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Put the Pedal to the Metal
by Bob Brooke


Most people equate the pedal car with childhood and the age of innocence, recalling the times zooming around the backyard and selling lemonade at the end of the driveway. The pedal car was one of those toys American kids would get only at Christmas, if they got one at all.

How It All Began
Pedal cars have been around almost as long as real cars. In the same way as the motorcar was derived from the carriage, the pedal-car had its origins in the tricycle. Iron tricycles, which already existed at the end of the 19th century, were the starting point for kids’ cars; dressed up with a simple body and fitted out with an extra wheel.

The first known commercially produced pedal car, built in a cabinet shop in the eastern U.S., has a patent date in the early 1890's. However, the names of the first pedal-car producers remain obscure. Often it was the bicycle manufacturers who put these avant-garde toys onto the market.

The first pedal cars were expensive hand-built toys for the rich, detailed and finished to superb quality with all the lights, handles and trim found on a real car. But around 1910, the pedal-car started to gain popularity. Cars for kids now tried to imitate grown-up cars in every way, and manufacturers offered pedal cars resembling the real cars of the era–Buick, Cadillac, Packard, Pierce Arrow, Pope and Winton–with every type of accessory, including sloping windshields, mudguards, licence plates, lights, nickel-plated parts, bumpers, spare wheels, tires, horns, and padded seats. Pedal car makers replaced wood with metal and color and decorations brightened up the models.

The first pedal cars had a metal chassis, a wooden body and wheels with spokes, sometimes with rubber covered rims. Young drivers operated their cars by pedals and block chain, but gradually manufacturers produced more with a mechanism operated on a system of levers, in which movement was transmitted from the pedals to the back wheels, just like on a real car. "Smooth wheels with roller bearings, cantilever springs, and balloon tires helped propel some pedal cars with greater ease," said Andrew G. Gurka, author of the book Pedal Car Restoration and Price Guide. "Most cars had a windshield, and some models featured working windshield wipers.”

Over the years, manufacturers built pedal cars to reflect the automotive styling of the day. Cars from the late Teens and Twenties had the "Tin Lizzie" look of flat fenders and free-standing headlamps. The 1930's brought Art Deco "Airflow" styling with curving grilles and covered rear wheels. Forties styling was more "streamlined" with aircraft overtones and less trim.

The U.S. led the world in pedal-car production preceding World War I. Not only did pedal cars appear of every type and for every budget, but so did trucks, fire-engines, police cars, and vans with small work accessories and even a car with its own little garage.

Pedal Cars After World War I
After the war, the car business got back into full swing. During the 1920's, pedal car manufacturers offered many kinds of roadsters. Large fenders came into vogue, as did polished radiators and radiator ornaments. The pointed tail premiered as the chief characteristic of model racing cars. But a new element helped give a final touch of realism to pedal cars--electricity. In the few cases of early model cars which boasted lights, they were simply fake ones, except for a few very sophisticated models which were provided with small oil lamps. In 1922, pedal cars with electric lights running on batteries became a reality. Though they didn’t serve much purpose, these lights gave young drivers a feeling of importance. The whole experience of driving became more “real.”

It was a logical step to extend the use of electricity to the traction, too, as makers created the first cars for children with electric motors. Fortunately, they cost too much, thus guaranteeing the survival of the pedal car.

In the U.S, pedal car makers freely used the names of the big car manufacturers, while their European counterparts often did not. In 1925, for example, the American National Company produced an enclosed Packard coupe for children. Boycraft produced a spider with the name Cadillac on it, while a Steelcraft catalog of the same year offered Buicks, Nashs, Studebakers, Lincolns, Pierce Arrows, Marmons, Chryslers and even Macks, given that it wasn’t rare for catalogs to include trucks for kids. Whether there was a real car used as a model in each of these cases is a point yet to be proven. However, the names were there and served to attract the young public. Americans called these cars “Juvenile Automobiles” or “Wheel Goods Toys,” a term that included any type of vehicle for children operated by pedals.

Pedal cars became increasingly more tempting at the onset of the 1930's, considered as the golden age of pedal cars, and apparently not having been affected by the Great Depression. The models of the 1930's were larger and heavier than in any other period in history. Streamlining began to take hold with American, National, Gendron, and Steelcraft offering new designs. Makers featured artillery wheels with large plated hubcaps, as well as hood ornaments resembling graceful works of art. In 1938, Troy of Philadelphia offered a series of cars with the characteristic wind-divider “nose,” which marked a whole period around the war.

In the 1940's pedal car manufacturers offered their versions of military vehicles. Before World War II, the pedal car was for rich kids. After the war, they became more common but were still more extravagant than a hand-me-down bicycle or wagon.

Post World War II Pedal Cars
The 1950's found designers trying to create fantasy cars that had jet plane and spaceship themes. The hot rod also became popular during this era. Pedal cars during the 1960's emerged with decals and plastic trim and some could be ordered with a metallic finish. Garton, Murray and the American Machine and Foundry Company (AMF) all had a large array of products for consumers to choose from.

AMF introduced the first "Midget Mustang" pedal car in November ,1964, when the real Mustang was selling like crazy. The all-metal, bright red toy retailed for $12.95, about half of what a similar pedal car sold for at the time. Each car, equipped with wheel covers, a windshield, a "3-speed" shift lever, oversized steering wheel, a "Rally Pak" cluster of gauges, white upholstery and black rubber tires, had a pony emblem in the center of the grille and the Mustang name in script with a rocker panel stripe on the sides.

By the 1970's pedal cars were becoming a dusty memory in the corner of the garage as the bicycle craze had begun. Of the product lines that remained, most manufacturers had switched to thinner gauge metal and plastic pedals. The "Big Wheel" by Mattel lowered the center of gravity on the original tricycle design, combined with light weight and low cost plastic construction. They were so inexpensive that they could be replaced when they wore out or broke.

Styling changed often during the 1950's, following Detroit’s lead. First models had bold heavy grilles and tall narrow fins, but makers soon replaced these with wider, square fronted bodies with dual headlamps and angle-swept fins. By 1960, pedal cars had become more rounded and started to resemble popular sports cars.

The use of plastic meant lower prices and contributed to the popularity of pedal cars but was also responsible for poorer quality. The new model cars had little in common with their ancestors of the 1920's and 1930's, which were notable for their craftsmanship.

According to Don Sindelar, a pedal car dealer from Saugus, California, pedal car manufacturers marked their models with both a name and a model number--a firetruck may be a AMF 508 or a locomotive a Casey Jones.

Antique toy collectors were the first to "discover" pedal cars. Starting in the early 1960's, collectors began acquiring mint condition examples found in attics. Later on, "baby boomers" bought either new or reproduction pedal cars for their kids.

“The most collectable models are the 1930s Steelcraft carsLincoln Zephyr, 1938 Oldsmobile, 1936 Ford, 1941 Buick, 1941 Chrysler,” said John Dott, pedal car restorer and collector. “Foreign models aren’t very popular here in the U.S. Americans collect mostly U.S.- made cars.”

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