Cowan's Corner

Buddy L Toys: King of the Road 

By Wes Cowan

The history of toy automobiles began with the invention of the horseless carriage, and the love affair continues today. According to historians, getting boys "hooked" on toy cars is one way to ensure customers for the real thing down the road.

One of the most successful lines of toy vehicles ever is Buddy L, introduced by Fred Lundahl and named for his son. The Moline Pressed Steel Company in Moline, Ill., began making the model vehicles in 1921 with the same heavy-gauge steel that they used in the manufacturing of parts for automobiles and trucks. The immediate and soaring popularity of these sturdy and durable toys resulted in Moline Steel shifting exclusively to the models within a few years.

Buddy L Tanker Truck
ca. 1930s, in original black, green and red paint with chrome details and original decals, 25 in. long; $3,105; Feb. 2005.

Buddy L produced a wide variety of vehicles, from trains and construction equipment to delivery and emergency vehicles to Ford cars and trucks. All had moving parts, some had removable cargo, and a few were very elaborate, including features such as working hydraulics. The early vehicles averaged from 20 to 26 inches and were sturdy enough for a child to ride. This indoor/outdoor utility insured Buddy L a place in toy vehicle history.

Before Buddy L, most toy vehicles were made of cast iron or wood, but Buddy L's success with steel spawned competition. Companies such as Keystone, Kingsbury, Structo and Sturdy made heavy-gauge vehicles, while Acme, A.C. Gilbert, Girard and Kingsbury produced lighter-gauge versions. During World War II, the need for steel for the war effort meant finding other materials, so Buddy L produced wood vehicles during those years. After the war, vehicle size decreased and Buddy L experimented with plastics, but quickly returned to metal fabrication, although in lighter-gauge materials. In the 1970s, the company was sold to a Japanese firm that began incorporating increasing amounts of plastics into the vehicles. Today, the models are made in China and are nearly all plastic.

While all Buddy L toys from the 1920s to the 1960s are collectible, most desirable are the heavy-gauge pre-war models. These can command prices from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. The early trains produced by Buddy L are among the sturdiest of all American toy trains and routinely sell in a higher price range. Vehicles produced by this icon of toy manufacturing promise to retain their value for years to come.

About the Author: Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan's Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series History Detectives and is a featured appraiser on the Antiques Roadshow. He can be reached via email at Article research by Ted Sunderhaus.


Buddy L Improved Steam Shovel with Claw, ca. 1929-30, original paint with chromed-steel details and decals, 14 in. high x 21 in. long; $805; Feb. 2005.





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