Tonka: America’s Favorite Toys - Truck Trend Legends
America’s Favorite Toys
It’s perhaps too easy to get all misty-eyed and wistful about the past, especially when it concerns our old toys, but there really is something different about Tonka. Here were tough trucks, cranes, and steam shovels made from 20-gauge automotive-grade steel by a workforce that lived in an American small-town community. They were built to last and were often (though no doubt begrudgingly in many cases) handed down to younger siblings. Now there are collectors and old models fetch prices that would have seemed outrageous when they were first manufactured (for example, $3,000 for a 1957 Trailer Rental Set still in its original box).
Even the name is evocative and romantic. Coming from the language of the Dakota Sioux people, “tonka” could be translated as “large” or “great.” Just near the city of Mound, Minnesota, where the company was first established, is Lake Minnetonka. The brand certainly wouldn’t have had such success if it had kept its original name: Mound Metalcraft. This was after the Second World War, and three men (Lynn Everett Baker, Avery F. Crounse and Alvin F. Tesch) were heading an operation that made gardening implements. Their idea of diversification was to come up with a metal tie rack.
That all changed in 1947 when Ed Streater walked into their converted schoolhouse office. He had the idea of making a toy truck out of pressed steel. Streater had the tooling and wanted to sell the whole setup. Baker and his boys said yes. They even acquired the services of Streater’s designer, Charlie Groschen. Gordon Batdork, a former chief of operations, credits himself with suggesting the Tonka name. This was applied initially to the range of toys, and the firm eventually became Tonka Toys, Inc. on January 1, 1956.
The first toys were the #100 steam shovel and the #150 Crane and Clam. Soon after came dump trucks, box vans, semis, wreckers, forklifts and fire trucks. An initial run of 37,000 toys, considered a year’s worth of inventory, sold out in months. Tonka’s first pickup came out in 1955, and a Jeep came along in 1962. Then the distinctive yellow Mighty line debuted in 1965, and the Mighty Dump Truck became the company’s biggest seller. It’s still in production, although now it’s called the Classic Mighty Dump Truck. Also in the Mighty line were the Bulldozer, Wrecker, Loadmaster, Shovel, and Car Carrier.
It hasn’t always been onward and upward for the company, however. The economic boom of the ’50s was fine, but when the Korean and Vietnamese conflicts happened, steel was needed elsewhere. Tonka even had a deal with Ford to take the Blue Oval’s window blanks (the pieces stamped out of metal panels where vehicle windows would go). The original factory actually had a system much like Ford’s mass-production line of real vehicles, where 400,000 toys could be made in a week. By 1969, a study found that American families had an average of 5.4 Tonka toys each.
There was a period of overreaching in 1987 when the company went into debt to buy Parker Brothers, the makers of the Monopoly board game. Paying the interest on that debt became such a burden that Tonka itself had to be sold. In 1991, Hasbro (makers of G.I. Joe, Transformers toys, and Mr. Potato Head, among many others) paid $516 million for the privilege.
Manufacturing moved from Minnesota to El Paso, Texas, in 1983, but that was comparatively short-lived because production then went to China in 1997. Some of the toys are still made of steel and still cool enough to make you want to buy one—however, now there are plastic Tonka toys too. That didn’t stop Tonka from being inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in Rochester, New York, on March 28, 2001. For a more specialized experience, people who are bonkers about Tonkas should head to the Winifred Museum in Winifred, Montana, where more than 3,000 Tonka toys (said to be the largest such collection in the world) are on display. Tonka might also be following the likes of Lego, since Sony Pictures began production of an animated movie featuring everyone’s favorite toy trucks in 2012.
The toys are so elemental to truck culture that even auto manufacturers try to cash in on the cachet: Ford has built several F-Series concepts inspired by Tonka trucks, and Toyota showed a Tonka-edition Tundra at the 2014 SEMA Show. In fact, we’d bet that lots of truck fanatics can trace their obsession to the Tonka trucks they played with in their sandboxes as little kids. They might not be “real” trucks, but they certainly play their role in work-vehicle history.