By: Sheila Gibson Stoodley
When Donald Kaufman was a boy in Massachusetts in the 1930s, he wished for a pedal car but never got one. As an adult, though, he fulfilled his childhood desire more than 200 times over, by amassing one of the greatest collections of pre-World War II toys, including 200-odd pedal cars, over almost six decades. This month, Kaufman, a 78-year-old retired toy company executive, is selling it all through Bertoia Auctions of Vineland, N.J., a specialist in pre-World War II toys that will disperse the hoard (which exceeds 10,000 objects) in at least five sales, the first of which will be held March 19–21.
Pedal cars were popular from the early 20th century until the ’70s, when manufacturers stopped making them out of metal. Young riders typically would sit inside the toys and power them by pushing foot pedals. The presale estimates on the pedal cars in the March auction show how seriously collectors take them. It will feature a 1927 Baby Bugatti, one of 90 built by the actual French auto design firm (est. $20,000–25,000); a 1929 Bentley, evidently built by Bentley (est. $12,000–15,000); a 1923 Packard Deluxe by Gendron, an American firm known for pedal cars that accurately reflected specific full-size automobiles (est. $25,000); and a 1929 pedal-powered airplane toy produced by another American company, Toledo Metal Wheel, to commemorate Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic feat (est. $8,000–10,000).
Auction house associate Rich Bertoia says he expects “cross-field” interest for the Kaufman sales—that is, bids from collectors who are not focused on toys. That’s not surprising, considering that pedal cars have long been offered by auctioneers of full-size vintage cars. RM Auctions in Blenheim, Ontario, offers single-owner automobile collections that also contain pedal cars, while Barrett-Jackson in Scottsdale, Ariz., features them in its sales of automobilia, a category that covers vintage gas-station pumps, signs and hood ornaments as well as the toys. Rory Brinkman, who handles automobilia for Barrett-Jackson, says, “Our buyers are primarily large-car collectors. They’re more enamored of a pedal car if it looks exactly like one in their collection.”
Kaufman, who cofounded the Kay-Bee Toys chain with his late father and uncle and sold the company in 1981, once collected classic cars, but he never pursued toys and cars simultaneously, and he approached pedal cars with the mindset of a toy collector. He purchased the aforementioned Baby Bugatti and Bentley from Bertoia in 1995, spending $30,000 and $16,000, respectively. While they are regarded as pedal cars because they are undersized and intended for children, the Bugatti and the Bentley belong to a subcategory known as “juvenile motors.” Instead of pedals, each was driven by an electric motor powered by a 12-volt battery. The Bugatti generated half a horsepower and the Bentley one-third of a horsepower. Bertoia doesn’t know if the toys still function but says that even if they don’t, their value shouldn’t be affected, since pedal car collectors want to display their prizes, not let their kids tear around in them.
Bertoia’s current estimate for the Bugatti is identical to that of 14 years ago, and the Bentley received a $13,000–15,000 estimate on its previous outing. Bertoia cites several reasons for the frozen estimates, chief among them a house inclination to set conservative numbers. Another reason is restoration, which has become undesirable among collectors of classic toys. At least one of the two cars was restored because a grandchild of the original purchaser, the casino mogul Bill Harrah, drove it into a swimming pool. Harrah had bought the Bugatti and the Bentley new in the 1920s.
According to Bertoia, about half of the pedal cars in his March sale have been restored to some extent. “Lots of times, pedal cars were played with,” says Bertoia. “For many years, it was very common to have pedal cars restored.” Toy-minded collectors have since embraced a different philosophy, however. “The mentality changed,” says Bertoia. “Now, if you can, leave it alone.”
Pedal car collectors who come from the classic car world hold a different view. “With our crowd,” says Barrett-Jackson’s Brinkman, “they’ll pay for a nice restoration over an original that has scratches and wear and tear.” In the automobilia sale that Barrett-Jackson conducted in January, it offered a 1933 Buick, built by the American National toy company and later restored in a way that Brinkman says “was better than what was actually made.” The toy Buick is upholstered with ostrich skin, its running board is decorated with an engraved silver step pad and it sports nine electric lights—six more than it had originally. Before the sale Brinkman had estimated that it would fetch as much as $14,000. “Without the restoration, it would be worth between $4,000 and $7,500,” he says. “The restoration brings it to the next level.”
Though they hold different opinions on restoration, either camp of pedal car collectors can fall prey to the urge to take a particular item home. Barrett-Jackson recorded its latest pedal car record in January 2008 when a 1940 Auburn Streamliner fetched $28,750. “It had a beautiful restoration,” says Brinkman, “and there was a guy there who had the same Auburn, and there was a large, well-funded car museum that was putting together a pedal car collection. It became a bidding war.” The museum won.
Barrett-Jackson, Scottsdale, Ariz.
Bertoia Auctions, Vineland, N.J.
D & S Pedal Car Restorations, Tempe, Ariz.
RM Auctions, Blenheim, Ontario
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