I like to use Nomura tin cars, and other similar postwar Japanese toys, on my train layout. The cars are simple and have attractive tin lithography on them. I think they fit in well with tin lithographed trains, and my tin downtown that my trains run around and through in circles.
People who like Japanese tin like it a lot. But there’s not a ton of information about it out there, although this all-Japanese layout does have a nice mix of information (in English) and pictures. And he talks about different Japanese trains than I do, though there’s nothing at all wrong with Mito and Mizuno.
Japanese penny toys
There was a time when cheap toys came from Japan, rather than from Hong Kong, Taiwan, or China. This was true prior to World War II, and in the years immediately after, the United States encouraged toy production there. If we helped rebuild Japan’s economy, the logic went, they wouldn’t have reason to go back to war.
These toys were cheap. Early on, a single car might sell for a penny. By the early 1970s, a package of three or four cars still sold for less than a dollar in stores like Woolworth’s. They were the equivalent of cheap plastic toys of today, and Woolworth’s was the Dollar Tree of its day. In the 1950s, plastic toys weren’t cheap yet. Tin toys were.
Nomura and its competitors also made larger, more elaborate cars from tin. These were recognizable interpretations of cars you’d see on the road at the time. They cost more, of course. Andrew Ralston documented these cars in his book Tinplate Toy Cars of the 1950s and 1960s from Japan.
But let’s talk about the cheapies.
Nomura tin cars
I’ve seen Nomura tin cars in packages as few as three and as many as 10. They usually include a police car, a taxi, and a fire chief’s car. Some had friction motors in them. Others freewheeled, like a Hot Wheels car. They’re about 3 1/2 inches long and 1 1/2 inches wide, bigger than a Hot Wheels car. They scale out to about 1:55 scale, nearly identical in size to a modern Disney/Pixar Cars toy. Vertically they’re a bit short, but they probably couldn’t have stamped the body out in one piece if they’d made them any taller.
The cars all used the same stamping. They just used different lithography to make the car look different. US toy makers like Marx reused designs too. It helped keep prices down.
Nomura used another Marx trick. Take a look next to the bumper of this car. It’s red. I think it was supposed to be a fire chief’s car. When a sheet didn’t pass quality control, you could flip it over, print or plate the other side, and stamp it for other parts. Marx and Hafner did this a lot. Someone taught Nomura the same trick.
Although they are several decades old now, occasionally a stash of these toys turns up somewhere.
Loose, these cars are worth a few dollars. The better condition they are in, the more they sell for, since there’s very little you can do about scratched-up, beat-up lithography. A mint package sells for a bit more. Price depends on the number of cars in the package.
Nomura tin trucks
I’ve also seen some tin litho trucks that I (and others) think were Nomura products. The trucks are approximately the same size as the Nomura tin cars, so they scale out smaller. If you like tin, you can’t worry too much about scale. I’ve seen an oil truck, a lumber truck, and a school bus, from the same stamping. I own an oil truck.
Although I have not seen the trucks in package, I have seen the cars in a package of three. So I think it’s likely the oil truck, school bus and lumber truck also came as a group.
Nomura also had a stamping that looks a lot like the truck that they printed with different lithography to make it look like a panel truck or station wagon. I don’t see the station wagons as frequently as the trucks though. The design had a great deal of versatility. But kids like trucks more than they like station wagons, so they probably printed more trucks, and more trucks probably survived.
Nomura’s trademark was a stylized “TN” in a circle. Nomura tin cars had the trademark along with the words “Made in Japan” lithographed on them. The trademark stood for “Toys Nomura.” It was based in Tokyo. The U.S. toy maker Hasbro bought out Nomura in 1992. Nomura toys first appeared sometime around 1952, so it lasted about 40 years. That’s a pretty good run.
There is a company today by the name of T.N. Nomura in Japan, but it is a different company. It was founded in 2001. “Nomura” means “forest” or “woods” in Japanese, so it’s not too surprising someone else adopted the name.
Sometimes other companies would buy Nomura products and distribute them under their own name. Cragstan, a U.S. importer, did this with some of Nomura’s bigger and nicer toy cars. Whether Nomura sold them themselves or through a distributor, the cars still had the Nomura trademark on them.