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First Die Cast Companies Forged History - Dinky And Tootsie Lead The Way

Jun 30, 2008
Today, many pre-war die cast cars are considered rare and collectible items. The earliest die cast items and vehicles were made of ZAMAK alloy that didn't stand the test of time particularly well. There was a tendency for these miniatures produced in the early 1900s to form cracks and break. The alloy is zinc-based with aluminum and other metals not known for durability. Consequently, pre-war cars in excellent condition command precious prices at auction.

Chicago - From Metal Type to Die Cast

In America, the road to die cast model cars was paved by Charles Dowst who saw an amazing new technology displayed at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Line-O-Type machine was targeted at publishers and captured Dowd's attention since his family was in the business. Simply - the Line-O-Type made it possible for metal letters to be molded, set in lines of type, inked and printed for newspapers and magazines.

But Dowst, being an innovator, imagined other uses for the technology. In 1904 his plant is Chicago, renamed "Dowst Metal Novelties," began to produce other miniature items such as small animals and whistles, rings and toys that were used as prizes in the popular "Cracker Jacks" boxes. By 1906, Dowst noticed how fascinated children were with the appearance of horseless carriages on the city streets and soon toy cars were rolling off the assembly line. By 1910, the company was producing a line of Model T Ford replicas that were very detailed, yet affordable.

An early catalog from the Dowst firm pictured a variety of items from pins and cuff links to tiny trains, boats and horse-drawn fire engines. Experts say the first real die cast automobile made its debut in the catalog in 1911 - a diminutive limousine with a closed in top and extended hood characteristic of cars from that period.

In 1922, Dowst made yet another mark in history when he expanded the company's line of toys and named them "Tootsie Toys" in honor of his granddaughter. The Tootsie Toy brand continued to produce a variety of die cast models that were characterized by high quality during the years leading up to WWII. This era marked the birth of the die cast industry in America and other companies soon jumped on the bandwagon.

England Innovator Launches Dinky Die Cast

At about the same time, die cast models were being introduced "on the other side of the pond," in Liverpool, England. There, in 1901, a clerk named Frank Hornby created a technology he called "Mechanics Made Easy" - which soon morphed into Meccano. The company's first successful products were 00 gauge model railway systems. But Hornby took railway cars and engines further, producing entire die cast scenes to create a railway station. There were workers, passengers, track, stations and other accessories that proved extremely popular. So popular that, by 1910 the sets were being exported all over the world and led to expansion of the company to France and Germany. By 1922, the Meccano opened a branch in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

It was in 1934 that Meccano adopted the name which it still bears today, "Meccano Dinky Toys." This came with the release of a set of die cast cars in the 1:43 scale. At a cost of 4 shillings, a youngster could own a sports car, a truck, delivery van, tractor or tank. Other models followed and the company grew more faithful to reproducing accurate detail in its model cars.

But, many Dinky die cast cars suffered from lack of quality in the metal used in casting during this prewar period. Consequently, models from this era in excellent condition are highly prized and sought after. In 1994, for example, a Dinky delivery van produced in 1937 sold at auction for $19,355. A post war 1952 Dinky Foden lorry fetched 12,000£ in 2003 - or about $19,560 at the 2003 exchange rate.

For many collectors, die cast cars from this era offer a few important enticements. They are rare and, therefore, may be a decent investment. Secondly, they are brimming with nostalgia for another, perhaps simpler time and place. These Tootsies and Dinky cars are not modern reproductions of historic vehicles, but die cast models that survived the hands of children and the test of time.
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