NEW YORK — When John E. Hubley began his company in Lancaster, Penn., in 1894, he set his sights on the model train industry. Hubley produced model trains for about 15 years, but stiff competition from Lionel and advancements in electric model train technology became too much. By 1909, the company had begun specializing in cast-iron toys, mechanical banks and doorstops.
Hubley’s toy vehicles were integral to its success, and the company continued to issue them until the 1960s, when it was bought out by Gabriel Industries. These toys have appealed to collectors for their craftsmanship and their attention to detail. They were largely mass-produced, but were hand-painted.
The range of toy vehicles that Hubley produced was dizzying — it included cars, farm and construction vehicles, motorcycles, wagons and carriages, trucks, buses and even airplanes. The company was particularly renowned for its 1:20 scale model kits of classic cars, but it offered vehicles in several scales.
Cast-iron toy motorcycles are highly sought-after by Hubley collectors. One that advanced collectors covet in particular is the Say it with Flowers cast-iron toy motorcycle, one of which sold for $27,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2022 at Bertoia Auctions. That all-original toy, measuring 10in long, retained fine detail and color to the Indian and flower decals as well as the vehicle itself.
Spanning multiple genres and interest areas, Hubley toys possess serious crossover appeal. Circus collectors as well as toy vehicle collectors would be interested in Hubley’s Royal Circus wagon toy. There were a number of entries in this circus series, which included caged animals, calliopes and clown vans. A scaled-down version, still impressive at 21in long, brought $26,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2021 at Bertoia Auctions. It featured four black draft horses pulling a red and gold wagon containing a band playing their instruments.
Carriage toys such as the circus wagon are of high interest, and Hubley made many. A circa-1906 four-seat brake toy achieved $11,000 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2017 at the RSL Auction Company. A large four-wheeled carriage was referred to in past centuries as a brake, and was typically used to train teams of young horses. This lavishly decorated toy, measuring 29-½in, is considered one of the best examples of its type. “This is a genuine ‘show-stopper’ and retains all eight original figures,” according to the auctioneer’s catalog description.
Hubley didn’t only make cast iron vehicles. In the 1930s, it also was creating die-cast zinc alloy toys in a line it named Kiddie Toy to pull market share from a rival, Tootsietoys. During World War II, most metals were redirected to the war effort. Even after the war ended, Hubley cut back on its cast-iron toy production, putting more focus on die-cast metal alloy toys, which it made through the 1970s. Even when other toy manufacturers mostly switched to plastics, Hubley focused on die-cast metal toys, distinguishing itself from its competitors.
Packard was a big deal long before the rise of Detroit’s Big Three automakers (Ford, Chrysler and General Motors). As with their full-size counterparts, Hubley’s Packards were well-detailed and showy in appearance. A red Packard Straight 8 toy sedan, 11in long, went for $9,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2023 at Bertoia Auctions. This model was released in the 1920s and came in several colors, including red, green and blue.
Besides car, carriage and motorcycle toys, Hubley also made a series of toy airplanes that paid homage to real commercial and military aircraft. The planes were manufactured in exacting detail with moving parts. Some even had landing gear that retracted.
Among the most desirable examples are Hubley’s replicas of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the Fokker F.VII Friendship in which Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly in across the Atlantic Ocean as well as a variety of airplanes, cargo planes and seaplanes. A standout is a tri-motor America plane with a 17in wingspan that earned $3,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2016 at Morphy Auctions. A tri-motor propeller plane has three internal combustion engines, usually one per wing and one placed on the nose. One of the largest toy planes made during the 1920s and 1930s, this Hubley masterpiece typically was issued in gray enamel with red accents. The Morphy’s example with unique coloring likely was a custom order or display model. “What is most unusual is that even the wing is painted a different color,” according to the auctioneer. The tires are also not the standard large black tires over nickel-plated discs — they are a smaller variety, and the discs, too, are smaller. Morphy Auctions noted in its catalog writeup for this plane toy that this is the second known example of this variation.
There is a nearly endless variety of Hubley toy vehicles, from police wagons to the Hill Climber motorcycles, but space limits this survey to a handful of highlights. Collectors of Hubley toys are as diverse as the toys they covet. They can focus their collections on all examples of a particular type, such as carriages, or toys of a particular era, or collect all examples of a chosen genre, from circus toys to construction-themed vehicles. With patience, collectors can find an abundance of pleasing Hubley toys in the price points and color variations that they seek.