Lords of the Sidewalk
LiveAuctionTalk.com: by Rosemary McKittrick
Photo courtesy of Bertoia Auctions.
The red metal fire truck fueled purely by feet and leg-power is the toy I remember most as a kid. The pedal car weighed a ton, was difficult to maneuver and was covered in rust. Built to last generations, my hand-me-down already had.
None of that mattered to me.
It was speed and freedom. I couldn’t get enough. Even with all its rust my fire truck was a sight to behold complete with bell, ladders, gleaming chrome and rubber tires. When my legs grew and stuck out like giant pipes, I still tried to wheedle my way back in for one more ride.
These miniature lords of the sidewalk grew up right alongside “big” automobiles. And if you couldn’t have a real car, this kid’s size mobile was the next best thing. But you had to be little to fit inside. Pedal cars showed up in backyards as early as 1890. They were expensive and usually purchased by wealthy families for their children.
The first pedal cars looked like the Model T car dad drove. They were made so little boys could imitate dad at the wheel.
Pedal cars were constructed of steel on an assembly line just like the big cars. They were modeled after the most popular full-size cars. They were also designed by the same big-name designers.
Harley Earl was General Motors top designer. He was famous for the fins on his Cadillacs. He also designed the Kidillacs. Brooks Stevens, who streamlined real automobiles also made the smooth curves on many pedal cars.
With the 1950's post-war boom, things changed for these pint-sized beauties. More than ever people could now afford to buy big cars and their kids got the pedal car versions. They also got more affordable. Pedal trucks, cars, tractors, fire trucks, planes could be spotted on sidewalks and in backyards all over mid-America.
Some days there were traffic jams on my block. Playing bumper cars with these roadsters added another dimension. The working headlights, the flashy paint jobs, the horns, life didn’t get any sweeter. It was a kid’s window into a grownup world.
By the 1970's plastic cars like the “Big Wheel” virtually put metal pedal cars out of business. The new plastic models weren’t made to look like real cars either. Most didn’t last for more than one generation. The beloved steel survivors of the 1950s sidewalks all but disappeared.
Nowadays, they’re collector items. Some of the more popular pedal cars among collectors are a replica 1965 Ford Mustang, police cars and fire engines. Some of the vintage pedal cars are also being remade. A whole new generation of kids gets to enjoy them just the way I did.
On April 16-17, Bertoia Auctions featured a selection of vintage pedal cars in its Donald Kaufman Collection auction. Kaufman was an American toy collector with an estimated 7,000 toys in his collection including 40 pedal and oversized pressed-steel cars. He died in 2009.
American National Gear Drive; painted blue; grey; nickeled grille; all original body; circa 1925; $5,750.
Gendron Overland Whippet; painted bright green; nickeled grille; gear activated axle; 1922; 53 inches long; $6,325.
Skippy Airflow; American National; painted tan with cream fenders; electric lights, classic aero design; circa 1934; 42 inches long; $8,050.
Skippy Racer No. 9; American National; great color schemes and simulated fender styling; circa 1930s; 53 inches long; $13,800.
Gendron Buick; painted in two tone browns; features many boy accessories; luxury model; circa 1930s; 54 inches long; $13,800.
Ladder Fire Truck; original body; full rack of original ladders; 1920s; 62 inches long; $32,200.