What If? Tin Toys for Big Boys


MADE   IN   JAPAN. It’s hard to believe that these three words were once pronounced with a snicker. They were an indictment of an entire economy, a comic’s punchline. For some years following the end of WWII, many goods that came out of the Japanese archipelago were automatically judged inferior by those in the West. As a child at the midpoint of the 20th century, the only Japanese products that registered with me were the kind that the comedians snickered about. Specifically, those cheap little tin toy cars.

police with donut post

Dad would occasionally surprise me with one of the flimsy playthings (I now realize he was carefully indoctrinating me into the Cult of Cars, but I forgive him). They had friction motors that you could wind up by stroking the wheels repeatedly on the floor. The flywheel whirred, they chirped and bounced across the room and crashed into whatever obstacle could be placed in their way, to the great amusement of anyone in the vicinity under 8 years old.

made in japan underneath post

Often, they were printed with names that seemed pulled from different sources like news photos and movies, and stirred into a soup…overtly platonic or smacking of awkward translation: Squad Car. Crime Unit. Official Fire Chief Car… descriptions more than nomenclature. Some looked like they were designed by the “President and Chief Bottle Washer”, a man with a tiny company, big dreams and no art training, while others were as well rendered as the best of their German counterparts. The cheapest were simple domed pressings with an inventive amount of implied dimensionality, sirens and strobe lights printed-on to keep costs to a minimum. And somewhere, the ubiquitous/iniquitous phrase could be found in wavy letters: M A DE   I N   J A PAN.


For me, the most memorable tin toy cars had one other thing in common…a wonderfully proto-cubist, deconstructed way of representing the people inside. The windshield displayed the passengers’ faces in full frontal view. The side windows showed the same characters (presumably), but from a lateral direction. It was a mind blow to my 4 year old brain to position a car at a 45 degree angle where both images could be seen at once. I drew mental lines across the pocket of air trapped inside the pressing, double-checking the location of eyes and noses from front to side. One wonders if such a solution was available to designers before Picasso and his contemporaries changed art forever… I still can’t look at the little tricksters without smiling.

two cars rears post

In my 20’s, I had an idea of scaling one of these designs up and applying it to a collector car, just for the joke value. My vehicle of choice would have been a model that already had a pressed, tin toy look, like a late ‘40s Lincoln or Packard, or a “Step Down” Hudson. Money, and commitment to the idea lagged, though… as did technology. At least until the advent of window film, particularly the kind with a perforated surface that could be applied semi-legally.

black figaro tin toy post

But now, it can be done. And the Nissan Figaro, the Japanese kei car with the pressed tin toy shape, might be an ideal candidate for a conversion.

Anybody got one they can spare… for art’s sake?