For as long as adults have been driving, kids have been pedalling. All the way back to 1890 and the dawn of the automobile, every make and model had its tiny, child-powered twin, from the Mercedes Benz to the Model T Ford.
Like the first automobiles, early factory-made pedal cars were toys for the wealthy, and they showed it. Most were perfect copies of the full-sized versions, from carefully-painted trim to real rubber tires (sometimes including a spare) to licence plates and working horns and headlights.
The pedal car was wildly popular from the turn of the century all the way to 1960s, with a small break in the middle for World War 2, when steel was requisitioned for the war effort. After the war, general prosperity and improvements in manufacturing meant that kids of all classes could afford to pedal a mini-Studebaker or a pint-sized Pontiac through their cul-de-sac.
Our own model is a Murray Steelcraft V-Front, manufactured somewhere between 1960 and 1968. Murray Steelcraft were one of two major North American pedal car makers, both based in Ohio. The V-Front design was based loosely the American muscle car, which at the time was synonymous with speed and machismo. When it was new our pedal car probably had painted details, like headlights, racing stripes, or the brand name painted on the side, but now these are covered with a layer of red barn paint. The only indication of the manufacturer is a small “M” stamped on the hubcaps.
The 1960s were the last great age of the metal pedal car. In the 1970s the arrival of the plastic Big Wheel and Cozy Coupe, along with improved health and safety standards, caused sales to decline sharply. Companies were forced to diversify; in the 1970s Steelcraft of Murray switched to producing lawn mowers.
Each pedal car, like our little metal Murray, is a microcosm of their time and the kids that coveted and pedalled them. They tell us what they were supposed to learn, what they dreamed of being when they grew up, and how they spent their time. Whether it’s a wooden wagon or a metal car or a plastic plane or a virtual-reality fighter jet, kids (and adults) love things that go– a rule that applied in 1960, and still does today.