Collectors of all ages have discovered the charm of RV-inspired toys.
By John Brunkowski and Michael Closen, F158241
In the early 1900s, shortly after the gasoline-powered automobile became popular, the first improvised recreation vehicles began to appear. This led to the first production RVs, which became available in the 1920s and 1930s. Not long after that, the earliest RV toys began showing up. Since then, virtually every toy vehicle maker has designed one or more miniature camping vehicles, including many motorhome toys.
Companies in both the United States and abroad, with names such as Buddy L, Corgi, Dinky, Hot Wheels, Matchbox, Nylint, Solido, Tonka, Tootsietoy, and Wyandotte, to name just a few, have made high-quality toy RVs at one time or another. We have collected toy RVs from places such as Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and several other countries.
Not surprisingly, every type of RV has been re-created in smaller scale as a toy “” travel trailers of all sorts and type A, B, and C motorhomes. The earliest RV toys were travel trailers, because true motorhomes like those seen today simply had not been developed yet. The inclusion of toy motorhomes did not occur until the first production motorhomes hit the highways in the 1960s.
Hundreds and hundreds of RV toys have been produced in sizes ranging from miniatures to coaches upon which a small child could ride, in a variety of materials (including cast iron, steel, tin, cardboard, rubber, plastic, and so forth), and in a vast array of colors.
Naturally, nearly all RV toys were originally meant to be played with by children. Several companies have even marketed toy RVs that are oversized, sturdy, lightweight, and free of sharp edges, especially for very young kids. Plenty of parents and grandparents have given their children and grandchildren toy RVs, hoping this might spark their interest in camping. After all, some of the reasons for the popularity of family camping are to introduce youngsters to the outdoors, to the different types of camping, and to the experiences and values that are fostered. It is something the whole family can still do together.
In earlier generations, not as many RV toys were produced, so many of the oldest toys from the 1930s through the 1950s have not survived. Those that did are typically not in very good condition, since children had delighted in playing with them. More recently, far more RV toys have been manufactured, and adults have begun to collect and preserve them. This trend falls in line with the increased interest among the general population in traveling by RV, especially motorhomes.
Since RV travel began, the number of folks participating in the pastime has increased dramatically at an almost continuous pace, interrupted only in the 1930s and ’40s by the Great Depression and World War II. By 1925, the book Camping By The Highway, published by Field & Stream, reported that “the number of auto campers [the phrase then used to describe all types of RVs] has mounted well up into the millions.” By 1961 camping had grown so much that the July 14 cover of Time magazine featured a rare two-page foldout entitled “Camping: Call of the Not So Wild,” depicting several RVs at the center of a busy camping scene followed by an eight-page article showing pictures of campgrounds with several more RVs. Little wonder that motorhome production began to take off and RV toys started to become popular.
Many of us have collected toy RVs, either since we were children or at least once we reached adulthood and became interested in camping and RVing. That’s how we both got started. John began collecting Matchbox vehicles at age 8 in the 1960s, and the very first RV model that he bought was a Volkswagen camper for 55 cents, a considerable sum for a youngster back then. Mike didn’t begin collecting RV toys until around 20 years ago when he first began RVing. The two activities just seem to go hand-in-hand. Think of how many boaters collect model boats; how many motorcyclists collect toy motorcycles; and how many pilots collect model planes.
Active collectors like us have accumulated hundreds of RV toys, both old and new. In fact, many of today’s high-end RV collectibles are made specifically for adults. One British company, Brooklin Models, includes this disclaimer on its boxes: “[F]or adult collectors and not suitable for use as a child’s toy.” The German company Busch Automodelle warns, in three languages: “Not suitable for children under 8 years of age.” The most interesting disclaimer we have seen is this somewhat proud caution from an adhesive label on the bottom of a model Airstream trailer sold by Pottery Barn: “This is not a toy. It is a collectable adult art object … Please keep away from children.” Take that, kids.
In the photos that accompany this article, we present a small sampling of favorite RV models from our collections. We hope you like them. We have tried to be as accurate as possible in our descriptions, but the data about RV toys is sometimes uncertain, sometimes unknown. Most of the boxes in which the toys were packaged are long gone, and few toys have markings printed anywhere on them. The search for correct information about these toys is part of the fun of collecting them.
Lots of good finds are still around today, and at affordable prices. Toy RVs can be located at estate sales, toy stores, online auctions, garage sales, and almost anywhere. John found the most valuable piece in his collection among a stack of other items at a flea market, while Mike’s best find was a rare toy camper that was collecting dust in the rafters of an antiques store, long forgotten by the store’s owner.
Maybe the big kid in you should consider collecting toy RVs. Then you, too, can possess a small piece of history.