A Young Boy’s Toys: The Rex Mays Toy Racer and the Story Behind It

In one’s late years, as time and life continue to move inexorably forward, a curious thing happens – at least to me. Certain objects and images we recall from our youth surface from a long-dormant state to beguile our memory and to re-kindle a new-born enthusiasm: a recollection of our youth and the things that mattered most to us in childhood.

Two of my favorite play-things early in life were my American Flyer electric train and a much less spectacular, nonetheless coveted, plastic wind-up Indy-style race car. Through the many decades since childhood, and for some obscure reasons, the recollection of that little motorized race car as one of my favorite toys stubbornly remained with me. I believe the jaunty little toy racer came to me around the time that my family moved from Chicago to California in early 1948. Special toys for my sister and I were few and far between in the lean postwar years, and this toy car was highly prized. I recall that my racer was made of light-blue plastic with an ivory-colored “underbelly,” and it had substantial, real rubber tires mounted on aluminum wheels. The car just looked “neat,” and it ran well: the wind-up motor could get it up to a pretty good speed on any extended smooth surface. My little race car disappeared many decades ago, and I never thought it likely that I would ever see one like it again.

Serendipity at the Pleasanton Antique Fair

Two years ago, at the annual Pleasanton, California, open-air antique fair, I found a suspiciously similar wind-up plastic race car with the exact same tires/wheels as my prized toy of over seventy years ago. Although the shape of its grey plastic body was somewhat different from the memories of mine, the wheels and tires registered exactly with my mental images. This car also differed in that it had a red plastic driver seated behind the steering wheel: mine did not. Despite not being exactly like mine, this “find” piqued my curiosity. The car came with its original, very nice box (rarely the case), and it was in good working condition, as well. I just knew this car had to be descended from my boyhood racer. For nostalgia’s sake, I made the dealer an offer: sixty dollars, and it was mine.

An imprint molded on the plastic bottom of the car reads:

MFG. BY PAGLIUSO MFG. CO.
GLENDALE 4. CALIF. USA

On the bottom of the box for the “Pagco Jet Racing Car,” the legend reads:

Manufactured by the makers of the original famous Rex Mays toy racer.
PAGLIUSO ENGINEERING COMPANY
113 West Harvard Street – Glendale 4, California, USA

 

 

Immediately, I deduced the possibility that my prized boyhood race car might have been “the original famous Rex Mays toy racer!” referred to on the box. And, by the way, who was Rex Mays, anyway?

My wife, Linda, and I were both intrigued by the fact that the Pagliuso Engineering Company was long ago located in Glendale, California – the city of her birth.

After acquiring an apparent “descendent” of my boyhood treasure at the Pleasanton Fair, I commenced to do what I do, and I began to Google the internet for information. I quickly verified that the “Rex Mays toy racer” was made under the name “Rite Spot Plastic Prod.” by the same company at the same Glendale address as my recent purchase, the “Pagco Jet Racing Car.” I deduced that my recent purchase was likely manufactured ten to twenty years after the Mays toy racer was produced which could place the latter date somewhere in the late nineteen-forties.

The Final Proof!

A distributor’s advertisement cut from a vintage, contemporary magazine surfaced for sale on E-Bay for several dollars. The ad offered the Rex Mays Racer with “free-wheeling motor” and “rubber tires”…all for $2.50 postpaid! The small ad included a picture of the racer offered. One look, and I could see: that was my little car – exactly, in all respects! I purchased the original ad.

What does the experience described in this post mean to me? Adding substance to the remaining mental imagery of my long-gone racer via the miracle of Google and the internet is yet another instance of the good and the joy that technology can bring to our lives. To the rest of the world, my experience with this toy race car will appear trivial, yet it illustrates convincingly the power of the internet. For me, on a very personal level, the experience has enabled a mental (and physical) reunion with the times, the toys, and the enthusiasms of a young lad some seventy years ago. And, at my age, that proves to be symbolic and satisfying – the closing of a circular journey back to my distant past, a time-tunnel to my boyhood.

Two days ago, I placed an internet order for a Rex Mays toy racer, exactly like my old blue over ivory car except that this one is a rare sea-green color over ivory (pictured earlier). Instead of $2.50 postpaid, this one cost $75, shipping extra! The little car arrived yesterday in great condition. I was not disappointed.

My new car has the following legend embossed on the bottom:

MFD BY
RITE SPOT PLASTIC PROD
113 W. HARVARD
GLENDALE 4 CALIF.
MADE IN U.S.A.

“Rite Spot Plastic Prod” on this car was clearly affiliated with “Pagliuso Engineering” as marked on my earlier Pleasanton Fair purchase: the Glendale addresses are identical.

It so happens that surviving examples of this little car are available “out there” (who could have found them fifteen years ago?). Most of these toy race cars were “heavily enjoyed” by their youthful owners, so the significant challenge is to locate one in nice condition and good working order. Who knows, the remnants of my original, treasured little race car might still be out there, somewhere, on that vast sea of possibilities called “the internet.”

And Finally, Who Was Rex Mays?

