Buddy ‘L’ pressed steel toys: built to last

A Buddy ‘L’ Flivver Huckster 1-ton delivery truck, 14 inches long, circa 1927-1930, sold for $9,000 + the buyer’s premium in September 2015 at Dan Morphy Auctions. Photo courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – The Buddy “L” brand is iconic among toy trucks. If you were a child during the ’30s or ’40s and and had a large dump truck, spending hours filling the truck bed with rocks or sand, chances are it was a Buddy “L.”

Buddy “L” toys were made in America’s heartland by the Moline (Illinois) Pressed Steel Co., founded by Fred A. Lundahl in 1910. The company didn’t start out in the toy business; instead first making fenders and auto body parts for International Harvester. In 1920, Lundahl made a toy truck for his only son, Arthur, whom he doted on, and used the same sheet metal utilized in the factory. Arthur, who was 5 at the time, was nicknamed “Buddy L,” as there was already a boy in the neighborhood known as Buddy. The nickname stuck and the durable and well-made toy was so admired around the neighborhood that Lundahl turned over part of his factory to start making pressed steel trucks the next year. He named the line of trucks after his son, and Buddy “L” toy vehicles have been highly sought after ever since.

This Buddy ‘L’ bus with front doors that open and fine gold striping on the sides, 29¼ inches long, brought $5,500 + the buyer’s premium in March 2019 at Dan Morphy Auctions. Photo courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Buddy “L” vehicles are renowned for their quality as well as the variety of vehicles the company made. The trucks featured a baked enamel finish, making their trucks shiner than their competitors and added to their durability. “They were made of heavier gauge steel, generally pressed steel, not iron or lesser gauge pressed steel like some other companies,” said Tom Sage, head of toys and trains at Dan Morphy Auctions in Denver, Pa. “There were other companies like them such as Keystone, Sturditoy and American National but Buddy “L” just seemed to make more trucks and have a better marketing ploy.”

Explaining the appeal of Buddy “L” toy vehicles, Sage said that they made a high-quality product that was nearly as tough and durable as their full-size counterparts. Some toy models sold for as much as $5 in the late 1920s, which would put them out of the reach of some families. “The age of the truck is not as important as the rarity of the kind of truck and the percentage of original paint,” he said. “People do buy ones that are restored. In the 1970s and ’80s that was more acceptable but now people want original trucks. You could still sell restored trucks but they bring quite a bit less.”

A Buddy ‘L’ steam shovel on black treads having a red corrugated reel and a boom and bucket done in black, realized $4,500 + the buyer’s premium in March 2016 at Bertoia Auctions. Photo courtesy of Bertoia Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Size and quality were the hallmarks of Buddy “L” vehicles, which mostly averaged between 21 and 24 inches long. The tugboat was one of the largest at 28 inches. Also collectible is a later Junior Series that features smaller vehicles, which had doors that opened. After Lundahl died in 1930, his company was sold and the new owners cut some corners, using a thinner gauge of steel. Serious collectors tend to seek out 1920s models, though the later models still sell well.

“Most of their trucks were just bigger and they made a lot of unusual variety of trucks and trains, more than anyone else,” Sage said. “You could pretty much get any truck you wanted to.”

A complete Buddy ‘L’ outdoor train set sold for $9,000 + the buyer’s premium at Bertoia Auctions in May 2019. Photo courtesy of Bertoia Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Dump trucks were affordable and prolific so collectors will gravitate to rarer examples such as a 1926 stake truck, a 1920s ice truck and others. “The most common trucks they made, or anybody made, were dump trucks. They were probably the cheapest and they were played with the most,” Sage said. “Generally when you see dump trucks … the inside of the bed is usually not in such nice condition because kids would fill it with rocks.”

Besides trucks, highly desirable are its bus and outdoor railroad cars. “Everybody wants a bus. Anything with treads on it is rare like if you had a steam shovel with treads or a car with rubber treads on the bottom.” he said. “The other thing they made that was really good was a tugboat and that is rare.” Two different style and color variations were made in the tugboat.

A Buddy ‘L’ tugboat in original condition and retaining nice factory paint, made $7,500 + the buyer’s premium in October 2020 at Milestone Auctions. Photo courtesy of Milestone Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Buddy “L” vehicles are known for their quality but also the detail that went into them such as working turntables, crank-turned buckets, pulleys or vehicles like the steam shovels that ran on caterpillar treads. Above all, they were so sturdy and durable that a child could even sit on the earlier models when thick-gauge steel was still used.

Sage compared the quality and desirability of Buddy “L” toys to Lionel trains. “If you want a train, you want a Lionel; if you want a truck, you want a Buddy L.” Offering his usual advice for new collectors, which can be taken to heart for any antique genre, he said, “Buy the best trucks you can find. I always tell people: Buy original trucks, buy trucks that are really nice in paint,” he said. “You are better off having 20 great trucks than 50 mediocre trucks because those are the ones that go up in value and those are the ones that people want.”

# # #