The potent allures of toys and nostalgia recently turned the third floor of the McLean County Museum of History into a garden of childhood delights.
The occasion: “Pedal Power!,” a new and dazzlingly customized exhibit that cruised into the third-floor Dolan-Behr Gallery for a two-year rally.
The eye-filling, memory-tweaking display is comprised of a sizable chunk of one of the larger collections of vintage pedal cars ever amassed: more than four dozen beautifully restored pint-sized autos spanning roughly a half-century of their production history, from the 1920s through the 1970s.
The bright primary colors pop ... the buffed metal components gleam with a like-new sheen ... and the varying designs – both true to their full-scale inspirations and fancifully imaginative – are pure-gold Americana on wheels.
All of this comes courtesy of the Bruce Callis Pedal Car Collection, a Bloomington-based assemblage that grew to 70 of the mini-vehicles collected over a 10-year stretch, beginning in 1988.
Callis was a State Farm Insurance executive and well-known community leader who died in 1999; his family has donated 53 of the pedal cars to the museum, with 48 of them on view in the new exhibit, which debuted in March.
In addition to being “true works of art,” the cars are “symbols of Americana and childhood memories for so many people ... I dare anyone to leave the exhibit without finding a favorite,” says Anthony Bowman, the museum’s education outreach coordinator who curated the display.
And finding a favorite shouldn’t be too hard, thanks to the accessible way they’ve been displayed in the gallery by Bowman and designer Susan Hartzold: most of them sitting in a rows on racks described by Bowman as following a kind of “industrial-chic garage aesthetic ... nothing fancy, but very nice-looking. “
The collection, says Callis’ daughter, Kim Callis Ready, began as a way for a grandfather to spend some quality time with his grandson ... her young son, Michael.
“Michael would help his grandfather take apart the unrestored cars and put the decals and other bells, lights and whistles back on them,” says Kim.
“And because he was probably between 5 and 8 at the time, he could fit in the cars. He enjoyed being Dad’s test driver.”
Callis was already into restoring full-scale vintage cars when he ran across a 1961 Murray T-Bird pedal car while tagging along with his wife, Nancy, to antique shows (she had a booth in an antique mall at the time).
“His work day at State Farm was a bit hectic and long, so he enjoyed doing that as a way to spend time with her and relax,” recalls Kim.
The 1961 Murray T-Bird (Murray was a big pedal car manufacturer in the toys’ heyday) “was identical to the one he had purchased for the children. He wasn’t really interested in a lot of antiques, but this got him going, and he was happy to tag along to other shows.”
The arrival of Callis’ first grandchildren several years later “spurred him on even more,” says Kim, “because this was something he could enjoy doing with them.”
As it grew, the collection overran his available garage room at home, ending up in a commercial storage space.
Callis also had a collection of full-sized antique cars, three of which – a 1936 Ford Roadster, a 1958 Chevy Impala convertible and a 1964 Ω Mustang convertible – wound up with their pedal car counterparts.
In the years since Callis’ death, the family has maintained the collection in that original commercial storage space.
The decision eventually was made to make the collection available to the community Callis had served.
“Dad was a community member who loved participating in activities. So we decided to give the collection to the community, and the museum was the logical place to share it.”
The earliest items on display are a 1927 Buick, followed by a 1929 pedal plane made of wood; the newest are from the late 1960s into the early 1970s, when the pedal car manufacturing era began to fade.
Among the pedal cars with offbeat back stories is a 1950s Austin Motor Company pedal car, the Junior 40, the largest pedal car in the collection, with working lights and leather seats.
“The interesting thing,” says Kim, “is that the cars were created and built in Wales by disabled miners (afflicted with black-lung disease), and this gave them a new spirit for life, and a job to do that was useful. The cars were used to teach road safety to schoolchildren.”
Another of the cars, a 1954 Murray Dipside, is the original 75th anniversary State Farm commemorative pedal car prototype, which all came about as a result of Callis’ idea of combining his hobby with his work for the company.
State Farm has further honored Callis’ legacy as a sponsor of “Pedal Power!”
“Five of us from the family still work at State Farm, so this is all very meaningful for us,” says Kim.
For the general public, says Bowman, the exhibit will function as both the story of Callis and his collection, and its connection to State Farm, and as an overview of the manufacturing history of the pedal car ... from who made them to their evolution into bona fide works of industrial design art.
Above all, he adds: “Everyone loves an old car toy ... and this exhibit is just a whole lot of nostalgic fun.”