Pedal-power versions of full-size cars have been around almost as long as the petrol engine itself. In 1896, miniature Itala and Mercedes racers were already on the market, with wooden bodywork, chain-driven steel axles and leather upholstery. By the Twenties, American manufacturers led the world in volume production of ever more elaborate kiddies' cars - with pressed-steel bodies, working headlights and rubber tyres - producing hundreds of models throughout their heyday of the Forties and Fifties. In Britain, Tri-ang and Lines offered everything from a two-seater Rolls for 10 guineas to a Sunbeam land-speed record replica (pounds 12 4s), the latter "Designed with the assistance of Major Seagrave the famous racing motorist". The longest lived, and best known, British design was the Austin J40, a scaled-down model of the A40, made by disabled miners and ex-Austin employees using surplus steel from the real cars (check your loft, they can be worth four figures).
Though many if not all of the companies that were making pedal cars when I was a kid are now defunct, others have sprung up in their place producing a range of cars from toddlers' versions of the ever-popular Mercedes for pounds 50, to the motorised Ferrari currently on sale at Harrods for pounds 42,000 (more than you'd pay for a fairly decent second-hand Ferrari).
Geoffrey Weiner, who lent us the 1950s Leeway Police Patrol Car (pounds 595), the new Porsche Le Mans racer (pounds 125), the hand-built Jaguar XK120 (pounds 950) and a Tri-ang tank, not photographed, (pounds 595), deals in pedal cars to collectors worldwide. He has also compiled a pictorial history of the pedal car detailing such delights as the 1920s French-built Eureka Bugatti Grand Prix car, worth around pounds 9,000 today.
Today the appeal of "Juvenile Automobiles", as the collectors call them, is undiminished, certainly if the excitement our cars aroused at St Mary's Hall school, Brighton, is anything to go by.
They may have been born yesterday, but our testers weren't stupid and all wanted the motorised Mercedes under their trees in preference to the pedal-powered cars. As for me, it was all I could do to stop myself barging the other kids out of the way and jumping in one of the cars for a quick lap of the playground. But then, I am still battling to conquer the demons of a deprived childhood
With thanks to the Pre-Preparatory Department of St Mary's Hall, Brighton; Geoffrey Weiner of CARS of Brighton UK (01273 601960) and Mercedes Benz UK for supplying the motorised (pounds 250) and pedal (pounds 125) versions of their Mercedes 500SL.
Road test If you would like to take part in a test drive, write to The Verdict, The Independent Magazine, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, giving a contact phone number, your address and details of the type of vehicle, if any, you drive. For most cars, participants must be over 3 years old, and have a good school report.
Joel Bisnath, six, from Woodingdean, East Sussex. Likes: watching cartoons. Dislikes: 'when I'm bored'. Wants to: be a cricketer. Mum currently drives 'a red car'. Dad currently drives 'a white car'
Joel's number one choice would have to be the motorised Mercedes 500SL, pounds 242.25. "I liked the one which you pressed the button in to go, the red one, because you didn't have to pedal it and it was the prettiest. The racing car [Porsche] was the most comfortable and the fastest was the red one that you pedalled. I pedalled it so fast my feet got tired."
Hollie Clarke, six, from Brighton, East Sussex. Likes: playing the toy organ. Dislikes: 'my brother is a very big pain.' Wants to: 'help children in need.' Mum currently drives a Renault Clio, Dad a black Saab
Hollie had no hesitation in naming "The one that had the beeping bit" (the motorised Mercedes) as her favourite. "I liked the car because you didn't have to work it yourself, you only needed to press the pedals to go backwards or forwards and it didn't make your legs ache. And it was shiny. The white one [Jaguar] was my second favourite because it went beep beep and was very shiny. I think that was the most expensive one because it's very big and has lots of different bits on it." As far as grown-up cars are concerned, Hollie likes any convertibles. "They make my hair blow about, I've been in one and they go a bit fast."
Ashleigh Robertson, six, from Brighton, East Sussex. Likes: drawing, annoying her sister, horse riding and ballet. Dislikes: Action Men. Wants to: be a ballet dancer/horse rider/actor. Mum and Dad currently drive 'I don't know, but my brother has a white Golf'
"My favourite was the Mercedes because it drives itself and when you sit in it it goes brrumm, brrumm. I did like the rest but sometimes I got stuck and I couldn't really drive them fast. I think the motorised one was the most expensive because when you buy a proper car it takes money, and then you have to buy the engine separately. The red pedal car [a pedal-power Mercedes 500SL, pounds 124.75, not pictured], was the fastest. I liked the tank but I couldn't drive it because I was too big. It would have been good with real bombs, I could have blown up all the schools in the world!"
Rose Collard, six-and-a-half, from Ditchling, East Sussex. Likes: painting. Dislikes: waking up early. Wants to: be an actor (has the leading role in a nativity play). Mum currently drives a Golf and Dad a BMW
Rose also voted for the motorised Mercedes as her favourite and plumped for the Jaguar XK120 as her second choice. "The plain white one was pretty and I think it was the most expensive. It was old fashioned. I liked the motorised one but it only went at one speed, the red pedal one you could make go faster or slower." Rose also likes convertibles. "My favourite big cars are ones where the roof goes back."Reuse content