Frustrated by shoddy-quality kids' toys, Fred Lundahl, owner of a pressed steel company in Moline, Ill., made a toy truck for his 5-year-old son in 1920 and built an industry. He wanted his son, Buddy "L," to have indestructible playthings to resemble the newest adult toy, the automobile, and to spark imaginative play.
Just before the younger Lundahl died in 1981, he wrote that his father "truly believed that the only really good playthings were those that could make a child's dreams come true, playthings you could actually do things with, ones that REALLY WORKED just like the big machines they modeled."
Not even the biggest dreamer could have imagined that more than 100 million Buddy "L" toys eventually would drive out of the factory, or that next month the foremost private collection of these toy dump trucks, buses, fire engines and steam shovels would be on the auction block, with many expected to bring several thousand dollars each. (When new, most of these realistic-looking 2- to 3-feet- long vehicles cost about $2 to $10 each.)
According to Albert W. McCollough's gracefully written and informative two-volume work, "The New Book of Buddy "L" Toys" (Greenberg Publishing, 1991), the 220-pound Lundahl met little success pitching his prototype to Chicago department stores in 1921, until he took a stand -- right on the truck -- proving his toy would last. After that he wrote his first order, selling 200 Buddy "L's" to Marshall Field's.
Lundahl's creation was such a hit that within two years his Moline Pressed Steel Co. switched completely to Buddy "L" production from making car fenders and parts for International Harvester trucks. Boys young and old have been collecting these heavy metal toys ever since.
Bud Krause, of Hellertown, Pa., recalls being drawn to Buddy "L" toys as a child but they cost more than his father's weekly salary in the 1920s. "Compared to a 30-cent tin windup toy, these were top drawer, but we were too poor to shop in the store in Allentown that carried them," he said.
In the 1970s Mr. Krause began collecting, selling and restoring the Buddy "L" toys he had coveted as a child. They were relatively inexpensive then, compared with antique tin and cast iron toys, and he had little competition from other toy collectors who "looked down on them as too modern. Now they wish they had them," he observed, noting that prices for rare models have zoomed up 300 percent to 400 percent in the last five years
One of Mr. Krause's best customers was Harold Williams, an auto body shop owner who spent seven years assembling what many consider the most comprehensive collection of pressed steel toys. He garages his nearly 300 toys on black metal tracks mounted on shelf brackets under the attic eaves of his Victorian house in Princeton, N.J.
Due to a divorce and a new interest in peddle cars and vintage bikes, Mr. William's toys are heading to the Eagle Fire House in New Hope, Pa., where Noel Barrett Antiques & Auctions Ltd. will auction them Nov. 5, the day before popular toy shows begin in Allentown, an hour away. Catalogs are $25 postpaid from Barrett, P.O. Box 1001, Carversville, Pa. 18913, or call (215) 297-5109. Mr. Krause predicts 25 items should each fetch five-figure prices, although some of the more common models likely will bring between $600 and $800 each.
Mr. Williams bought his first vintage toy truck, made by a Buddy "L" competitor, at a country auction in 1981, took it home and restored it to look as spiffy as the fleet of repainted vintage full-size cars stored in his large barn. "I didn't know any better," he recalled, picking up that original "Sturditoy," painted shiny pea-green. When he met other collectors and saw a similar truck in not-so-fine condition which was considered exceptional, he realized the paint job was a big mistake. After that, Mr.Williams only restored his rare toys if rusty and unsightly.
One attic wall is decorated with Mr. Williams' Buddy "L" "Outdoor Railroad"; heavy steel train tracks and a rare switch set lead to two roundhouses, one a triple stall, the other, a single. These locomotives and railroad cars, strong enough for a child to ride, are considered Buddy "L" masterpieces because of their many working components and tremendous "play value." The engine and tender together measure 44 inches long and weigh 31 pounds; the cars measure 20 to 22 inches each; the caboose's doors open and close; and the locomotive's furnace can be stocked with burning coal.
A six-car Buddy "L" train set, including the engine and 20 feet of track, cost $75 when new, and so wasn't a big seller. The Outdoor Railroad was cataloged from 1926 to 1931, but its production nearly bankrupted Lundahl's company and led to its sale. (After several corporate reorganizations, Buddy "L" toys now are made in China for a Canadian company.)
In 1928 a $25 tugboat ranked with the Outdoor Railroad engine and the trench digger as the costliest Buddy "L" toys. Mr. Williams' restored tugboat, missing its motor, is estimated to fetch $3,000 to $3,500; his rare trench digger, $3,500 to $4,000.
The popular Buddy "L" toys were widely imitated by manufacturers including Kelmet, Keystone, Sturditoy, American National, Gendron/Sampson, Kingsbury and Steelcraft, often using cheaper, lighter and less durable steel. "Sturditoys are my favorites; I like their bright colors," said Mr. Williams, whose collection includes all the major makers.
Buddy "L" toys came only in black and red with an occasional green, explained Mr. Krause. "What Buddy 'L' saved in paint they put into engineering. Buddy 'L' was the pace setter in the toy industry in the 1920s, leading the way. The other companies followed."
"Finding Al McCollough's book is what whetted my appetite," Mr. Williams said, referring to Albert W. McCollough's now out-of-print 1982 publication, "The Complete Book of Buddy 'L' Toys." A two-volume updated edition, published last year, costs $99.90, and is available from Greenberg Publishing Co. Inc., 7566 Main St., Sykesville 21784, or call (301) 795-7447 or (800) 533-6644.