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Tin badges: Toy cars of the '50s highway patrol

I’m not sure who’s more hopped up about the June 24 release of the movie “Cars 2,” my 10-year-old son Tyler or I. The original “Cars” is one of our favorite movies. We’ve watched it several times on DVD since its original 2006 theatrical release. The attention to detail in that movie, from an automotive standpoint, is incredible. With each new viewing, I’m still finding interesting things I’d not caught before. I’m certain the sequel will offer the same amazing detail.
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A quintet of Japanese tin toy law enforcement cars representing the 1950s: (from left) 1959 Ford two-door hardtop, ’59 Plymouth two-door station wagon, ’58 Plymouth four-door hardtop, ’58 Edsel Ranger four-door hardtop and another ’59 Ford. The group includes a variety of scales.

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Story by Ron Kowalke
Photos by Kris Kandler

I’m not sure who’s more hopped up about the June 24 release of the movie “Cars 2,” my 10-year-old son Tyler or I. The original “Cars” is one of our favorite movies. We’ve watched it several times on DVD since its original 2006 theatrical release. The attention to detail in that movie, from an automotive standpoint, is incredible. With each new viewing, I’m still finding interesting things I’d not caught before. I’m certain the sequel will offer the same amazing detail.

While the kid in me anticipates the “Cars 2” sequel for a fun way to spend an hour or two, the adult in me recognizes both the original “Cars” and the upcoming sequel as being important to the old car hobby for a generation or two. Using my son as an example, I can’t name one other vintage vehicle-related entertainment property that has become as ingrained in youngsters as “Cars.”

At car shows, youngsters such as my son may not yet be able to identify a 1951 Hudson Hornet, 1955-’56 Chevy/GMC wrecker or ’23 Model T Ford by sight, but they certainly recognize these models as “Doc Hudson,” “Tow Mater” or “Lizzie,” the characters these vehicles portray in the movie. And among all the youngsters that have watched “Cars” and may go to “Cars 2,” that type of budding interest may translate to full-blown enthusiasm for vintage vehicles as they get older.

The figure lithographed in the passenger seat of this 1959 Ford looks remarkably
like actor Broderick Crawford, who portrayed Chief Dan Mathews on the hit
television show “Highway Patrol.”

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The law

While I enjoyed so many of “Cars” vehicular characters — and will miss the late Paul Newman’s rendition of “Doc Hudson” in the sequel — the one that stuck with me is “Sheriff,” embodied by a 1949 Mercury club coupe done up in typical law-enforcement black and white with siren and red light. This particular car caught my attention for two reasons: First, I collect Japanese tin toy cars, and police car and highway patrol examples make up the bulk of my collection. Second, not far into “Cars,” when star vehicle “Lightning McQueen” buzzes into Route 66-inspired desert town Radiator Springs and the trouble begins, he is chased by “Sheriff,” who eventually gets his man (or car, in this case). After the chase ends, “Sheriff” utters a line that brought back my own teen-aged memories of when my old car fever was raging. Borrowed from a line used by another make-believe officer of the law (actor Joe Higgins, who portrayed a sheriff in early 1970s Dodge commercials), he barks: “You in a heap o’ trouble, boy.” 

It’s been announced that “Sheriff” will return in “Cars 2,” so that just raises my anticipation level.

This friction-powered 1958 Edsel Ranger four-door hardtop created by Asakusa
Toy Ltd., of Tokyo, bears a strong resemblance to the actual automobile, down
to its “horse-collar” grille.

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Make believe

While I have tin toy patrol cars representing several decades, the majority of my collection spans the 1950s. I was born near the end of that decade, so my earliest memories of automobiles involve cars from the “fin era,” especially my parents’ 1959 Plymouth Belvedere sedan. I traveled in it until I was six. Whenever I find an affordable (translation: in played-with condition) tin toy law enforcement car that represents the ’50s, I’m on it.

While I didn’t own tin toy cars in my youth, their attractionwould be similar to the “Cars” movie of today. A way to get kids familiar with and interested in automobiles at a young age. The Japanese were not above using popular American television characters lithographed onto the “windshields” and side windows to broaden the appeal of their tin toy cars.

Two examples of this are shown in the group shot (top of story). Both the car at the far left and far right have a resemblance to a 1959 Ford two-door hardtop. Both are products of Masuya Toys Co. Ltd., of Tokyo. The “State Police” car at left has a cowboy theme, and the passenger appears to be a young Clint Eastwood from the “Rawhide” TV series that began in ’59. At right, the passenger in the “Highway Patrol” Ford is unmistakably Broderick Crawford, the fedora-wearing cop from the TV hit “Highway Patrol,” which ended in ’59.

While Plymouth never offered a two-door station wagon in its 1959 Fury lineup,
an unidentified Japanese tin toy car manufacturer envisioned such a model as a
“Highway Patrol” friction-powered cruiser. Most Japanese-produced tin toy cars
have a visible trademark and maker’s company logo stamped on them, but not
this particular version. The only identifying marks are “No. 42” stamped in the
toy’s interior and “1969” embossed on its rear license panel.

