Cars as Toys

At sales and auctions of old TOYS, a prominent part is played by cars, vans, buses, and trucks in a variety of shapes and sizes. It is striking how soon after the invention of the motorcar it became the subject of–mostly boys'–fantasies and PLAY. The famous tin toy factories in Nuremberg in Germany produced toy cars in the early 1900s that, because of their delicate nature, did not last very long if used for their intended purpose. They did, however, represent the look of the motorcars of the day very well, producing high, carriagelike vehicles with narrow, spidery wheels and often with a driver and a passenger perched on top. Very soon more detailed products began to be made. Although these were even less suited for the hardships of boys' play in a sandpit, they were very satisfactory from the point of view of correct representation of specific cars, with details such as steering and brakes.

Cars have remained popular toys and over the last century have gone through a number of design phases, from primitive wooden blocks with four wheels to model cars with opening doors and interior details, cars not fit for playing with and out of bounds for younger sisters and brothers. The invention of plastics was a boon to toy producers, enabling them from the 1950s to manufacture relatively strong, correct-looking toy cars in seconds at very low costs. In the early twenty-first century only very young children are willing to accept toy cars that do not look like a specific make and model. Any three-year-old boy will recognize his grandparents' car, and mothers are constantly amazed when their very young sons lecture them on the differences between the various cars they encounter when shopping.

It has long been observed that cars seem largely to belong to the realm of boys, while only a few girls show the same interest. Even if mothers drive as much as fathers, the "car bug" does not seem to infect girls to anything like the same degree as it does boys. While playing with toy cars, boys dream of driving real cars, not in order to move from A to B but just for the sake of driving.

A child's first vehicle–apart from a PRAM–usually is a tricycle, often followed by a pedal car. Before World War II such pedal cars rarely tried to represent any particular model, except for a few very expensive examples, the most prominent of which was the toy car built by the luxury automobile producer Bugatti in about 1930 as a scale model of one of its racing cars. Such cars were powered by a small combustion engine. Since the 1990s producers have tried to make their pedal cars at least recognizable as particular models. The use of plastics has made this easier, just as modern electronic developments have made it possible to build and sell small children's cars powered by electric motors and small, rechargeable batteries at very competitive prices.

For a number of years building model cars was popular with many boys. Some very ambitious characters embarked upon the creation of a model from a piece of raw wood or from sheets of cardboard, but by far the most popular way of doing it was to buy a plastic assembly set to be glued together and painted. Only the most enthusiastic ever finished the project or achieved the desired standard, and it appears that computers have won the battle for children's minds. When model cars are sold today they are mostly finished products. Some are produced to a very high standard and at a comparable price, while mass producers have shown themselves capable of producing and selling model cars of a fairly high quality at fairly low prices. These cars are, however, not really meant as toys for children. The same applies to the small electric-powered cars running along slots in sections of miniature roadway. Like model trains, this increasingly has become the realm of hobby clubs for adults.

Even if many children today spend many hours in front of a video screen, the car is still with them. It now takes the shape of various games. There are countless games on the market in which players can drive cars or motorcycles. Most popular are the ones in which players compete on one or several famous racing circuits or rally courses. To enhance the illusion, joysticks in the shape of a steering wheel are available along with the necessary pedals and gearchange. Only the youngest children prefer the pedal car to a computer thus equipped.

While many children dream of driving their own cars, their practical experience with cars often bores them. Most parents are familiar with hearing the question from the back-seat, "Are we there yet?" From the time they are very young, children are placed inside a car and strapped in, unable to do much and confined to looking out of windows that are often too high. Each spring magazines and newspapers swell with good advice to parents planning a driving vacation about how best to keep the children occupied during the many hours of forced inactivity in the backseat.

Since their invention, cars have posed risks for children. They are in a vulnerable position when walking or playing near traffic. Small children are not able to judge the speed of an oncoming car and are generally not in a position to survey what is going on in the street. In many countries much energy is spent on trying to teach children the necessary skills to navigate traffic. In a number of countries, school patrols of older children have been in operation since the 1950s. By creating these patrols authorities tried to solve the problem of not having the manpower to use policemen to guide young children when leaving school. Despite their vulnerability, until they become drivers themselves, most children are involved with cars as consumers of toys and fantasy.

See also: Boyhood; Construction Toys; Toy Technology.


Bloemker, Larry, Robert Genat, and Ed Weirick. 1999. Pedal Cars. Osceola, WI: MBI.

O'Brien, Richard. 2000. Collecting Toy Cars and Trucks. Iola, WI: Krause.