Small Talk Tag: Transportation Toys

Tonka Tough

Tonka Truck

Before trucks were built Ford tough, Tonka toy trucks were strong enough for an elephant to stand on (we’re not kidding… it was the focus of a 1970s advertising campaign for the company founded on the idea that “a toy shouldn’t break just because a child plays with it”). Originally named Mound Metalcraft for the company’s home in Mound, Minnesota, the name was changed in 1955 to Tonka Trucks (“tanka” meaning big in Sioux) when the company shifted from tie racks and garden tools to metal construction toys.

And their first toy wasn’t even a dump truck! The manufacturing lines first turned out cranes and steam shovels, selling 37,000. By 1955, demand for the realistic, durable, and heavy, automobile-grade, 20-gauge steel trucks took off with baby boomer parents, and the excess of postwar steel made them cheap to produce.

When the Mighty Dump Truck did come along, it weighed in at 11 pounds, complete with solid rubber tires. Since then, an estimated 15 million have been sold. While T/m’s circa 1955 version isn’t yellow, it was still the go-to for dumping and hauling sand in the neighborhood sandbox.

Pedal Up to Nebraska

Museum of American Speed

Pedal to the Metal: Pedal Cars and American Car Culture is racing to the finish line; the exhibit closes August 28, 2016. If you hustle to T/m before then, you can see several cars from the collection of the Speedway Motors Museum of American Speed. If not, you may be able to catch the 1937 Ford Deluxe, 1930 Steelcraft Chrysler, 1953 Torpedo, 1950 Mercedes Benz 190SL, 1965 Ford Mustang, 1950 Tri-ang Flying Squad Police Cruiser, 1960 Deluxe “Flat Face” Fire Truck, or 1967 Skipper Run-a-Bout on view in Lincoln, Nebraska.

The 135,000 square foot museum was founded in 1992 by “Speedy” Bill and Joyce Smith to preserve, interpret, and display items significant in racing and automotive history. Pedal cars are just the starting line of their extensive collection of vehicles (early dirt- and board-track racecars, midget cars, Indy cars, street rods, and restored classics). And for those of you who fondly remember Soap Box Derby, they’ve got a great collection of those too!
Photo: Antigone Jackson, Speedway Motors Museum of American Speed.

LACMA’s Miniature Metropolis

Metropolis II

We’re obviously huge fans of kinetic sculptures that incorporate toys, hence T/m’s two-story Toytisserie. Although it’s not in a museum of toys or miniatures, artist Chris Burden’s large installation Metropolis II has been amazing visitors to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) since 2011. Metropolis II is a fury of 1,100 matchbox cars whirring by at a scale speed of 230 miles per hour on a complex system of tracks around a futuristic miniature skyline.

Witnessing the sculpture in person in the LACMA galleries evokes feelings of wonder and awe, but with a tinge of anxiety, similar to driving on a real-life multi-lane freeway in heavy traffic (after all, toys are teaching tools for life, you know!). It took Burden and his studio team over four years of research and design to get all the components exactly right—even so, a team of attendants is on hand in case a car derails or jams up the track. The sculpture runs intermittently for four hours every day at LACMA.
Photo: Chris Burden, Metropolis II, 2010, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, courtesy of the Nicolas Berggruen Charitable Foundation, © Chris Burden Estate

A Rare Bird

pedal car

Americans have been completely enamored of the automobile since the first ones rolled off the assembly lines and onto the streets. Both adults and children were captivated by the “horseless buggy,” as evidenced by this 1920s toy pedal car. Although wheeled mobility toys existed before this pedal car, Schmelzer’s Red Bird definitely came with all the modern stylishness of its motorized, full-scale counterparts.

Schmelzer’s Red Bird was manufactured by the Sidway Topliff Company of Washington, Pennsylvania for a department store here in Kansas City named Schmelzer’s Arms Co. Some of the features on this bad boy include yellow pinstripes, a winged hood ornament, and a hand brake that operates a stop sign in the rear above the license plate. The Red Bird is on view with other classic pedal cars in our temporary exhibit Pedal to the Metal: Pedal Cars and American Car Culture through August 28, 2016.

A New Frontier for Toymaking

Yoshiya Flying Saucer

The mid-twentieth century saw technological advances in everything from nuclear power to televisions and kitchen appliances. Toys too came with all kinds of new features that allowed imaginations to run wild. One of the biggest influences on toys of the 50s and 60s was the addition of a built-in battery power supply. Indeed, this was the dawn of “batteries not included!”

Post-World War II Japan produced some of the earliest examples of battery operated toys on the world market. With an internal power source, toys achieved new capabilities previously unavailable for wind-up toys including extended movement, sounds, and lights. This circa 1960 Yoshiya “Flying Saucer with Space Pilot” is equipped with bump and go action, space noise, and a rotating color wheel—all of which, of course, are very important for space travel!

Page 1 of 3123