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Collecting Mania: Pedal Car Dream Machines

Updated on March 20, 2011

"Boys and girls, why not own an auto of your own?" asked a 1915 advertisement for the Garton Toy Co., a pedal car manufacturer in Sheboygan, WI. Although pitches such as this one were aimed at elementary-school-age car enthusiasts, today it is the grown-up collector who regularly puts these vintage beauties on his or her wish list.

The first pedal cars followed on the heels of the automobile's introduction to the American public early in this century. Fashioned after the open touring cars of the day, turn-of-the-century models were constructed of heavy sheet metal and tough hardwood, then detailed with bright enamel paint and leatherette upholstery. Early pedal cars, like their full-size counterparts, were boxy in appearance and featured open, wire-spoked wheels.

Hardware stores, mail-order catalogues, and toy stores all sold pedal cars, which could be purchased for around $3 - about the same price one might have paid for a tricycle at the time. To spur sales, one 1907 catalogue declared, "the juvenile automobile combines two of the most essential features for the child, pleasure and exercise, the natural result of which is a clear mind and a healthful body."

As the years rolled on, increasingly complex models appeared on the market, some with headlights, starting cranks, and horns. Garton produced child-size versions of such autos as the Packard and the Pierce-Arrow. By 1919, fire trucks and sports cars like the Barney Oldfield Racer had also become available, both in the same boxy, open-wheeled style of the earlier pedal cars.

The golden age of the pedal car began in the 1920s and continued up until the Second World War. During the Roaring Twenties, designers competed to build models that looked more like miniature vehicles than children's toys. Steel rims and wire wheels were replaced by hubcaps and rubber tires. Running boards and fenders began to appear, as well as throttles, spark controls, turn signals, windshields, radiator caps, luggage racks, and gear shifts. One manufacturer promised toy-store owners, "Show the child an auto equipped like Dad's, and the sale is yours." Fire trucks, race cars, and working dump trucks complete with heavy-duty steel springs shared the spotlight with sporty roadsters and sedans.

By the mid-1930s, a radical change in pedal car design had taken place. The boxy style that had dominated both adult and juvenile automobiles since the turn of the century was fading from the scene as a more streamlined style swept the nation. Long, sleek fenders covered Firestone and Goodyear balloon tires, radiators spouted long, low ornaments, and windshields were slanted back toward the driver - all elements intended to give the impression of speed, even when standing still. The new emphasis on aerodynamic design was reflected in a change in names as well, Chrysler's Airflow and Streamliner being but two examples of America's modern attitude toward autos.

Pedal car design was becoming serious business. In 1937, Steelcraft, the Cleveland-based pedal car division of the Murray Ohio Manufacturing Co., proudly proclaimed that "the artistic wizardry of Count Alexis de Sakhnoffsky, the world's premier engineering stylist, is most evident in the Steelcraft Juvenile Automobile Line in 1937. Count de Sakhnoffsky was the winner of the Grand Prix at Monte Carlo for six consecutive years in the Elegance Contest for his automobile designs."

The streamlined Supercharge Deluxe with its sleek, flowing lines, chrome side exhaust pipes, windswept chrome radiator ornament, and Goodyear whitewall tires was one design introduced that year. Other models included the Chrysler Imperial Airflow in baked opalescent blue enamel, a slightly smaller Plymouth intended for children ages two to six, and a bright-red Pontiac Chief Auto Deluxe fire truck, complete with a hood-mounted bell and pull cord.

The advent of the Second World War inspired a new addition to the pedal car lineup - the fighter plane. Steelcraft introduced the R.A.F. Spitfire, measuring about four feet long and with a wingspan of nearly three feet. Their catalogue description declared: "A great deal of care and expense have been exercised in making these (juvenile airplane models) bona fide reproductions." The Steelcraft Spitfire came equipped with a windshield, two dummy machine guns, and a propeller that turned as the child pedaled the airplane.

Continued In Collecting Mania: Pedal Car Dream Machines Part 2


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      Devi 4 years ago

      Thanks for sharing. I've been in a slump ltealy too many irons in the fire (not just on Squidoo), so I get "frozen" sometimes and don't do anything productive so it helps to read these kinds of posts to get me going. Congrats on all your hard work and the payoff.

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      Eduardo 4 years ago

      Woah nelly, how about them apslep!

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      Marie 7 years ago

      Need to know something about a 1930's pedal car. Orange and tan. Please e-mail the info.