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Precursors of the Tonka Jeep

1940's toys by Marx, and Wood Commodities

by Bart McNeil
 

The time was 1944 - 1945. The Second World War was coming to an end. Toy manufacturers could see that at the end of the war a market for toys of all types would develop instantly and some wartime toys would become instantly obsolete. During the war manufacturers had focused on military contracting, and the production of toys of all kinds was curtailed significantly. Military toys were an exception to this but they tended to be quite small in scale and very simply made of cast pot metal or rubber. Large stamped sheet metal toys were not manufactured to any degree because of rationing of steel and rubber, and companies like Marx devoted their skills to producing military items. (Note: see also postwar cast aluminum toy Jeeps by Al-Toy and others.)

Wood Commodities Corp. of NY had gotten around this by manufacturing wooden jeeps during the war. They were large, durable and they found a market, but it was clear that once material became available for more realistic jeep toys, the wooden jeeps would become obsolete. My understanding is that the only toy vehicles made by NY Wood Commodities were military vehicles -- I only have reference to one wooden tank and two wooden jeeps. They needed to be ready to change.

The Marx Jeep

Louis Marx and Company was already a dominant force in the American toy manufacturing community. It had big time clout, and its planning for postwar jeep toy production took a little different slant. Marx and several other companies had made sturdy heavy duty stamped steel toy cars for years. Toward the end of the war automotive designers were basing their designs on pre-war autos and it would be several years before significant changes would take place. The jeep offered a possibility that other autos didn't. Although the jeep had remained almost unchanged for the majority of the war it had become engrained in the consciousness of veterans and veterans' children. For many young soldiers it was the only vehicle they had experienced first hand.

Marx Jeeps

The design of the Marx Jeep must have been done in collaboration with the Willys-Overland company. The Marx Jeep incorporated postwar Willys features in its design. This dates its origin to 1944/1945, while Willys was working on a civilian version of the jeep. When Willys finally produced the CJ-2A in 1945 it had features distinctly different than its military parent. For instance: the Marx Jeep uses seven openings in its grille instead of the military nine. The Marx Jeep uses the protruding headlights found on 1945 CJ-2As. Perhaps most significant is the front bumper weight located just behind the front bumper and stretching from frame to frame. This 275 lb. weight had two hand holes at each end for use as handles. Its function was to equalize traction when pulling very heavy loads such as when plowing a field. The bumper weight was introduced as an option on the first postwar Jeep, the CJ-2A. It was never used on military jeeps.

It is true that any designer could have gleaned the above information from Saturday Evening Post ads which ran prior to the end of WW2 and revealed some of Willys' thinking about postwar civilian jeeps. There is another clue however to suggest that Marx designed their Jeeps with the blessing and possibly assistance of the Willys-Overland Corporation. The name "WILLYS" is stamped on the bumper weight, both sides of the hood, and the windscreen. "JEEP" is stamped on both sides next to the seats and on the dashboard. (See a detail photo, 30K JPEG.) This is important because Willys was at that time trying to establish the exclusive legal right to use the term "Jeep". But it was not until 1950 that Willys, and no one else, could claim the legal right to the name. Willys almost certainly saw the Marx toy as an opportunity to publicize their claim to the name Jeep. The "JEEP" stamped on the sides of the body is twice the size and boldness of any other stampings. If nothing else, this could help convince thousands of pre-teen boys that "JEEP" and "WILLYS" were the same.

So when Marx produced its postwar Jeep it was not just a jeep. It was a WILLYS JEEP. My view is that the Marx Jeep must have been created with Willys-Overland's enthusiastic support. Without their support Marx might have been open to an expensive lawsuit. I also believe that the fact that the Marx name is found nowhere on the Jeep, and the only trade names or logos on the Jeep are "WILLYS" and "JEEP," might indicate that Marx was willing to understate its own role in order to capitalize on the Willys name and jeep history from WW2.

On later editions of the Marx Jeep, the Marx logo was used. See Toy Jeeps by Marx on CJ3B.info.)

