NEW YORK – What kid didn’t beg mom or dad to steer the family car, and what kid didn’t dream of having his or her own car? Child-size pedal cars, operated by leg power instead of a motor, became popular toys in the 1920s and ’30s. They were mostly a plaything for wealthy families, however, as they were expensive.
First hitting the market in the 1890s, early pedal cars were made of wood. Later on, manufacturers began rolling metal pedal cars off the assembly lines with all the bells and whistles, much as their full-size counterparts rolled off the assembly lines in Detroit. While cars were popular and usually modeled after cars of that period, there were also pedal planes, trucks, buses, trains and tractors.
Among the biggest early makers of pedal cars in America were American National, Gendron Iron Wheel Co., Toledo Wheel, Murray and Steelcraft Wheel Goods. Pedal cars were successful up until World War II, when steel was needed for the war effort. Production resumed in the 1950s and ’60s, though, most collectors usually seek out early models or choose cars made to replicate a favorite full-size car they owned, such as a 1961 Thunderbird, a ’58 Chevy Impala or a 1927 Auburn Boattail Speedster. Pedal cars were also well represented by overseas makers from Russia to England and across Europe.
The first American company to make such wheeled toys was the Garton Toy Co., founded in 1887. The largest maker of kids’ vehicles by the 1930s was American National, which had as its company jingle, “Raise the kiddies on wheels.” The company was the result of several firms merging, including the Toledo Metal Wheel Co. and the National Wheel Co., and later, even took over one of its competitors, the Gendron Wheel Co. According to fabtintoys.com, American National exported pedal cars into nearly 30 countries.
“Pedal cars of the 1920s and 1930s are a big part of our history,” notes FabTinToys on its website page detailing the history of pedal cars. “They have moved from sidewalks into our living rooms for decorating, displays etc.”
Pedal cars are widely collected today and one of the largest collections was sold in January 2015 with more than 70 pedal cars owned by Ron Pratte offered at Barrett-Jackson’s car auction, highlighted by a 1956 Pontiac Club de Mer concept car design studio model pedal car at $33,925 (converted to electric), a 1930s Gilmore Speedway Special pedal car by Skippy at $13,685 and a 1958 Corvette Sting Ray pedal car by Eska at $11,500.
On its website, Barrett-Jackson published an article in September 2015 about the evolution of pedal cars. “Like the first Model Ts, early pedal cars were simplistic and basic, but as the automobile evolved, so did the pedal car,” according to Barrett-Jackson. The auction house noted that the wood-frame models made in the 1920s became bigger and heavier and made mostly of steel in the 1930s. They were as well appointed as the full-size luxury cars they replicated – be they a Packard, an Auburn or a Cadillac – with chrome hubcaps, ornate hood ornaments, leather upholstery, working horns, headlights and turn signals; hood ornaments, a distinctive grill and custom body paint. Pedal cars also were usually outfitted with accessories to make play realistic from toolboxes and radiators to oil cans.
“Pedal Power,” on view through March 10, 2020 at the McLean County Museum of History in Bloomington, Ill., showcases the personal pedal car collection of the late Bruce Callis, another enthusiastic pedal car collector and restorer. His family gifted 53 cars from his collection to the museum, which are featured in this two-year exhibition. “This exhibit features dozens of child-size autos that span 50 years of pedal car production from the 1920s through the 1970s,” according to the museum in an online blurb on the exhibition.
Most veteran collectors seek out early examples with the larger, prewar pedal cars of the most interest. Collectors also find 1950s models of interest but all but ignore later cars, which often were made of plastic and lack the realistic features of their predecessors.
Whether one is mechanically minded and wants the joys of hand-restoring an antique pedal car or is simply looking to relive one’s childhood by indulging in nostalgia, pedal cars are a wonderful collectible.