Collecting toy cars is a great introduction to the real thing. Not only is it much less expensive, but you won’t have to build or rent garage space to display your treasures.
As soon as there were cars, there were toy cars, with tinplate German models appearing as early as the late 19th century. Most had to be pushed by hand.
A market for U.S.-made cast-iron cars (sturdy, but heavy!) developed early in the 20th century, in part because of the World War I–era blockade of German products. Hubley was incorporated in 1894, and made finely detailed vehicles into the 1990s. Competitor Arcade built a moving van that today is highly collectible with five-figure prices.
Soon toy cars (some selling for only a penny) were made all over the world, in all sizes. British die-cast models such as Matchbox, Dinky, and Corgi became popular in the early 1950s.
One of the most valuable toy vehicles in the world is a Tippco Mickey and Minnie Mouse Motorcycle made in Germany in 1932. A pristine example was sold for US$56,000 in 2010, a high-water mark for toy cars.
RM Sotheby’s is a regular vendor of toy vehicles, which are often included as “automobilia” in the sale of large classic-car collections. Last year, for instance, a lot of five battle-scarred metal toy cars from the 1920s was sold in New Hampshire for US$1,440 as part of the late Henley Group CEO Michael Dingman’s extensive car collection. Inexpensive toys like these were often thrown away, so survivors are rare.
Minic toy cars were made by the Lines Brothers in England after World War II. Most had wind-up mechanisms (though Tri-ang Minic Motorways HO-scale electrics were also made) and could be raced against each other.
The Guyton Collection, auctioned by RM Sotheby’s in St. Louis in May 2019, exceeded expectations with US$11.7 million in sales. Among its lots were 23 separate Minic toy car collections, ranging from store displays to service stations, military trucks, and racing cars—some in original boxes.
Ron Sturgeon, founder of the DFW Elite Toy Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, says toys with their boxes can be worth double those without. “The first thing kids do is throw the boxes out,” he says. Also disappearing are removable people and accessories.
Nonpowered models are generally worth more than those that are radio controlled. Plastic models are mostly not collectible, unless they’re particularly rare. Tin cars, which are fairly fragile, are sought after.
Kurt Forry, memorabilia specialist at RM Sotheby’s, says collectors should be on the lookout for mint condition, Japanese tin/litho cars with their original boxes, and any models based on vintage Ferraris or Porsches. “Examples like the Ferrari Tipo 500/F2 by Toschi and the Alfa Romeo P2 by CIJ are classic toys that are always on the rise if offered to the right audience,” Forry says. Also desirable: German-made Guntermann and Carette toy cars, now around 100 years old. “They have wavering values at auction compared with what they used to bring, but are still valued at US$10,000-plus,” he says.
Toy expert and blogger Stacey Bindman says pedal cars are among the largest toy collectibles, but generally haven’t drawn large sums at auctions—though rare examples in excellent condition have realized thousands. A “Kidallac” pedal car from the 1950s—with padded seats, chrome hubcaps, and a detailed dashboard—sold for US$1,495 as part of RM Sotheby’s Ponder Collection auction in Auburn, Ind., in 2007. A wood-bodied MG pedal car with an automotive-grade paint job sold there for US$2,013.
James E. Dobson, founder of the Antique Toy and Firehouse Museum in Bay City, Mich., says his collection stretches to 16,000 pieces—almost all truck toys. A prize in the collection is a 50-pound model of the GMC Futurliner buses that toured the country as part of General Motors exhibits in the late 1940s and early ’50s. Dobson paid US$850 for it—now it’s worth US$5,000, he says.
Some models are genuine works of art. In 1980, former General Motors lawyer Ron Phillips launched the Jeron Quarter-Scale Classics, which were radio-controlled models of extraordinary detail, some with functioning brakes and running V-12 or V-8 small-block engines. The great cost of making the models meant they weren’t a commercial proposition, and not many were made of designs that included the Maserati 250 F, the Mercedes W154 Grand Prix racer, the Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa, and the 250 GTO.
The Jeron quarter-size models, which cost more than US$30,000 new, were exhibited not in toy shops, but at prestigious auto events such as the Meadow Brook Concours d’Elegance and the SEMA Convention. Just the engines have been auctioned for more than US$14,000.
Prototypes of the 1969 Hot Wheels Volkswagen Beach Bomb, a Microbus van, are very rare. Because the buses were never mass-produced, those prototypes are worth around US$125,000—if you can find one.
Today, most car models are made in China, and some—inexpensive now—could become highly collectible, especially if nobody buys them and few survive. Remember to save the boxes.