Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Japanese Tin Toy Vehicles - Part 1

I've been spending the last few months researching the subject of postwar Japanese tin toy vehicles for a talk my father volunteered me for. I've documented some of my research adventures in the Collecting -- and Collecting Information series.

Tonight I gave my presentation before the Capital Miniature Auto Collectors Club, and it went pretty well. The talk provided a background for the toys, made between 1949 and 1963, along with examples from my surviving childhood toys. Also on display was the Straco Express layout, which showcased smaller Japanese toy cars from the period.

Part 1 features the final version of the talk in written form, and Parts 2 and 3 include galleries of the toys actually discussed. And with these posts, I can finally bring this topic to a close -- I hope.

The Golden Age of Japanese Tin Toy Vehicles 1949-1963
A Presentation for the Capital Miniature Auto Collectors Club, Washington, DC

A Brief History 
After World War II, one of the main tasks of the occupying U.S. military was to rebuild the Japanese economy. In order for manufacturing to resume, there had to be a demand for goods. Toy production was one of the earliest industry to resume peacetime production. As this effort was guided by the U.S., America seemed a logical and ready market for inexpensive Japanese goods  -- and so it was.

Early products were marked “Occupied Japan.” Because of their primary market was the US, Japanese toy companies modeled mostly American vehicles. Sometimes these were scale or semi-scale models. In other cases, the toys were simply inspired by elements of American cars.

Often these generic models were just that – generic toys. But sometimes there was a reason. Yonezawa, for example, came out with an accurate model of an Indy 500-winning car. When threatened with legal action, they changed the car to make it less realistic. Alps had a similar run-in with Cadillac. Japanese companies soon learned who they had to make licensing deals with and did so, allowing them to create very detailed tin models.

The Golden Age of Japanese Tin Vehicles 1949-1963 
The period we’re focusing on spanned the early 1950’s through the early 1960’s. By 1950 several Japanese toy companies were in full production, and there were American distributors importing them – sometimes under their own brand – for sale. By 1963 competition from Hong Kong and the increasing use of plastic as a cheaper and safer material than tinplate signaled the end of the era.

In the early 1960's Matchbox cars produced by Lesney in the UK were becoming popular in the States. Japanese toy car makers soon moved to compete in with their own diecast models. When Mattel's Hot Wheels arrived on the market, tin cars virtually disappeared from the shelves. Japanee toymakers either made 1/87 scale diecast vehicles, or larger ones made entirely from plastic.

As beautiful as some of the Japanese vehicles are, they were never meant to be anything but inexpensive toys. Mostly they were sold in dime stores, department stores, and drug stores. By the mid-1960's Japanese makers had moved up in the market with their diecast lines, and Hong Kong had becomes the source for cheap toys. Eventually Hong Kong would be superseded by Taiwan, and then eventually by China.

Basic Construction 
Japanese toy cars of the era were primarily made of stamped tinplate with colorful lithography. The pieces were shaped and cut in stampers, and held together by bent tabs. Most were hand-assembled in factories, predominantly by women. Generally, the only non-metal parts were clear celluloid front and back windows, headlights, and rubber tires.

By the mid 1950’s plastic—rather than metal -- steering wheels and hood ornaments became common. As time when on, more of the smaller tinplate parts were replaced by plastic ones.

Many models had friction motors. Some were free-wheeling, and a good number were battery-operated. Most often the latter cars were powered by a battery/pack controller wired to the vehicle. Some cars had “mystery action” which meant they changed direction when they bumped into things – those vehicles had built-in battery compartments.

A beautiful example from Line Mar. The rearview
mirrors didn't last long, though (you can still see the
hole in the cab where the driver's side mirror was
Collecting Japanese Tin Toy Cars
As with other types of Japanese toys of this era, such as robot and space toys, and mechanical toys, a large part of an item’s desirability and value rests in the box. The boxes were generally made of inexpensive and very thin cardboard, and often discarded. Many were brightly decorated with attractive graphics, which is part of their appeal.

Boxes can also affect the condition of the vehicle. Cars that were put back and stored in their original boxes are more likely to retain the small, delicate detail pieces that otherwise get lost or broken off (such as the rear-view mirrors on the Allied Van at right - click on image to enlarge).

The boxes are valuable for another reason -- as sources of information. Many companies didn’t put any markings on the toys themselves – only the boxes. So having the box helps identify the vehicle (especially some of the more fanciful designs) as well as the company who made it.

One has to be careful using the box information for reference, though. Sometimes the box only has the brand of the distributor, or has it displayed more prominently than the makers’. You’ll see sometimes toys identified as Cragstan, Franconia or Straco pieces, when these companies were actually just imported by these firms. And there’s not always a one-to-one correspondence between importer and manufacturer. Cragstan, for example, imported toys built by Nomora, Shioji, Bandi, Haji, and some other companies.

Part 2: Bandai
Part 3: Haji and Masudaya
Part 4:  Cragstan and Shioji
Part 5: Line Mar and Marx
Part 6: Nomura and others (Marusan, Yonezawa, Alps, Ichico, ATC)


  1. Anonymous4:54 PM

    I have a number of tin friction toys made in Japan identified by a K inside a rounded star like figure. What is the name of this Japanese Company? One in particular is in excellent condition - a hook and ladder fire engine. The ladder extends.

    1. Sounds like it might be Kokyu Shokai. Kevin Dockerill has an excellent blog with companies and logos that make identification a lot easier.


  2. Sounds like it might be Kokyu Shokai. Kevin Dockerill has an excellent blog with companies and logos that make identification a lot easier.