Germany was the centre of mechanical toy making. The three most important firms were Bing of Nuremberg, founded in 1863,
Marklin, established in Goppingen in 1859, and Ernst Paul Lehmann, which was based in Berlin. All three were mainly concerned with making tin-plate toys for the export market.
Each company had its own distinctive style. Bing toys are noted for their solidity and attention to detail. Many of them were
handpainted, while the best of its cars also boasted opening doors and windows of bevelled glass. Bing's ships were heavily constructed, had powerful, long-running motors and could perform some complicated manoeuvres.
Marklin made a vast range of toys. It is on their solidly-made model trains, cars and ships, among the finest ever produced, that the company's reputation largely rests today. Great emphasis was put on decorative and authentic detail. Liveries, inscriptions and colours were all painstakingly reproduced. Export models were based on the real thing found in the importer's country.
By contrast, Lehmann's toys were flimsy and intentionally frivolous. A famous example is 'Tut-Tut', a car being driven erratically by a driver blowing a hunting horn. Always cheap, Lehmann toys were decorated with colourful printing, and the parts were joined with tabs rather than soldered. The motors were cheap and insubstantial, with pressed tin-plate gears and spiral rather than coil springs.
FUN FROM FRANCE
Some French firms rivalled the Germans, though a much smaller proportion of their toys were exported, and they are consequently harder to find. Fernand Martin specialized in comical figures and animals. His appealing, if rather flimsy toys often satirized Parisian society. Like
Lehmann, he believed in toys whose movements were amusing in their own right. His range included servants juggling with piles of plates, a drunkard attempting to stay upright, and lawyers arguing their cases. Martin's figures were often dressed in fabrics, and so looked more realistic than painted toys.
Another French maker, Rossignol, also made cheap, ephemeral toys, and is chiefly remembered for being the first toymaker to include a model motor car in his range.
CAR COLLECTOR'S NOTES
More than a decade ago it was possible to pick up novelty mechanical toys for a few dollars, but this is no longer the case. Even ones which show some wear and tear can now fetch hundreds or even thousands of dollars if they are interesting pieces, carry the name of a well-known maker, or have some kind of musical movement. Cars, boats, trains and aeroplanes fall into specialist collectors' areas, and prices are particularly high.
Although there are few bargains to be had, it can still he worthwhile forming a small collection of mechanical toys, particularly if mechanica things appeal to you. It's likely that these toys will hold their value so the expenditure of even a few hundred pounds could turn out to be a good investment.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN MECHANICAL TOYS
Mechanical toys in fairly good condition can he found a- the large auction houses or at toy fairs. Among the best buys are some of Lehmann's comic figures and animals. These were produced in considerable numbers, so a lot of then have survived and they can be picked up at reasonable prices.
Condition is an important consideration. Look carefully for signs of rust. It's difficult to get rid of rust once it's established, and it will ultimately destroy the value of a piece. If the decoration is badly blemished or shows signs of bubbling, it means that rust has already attacked it from below.
Before buying, test that the mechanism works and that moving parts are in working order. If the key is missing, don't worry too much.
They are standard sizes; most dealers will have a selection for you to try. Any toy which has been played with will have scratches and minor damage to the paintwork and this is acceptable; indeed, pieces in mint condition are very rare. Even badly worn toys fetch more than repainted ones, no matter how carefully it has been done. Painting a toy more than halves its value, for two main reasons. New paintwork detracts from the integrity of the piece, and makes it impossible to tell if repairs have been carried out. The original box adds to the value of a toy.
Look for makers' marks. Bing toys were marked 'G.B.N.' until 1919, and
'B.W' from then until the factory closed in 1934. Lehmann and Marklin used the companies' full names. Rossignol toys are usually marked 'C. R.', and Martin's products