Many automotive enthusiasts most likely can name the time, place and automotive moment that infected them with the moto-madness. For some of us it is likely the first car we lusted for wasn’t a full-scale version. It was one of those shiny pedal-powered dream cars parked in the neighborhood yards. I don't recall the particular car but rather them collectively. It seemed as if there were as many miniature makes and models as there were in the local dealership that mesmerized my father. Even today if you go to the local big box retailer you will find a staggering array of transportation designed for kids, albeit powered by electrified locomotion.
The first factory built pedal cars appeared in the 1890s on the heels of Karl Benz’s three-wheel Motorwagen. Like the first automobiles, pedal cars were for the rich. Sheet steel covered their wood frames with full-size carriage lights, starting cranks and license plates furnishing the trim. By the early 1900s pedal cars were widespread, especially in the United States, England, France, and Australia.
One of the first companies to make three-wheel velocipedes for children was Whitney Reed, whose wooden horse pulling a sulky is a classic of the early form - the horse’s jointed legs moved when the operator pushed the pedals. Because automobiles are the main type of pedal toy sought by collectors, pedal toys like the early Whitney Reeds can be surprisingly easy to acquire. Around the same time, Butler Brothers was making “Juvenile Steel Automobiles,” described as pedal cars in its catalog. Models included the Scorcher, the Wizard and the Speedwell. Their pedal version of the Model T Ford was especially popular and is highly prized today.
Before the war, the Bon Marché in Paris had been selling pedal cars designed after Grand Prix Peugeots, with French toy maker Eureka continuing this trend after the war, while adding Renaults and the Citroen Rosalie.
The U.K.’s Lines Bros. offered its customers 30 pedal cars in its 1937/38 catalog, from the basic Prince, which was designed for 2 - 4-year olds, to the Electric Rolls, which had a wooden body and a 12-volt electric motor driving the rear axle. Naturally 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. By comparison, the current crop of 6-volt ride-on toys can go just 3.8 miles on a single charge having the same 5 mph top speed.
While companies in the United States were also producing pedal cars in the 1920s and 30s, the heyday for pedal cars was between the World Wars. Pedal cars were common in retailer catalogs. Two of the biggest manufacturers were American National Automobiles of Toledo and Steelcraft of Murray, both based in Ohio. Among other products, Steelcraft made GMC pedal trucks and Mack dumptrucks, Model T Roadsters, Dodge Runabouts and a Chrysler Roadster. Pedal car manufacturer Gendron hired a young designer named Brooks Stevens, the same Stevens who later became an important car designer, to give its 1940 Pioneer Roadster a kind of streamline style.
The postwar prosperity of the 1950s brought a brand-new automobile to every driveway (for parents and kids alike). The newly affordable, all-metal pedal car became the baby boom generation’s first set of wheels. Through the 1954 Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog, you could buy a chain-driven Garton Kidillac Deluxe with battery-powered head and taillights for $36.95, or a pedal-and-rod driven Champion sports car from Murray for $11.98. The Garton Kidillac was even given away as a premium to buyers of new Cadillacs.
Today these prices sound inexpensive, but these toys were not cheaply made. In fact, they were often as lavishly detailed as the real McCoy. The steel was typically enameled to ensure rich colors, while pedals were adjustable to give young drivers a comfortable ride. Like their parents cars, models ranged from economy (Whippet) to luxury (Studebaker). On the better models, steering wheels and other solid parts were custom cast.
In Europe, the J-40 (or Junior Forty) made by Lines Bros. in Wales was modeled after the 1949 Austin A-40, probably the most popular pedal car in England. By the 1950s the company offered 33 pressed steel body pedal cars with its heavily chromed Tri-ang Centurion being the top of the line. Pedal cars were also popular in Australia. In fact, they have such a rich history there that the government recently issued a series of toy-theme stamps, including one with a red Cyclops pedal car from 1953. Though based in Australia, many of Cyclops’s pedal car designs were copied after U.S. models and manufacturers, from Buick and Chevrolet, to Pontiac and Packard.
In 2001 Leslie Kendall, Petersen Automotive Museum’s Curatorial Manager and team put together a show to commemorate the pedal cars place in automotive history: “Our display covered the entire range of pedal car, from the turn of the century to the present. What we wanted to do was find and display representative and completely original examples of every kind of pedal car.” He further stated, “it was interesting to see how pedal cars truly followed the lines of the cars of the time.” The display provided evidence, as the flashy, wood-frame pedal cars of the 1920s gave way to larger and heavier machines from the 1930s. With chrome hubcaps and prominent hood ornaments, pedal cars reflected the decade’s romance with speed.
With a declining birth rate, high inflation and the introduction of the plastic Marx Big Wheel tricycle arriving in the early 1970s, pedal cars were never the same. Murray stopped making pedal cars altogether and began manufacturing the newly popular power lawn mower. The introduction of Rubbermaid’s incredibly durable, all-plastic Little Tikes Cozy Coupe in 1979 (still in production) sealed the fate of the all-metal, old-style pedal car. “When you see a metal pedal car today,” notes Petersen’s Director Ken Gross, “it reminds you of the craftsmanship we’ve lost.”