The Wood Commodities Corporation Jeep

I have a vague memory of visiting my cousin's house and seeing what I surmised to be a Marx Jeep like those of my friends, and realizing at some point that it was different with a more detailed grill. That is really all I remember. It is quite possible that my uncle had bought my cousin a Wood Commodities Jeep.

New York Wood Commodities

I know nothing about the Wood Commodities Corporation and it is unlikely that anyone else knows very much either. In Richard O'Brien's Collecting Toy Cars and Trucks (Kraus Publications, 1997), Wood Commodities Corporation is listed with three illustrated products. Two wooden jeeps are illustrated, one slightly more sophisticated than the other (see photo by Perry R. Eichor, 40K JPEG). They appear to be entirely of wood with the exception of the axles and the steering collumn which appear to be nails. The only other product listed is a wooden tank.

The next listing in O'Brien's book is "Wood Products Corporation" and their product is a steel Jeep very similar to the Marx Jeep, but slightly smaller. It is certain that the "Wood Products Corporation" is in fact the Wood Commodities Corporation and the Jeep shown is the Wood Commodities Corporation steel Jeep which we are discussing.

The Wood Commodities Corporation Jeep is sometimes referred to by collectors as the "New York Wood Jeep."

A Comparison

(This compares the early Marx Jeep and the only steel Wood Commodities Corporation Jeep.)

Overall proportions: Both Jeeps are similar in overall proportion and are fairly accurate representations of real Jeeps.

Wheel and axle location: Marx Jeep has front wheels extending 1/10 their diameter in front of the grill. This places the bumper fairly unrealistically close to the grill. The Wood Products Jeep has its front wheels extending roughly 1/5 their diameter in front of the grill. The bumper then is located in fairly accurate position relative to real Jeeps.

Bumper: The Marx Jeep bumper is unique among Jeep toys. The space between grille and bumper is filled with what in reality was a "bumper weight," a 275-pound weight designed to equalize traction when pulling heavy farm machinery such as a plow. It was offered on the very first civilian Jeeps but never on military. The bumper weight adds strength to the bumper and is partly responsible for the number of Marx Jeeps still in reasonable shape.

The Wood Commodities Jeep has a more conventional bumper. A true "frame" extends out to the bumper, which is welded to the frame. The bumper is flat with a lip folded over between either side of the frame. This lends strength to the flat bumper, at least between the frame members. This is an oddity of the Wood, because it surely would have been easy to fabricate a U-channel bumper as on real military and civilian Jeeps, but instead they chose a bumper which never existed on any jeep.

Grille: The Marx Jeep's vertical grille has its seven openings debossed (pressed into) into the metal which, while satisfactory, is less realistic than the NY Wood Jeep which has its grille and parking light openings actually punched out.

Headlights and parking lights: Both have "button" type headlights attached to the grille. The Wood Commodities Jeep has them colored metallic yellow. Marx has debossed parking lights while the Wood Commodities Jeep has holes and attached parking lights. (These are missing from mine.)

Hood: The hoods of the Marx and Wood Commodities Jeeps are very similar although Marx has four windshield bumpers on its hood while the Wood toy has none. The hood construction on both is, to layman's eyes, unusual. While it would have been very easy to stamp out a realistic hood, both companies chose to stamp out the hood and the top of the fenders as a single unit. If one lifts the hood of either , and examines the engine compartment one can see how fenders could fairly easily been fabricated simply by bending existing material into a fender top shape. However that would have added two steps to the manufacturing process. From a cost point of view, the stamped hood and fender unit makes sense.

Windshield: Both windshields are constructed identically, however the proportions of the Marx Jeep windshield are more accurate than the Wood Commodities Jeep which omits much of the large flat metal area under the glass. The glass is brought almost down to the cowl when in reality it would start about 10 inches (25 cm) above the cowl.

Wood Commodities rear view

Dashboard and Steering Wheel: Marx has no gauges indicated on the dash, while Wood has a decal fairly accurately revealing gauges, parking brake handle and three data plates at right (see photo above). The decal is based on a military dashboard. The Marx steering wheel is a flat disk punched out. The Wood steering wheel is finely proportioned and three-dimensional in appearance.

