the faux matchbox they came in, were significantly smaller in size, but very affordable. Lesney Products produced an array of models, quickly outpacing their competitors in volume if not in quality. It also helped that Matchbox cars were made in approximately 1/65th scale, though proportions were often modified to fit their pint-sized packaging. This did not affect their popularity.
The appeal of “the ones with windows” and the affordable Matchbox cars forced a sort of diecast arms race. Dinky Toys and Corgi Toys produced car after car, each trying to outdo the other with new features: jewelled headlights, detailed interiors, working suspensions, and licensing deals. For ten years, the three major companies were caught in as tale mate that seemed certain to last.