Classic Christmas: Four Unforgettable Car Toys

December 11, 2012

The toy industry has seen many fads come and go over the years. But until very recently, the playthings most children longed to find under the Christmas tree were inspired by the automobile. Here’s a look back at four of the most memorable “car toys” from Christmas past.

Die-Cast Gold

Matchbox truck

Model maker Jack Odell was just trying to give his daughter a toy she could take to school (which only allowed toys that could fit inside a matchbox) when he created the first Matchbox car in 1953. The tiny brass road roller became a huge hit with kids, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Using photographs and full-scale blueprints of actual vehicles, Matchbox set the standard for realism in tiny toy cars until 1968, when the American toy giant Mattel introduced its Hot Wheels line of “racing miniatures.” Hot Wheels used flashier colors, muscle cars, concept vehicles and fun accessories like snap-together racetracks to grab the attention of children around the world.

Today, the companies are both owned by Mattel, and the only real rivalry between the two brands is between collectors. The highest price paid for a Matchbox car stands at $15,000 for a circa 1954 prototype dump truck (pictured above). The most expensive Hot Wheels collectible — a gold-and-gem-encrusted miniature that commemorated the brand’s 40th anniversary and four billion cars sold — fetched $60,000 at a 2008 charity auction.

Lots of Assembly Required

Kit Cars

Model cars have been around for almost as long as there have been automobiles. Iron miniatures first began appearing around 1900 and were later replaced by tiny replicas made of pressed steel and tin. For most children of the `50s and `60s, however, the words “model car” meant one thing — plastic kit cars with brand names like Jo-Han, Monogram, Revell and AMT.

The model car kit hobby began after World War II with Ace and Berkeley wooden model cars. Sales of plastic assembly models began to rise in the `50s, but the intricacy and detail of kits reached a new pinnacle in the `60s when most models featured opening hoods, separate engines and detailed suspension parts.

Long before “educational toys” became Christmas-shopping buzzwords, kit car models were teaching children how a lot of patience and attention to detail could result in the creation of something really cool. Although the hobby gets little mainstream press today, model builders remain a dedicated group, with their own magazines, museums and competitions held throughout the world.

Little Racers

Tether Car

It’s one of life’s undeniable truths: If it’s powered by internal combustion and it flies, floats, or has wheels, it’s only a matter of time until two people decide to race it. This exact scenario played out in southern California in the 1930s with the birth of tether car racing.

In tether car racing, a 12- to 24-inch miniature car is attached to a center post by a 33-foot steel cable. Unlike remote control car racing, the driver has no control over speed and steering. After the racer pushes the car to start it, someone at the center post, called a horser, uses the cable to guide the car around the circle until its fuel kicks in. At an average racing speed of around 100 mph, centrifugal force keeps the cable off the ground, and the horser steps up onto a platform until the winning car completes the designated number of laps.

Equipped with a model airplane engine, the first tether cars were home-built yet could reach speeds of around 40 mph, according to the American Miniature Racing Car Association. As racing clubs began to form and race tracks began cropping up all across the United States, manufacturers began to produce both kit cars and factory-built, track-ready racers that sold for anywhere from $10 to $30.

Tether car racing suffered during World War II, with most manufacturers (Dooling Brothers, Duro-Matic Products and Fryco Engineering among them) going out of business due to the scarcity of metal. Tether cars returned after the war but, according to, viewer participation at races suffered because the cars became so fast (modern cars can reach 200 mph) that spectators could not see them going around the track.

The design and mechanical know-how required to push tether cars to such incredible speeds requires expert knowledge in everything from engineering to aerodynamics. Today, tether cars have a small but dedicated following that prides itself as the most sophisticated in the modeling community.

Pedal Power

Pedal cars

Pedal cars for children first began appearing in the early 1900s, and they quickly became coveted Christmas toys. Catalogs from companies like Sears and Butler Brothers were some of the first to offer “Juvenile Steel Automobiles,” with quality sheet-steel bodies, open steering systems and double-spoke wheels.