Rex Mays was a very popular champion race car driver in the nineteen-thirties and forties with many important race victories. Although placing second twice at the Indianapolis Speedway 500, he never won there. In 1949, during a race at Del Mar, California, Mays lost control of his car and was killed. Press coverage of the event and the accident was widespread: a stop-action series of published photos in Life Magazine showed the grisly details of Mays’ ejection out of the car and onto the track where he was then run-over by another car coming along. Rex Mays, it seems, adamantly refused to wear a seat belt on the racetrack! It is not clear whether the introduction of the Rex Mays toy racer occurred before or after his fatal accident: most likely before, I imagine.

The Rest of the Story

In the course of my internet travels while unraveling the story of the Rex Mays toy racer, I came across this very applicable obituary on the founder of the Pagliuso Engineering Company in Glendale, California. Robert J. Pagliuso was evidently a very successful engineer/entrepreneur. In addition to his very popular motorized toy race cars (both gas-powered and wind-up), I learned that his photography tripods were considered the Rolls-Royce of the genre. It seems fitting that his story be a part of mine in this post!

Published in the Los Angeles Times on Oct. 23, 2003:

Pagliuso, Robert J.
On April 14. 1913, Robert J. Pagliuso (Bud) was born to immigrant parents in Glendale, California. He was raised on 11,000 acres known as The Ross Ranch. Bud and his brother John attended Glendale High School where both were student body presidents. Bud attended USC and from there he studied several fields of advanced engineering. As a young entrepreneur, he founded the Pagliuso Engineering Company. Through the duration of WWII, he contracted with the U.S. Government and operated his facilities 24 hours a day. Additionally, he designed, patented and manufactured his Hollywood Tripod and motor driven toy racecars which were distributed throughout the world. Bud and John developed and owned The Glendale Plaza Shopping Center which remains in the family. Bud went on to develop other commercial real estate holdings in LA County and cattle and horse ranches in Kern County. He bred, raised and raced thoroughbred running horses.

One Last Comment

The stories I have related in this post epitomize, for me, the differences that exist between growing-up as a young boy in today’s world and coming of age in the environment of the nineteen-forties and fifties. I wrote this post because it strikes me as quaint that a little, unsophisticated plastic wind-up race car could have captured a young boy’s fancy as was the case with me. This post expresses my interest in the contrasts between then and now.

In today’s world, high-tech, lithium battery-powered robotic toys which flash, move, and talk while creating a virtual new reality are the play-things that capture young boys’ attention – not that there is anything wrong with that. There is no stopping technological progress: that is a given. With my electrical engineering background, I can appreciate what is available in today’s toy/hobby venues, but the bar is very high for modern toys.

The wind-up Rex Mays toy racer and simple toys like it, back in the day, captured – and held – the imagination and appreciation of us kids for a very long time. The culture of those times and the role of play-time “imagination” had much to do with the attraction and staying power of simpler toys. Will the same hold true for today’s toys, or is it already time to move on to the next, big thing? Could it be that less is more?

4 thoughts on “A Young Boy’s Toys: The Rex Mays Toy Racer and the Story Behind It

  1. Wow what a great find! Isn’t it interesting how so many people like to reminisce about their childhood toys? Those joyful memories of simpler times are irresistible. The photos in your post remind me of a pedal-car that our family owned when my brothers and I were young. It was silver in color but definitely the same form. My older brother Mike rode in it most of the time, but sometimes I got a turn as well. When my younger brother came along we also had a pedal “batmobile”. Simple designs but so much fun.
    Thanks for sharing your great story, I always love reading them Alan. By the way, Happy Father’s Day to you!
    Mary

    • Thanks, Mary. Funny you should mention a pedal-car in your youth. A pedal-car was at the top of my youthful “desirables” list. Alas, it was not to be! A neighbor friend on Wrightwood Ave. in Chicago had one, but it seemed to always be “in-use” when we neighborhood kids played together. My sister, Karen, read the post and reminded me of a few of her childhood treasures. Although long obscured in my memory by the mists of time, I instantly recalled vivid images as soon as she mentioned her favorite things. As you say, the memory permanence of special things and simpler times is very interesting to contemplate.

  2. That is a great story! I don’t remember that racer at all, which surprises me. Surely, I had my hands on it occasionally, but then maybe you made sure it was well-protected from my grasp. My most vivid memories of my possessions are of dolls, my dollhouse with plastic and some wooden pieces of furniture, and a plastic “family” with arms and legs that would bend. Also, I recall having tea parties with my dolls at the child-size white metal and red vinyl padded small folding table and chairs. Sometimes a friend and I would put a blanket on the grass in our front yard under the little tree for some shade and have tea with our dolls al fresco. I remember Mom, many years later telling me that she enjoyed watching us move the blanket around as the shade shifted with the sun. Great memories of a much simpler life than young people today experience. I just hope they will have similar sweet memories of childhood despite the high tech world they live in today.

    • Thanks so much for your comments on the post, Karen. I am not surprised that you had similar experiences with your prized possessions of the times. Yes!! I DO recall your white metal and red vinyl table – now that you mention it! Great memories of somewhat spartan times, but “less is more” is so often the case. I do not believe I will ever forget these early experiences, but I am writing them down….just in case!

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