Fun Ho! Toys of New Zealand

This article is intended to give a brief history of the Fun Ho! brand of toy made in New Zealand. Later articles will cover the Miniature Vehicles range as this is my primary interest in the Fun Ho! range.

From my readings and discussions on the subject there appears to be some dispute over when H. J. Underwood (the man behind the toys) first began making toys. Various sources quote "authoritatively" that he first began producing toys made of lead in "the mid-1930s", "1935", "1937", "1939" and "1941". Even the Fun Ho! Museum appears unsure of the exact date which given that much of the Underwood Engineering company's early records were destroyed by fire around 1940, and the length of time that has passed, is no surprise.

What seems to be certain is that some time in the mid-1930s, Underwood began creating toys in the basement of his home in Te Aro, Wellington. The first toys were made of lead, a common material for toys at the time, and they covered a range of products from figures, animals, and trees to model vehicles.

Somewhere around 1939/40 the Fun Ho! trademark (always with the exclamation mark) came into use and it has been used ever since for toys produced by, or under licence to, Underwood Engineering. In 1940 Underwood opened a small foundry to produce components for use during WWII and in 1941 cast aluminium toys were produced as a sideline. These toys were to be the forerunner to the "sand-pit" toys that almost every New Zealand child in the last 70 years grew up with. So durable were these aluminium toys that many are passed on from generation to generation. Each passing sees a little less paint on the toy (assuming it hasn't already been repainted by an aspiring painter somewhere along the lines) but the castings remain sturdy and able to cope with another generation of play.

In 1945 the Underwood factory was moved to New Plymouth on the west coast of the North Island, in the shadow of Mount Egmont (later renamed Mount Taranaki in recognition of Maori lore), where the company operated for a time from the Arcadia Hotel building. In 1947 the company moved to Inglewood where it remained until the factory closed. New regulations on the use of lead saw the end of lead toy production but the company continued production of their range of large aluminium based toys until the 1970s. The latter were always marketed as a durable toy that provided excellent play value for their owners. As stated earlier many have been passed on through the generations so they certainly provided value for money! The range included cars, trucks, trailers, tractors, motorcycles and aeroplanes.

In the 1960s a range of small zinc diecast toys was introduced. They were originally marketed as part of a promotion with the Mobil Oil Company and were known as Fun Ho! Mobil Midgets. The first nine models were manufactured from dies obtained from the Australian company Streamlux and were plated in chrome or copper, but as the range grew, nearly all the subsequent dies being made in Underwood's Toolroom, paint finishes became the norm as with other miniature vehicles of the time. Production of this miniature range ceased in 1982 due to an economic downturn in New Zealand and to increasing competition from toys manufactured in Asia.

The factory finally closed in 1987 as a result of competition from imported plastic toys but a former employee, Barry Young, who had, over the years, collected a large collection of Fun Ho! Toys opened the Fun Ho! National Toy Museum in rented premises below the original Inglewood factory in 1990.

Barry originally came to New Zealand from the U.K. in the 1950s and worked part-time and later full time for the company, Underwood Engineering. By 1970 he had been promoted to the position of Purchasing Officer for the company. Around this time he says he became interested in the Fun Ho! toy range and began collecting lists, brochures and catalogues, which he filed away on the top of a cabinet in his office. Over a period of time Barry says he became fascinated by the Fun Ho! toys. "I took a particular interest in these toys which dated back to the late 1930s and I became increasingly fascinated by the processes used to make the toys."

During these years, Underwood's used to get a toy from overseas and give it to the foundry foreman who would recreate the toy in aluminium. This aluminium toy would be modified until it was approved for inclusion in the range. The Foreman would then be asked to make four or five plate models which would eventually be stored in the loft above the foundry. Apparently it had only one little door, at the top of a steep staircase and the door was securely locked and only the Foreman had a key. The reason given for this was that because the plate models were a bit bigger than the toys made on the production line, if they had got mixed up with the production items this would have caused major problems for the company. Barry's interest led him to get the key from the Foreman and he recalls sitting up in the loft, which was very dusty, every lunchtime sorting the castings out. He says "There was a pile up there, about the size of a car trailer load". The toys were gradually sorted into categories, revealing items he had only read about in the company's catalogues.

Following a display of the Fun Ho! items he had collected, Barry was asked by the Underwoods to collect together as many of the range as possible with a view to the company putting then on display. Unfortunately this never eventuated as the company hit hard times. In anticipation of the eventual closure and winding up of the company, Barry was asked to remove all the Fun Ho! items he had amassed from the premises and they were gifted by the Underwoods to him as a result of his passion for the toys.

With such a wealth of information and a huge range of examples of the toys, Barry made the decision to open a museum, which he did in 1990 in rented rooms below the Underwood Engineering factory in Inglewood, having first obtained permission to use the Fun Ho! name and classic Clown Logo from the Underwood family. Originally intended to be a part-time venture, the Museum eventually took up so much of Barry and his wife's time they sought a buyer for the venture, but on the terms that it was to remain in Inglewood and was never to be sold to "outsiders". In 1999 community groups purchased the collection and the former Inglewood Post Office building in which to house it, where it remains to this day.

 

Barry was also responsible for the production of Fun Ho! Reproductions which have been produced and sold at the Museum, manufactured on the original factory equipment using the original molds and plates. He has also written a number of publications on the toys including "Fun Ho! Repro", a magazine on Fun Ho! toys and collectibles.