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A Bird in the Hand

Along with this hardtop, the CM Ford Thunderbird also came in a convertible version.

 by Douglas R. Kelly


Along with this hardtop, the CM Ford Thunderbird also came in a convertible version.
Along with this hardtop, the CM Ford Thunderbird also came in a convertible version.



American toys that are made in Asia are nothing new. Over the last 35 years, many American producers have switched production to China. Before that, Japan and Hong Kong were toy manufacturing powerhouses. While Japanese tinplate toys have been popular with collectors since the 1970s, plastic playthings from Hong Kong took longer to register with most hobbyists.

Granted, many plastic toys from Hong Kong truly are cheaply made, throwaway items. But starting in the 1950s, a few of the more ambitious manufacturers turned out higher quality toy cars for the American and British markets. A few months back, two such models turned up unexpectedly on eBay.
Cragstan, an importer/distributor based in New York, put its name on countless toy cars and trucks from Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s, including a beautiful Ford Thunderbird that came with a friction motor. At eight inches in length, it was around 1:24 scale, and it was made both in convertible and hardtop versions. I had never seen one “in the flesh,” as it’s a rare bird today in any condition. But I had a couple of photos to go by, from the pages of Andrew Ralston’s excellent book, Toy Cars of Japan and Hong Kong, which I’ve found to be a very useful resource over the years.
When I came across these two examples on eBay, I initially thought that both were damaged and incomplete, due to the seller posting odd photos of them in the listing. Both appeared to be missing parts of a couple of wheels and also the rear fender of one of them appeared damaged. It looked like the photos had been silhouetted using image editing software, but it was hard to tell what was what. The price—$40 each—tended to reinforce my impression of damaged models. So I pinged the seller and asked about their condition, and received a prompt reply saying that both were in complete and original condition and how does $35 apiece sound?
I hit the Buy It Now button as I was still reading that sentence, still thinking that something had to be wrong with these two T-birds. To find one at such a bargain price would have made my week, but two of them together …
When they arrived, I was surprised to find that the seller had been correct: both toys were what I consider perfect condition originals, both were in their original and complete boxes, and the friction motors worked just fine. They’re based on the 1958-1960 model Thunderbird, also known affectionately as the “Squarebird.” The Hong Kong model was produced around that time, and it’s a faithful rendition of the full-scale car. It also bears more than a passing resemblance to the smaller die-cast version that Corgi Toys produced at the time; that’s not surprising as Hong Kong toy makers often made “scaled-up” copies of popular die casts. In this condition and with the original boxes, each of the models is a $200 to $250 piece.
The baseplate of the Thunderbirds sport a CM logo.
The baseplate of the Thunderbirdssport a CM logo.

Of course, I was thrilled to have gotten the two of them, and I began to wonder: did Andrew Ralston own one of these? The photo caption in his book indicated that the examples pictured there belonged to another collector. Andrew and I have been friends for many years, and our tastes in miniature cars and trucks overlap quite a lot. We often surprise each other with oddities and rarities, and I decided to take a chance in this case. So I wrapped up the blue Thunderbird and shipped it over to him—he lives near Glasgow, Scotland—and waited to hear what he thought.

Following a three-week delay—thank you, Royal Mail—Andrew finally received the package, and I was pleased as punch to hear that he didn’t have one of these in his collection, that the only one he’d seen was the example in his book. He told me that he liked the T-bird very much and that it was going on display in his collection next to his Corgi example.
59 cents for a stunner like this? What were people thinking in 1960?
59 cents for a stunner like this? What were people thinking in 1960?

Interestingly, these two toys each have a “CM” logo on the box and on the baseplate, while the two shown in Andrew’s book sport the Cragstan logo in both places. Neither of us knows what CM stands for, but I’m sure we both will be on the lookout for other items with that logo. Hong Kong models of American and British cars were made of a fairly brittle plastic, a fragile state of affairs that has contributed to their scarcity today.

By the way, take a look at the original Woolworth price tags on the boxes … there are several on each box, and they go from 88 cents down to 59 cents. In what alternate reality would these treasures sit unsold on a shelf at 88 cents?