Few innovations in the the 20th century were as influential as the mass manufacturing of steel. The development of the Bessemer process in the mid 19th century allowed steel to be processed cheaply on a scale scarcely imaginable before. But somewhere between the towering skyscrapers built on steel skeletons and the cars connecting the world, one company began to use the same steel processing techniques to delight children across the nation. For decades, Buddy L Toys built steel toy trains, cars, boats, trucks and other vehicular wonders under the slogan “Toys for Boys”. These toys were nearly indestructible, so much so that many wonderful examples persist in personal collections around the world to this day. Buddy L Toys are perfect for the collector looking for an eternal piece of childhood.
The History of Buddy L Toys
Buddy L Toys began life as a line of toys produced by the Moline Pressed Steel Company in East Moline, Illinois. The company was founded in 1910 by Fred A. Lundhal and primarily produced stamped steel automobile parts, predominantly automobile fenders, for various American automobile manufactures including International Harvester. In 1921, Lundhal, looking for a durable toy for his adventurous young son Arthur (nicknamed by his schoolmates “Buddy L”), decided to create one himself using left over steel scraps. Reports vary on whether this first Buddy L truck, long lost to time, was a dump truck or a model of one of the many International Harvester trucks the Moline Pressed Steel Company had helped build. But whatever the exact model, Fred Lundhal realized he’d struck gold.
Shortly after, Fred Lundhal pivoted his company to producing steel toys full time. At first, it was difficult to get stores to agree to carry the toys as they were significantly heavier, larger and pricier than the diecast toy cars that were growing in popularity. But Lundhal was a charismatic man and was able to convenience department stores such as Chicago’s Marshall Field’s and high end toy stores like FAO Schwartz to carry the toys, cementing their place in the American home.
Richard Keats and Buddy L Post-War
For almost ten years, Fred Lundhal oversaw the growth of his company as they produced toy versions of every imaginable vehicle. Unfortunately, Lundhal died of surgical complications in 1930 and his company was sold. But that wasn’t the end for Buddy L Toys. The toys were still produced to Fred’s standards though the Great Depression. The steel shortages of World War II forced the company to pivot briefly to wooden toys, coined Buddy L Victory Toys in support of the war effort. The fortunes of the company shifted again in 1948 when Richard Keats, future legendary toy maker, joined the company right out of college. Keats would later take over the company in 1976 and lead it through its’ last period of independence.
In 1990, Keats sold the company to a Floridian company, Empire Industries, which continued producing toys under the Buddy L name. The brand has shifted hands several times over the last thirty years, though its’ legacy now rests primarily with collectors passing on these beautiful steel toys to new generations of admirers.
What’s Behind the Collector’s Market for Buddy L Toys?
What separates Buddy L Toys from their contemporaries? Buddy L Toys are primarily steel pressed, manufactured in the same way as stamped car parts. A steel plate is hydraulically pressed between die, shaping the steel into whatever the manufacturer desires. The steel is then covered in a layer of baked enamel, which keeps it from rusting and allows it to be easily painted. As their 60s slogan “Made of Real Steel” boasted, this process created practically indestructible toys. Stories abound of kids dropping, crushing, falling on top of and even throwing these toys with nary a dent. Some of the trucks could even bear the weight of a grown man.
Buddy L Toys are also known to be particularly large, often two or more feet long. A child could even ride on top of the trucks and cars, propelling themselves along the ground. For a child who was too big to ride, many of the vehicles had pull bars attached to the front so the lucky owner could pull it along behind them. While their toys were not made to scale in the same way as diecast cars, many Buddy L Toys automobiles were modeled after their full-size counterparts down to the last detail. More so than many other companies, Buddy L Toys, particularly under Keats’ guidance, partnered with countless brands such as Wrigley’s Gum, Mack Trucks, Babe Ruth Candy, Coca-Cola, and, of course, International Harvester to recreate their iconic working vehicles in miniature.
Buddy L Trains
Model train enthusiasts appreciate the sturdy detail work of the large scale Buddy L model trains. Like their model cars, the Buddy L trains were massive in comparison to their competitors. A particularly gorgeous train is the 1935-36 Buddy L Burlington Zephyr Train which comes in at a remarkable 66 inches long and features a steel steering handle for a child to use as they ride on top of it.
Buddy L Cars
Buddy L cars can be best identified by the Buddy L red and white logo, typically stamped across the car door. On older models, such as the gorgeous 1920s Buddy L fire truck, the original logo with a gold trim and ‘The Buddy “L” Line’ can be found inside or on the back of the car carriage. Many vehicles also feature details like electric headlights, hidden compartments with miniature steel tools, plastic objects to fit into truck beds such as animals or coke bottles, and working lifts for dump trucks. There are two sorts of lifts in Buddy L dump trucks: chain lifts that lock in place when raised and remarkable working hydraulic lifts.
Collecting Buddy L Toys
If you’re interested in beginning your Buddy L Toy collection, it’s not difficult to find affordable vintage toys that are simply in need of a little tender loving care. Many Buddy L cars and trucks are available for under $100 at auction. Of course, the price varies heavily depending on factors such as age and condition. For example, the 1935-1936 Buddy L Burlington Zephyr Train can sell from anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars depending on the quality of preservation. As with most vintage toys, the most valuable Buddy L models are typically the pre-World War II designs from the golden age of toy innovation.
One model of particular value and note is the 1920s Buddy L passenger bus. This model is a 29 inch turquoise bus with red and gold trim and a “BL Transportation Company” logo painted on the side. Like many Buddy L vehicles, it is sturdy enough for a child to ride , though it does not feature the signature pull bar. The most unique feature of the passenger bus is the steering functionality controlled by mechanisms hidden in the spare tires on the front sides. Turning the tires rotates the front wheels of the car, allowing a child to navigate around as they push with their feet. Recently, a Buddy L passenger bus in very good condition was sold by Hassinger & Courtney Auctioneering for $1200.
Another particularly interesting toy line is the 1920s Buddy L fire trucks. These red trucks come in several variations. They feature a very classic 1920s car front and an open cab with either a cloth hose or an extending ladder on the back of the truck. The ladder extends up to five feet in the air with a hydraulic system. These Buddy L fire trucks are often found at auction for around $600.
The rarest sort of Buddy L Toys product might be the tug boat. This line was only produced in the 1920s and was prohibitively expensive for most, costing as much as $27.00 in 1928 (around $400 today). Why the high price? The tug boats featured a working motor to propel the boat through the water. While there are a number of lovely Buddy L tug boats that survived to the present, leading Buddy L collectors estimate only 6 tugboats with working motors survived. One particular red tugboat without a motor was sold by Bertoia auctions for just over $10,000 in 2011.
Buddy L Toys are also immensely popular with toy restorers. While professional restoration can sometimes increase the value to collectors and can certainly improve the value of lesser appreciated toys, a toy with its original parts in good condition will almost always be more valuable. So, depending on your goals, keep this in mind while shopping around for collectibles.
The Legacy of Buddy L Toys
Almost a century after their introduction to the world, Buddy L Toys have truly lived up to Fred Lundhal’s goal of creating a toy durable enough and imaginative enough for his son. Before his death in 1981, Arthur Lundhal, Buddy L himself, wrote of his father
“He 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”.
The legacy of Fred Lundhal’s toy company lives on in collections around the world and beloved family heirlooms, treasured and passed down from generation to generation.
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