By Larry LeMasters
At Bella Rustina, a vintage market in Conway, Arkansas, I counted 12 Auburn rubber toy farm tractors for sale. They caught my eye because most were in good to excellent condition, and Auburn was a company that made toys to be played with, abused, and discarded, so seeing so many Auburn tractors in good condition was surprising and fun.
I grew up in the 1950s, and some of my earliest toys were Auburn farm equipment. While technically never a farmer, I plowed a dirt pile in our backyard every spring, summer, and fall for several years with these toys. Today, I’m lucky enough to still have one. I don’t know how it got there, but I found an Auburn farm tractor, with a decapitated driver, in my dad’s toolbox after he passed away. One recurring problem with Auburn farmers is that they lose their heads rather easily.
In its heyday, Auburn Rubber (later ARCOR) was probably the largest manufacturer of rubber toys in the world. The company, started in Auburn, Indiana, the town from which it took its name, was founded in 1913 as the Double Fabric Tire Company. Double Fabric was founded to manufacture rubber tires for the Auburn Automobile Company. In the early 1920s, Double Fabric Tire Company changed its name to the Auburn Rubber Company to better identify itself with its diverse line of rubber products, including rubber sheets manufactured for shoe soles.
In 1929, the Great Depression sent many companies into tailspins from which they would never recover. The Auburn Automobile Company was one such company. As manufacturers of high-priced automobiles, such as the Cord and Duisenberg, the Great Depression hit Auburn Automobile Company particularly hard. The company was forced to declare bankruptcy, closing its doors forever, in 1937.
Auburn Rubber Company struggled from 1930 until 1935, manufacturing tires and rubber sheets primarily. But the Depression was strangling Auburn Rubber Company until, in 1935, Auburn Rubber manufactured its first rubber toys—a set of army men inspired by the lead soldiers European toy makers were producing. Soon the company was turning out toy rubber cars, trucks, animals, and farm tractors. Most of the toys produced were sold in five and dime stores, such as Woolworth and Kresge Company, across the country. The Auburn farm toys I had as a child came from Woolworth in downtown Omaha, Nebraska.
The majority of these toy vehicles averaged four to eight inches in length, and they were cast in a wide assortment of colors. The majority of Auburn’s farm tractors were generic in appearance, making them less realistic than some of the other farm toys of the era.
During World War II, Auburn’s toy production gave way to military production of rubber combat boot soles and gaskets for “jerry cans,” but in 1946, Auburn Rubber returned to toy making.
All of Auburn’s vehicles had simple constructed parts, giving them durability when played with. Typically, a vehicle had only seven parts: the body, four wheels, and two metal axles with flaring to hold the wheels in place. Often the wheels were molded in yellow or black and were made of slightly harder vinyl material. Farm tractors were molded in black rubber and then painted red, green, yellow, and teal green colors with silver used sparingly to highlight engine parts and farmer’s shirts. Diorama trees, farm animals, farm buildings and even farm implements were also molded in a variety of colors.
Most Auburn farm tractors were produced in 1/32nd scale, and embossed on the tires was “AUB-RUBR BALLOON,” which may have been the type of tire the company once manufactured, along with “Auburn, Indiana, Made in USA.” Watch for these markings to guarantee you are buying a genuine Auburn toy.
Auburn Farm Sets remain hard to find since many of the implements, animals, or other pieces are missing in these sets.
Although the smaller sized vehicles were considered Auburn’s bread-n-butter-vehicles, the company also produced larger sizes, averaging up to ten inches long. Several different tractors and other farm implements, including farm buildings and animals, were made in this larger scale as well as detailed fire trucks and other utility vehicles. Construction vehicles such as stake bed trucks and articulated cab trucks were also manufactured in the 10-inch size. Auburn even made rubber, car transport trucks but these are quite rare today.
Not many Auburn Rubber farm tractors are found in truly mint condition. Most of these inexpensive toys were played with hard and put away dirty. When you first acquire a choice Auburn tractor, you might be tempted to immediately submerge it in a bath since it is rubber. But don’t do that!
You should always spot clean a small area on the bottom of the rubber tractor to see if the color fades or totally washes away. The key to washing these vintage toys is to be cautious and handle them with care.
First, gently brush away any dust that is coating the toy. A soft bristled toothbrush or a small paintbrush works well for this step. Continue brushing until all visible dust is removed. Then gently wash the entire vehicle, assuming you have spot washed it first, with a very mild soap, using a soft rag. Dishwashing detergent such as Ivory liquid is a good cleaner for this. After fully washing the truck, rinse it in the sink under cool, running water. Place the rubber tractor on a clean bath towel and allow it to air dry completely. Caution: never use a hair dryer or other heat device to speed up drying since serious damage may occur.
And, like nearly all antiques, Auburn Rubber toy tractors should be kept out of direct sunlight and heat. The best way to display them is in a display case, which eliminates house dust, and out of the path of direct window sunlight.
They say nothing lasts forever, so in 1959 Auburn Rubber Company was sold and all of its dies and equipment were moved to Deming, New Mexico, where the company continued to make toys until 1969 when it closed its doors forever.
Baby Boomers and toy farm collectors in general have a deep fascination with farm tractors made by Auburn Rubber Company. The average price of an Auburn tractor is still low when compared to other collectible die cast farm models, making Auburn Rubber tractors available to novice collectors and even young collectors, spending allowance money.