One of the earliest pedal cars was a children’s version of the famous Model T Ford. Pedal car collector Gavin Shaw doesn’t have a Model T pedal car, but he does have the real thing. A pristine 1917 Model T Ford is the centrepiece of his garage, surrounded by a cluster of little cars in various states of repair and restoration.
There is a 1938 French pedal car that “has the French dust still on it”, a brewery van of unknown origin, an American truck, a Bugatti, Zephyrs Mark I and Mark II and an old racing model that lost its identity to a home paint job many years ago.
Gavin spends hours stripping house paint from pedal cars. Children of 50 years ago obviously enjoyed repainting their cars and stripping their handiwork is one of many stages in a restoration process that often starts with little more than a rusty metal frame. Missing parts are hunted down in junk shops or online, sometimes imported from overseas, where items such as steering wheels are made from the original dies, or rebuilt from scratch.
The remains of old pedal cars, no matter how dilapidated, are valuable, Gavin says. Collectors are always looking for pieces such as original hand-pressed wheels to restore. It’s helpful to have friends with panel shops, he says, but most of the rebuilding is done at home. “Our backyard has always been a paint shop,” says Gavin’s wife Denise.
The pedal cars are a recent passion, but Gavin is a lifelong car enthusiast. At age 10, he became a fan of motor racing and began collecting miniature cars. A few years later, photography caught his eye and his photographs of car racing led to jobs on overseas motoring magazines. Today he works for NZ Autocar magazine and, with Denise and partners, runs an annual car event called Speedshow.
Pedal cars for children have been around almost as long as the motor car itself. From the early 1900s, miniature versions of grown-up cars were being sold in England and the US – usually to wealthy families where children could copy their father in his new high-status automobile.
They remained a toy of the rich throughout the 1920s and 30s and went out of production altogether from 1939 to 1945, when all metal was directed to the war effort. The postwar years saw a resurgence in popularity and the pedal car became affordable for middle-class families.
Today, modern replica pedal cars are made in Asia but collectors such as Gavin are interested only in the vintage ones. He has 15 at the moment and hasn’t finished although, “I don’t want a hundred”. His old pedal cars have to be hand-assembled and plastic-free; beyond that he chooses them for their shape, style and age. “I tend to go for the sporty ones.”
Story: Pam Neville
Photographs: Jane Ussher