Pedal Car History

Every Kid’s First Car

Paying tribute to the history of the pedal car.

Story by Michael Jordan

Photography by Bill Cash

Los Angeles January 11, 2001
There was magic in the air, as if Santa Claus had just vanished an instant before. There were pedal cars all around, rows upon rows of them. “A pedal car is the kind of thing that all of us wished for as a kid,” remarks Ken Gross, director of the Petersen Auto-motive Museum in Los Angeles. “It’s so evocative of childhood that a lot of people would just melt when they saw our display.”

Some seventy-two pedal cars were part of last winter’s exhibition at the Petersen called Pedal Cars: Kid-Sized Classics. There were police cars, fire trucks, and racing cars. There were airplanes, boats, and scooters. If you were under the age of five, you didn’t know which way to run first.

Pedal cars have been gathered before in similar numbers, but Leslie Kendall, the Petersen’s curatorial manager, says that the museum was after more than just volume: “Our display covered the entire range of pedal car history, 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.”

It didn’t take long after the rise of the automobile for kids to take to the sidewalks in cars of their own. In the 1890s the first pedal cars were scratch-built from parts found around the barn, much like automobiles themselves. As the car became a plaything of the rich by the turn of the century, so too the pedal car became an exquisite, commercially built toy. Sheet steel covered the car’s wood frame, and full-size carriage lights, starting cranks, and license plates furnished the trim. Eventually pedal cars became recognizable as certain marques, like Buick, Pierce-Arrow, and Winton.

“Once we put the exhibition together,” adds Kendall, “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, and pedal car manufacturer Gendron even hired a young designer named Brooks 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, and the newly affordable, all-metal pedal car became the baby boom generation’s first set of wheels at the same time. Through the 1954 Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog, you could buy a chain-drive Garton Kidillac Deluxe with battery-powered head- and taillights for $36.95, or a pedal-and-rod-drive Champion sports car from Murray Ohio for $11.98. Pedal cars were such an icon of popular culture that they were widely featured in advertising. The Garton Kidillac was even given away as a premium to buyers of new Cadillacs.

A declining birth rate, high inflation, and the plastic Marx Big Wheel tricycle all arrived in the early 1970s, and pedal cars were never the same. Murray Ohio 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 director Gross, “it reminds you of the craftsmanship we’ve lost.”

The good news is that the current enthusiasm for automobile memorabilia has ignited interest in pedal cars both old and new.

The Wheel Goods Trader and Pedal Car News link enthusiasts across the country, and a few hobbyists help keep old pedal cars alive by remanufacturing parts and even bodies. For example, in his home’s small garage, manufactures his own fiberglass reproductions of pedal car bodies, and also distributes pedal car kits. His Web site (www.pedalcar.net) serves as an effective link to all aspects of the hobby. “When you get a pedal car, you’re always happy [with it],” says Medinilla, “and you can’t always say that about a full-size car.”

Today you can find a semi-collectible pedal car of your own at almost any swap meet. It probably won’t be in great condition, because some kid learned to drive in it, after all. But you can buy the parts you’ll need to restore it from hobbyists like Medinilla, and you can do almost all the work on a bench in your garage. Unrestored cars can be found at swap-meet prices, while all-metal kits of new pedal cars (some newly arrived from Korea) can cost as little as $200. Completed fiberglass cars bring more than $1000, and a perfectly restored all-metal car is worth thousands, depending on its rarity. Auction prices for extremely rare models have reached $77,000. Anybody know where to find a powder blue, Fifties-style Champion sports car by Murray Ohio?

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