The History of Toy Cars: From Solid Steel to Cheap Plastic

Toy cars have gone through many changes over the years. From the early days of the automobile, toy cars have made interesting collectibles and playthings. As the industrial system replaced the skilled artisan, the materials changed. Sometimes, those changes were the result of war time needs. However, the fact remains that the toy car remains an incredibly popular item for both kids and adults.

Almost from the beginning of the modern toy car, adults have been collecting them as fervently as children. The market for extremely detailed versions of popular models has exploded since the 1960s. Let’s look at how the materials have taken shape across the years.


Wood carving is an art form which might go back as far as knives and free time. Wooden cars came around not long after news of the first cars in the 1780s. As the real automobile became a popular toy for the wealthy, pretend cars became popular for children of far lesser means to play with.

The classic skill of wood carving allowed a lot of people to craft cars for their children. Some families still possess toy cars created by their grandfathers and great-grandfathers, often made with charming details. While these were never as sophisticated as the cars cranked off of an assembly line, technology simply cannot duplicate the attention to detail in a well carved wooden car. Wooden cars are still made today because they have a timeless quality.


Pressed tin became popular in the early 1800s, before the steel industry took off in the United States. Pressed tin is easy to paint and reasonably easy to manipulate, making it a great material for more intricate toys and models.

While it largely fell out of popularity for children’s toys by the 1940s, tin’s light weight and low price made it a great material for cans, where it remains in use today. The collectible market for pressed tin cars is very strong because of their sharp looks and exquisite details.

Cast Iron

Cast iron was also a very popular method of crafting toy and model cars in the 19th century. While it fell out of favor during World War II because the military needed iron, these cars carry an obvious strength that makes them very appealing. Cast as a single piece from a mold and ground into more refined shapes, an iron toy car is a rare but awesome find.

The tendency toward using cast iron to make cars largely stopped during World War II, but the trend began to shift away from this material during the 1850s. When the steel industry began to flourish in the United States, sheet steel cars became more popular because of the level of detail that could be integrated into them.

Sheet Steel

The sheet steel car represents one of the highest forms of toy car out there. When steel production really hit its stride in the early 20th century, some of the first uses were for model cars. These ranged all the way from 1/64 scale Matchbox cars and 1/87 scale European cars all the way up to models that were large enough to have engines of their own.

In the 1930s, a “model” was actually built that was double the size of the car it was based on. This was used for promotional purposes, and actually toured with a band playing in it. The purposes for model and toy cars — which have no official difference between them — were not always about amusing children. In a lot of cases, model cars were useful in the design and construction of real ones.

From the 1940s onward, the two most popular types of toy cars were sheet steel and plastic varieties. Sheet steel cars allow for extraordinary detail, including functional steering, doors that open, hoods and trunks, and even movable seats. A toy car of this variety is almost like a 1/24 scale soap box racer in its level of detail and functionality.


In the 1950s plastic began to come into its own. Originally, this material was little more than a byproduct of the petroleum industry. But when manufacturers learned they could make inexpensive model cars out of plastic, this material became increasingly popular.

Today, plastic toy cars are the most popular models because they are easy to create and detail. Plus, they are usually sold at low prices.


Toy cars have come a long way over the past two hundred years. While the first toy cars were made of wood or iron, today’s models are crafted from a variety of materials and come with high levels of detail. In some cases, today’s toy cars are can even be more complicated than early automobiles.

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