Note: This feature is in the April Toy Trucker & Contractor 2020 issue
Fred explained the early history of the company: Matt Miller, beginning in 1944, hand-made wooden toy trucks for sale, because the war effort demanded all metal had to be used for war purposes. As metal became available, Miller incorporated metal into his wooden trucks. Some of these early Miller toy trucks are still, occasionally, offered for sale.
Smith left the company he helped found in 1948. In 1952, Miller left to form Miller-Ironson Corporation (MIC). In 1952, Henry Wolking purchased the Smith-Miller company and later the Miller-Ironson Corporation, combining the two toy companies.
During all this time, Smith-Miller produced toy trucks. But in 1954, with post-war toy production reaching its peak, Wolking decided to produce no more toy trucks. After only a few years of competing with companies such as Tonka, Wolking realized his $18 toy trucks could not financially compete with metal toy trucks selling for $3 or less.
At its peak, Smith-Miller had 20 employees. In 1954, Wolking sent the remaining employees home, allowing the factory to sit idle for the next 25 years.
“This is what people don’t understand,” Fred stressed, “Wolking did not close the company. He simply quit manufacturing Smith-Miller trucks, but he kept the factory intact and ready to run, selling old stock and parts when he wanted to.”
The simple truth, Fred explained, is that Smith-Miller could not compete with the cheap toys that were flooding American toy markets. Tonka toy trucks at this time were between $1.98 and $2.98, and Smith-Miller trucks averaged $18 or so. An inexpensive Smith-Miller dump truck cost $10, so parents simply could not justify paying so much for a toy truck.
Smith-Miller made the finest toy trucks ever made, but the cost of manufacturing financially crippled the company when it was forced to compete for sales with average kids and parents, who were watching their pennies after the hardships of the Great Depression and then World War II.
The 1950s became the era of plastic, and Smith-Miller could not compete, so the company quit manufacturing toys, but retained its molds, parts, finished toys and telephone number. Collectors could, if they were able to reach Wolking, visit the factory and buy fully assembled trucks or parts of trucks. Smith-Miller maintained a factory for all of its non-producing years, so Smith-Miller has never been out of business since its founding. The owners just decided to spend more time doing other things, since they had another business. The company became a ghost of its earlier self, waiting.
As it turned out, Wolking and Smith-Miller were waiting for Fred Thompson. Fred purchased Smith-Miller and Miller-Ironson toy companies from Wolking in 1979, but Fred has spent his entire life loving Smith-Miller trucks.
“I played with Smith-Miller toys as a boy,” Fred said. “I received my first Smith-Miller trucks at age 4 or 5 as gifts from Helen and Charley Rice, my aunt and uncle, and from my parents, William and Genevieve Thompson. A friend of Uncle Charley lived in Santa Monica, very close to the Smith-Miller factory, so he would drive to the factory and buy Smith-Miller trucks that Uncle Charley would give to me.” Thompson still has these early Smith-Miller trucks in his personal collection.
“When I was 8 years old, I mowed yards, raked, washed windows, worked at any odd job I could find, and saved my money. When I had $25, I purchased my all-time favorite Smith-Miller truck—a No. 3 hook-and-ladder fire truck.
“I went to a local toy store, but I only had the $25, which was the cost of the truck. I did not have the sales tax. The clerk waived the tax for me and I walked out with a shiny red Smith-Miller fire truck. This was the first Smith-Miller I ever purchased myself. My mother was really upset that I spent that much money on a toy when my dad was only earning $65 a week back then.”
Fred played heavily with his fire truck, but, years later, he had it restored to original condition.
Fred’s interest in Smith-Miller never waned. “By the time I was a teenager,” he said, “I had collected seven or eight trucks by buying them from neighborhood kids. When I was about 16 and friends would come to the house and see my collection, I’d tell them, ‘I’m collecting these trucks to give to my son.’ I was only about 16 or 17 at the time, so talking about having future kids seemed weird to my friends, but I already knew Smith-Miller toy trucks were special.”
Eventually, when Fred was around 32 years old, he began looking for Smith-Miller trucks in thrift stores. “I found a Smith-Miller fire truck cab and rear end in one thrift store and paid $100 for these parts. Everyone thought I was nuts,” he said.
Fred’s personal collection of original Smith-Miller trucks now numbers between 60 and 75. “I’ve never counted them,” he said. “I have at least one of everything the original company made.”
He claimed, though, “I don’t have a favorite. How do you compare the most incredible hook-and-ladder toy truck ever made with a P.I.E. Mack or the Army trucks Smith-Miller produced? Smith-Miller made each of these different truck lines, but they do not compare one-on-one in such a way that I can affirmatively state which one is my favorite. I believe the No. 3 Smith-Miller ladder truck was the most incredible toy truck made in the late half of the 20th century by any company, so that is probably my favorite toy truck of all time.”
A Smith-Miller hook-and-ladder fire truck, in 1951 when Fred bought his, cost $25 when other Smith-Miller trucks cost $15-$18. Today, the fire truck is valued around $2,500 mint in the box, if you can find one. “About 12 years ago,” Fred added, “one of these trucks was shown on ‘Antique Roadshow,’ and it was appraised then at $2,500.”
Interestingly, Fred’s desire to save his Smith-Miller trucks for his son, Tim, is what eventually led to Fred buying Smith-Miller. “In 1976, when my son, Tim, was 6 years old, a neighborhood kid came to the house and the two of them were playing with some of my Smith-Miller Army trucks in the front yard. The neighbor kid decided to play ‘smash-up derby’ with one of my Army trucks, and he succeeded in smashing the truck repeatedly, breaking the front bumper and fender.”