According to Collectors Weekly, the heyday of pedal cars happened between the World Wars, when the UK’s Lines Bros. offered customers 30 pedal cars in its 1937/38 catalog. These ranged from the basic Prince, which was designed for 2-to-4-year-olds, to the Electric Rolls, which had a wooden body and a 12-volt electric motor driving the rear axle. The car had working brakes and headlights, real Dunlop tires (including a spare), and chrome-plated rims. It could travel 12 to 15 miles on a single charge and had a top speed of 5 mph.

As with the cars adults drove, the `50s and `60s saw American pedal car manufacturers offering options ranging from economy to luxury. Murray, AMF and Hamilton were just a few toy companies that offered everything from miniature military Jeeps to Studebakers.

With so many young fans and all the great memories attached to these toys, it’s no surprise that today there are actually professionals who specialize in restoring antique pedal cars. Portell Restoration is one of the best-known companies. Antique pedal cars that once sold for around $30 easily command prices of $500 or more when fully restored.

What was the most memorable car toy you recall finding under the Christmas tree? The Historic Vehicle Association would like to know. Take a moment to comment below or head on over to the HVA’s Facebook page to share and see what other members are saying.


  1. J.R. Hill Oregon City, Or.

    Good article

  2. Bob Fitch Montgomery, TX

    at one time I had over 500 Match Box and other model Corvetts

  3. Dennis Berry Dexter, MI 48130

    I would enjoy seeing more of this type of auto history and memories.

  4. Gary California

    I would have to say my all time favorite was the 32 Ford Roadster metal kit car made by Hubley. I was 13 or 14 that Christmas so long ago.

  5. Richie S. Piottsburgh, PA.

    I wore out the back tire on my bicycle in the 50's starting one of these tether cars. You turned the bicycle upside down and then had someone spin the wheel, while you pushed the drive wheel of the car against it. When/IF it started then you put it on the tether. Mine was an ignition .29 I think? Forester? My father sold it for a couple bucks at a flea market after I got married and moved out leaving all my "junk"!

  6. Jerry Kopydlowski Sussex, Wisconsin

    What memories! The Revell "Highway Pioneers" Model T, Cadillac Limo and Stutz Bearcat were my first model cars. I got them for Christmas, painted them with my dad's help. He heated the plastic axles with his Zippo lighter to flatten the ends to hold the wheels on.

  7. Pete Vistakos Livonia, MI

    My most memorable moment at Christmas would be, "My first train" which I still have and it is 50+ years old...It's a Marx..!!!

  8. Alan Ponder CT

    I remember an electric car race track I got one Christmas. The cars were about 6" long. My Dad and one of his buddies burned out one of the cars the first day. Me and my Dad later mounted it on a piece of plywood and hung it from the ceiling in our basement. Man I remember a lot of good times racing those cars.

  9. Alan Ponder CT

    I remember an electric car race track I got one Christmas. The cars were about 6" long. My Dad and one of his buddies burned out one of the cars the first day. Me and my Dad later mounted it on a piece of plywood and hung it from the ceiling in our basement. Man I remember a lot of good times racing those cars.

  10. Tommy Smitj Chesapeake Beach MD>

    Christmas was not complete with out a new Tonka truck. There bright colors and heavy duty construction made playing outside some of the best times for me. My own kids have played with the same trucks that I had played with. A testament to the company that made them.

  11. Ted.Marks Finger-Lakes,NY


  12. Steve Taylor Blythewood, SC

    This article brings back many great memories! I am 62 and I remember my first model kit being a 61 or 62 Chrysler Imperial. AMT 3 in 1 kit. I brush painted it metallic green and put every decal and chrome add-on that I could fit on.! I have passed the model building hobby on to my kids and grand kids. Thanks for sparking great memories!!