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The Japanese were also not into playing favorites. They viewed the Edsel as worthy of tin, while America lost favor with the brand shortly after its introduction in 1958. Japanese producers of tin toy cars often created a villain car first, then off-shoot versions such as a police car, fire chief car, race car, etc., could be produced to minimize tooling expense and enhance sales. It didn’t seem to matter that few police departments in the United States were depending on Edsels to actually enforce the law.

The Japanese were also liberal not only in their interpretation of Detroit’s styling cues and the end-user assignments, but also in creating versions of tin toy cars that did not exist in reality. Plymouth missed the boat with its 1959 Fury model by not offering a two-door station wagon. It sure looks good as the tin toy “Highway Patrol” car. The maker of this toy car is not identified in the usual fashion of a trademark and company logo stamped somewhere on the car’s body. It does have an embossed “1969” on its rear license panel, most likely denoting year of manufacture. Plymouth did offer a Custom Suburban two-door wagon in ’59, but this tin toy has Fury-type trim graphics, which causes the confusion.

Even accounting for the Japanese’s liberal interpretation of Detroit styling cues,
it’s a stretch to call this “Police Dept.” car a 1955 Chevrolet. It’s a product of
Modern Toys of Japan, and features a battery-powered roof light that glows when
the friction wheels are engaged.

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Other variations

Andrew Ralston authored an illustrated reference book titled The Collector’s Guide to Tinplate Toy Cars of the 1950s & 1960s from Japan. It gives ample background information and photo support concerning this collecting category. The book contains an entire chapter devoted to police cars.

According to Ralston, the most coveted tin toy police car among collectors is a 1954 Chevrolet two-door sedan by Marusan Co. Ltd. This car has what is referred to as “Stop-Go” motion, a large roof light and two tin police figures occupying the front seat. But what further elevates the desirability of this car is, as Ralston describes: “... the skillful rendering of the complex curves of the [car ’s] rear panels.” It’s a faithful representation of Chevy’s ’54 Bel Air without any visible model name call-out on either the car or its box.
One of the more unique tin toy police cars mentioned in Ralston’s book is a remote-controlled 1956 Oldsmobile four-door hardtop patrol car by Masudaya Toys Co. Ltd., of Tokyo. It’s powered by “Sonicon.” That’s a fancy way of saying the car was wired to respond to a simple command from a plastic whistle that was sold with the toy.

This large-scale (approximately 1:18th) 1958 Plymouth four-door hardtop is topped
by a spinning “beanie cap” light that moves up and down as the car’s friction wheels
are engaged. There are many unique variations of roof-light and siren accessories
among Japanese makers of tin toy law enforcement cars. Yoneya of Japan created
this model. It’s missing its original wheel covers after answering a call to a
high-crime neighborhood.

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Movie magic

Not that the creators of the “Cars” movie franchise need help — as they’ve clearly done a fantastic job to this point — but if there’s a “Cars 3” to be made, here’s an idea. Since the original film is based on kind of a stew mix of vintage cars, exotic cars, an homage to Route 66, NASCAR, small business vs. big oil, good guys vs. bad guys, the simple life vs. life in the fast lane — having the next “threequel” story line revolve around “Sheriff” and other vehicular law enforcement counterparts would be perfect. Much of the inspiration for character cars could come from studying Japanese tin toy versions to capture all of their quirky renderings.

Add to this mix some tribute dialogue (along the lines of “You in a heap o’ trouble, boy”) taken from law enforcement screen legends such as the aforementioned Broderick Crawford (Chief Dan Mathews on “Highway Patrol”), Jack Webb (Sergeant Joe Friday on “Dragnet”) and Fred Gwynne (Officer Francis Muldoon on “Car 54 Where Are You?”) and it couldn’t miss. Add in a Radiator Springs/Route 66-like setting, with lawless hot rodders and outlaw motorcycle gangs attracted to the wide-open desert roads as well as the general riff-raff among drivers including speeders, road hogs and those who never dim their brights to oncoming traffic and you’d have your necessary drama to keep the story sharp.

Since the Japanese tin toy cars might be inspiration for some of the characters, why not go all in with an even more dramatic subplot involving some desert-dwelling monster.

Hey, I don’t think Godzilla’s doing anything right now.

While my collection lacks an original box from a patrol car representing the 1950s,
this box for a friction-powered 1960 Dodge four-door hardtop “Highway Patrol” car
shows the detailed artwork that makes these vibrant cardboard containers so desirable
among collectors. This Dodge tin toy car was produced by Aoshin Shoten Co. Ltd.
of Tokyo. The boxes from these tin toys were often thrown out, so they can have
more value to collectors than the toy car inside, especially if the cardboard is in
excellent condition.

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