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From the Heartland: Buddy L Toys

As any number of parents can attest, children have good memories, and keeping promises made to them is usually a good rule of thumb. Little did Fred Lundahl know that by fulfilling a commitment made to his son nicknamed Buddy, he would become part of the industrious and innovative spirit of early 20th-century America – and that the result of his ingenuity would become toy vehicles that are popular with collectors nearly a century later.

Buddy L tanker truck with original paint, decals and features, circa 1928, measuring 26 in. long x 9 1/2 in. wide x 12 in. high. Estimate: $1,800-$2,000. Jasper52 image

Although Lundahl’s original business had nothing to do with toys, it did provide valuable inspiration. In 1920, a decade after founding the Moline Pressed Steel Co., in East Moline, Illinois, which manufactured parts for farm implements as well as fenders for cars and trucks, Lundahl used his skill and some scrap metal from his business to fashion a toy vehicle for his son. According to a variety of sources, the decision to create a miniature version of a dump truck came after seeing the lackluster craftsmanship of his son’s store-bought toys. Lundahl’s promise to his son, Arthur, aka Buddy, resulted in the toy becoming a neighborhood sensation, and ultimately the development of the Buddy L toy line.

Although Buddy L was not the first brand of toy vehicles to come to market, it may have been the most prolific, according to Michael Yolles, founder of the virtual Pressed Steel Metal Toys Museum, and a longtime member of the Antique Toy Collectors of America, Inc.

“Buddy L not only produced a large selection of pressed steel toys, but also they were very well-made,” explains Yolles, whose collecting efforts focus on various models of toys, including Buddy L toy vehicles manufactured prior to 1932. “One of the things you’ll find with Buddy L toys is the paint job lasted. They dipped their toys in paint, instead of using other methods.

“If you put Buddy L’s up against other toys manufactured in the same era I believe you’ll see their color and condition held up the best.”

Buddy L Wrigley’s Spearmint delivery truck, circa 1940s-50s, with minor wear, measuring 7 1/2 in. high x 14 1/2 in. long, sold for $300 in November 2015. Rich Penn Auctions image

The quality paint job on Buddy L toys, while impressive, isn’t the only thing that sets these toy vehicles apart, as Rich Penn of Rich Penn Auctions explains.

“First, they were bigger than almost any other toys in the market. Second, they were built better and were more durable. A child could actually ride many of them. Third, most kids never had a Buddy L. They cost more than most of the other pressed steel toys.

“So, they were only available to the upper middle-class kids. When the rest of us grew up and had a little money … we bought those toys we never had when we were kids.”

Buddy L Fact: In the 1920s when Buddy L toy vehicles were first made available to the pubic, many cost between $2.50 and $4.50. That is the equivalent to a cost range of $34 to $61 in today’s economy.

The attraction of these nearly larger-than-life toy vehicles, then and now, is also based on Buddy L’s measuring up to their design. With many of the vehicles able to sustain a rider weighing upward of 200 pounds, not only could a child enjoy a ride, but adults could as well. This coupled with movable parts and many accessories, such as doors that opened and closed, and functioning operations, Buddy L vehicles were as much experience as toy.

“Most of the construction vehicles were able to do what they were built to do, which was really exciting,” said Yolles.

Whether these toy vehicles inspired youngsters to go on and become adults who earned a living operating the full-size vehicles replicated in Buddy L miniatures, it’s hard to say. However, as Penn explains, the line of toy vehicles likely brought more than a few youthful dreams to life.

“As a kid, you would certainly be able to better imagine yourself as a truck driver, engineer or fireman, if you were driving a Buddy L.”

Buddy L fire pumper, circa 1920s, with original paint and accessories, measuring 23 1/2 inches long, sold for $3,900 in June 2017. Bertoia Auctions image

Alas, the pioneer of the Buddy L line, which ultimately expanded to include multiple variations of trucks, cars, tugboats, trains and construction vehicles, only experienced the early years of the company named after his only child. Fred Lundahl died in 1930 due to complications following surgery, according to the Quad City Times. The company persevered, changing hands more than a few times; and like many similar manufacturers in the U.S., faced the steel shortage of World War II. At that time, the company turned to manufacturing toy vehicles made of wood, but the successes of Buddy L’s early pressed-steel toys would not be repeated.

Buddy L Fact: Durability is the name of the game when it comes to this classic line of pressed-steel toys. Touted as vehicles that could hold a rider of up to 200 pounds, the toys themselves often weigh between 8 to 20 pounds.

Yet, if the number of inquiries about variations, parts and condition of vehicles fielded by Yolles, and the response to Buddy L vehicles at auction is any indication, these large-scale pressed-steel toys remain an appealing presence in the secondary market. In early June of 2017, Bertoia Auctions presented a 1920s Buddy L pressed-steel fire pumper. The vehicle, with original paint and parts, nearly doubled its low estimate of $2,000, finishing at $3,900.

A review of upcoming on LiveAuctioneers reveals more than 30 lots featuring Buddy L vehicles coming up for bid through the end of August.

It’s clear, the legacy of a man skilled in metalwork, who simply set out to fulfill a promise to his young son and ultimately elevated the performance of pressed-steel toys, lives on in the appeal of this heartland favorite.