17 March 2022
We look at a set of tiny diecast vintage cars, with a fascinating history behind it that led to a landmark court case
While there have been a lot of miniature diecast vehicles produced over the years, the record for the tiniest would have to go to this novelty set made in Japan during the late 1950s. Appropriately called “Smallest Old Timers Ever Made”, the set was presented in a long, slim cardboard box and contained six tiny veteran cars - two each of three different designs in assorted colours.
The cars were extremely small, and were understandably crude, but were finely cast and even had separate rolling diecast wheels and axles. The cars were cast in one piece. There were slots at the front and rear that ran from above the front bumpers to the wheel arches - the wheel assemblies slotted in here - and it appears that the thin bumpers were bent upwards manually to keep the axles in place. The wheel assemblies were very tiny units comprising an axle and two eight-spoked wheels. They were diecast and surprisingly well formed, considering their tiny size.
As stated, there were three designs of old timer in each box. All were non-descript and not recognisable as any particular marque, although there were three distinct body styles. The first type was an enclosed limousine with three tall windows on each side, and split front and rear windows. The second type was an open car with seating and a very narrow representation of a driver figure holding a tiller. The third sort was a convertible which had a raised roof with three struts on each side but no seats. All cars were painted one of four colours - red, blue, dark green or yellow - and each car could be found in all four shades. Each one had “JAPAN” cast into the left-hand side of the bodywork.
Initially the cars were packaged in wide, white boxes with lift-off lids. There was a yellow label on the top with crude illustrations of the enclosed cars in assorted colours. The product name was printed above the pictures in red. Underneath was listed “COPYRIGHT SHACKMAN – A UNIQUE SET OF 6 – MOVING WHEELS – NON-TOXIC PAINT USED – MADE IN JAPAN.” Inside the box, the cars were wrapped in tissue paper.
At some point, probably during the late 1960s, the Old Timers began appearing in different packaging. The box was not as wide, as it only held four cars. It was a colourful box with red, blue and yellow printing, and a picture of four old timers (the closed car was shown twice). This time there was no mention of the importer; in fact, the only text was “SMALLEST OLD TIMERS EVER MADE” on three of the box faces and “JAPAN” in very small print. The models were unchanged and were painted the same colours. However, sometimes models in this packaging could be found with plastic wheels and axles, which were slightly smaller than the metal ones, and had thicker spokes. Usually these boxes contained all three models plus a random duplicate item, but many have been found with two closed cars and two open cars, without the closed convertible.
B. SHACKMAN & CO
The Smallest Old Timers were made in Japan, but imported into the USA by a company called B. Shackman & Co., of 5th Avenue, New York City. This firm had been founded in 1898 by Bertha Shackman, a pioneering businesswoman of German origin. The company was a wholesaler of cheap greeting cards, stationery, toys and novelties, supplying ‘nickel and dime’ stores, drugstores and gift shops. Bertha died in 1925 at the age of 75 after being hit by a car, and the company was taken over by her grandson, who ran it until the 1980s.
B. Shackman & Co. initially imported goods from Europe, and early products included dolls, crayons, paper dolls and toy animals. During the 1950s, more items were sourced from Japan, including the Old Timers. At this time, the term ‘Made in Japan’ was synonymous with cheap, shoddy or poorly-made products.
The Smallest Old Timers Ever Made set was the subject of a court case in October 1961. The hearing was in the First Division of the United States Customs Court (now called the United States Court of International Trade) and was presided over by Chief Judge Webster Oliver. The case, known as B. Shackman & Co. Inc. vs United States, involved the amount of import tax paid on the Old Timer sets. The sets were classified by US Customs as toys, which carried 35% import duty. However, Shackman claimed they were not toys, but novelties intended for display purposes, which had a lower import tax rate. The company claimed that the Old Timers were too fragile to be used as children’s playthings. A description of the models was given in the court records as follows:
“A sample of the merchandise in question is in evidence (plaintiff’s exhibit 1). It consists of tiny automobiles made to represent models that are now obsolete. Each model measures approximately three-quarters of 1 inch long, one-half of 1 inch high, and having a tread width of one-half of 1 inch. Six models are packed in a small cardboard container or box. Pasted on the cover of the cardboard box is a coloured label with the title ‘SMALLEST OLD TIMERS EVER MADE’, with illustrations of the six models contained therein. Each of the models is appropriately painted. They are so fragile that they will not withstand the slightest handling, which was shown during the course of the trial, when the plaintiff’s witness completely crumbled one of the tiny automobiles.”
The plaintiff, an employee of Shackman, provided evidence to show that the Old Timers were not being distributed to toy stores, and were mainly supplied to auto museums such as the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit and the Sturbridge Auto Museum in Massachusetts, where they were sold as souvenirs.
Judge Oliver agreed with the plaintiff, and B. Shackman & Co. won the case. The judge summed up “The general appearance of these automobile models shows that the articles are obviously novelties and that they are designed for display purposes. They are so light in construction as to be entirely impractical for use as playthings for children.”
In my opinion, the Old Timers are not as fragile as the verdict would lead one to believe. They can put up with a limited amount of handling, but would be easily broken if mistreated or stepped on, and are certainly not suitable for children. In addition to being sold at auto museums, they have been also been found at joke and novelty shops. Some unusual places where they were sold include hobby shops for use as miniature toys in dolls' houses, and even at cake shops as birthday cake toppers.
Given the age of the Old Timer sets, they are surprisingly easy to locate today. Models still in the packaging are usually in good condition with no traces of metal fatigue, even in the tiny wheels. Apparently, several cartons of the later four-pack sets were recently found at an old warehouse in the USA, resulting in large numbers flooding the market and selling for very low prices – so they should be easy to add to your collection. And special thanks to Judge Oliver, for ruling that miniature cars can be collectables and not just toys.