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Toying with diecast zinc: the strength and finish of zinc and the detail and cost-effective of diecasting have helped make the diecast toy car industry a mainstay in children's and hobbyist's entertainment.

For the last 50 years, they have been a standard presence in children's toyboxes around the world. And for almost as long, they have been the focus of thousands of avid collectors. Most are small enough to fit in the palm of a child's hand, but diecast toy cars have a heavy history that reflects the innovations in diecasting during the past 100 years and forecasts a future that is diverse enough to satisfy its customers, no matter the age.

Diecast toy cars have been produced since the early 1900s. One of the first American diecast cars in production was the Model T Ford, which is still replicated by toy car producers today. Although the models from the first years of diecast cars are crude, the tradition of taking a real automobile and scaling it down to model-size continues. Current diecast car manufacturers produce replicas of vehicles produced in major automotive plants today, such as the Ford Mustang GT concept car or Chevrolet Silverado truck.

The material for producing these diecast cars has changed, and the diecasting process has evolved to better replicate the intricate detailing of the cars. But what hasn't changed is the charm of a miniature blue convertible and the sound of its wheels rolling across a hardwood floor.

Running Start

The first American company to produce diecast cars was the Dowst Brothers Manufacturing Co. of Chicago, which eventually called its line of cars "Tootsietoys." Originally a publishing company, the firm acquired a new linotype casting machine, which the Dowst brothers had seen at the world's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Keystrokes on the type-casting machine retrieved letter molds from the machine's storage container and lined up the molds in a row. Once a line of molds was assembled, the machine poured molten lead alloy into the molds. This produced a complete line of type in reverse, which could be read properly after ink was transferred from the casting to paper.

The brothers soon found they could produce other things using the type-casting machine, such as collar buttons, tiny animals, rings, whistles and other small novelty items. Many of these items were used as prizes in Cracker Jack boxes. In 1901, the Dowst Brothers produced their first cast car, which resembled an Oldsmobile. By 1909, the company had published a catalogue of its products, which included several miniature cars. The Dowst Brothers' first true 3-D diecast model was a tiny black limousine produced in 1911.

In the diecasting process, pressure is used to force molten metal into a metal mold/die. Once the metal has cooled, the die is opened and the casting comes out. This new process allowed the toymakers to produce components with much finer detail than previously produced.

At about the same time, France's Simon and Rivolett and the U.K.'s Dinky Toys introduced their first diecast toy cars. Diecast cars caught on, and as more companies began manufacturing them, the toys' popularity grew throughout the next decades.

Because the toys were produced and sold so inexpensively, the cars continued to be hot items during the Great Depression, and by the 1950s, the improved diecasting process greatly increased the quality of the toys. Closer, more detailed replicas of the automobiles could be made. The well-known diecast toy manufacturer, Matchbox, whose name is synonymous with diecast cars among collectors, began in the 1950s, bringing in the era of diecast cars with which most are familiar today.

Premium and Unleaded

The first diecast cars, like most other early die castings, were made of lead. The introduction of a new zinc alloy, however, provided harder material properties, better castability and finer detail. Zinc toys also were much safer for children to play with than lead.

Nearly all diecast toy cars today are made of a zinc alloy that contains 3-4% aluminum, 1-2% copper and less than 1% magnesium. The complex shapes produced by zinc alloys are the closest any metallic alloy system can come to those which can be molded in thermoplastics. Zinc diecastings can be made with wall thicknesses to 0.02 in., and the wear and tear of the alloy on the diecasting tool is less than that of other alloys due to its lower heat content per unit volume and its lower casting temperature.

The surface finish on a diecast zinc component is unsurpassed by any other diecast metal. In addition, electroplated and painted finishes can equal or exceed the aesthetic qualities of similar finishes on molded thermoplastics. The toy industry is a major end-use market for zinc diecasters. Worldwide, 18% of zinc die castings are used in toy or sport applications, according to the International Zinc Association.

Shifting Gears

As a manufacturing process, diecasting was not a widespread production method until after the first World War, when the use of high pressures to force the shot of molten metal into the mold became more common. Earlier diecasting methods used low pressure to inject the metal into the mold.

Diecasting became a widespread manufacturing process because complex parts could be produced at a high volume for a relatively low price. Although the tooling for diecasting is more expensive than other metalcasting methods, the volume of parts produced and the speed at which they can be produced makes the process cost-effective. A diecast part, such as a toy car, can be produced with a cycle time of seconds.

Coasting Along

Despite the toy industry's recent suffusion of electronic toys, diecast cars continue to find a steady market. The supercategory of toy vehicles (including cars manufactured from other processes and materials) was a $1.8 billion industry in the U.S. in 2005, according to the Toy Industry Association Inc. The extreme detail which can be achieved via diecasting has allowed today's toy cars to expertly mirror the sophistication of the modern automobile. And the highly efficient diecasting process has kept the price of the diecast toys low. Many kids today can still buy a new toy car for $1.

This replication and affordability have kept both collectors and kids loyal to the industry. Collectors enjoy finding cars with unique detailing, interesting history and sentimental connections. Kids get a kick out of owning their own fleet of "fast" cars, and the strength found in diecast zinc makes these toys durable enough to withstand several hundred fiery crashes off the kitchen table.

For More Information

"Diecast Zinc, "L.J. Baran and H. Bakemeyer, Engineered Casting Solutions 2005 Casting Source Directory, p. 42-43.

Shannon Kruse, Associate Editor

By the Numbers: 18

The percentage of world zinc diecasting production that is used toward toys and sports applications in 2003, according to the International Zinc Assn.

Paying Around

Miniature cars aren't the only toys produced via metalcasting. Toys completely made of cast metal or featuring a metalcasting part can be found throughout toy and sporting goods stores. Some noteworthy cast metal playthings include:

Monopoly Game Tokens--These game tokens, including a shoe, flatiron. roadster, top hat and Scottish terrier, are diecast items, usually made of pewter. During the metal shortage of World War II, the game featured wooden game pieces, but when the war ended, metal pieces were used once again.

Golf Club Heads--Many golf club heads today: are pro investment casting, which allows manufacturers to redistribute the weight of the club to help increase the accuracy of shots.

Pedal Tractors--Pedaled toys, such as trikes and child-size tractors, give children their first feeling of driving on wheels. Many of these modes of transportation contain cast parts. This pedal tractor consists of two cast metal halves fastened together, lending durability to a toy that is sure to see its fair share of bumps and bruises.
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Author:Kruse, Shannon
Publication:Modern Casting
Date:Jan 1, 2007
Words:1275
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