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    Auction Finds

    A 10-cent horse named Champion

    I remember this, the female auction-goer said with surprised excitement as she spotted a vintage brown mechanical horse near the front of a room at the auction house. I was standing near it, alone, eyeing the dusty play-toy horse because I had not seen one at auction before.

    “I remember falling off of it,” she continued, her mind fixed decades ago when she was a child and a mechanical horse named Champion was a treat. The price on the front said 10 cents but I couldn’t figure out where to put the money. Recalling those days again, the woman pointed to a silver slot on a stand on the side near the front and opposite Champion’s head. It was the right spot for a child to easily lean over and slip in her dime as she sat in the saddle.

    A coin-operated mechanical horse was the first I had seen at auction.

    I didn’t have any such childhood memories of Champion or any other horse like it, but I did recall seeing modern and smaller versions of it in front of grocery stores after I got older. There seemed to always be a little boy in the saddle – a testament to the enduring legacy of cowboys and horses and riding off into the yonder.

    This Champion still had its cord and was still on its hydraulics, but with all the dust and grime clinging to its body, it was hard to tell if it could bounce forward and backward any more. For the female auction-goer – whom I’m sure did not buy the horse – it was a fun childhood memory anyway.

    The first of these coin-operated horses started appearing during the 1940s and 1950s, likely made to ride the wave of cowboy mania when TV and movie cowboys became pop heroes and westerns were the nostalgia of choice. The first was said to have been made by the Bally Manufacturing Co., according to several websites. The Chicago company was formed around 1931, and made pinball and slot machines, and other games.

    The coin slot near the right side of the horse's head.

    The horse was said to have been named after cowboy Gene Autry’s famous horse, which co-starred with him in movies, and on TV shows and radio programs. The first Champion was in Autry’s 1935 movie “Melody Trail,” and was one of three that bore the name. Unlike the mechanical horse, the first had its own repertoire of tricks: It could untie a knot, roll over and play dead, and indicate yes or no by shaking its head, according to the geneautry.com site.

    All the horses apparently were as popular as Autry, pulling in thousands of fan mail. The others also had their share of tricks, including dancing the Charleston, jumping through a ring of fire and, again, playing dead, according to the website.

    Champion was not the only horse with a household name. Who could forget Roy Rogers and his Trigger and Lone Ranger and Silver?

    Gene Autry and the first Champion in the 1939 movie "Home on the Prairie." Photo is from the geneautry.com website.

    I wasn’t around when the coin-operated Champion was sold, but I found several restored ones of various colors on the web. One sold at auction two years ago for $450, even though its cord was cut. Hammacher Schlemmer was offering a yellow restored machine that played the “William Tell Overture” for $6,500. Several were selling for up to $5,000 on eBay.

    Once restored, I’m sure the brown Champion at auction would be lovable – like this beautiful black one here.

    A long view of Champion the mechanical horse.

     

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