History Revisited: A forgotten Mystic car manufacturing company
One of the most rewarding aspects of being a local historian occurs when, out of nowhere, someone mentions or relays little known facts about a piece of local history that has been lost or mostly forgotten over the years.
Such was the case when my wife and I were enjoying a dinner with our friends Jim and Sandy Sinkowski of Groton.
Jim and I, both being 1960s car collector enthusiasts, were talking about the recent Barrett-Jackson vehicle auction held at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville. During the conversation he made mention of a Mystic PowerCar vehicle being sold at the auction.
Having never heard of such a car, I inquired as to the vehicle and, to my surprise and enjoyment, a great deal of information was brought to light about a little known or forgotten piece of local history.
The story begins back in the late 1940s when George A. Ford, who lived in Noank, conceived the idea of manufacturing small, metal, pedal-powered replicas of the Caterpillar D4 tractor for use as toys for children.
Ford, who had been working at the Temple Tone Radio Manufacturing Company in New London, asked a fellow worker and friend, Joseph A. Sinkowski, to work with him on this tractor/pedal car venture. Yes, it goes without saying, Joseph was the father of my friend Jim Sinkowski.
Ford subsequently founded the New London Metal Processing Corporation in 1948, and production of the D4 pedal tractors began shortly thereafter. Joseph Sinkowski became the general manager of the company.
Although the original manually operated pedal tractor was a good seller, in the early 1950s it became more popular when it was converted to electric power.
In 1953, the business was renamed the Mystic River Sales Company and moved into facilities on Willow Street in Mystic.
Shortly after moving to Mystic the company began to produce a new line of children’s cars called the PowerCar. Models included the PowerCar Junior, the PowerCar Junior Six Wheel model, and the PowerCar Special.
These cars, which resembled a carnival ride vehicle, came with a variety of accessories, including headlights, taillights, electric horn, puncture proof tires and electric reversing controls, to name a few. The cost of these cars, depending on the accessories desired, ranged from about $140 upwards to about $200, quite an expensive toy back in the mid-1950s.
In 1954, prior to the release of the first (1955) Ford Thunderbird, George Ford approached the Ford Motor Company to promote the idea of producing a third-size scale miniature/replica PowerCar model of the Thunderbird. One of the marketing pitches for manufacturing the miniature PowerCars included using the vehicle to entice children of prospective buyers to come to the dealership to get a free ride in the Thunderbird Junior if they brought a parent with them.
The Ford Motor Company loved the idea and shortly thereafter PowerCar of Mystic was producing what was named the Thunderbird Jr., which became the most-wanted junior automobile in the world. The company continued to produce replicas of the new models of the Thunderbird for each year through 1967.
At first, the Thunderbird Jr. was powered by a Ford starter motor, modified to provide a three-way shift — forward, neutral and reverse — and could reach speeds of 5 miles per hour. Later, an adult model was produced that was powered by a Briggs & Stratton gas-powered engine which enabled the vehicle to travel at speeds up to 14 miles per hour. The first models of Thunderbird Jrs. sold for approximately $260.
The use of the Thunderbird Jrs. as a sales promotion worked so well that, in 1964, Ford decided to have the PowerCar company produce “Junior” replicas of their newly designed Mustang model, which was due for release in 1965. The Mustang Jrs. were available for purchase with either an electric or gas-powered engine with prices being about $550 and $600, respectively. The Mustang Jrs. were produced by the company until 1967.
Of interest is the fact that, for two years, 1957 and 1958, the PowerCar company also produced what was named the Big M Junior, a replica of the Turnpike Cruiser that was manufactured by the Mercury Division of the Ford Motor Company. These replicas sold for about the same amount as the Mustang replicas.
These expensive toys were coveted by the “rich and famous” of the day, including President Eisenhower’s grandchildren, actor Peter Lawford and actress Jayne Mansfield.
But by 1967, the cost to produce and sell the replicas had become so high it was no longer economically feasible for the PowerCar company to remain in business. Unfortunately, the PowerCar replicas were no longer produced.
The number of PowerCars that still exist is dwindling and, according to Jim Sinkowski, the value of those that do exist can best be described as “astronomical.” As an example, a 1955 Thunderbird Jr., like the one appearing in the photographs accompanying this article, in show condition would likely sell for between $6,000 and $7,000. A 1966 Thunderbird Jr recently sold at the nationally known Mecum Auction for $12,000.
The Mystic River Sales Company and the PowerCar Jrs. it produced are still remembered by some and it is hoped that this article will keep alive the memory of a small but important part of our local history.
Jim Streeter is the Groton town historian.
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