Fred was angry over the damage to the truck, but determined to restore it to original condition. “I needed parts to repair my truck,” he said. “I wasn’t sure where to look, so I started calling around, trying to locate the original Smith-Miller toy company. I phoned the Santa Monica directory information service, asking for Smith-Miller’s phone number, but got nowhere. Then I phoned the Los Angeles directory service, and I was lucky enough to get a very helpful operator, who took the time to search the phone directories for me. She located a current phone number for the Smith-Miller company, so I phoned the number and a person answered with a different company name. I thought I had the wrong number, but when I said I was looking for Smith-Miller, the woman told me to ‘wait a second.’ I waited, and a guy came on the line. I told him I was looking for the Smith-Miller company that made toy trucks. He gruffly asked, ‘What do you want to know for?’ When I explained I had my original trucks from when I was a kid and needed parts to fix one, the man’s attitude changed. He told me he was busy at the moment, but to call back in a couple of weeks and I could come over.
“Eventually, I was invited to the factory, and when I got there, I was amazed. The old Smith-Miller factory was about 8,000 square feet and everything was exactly as it was back in 1954 when Smith-Miller quit assembling its toy trucks. The factory, in 1976, looked as if the 1954 employees had simply left for lunch and would be returning shortly to resume work. The only difference was a layer of dust that covered everything. The No. 21 fire trucks and yellow GMC Coke trucks, which Smith-Miller had been assembling in 1954, were still scattered, in different stages of production, on workbenches. Some trucks were awaiting decals, while other trucks were just waiting to be boxed and shipped. The employees had simply stopped working and everything was left where it was when the employees walked out for the last time.”
After about three years of buying Smith-Miller parts from Wolking, Fred asked what Wolking planned on doing with the company. “One thing led to another,” Fred said, “and we put together a purchase plan. I bought Smith-Miller Toy Company in 1979, including all of the names Smith-Miller toys had been sold under-- Smith-Miller, Smitty Toys and M.I.C.
“I did not purchase the factory building, so I had to move everything, including dies, parts, toys, tools, barrels, crates, shipping boxes, and workbenches—everything! Wolking did not want me getting in the way of his current business, so rather than move Smith-Miller in one move, I was forced to move it over a period of four to five months. I would haul a load once a week,” Fred said.
When Fred finally finished an initial inventory of what he had purchased, he discovered he had nearly 1,000 original Smith-Miller toy trucks ready to sell, including a B Mack P.I.E. that was found in the rafters where it had been stashed after having been returned by its first owner to the factory. “I had to finish assembling many of these toys,” he added, “but I had a salable inventory of trucks from day one, which truly helped get the company back in the public eye.”
Fred has now owned the company for 41 years, nearly 38 years longer than Bob Smith and Matt Miller produced toy trucks. “Basic business problems, such as business permits, hiring an accountant, insurance, employees proved to be my biggest problems,” he said. “Finding the right people to build toys the way you want them built also proved difficult. Collectors don’t realize the expense of producing toy trucks. When a run of 1,000 pieces is made, the injection die-cast company wants to be paid for their work, so it requires big money to start this type of business and to stay afloat in it. The building of toy trucks fascinated me, but the business-end of the company has given me headaches.”
One continuing headache is manufacturing. “One day, you have a great company that you rely on, and the next day it is out of business, merged with another company, or the owner retired, and you are scrambling around looking for a new company. This is frustrating,” Fred added
Fred started producing three new Smith-Miller trucks every two years, but now he produces a new model about once a year with a limited run of 100. “In the 1990s, I produced over 1,000 tanker trucks, but sales have slowed because of the market and the economy, but I’m still having fun,” he said.
Sometimes it is difficult to pin down what Fred and Smith-Miller are working on. “I produce runs of different trucks and then shelf them for assembly sometime in the future,” Fred explained. “A good example of this is my ‘Smitty’ Kenworth cabover tow truck. The parts for 100 of these trucks were manufactured about 11 years ago, but I’m just now assembling them for sale. The same thing is true for Smith-Miller’s new Mohawk and P.I.E. gasoline tankers. The parts were cast some time ago, but we are currently assembling them. These are very detailed tankers with the complete plumbing underneath the tanker, four fenders and mudflaps. These will be big sellers in 2020.”
Another toy truck, one of Smith-Miller’s largest, which is currently in assembly, is its yellow lowboy cab and trailer, which is also available in red, orange, and black. Fred described the length of this toy as “one inch short of 5 feet.” Pulled by a Mack cab, these 59-inch-long lowboy trucks have working fifth-wheels (just like real trucks) and the trailer has a reverse thread mechanism that stretches the rear axle for better weight distribution. These lowboy trucks sell new for $2,000, making them expensive collectibles.
“Out of the Smith-Miller trucks I have produced,” Fred said, “the auto transport is my favorite. It holds cars, and I like cars, so what’s not to like. I’ve produced about 1,000 of these auto transports over the years, and they have all sold and are in collections today.”
After 41 years, Fred inevitably gets asked about the future of Smith-Miller. Fortunately for collectors, there is no end in sight. “Although Tim is my only child, I do have a granddaughter and grandson now, and my grandson wants to keep the company going after me. I think he loves the idea of producing toy trucks as much as I have loved the idea.”
Fred also loves that all Smith-Miller trucks are still “made in America.” Almost everything is manufactured in Southern California. Decals are farmed out to a decal manufacturer, and the painting of trucks is also farmed out, but it is all done in America, and in America it will stay!
“The one thing I’d like for you to stress,” Fred said, “is we sell parts, cabs, kits, replacement parts, even old-stock parts, or whatever a Smith-Miller collector needs, and these parts are still produced from original dies. Any collector looking for a genuine Smith-Miller part or full truck should call us first at 818-807-4977 or visit our website at www.Smittytoytrucks.com.” TT&C