By Bill MacKenzie
It all started, as so many good things do, with his father.
John Venheim’s father, Georg, a decorated veteran of World War II, came to the United States from Norway in 1945 to marry his 17-year-old sweetheart from New York. When Venheim was in kindergarten, his father brought home a 1955 Tonka Metro van he’d bought at Goodwill. Venheim was hooked.
In 2010, the year his father passed away, Venheim bought his first Tonka tractor-trailer set on Craigslist, followed by the purchase of several collections of Tonka parts from which he crafted some trucks. When he sold an orange 1958 Tonka flatbed truck carrying a bulldozer for $300, he knew his hobby had taken a turn.
“I realized I had to get organized,” he said, “so I put together a complete shop in my garage in 2011.” The cluttered 480-square-foot garage is now packed with a raft of tin toy truck-making equipment, including a sandblaster, woodworking tools, a painting cube, a Thumler’s Tumbler machine that shines chromed parts in vibrating corn cob grit, a metal polisher and a wood jig used to make identical wooden stakes for a Tonka Farm Stake truck.
In a corner of the garage are 7-foot-tall wooden racks with shelving. One rack contains already painted projects, another a collection of parts, a third a jumble of supplies. A fourth rack is used to dry newly painted projects at a constant 80 degrees. In another corner is a large metal rack filled with old tin trucks and parts acquired over time.
On a shelf is a collection of original, colorful crate labels found on the Internet that he uses to adorn the sides of trucks. “Minton’s. Choice Bartlett Pears packed by C.D. Minton Inc., Forest Grove, Oregon, U.S.A.,” read one.
by: JONATHAN HOUSE – John Venheim refurbishes vintage pressed-steel toy trucks that he then sells through his Custom Tin Toy Trucks business.
For the past three years, Venheim has been busily building, repairing, buying and selling tin toy trucks and parts made not just by Tonka, but also by Buddy L. Wyandotte, Nylint, Structo and others. He said he spends about 10 hours a week in the garage immersed in his hobby, but with his non-stop enthusiasm, it’s probably much more as he builds his business, Custom Tin Toy Trucks.
He buys and sells on eBay and Craigslist and on specialized websites such as tonkapartsandsupply.com.
“You can buy just about anything connected with old Tonkas online,” he said, “including whole trucks, grills, hubcaps, headlights, truck tailgates, and tires, which are real expensive.”
His most recent acquisition, a red Texaco Fire Chief fire truck made by Buddy L. in the 1960s, was purchased on eBay for $40
Venheim also seeks out deals at garage sales. “Lots of people with tin toy trucks have no idea what they have,” he said. At a garage sale he encountered a woman selling a 1955 tin toy truck for $10. He told her the truck was worth much more and bought it for $80. After he fixed up and polished the truck, he sold it for $127.
Some online sellers buy old model trucks online, strip them down and sell all the parts individually. “Most people selling these old trucks don’t realize that if they took them apart and sold the parts, they could get three times as much,” he said.
The truck Venheim got the most for was a worn vintage unrestored Steelcraft Streamlined City Trucking Co. truck. What made it special is that it was designed by Viktor Schreckengost, a legendary American industrial designer often called “the American DaVinci.” Venheim sold the truck on eBay for $600.
by: JONATHAN HOUSE – Once finished, John Venheims custom tin trucks bring back the nostalgia of these old toys.
Some people only want to buy completely original vintage trucks, which tend to cost more. An original 1958 Big Mike dump truck with snow plow and dual hydraulic in mint condition with its original box can go for $1,000 or more. Other collectors are fine with new toy trucks. For them, there are companies like Smith-Miller Inc. of Lake Havasu City, Ari., which sells handmade scale trucks in miniature. A 41.5-inch-long, 21-pound Navajo Freight Lines Hauler is for sale on its website at $1,295.
Venheim’s trucks cost considerably less. That’s partly because he hasn’t built a solid reputation yet. It’s also because his creations often have added parts or parts that are different from the original. Once in a while, he even does whimsical add-ons such as a tiny spotted owl he placed on a logging truck.
As much as he’s able to make a little money from his tin trucks, he wants to keep it as a hobby and hold down a steady job for a while. “It’s an avocation now,” said Venheim, 55. “Hopefully, it’s going to be an established business when I retire.”
At that point, he expects to concentrate on mass-producing a highly sought after type of model gas turbine toy truck. “My intent is to get businesses like breweries to buy 10 or 15 of them, put their label on the side and then use them for promotional purposes,” he said. “That will be my bread and butter.”
In the long term, Venheim’s goal is to create a legacy. “My intent behind this company is that 50 years from now people will see one of my trucks and say, ‘Oh, wow, that’s a Custom Tin Toy Truck.”
Bill MacKenzie is a former congressional staff member, newspaper reporter and communications manager for a Hillsboro company.
Originally published in the Hillsboro Tribune, Dec. 5, 2013