Seats: The backs of the Marx front seats are rolled over slightly at the sides and very slightly at the top. This gives three-dimensionality and strength to the seat backs. (See a rear view photo, 40K JPEG.) Wood took a slightly different approach to the backs of the front seats. In order to strengthen them, a panel was embossed in their backs giving a slightly 3 dimensional appearance and suggesting an upholstered back. In addition, the top 1/8" or so is folded over on itself to lend strength to the top edge of the seats.

The Wood rear seat also has an embossed panel lending strength and giving the appearance of an upholstered back on the rear seat. The rear seat back is in fact double strength. Two sheets of steel form the seat back while the top 1/8" of the inside sheet folds over the rear sheet. This seems to correct one of the major weaknesses in the Marx Jeep; the tendency for the rear seat backrest to bend outward (backwards) from hard play. The second sheet of steel on the rear seat back serves almost no purpose other than to strengthen the back. It drops all the way down to the bottom of the body, where a tab folds out and becomes the trailer hitch. These two layers are in addition to the actual Jeep body. Altogether the three layers of steel lend unusual strength to the rear of the Wood Commodities jeep.

Tires: The rims and tires on the first Marx Jeeps are unpainted pressed steel, representing fairly thin generic truck-type tires. The Wood Commodities toy has hard rubber non-directional military-type tires.

Note: later versions of the Marx Jeep had different wheels. See a photo of three later Marx examples (60K JPEG) showing metal wheels painted black, metal wheels lithographed with white details, and finally rubber wheels marked "LUMAR" (another trade name for Louis Marx and Co.) These rubber wheels were not specific to Jeeps but were actually truck tires for use on any number of Marx toys.

The standard position of the spare tire on Marx Jeeps is on the side, similar to civilian Jeeps, while the Wood Commodities Jeep locates the spare on the right hand side of the rear, as on military Jeeps.

Marx Navy searchlight

Color: Over the years the Marx Jeep has come with variations in accessories and in a variety of colors (see for example the Navy searchlight Jeep above). The early ones however, are usually all red, or red bodied with silver or yellow windshield. The Wood Commodities Jeep was apparently always red.

General construction:

Early Marx Jeep Wood Commodities Jeep
Length11-3/4 inches10-3/4 inches
Width5 inches4-3/4 inches
Body material sheet steel (pressed)sheet steel (pressed)
Number of parts 11 12
Steel joining techniques:
Welds 10 22
Bent tabs 7 2
Rivets 5 5
Mfg. label No mfg. identification. Only "MADE IN USA" "WOOD COMMODITIES CORP. NEW YORK 17, N.Y. MADE IN U.S.A."

 

Conclusions

While the Marx and the Wood Commodities Jeeps at first appear the same, in fact they are different not only in size but in subtleties of construction. They are close enough though, that it's a safe bet that one was designed with the other in mind.

My theory is that the Marx Jeep came first and the Wood Commodities toy was designed a short time later. While basing their design on the Marx version, it seems that each factor in the Marx was analyzed and "improved". Many of these improvements are so subtle as to be unnoticeable at first glance. But they are there and they must have added considerable cost to the production of the Wood Commodities toy. Most telling are the twenty-two spot welds on the Wood Commodities Jeep compared with 10 on the Marx version. Perhaps so much that in the long run they could not compete with the Marx toy which was manufactured almost without significant change up to the mid-1970's.

Both the Marx and the Wood Commodities Jeep are fantastic toys and deserve a place of honor in any toy collection. The "best" is the one the collector had as a child.

-- Bart McNeil


Thanks to Bart for his examination of these classic Jeep toys, and to Mike Slaight for photos. Further information on these early toys and the later Marx Jeeps is welcome. -- Derek Redmond


Al-Toy
See Al-Toy Aluminum Toy Jeeps for postwar cast aluminum toys by Al-Toy, Oglesby, and West-Craft.

Also on CJ3B.info, see Sandbox Jeeps of the 1950s.
 

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Last updated 24 October 2000 by Derek Redmond redmond@cj3b.info
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All content not credited and previously copyright, is copyright Derek Redmond