Classic Toys: Matchbox Cars
The Collectible Die-Cast Toy Car That’s “Ready For Action”
The die-cast toy car, known as Matchbox, was first made in 1954 by a company called Lesney Products. The company was founded in 1947 by two men who knew each other from school and while serving in WWII with the British Royal Navy. They decided to open an industrial die-casting factory in a bombed out North London pub called the Rifleman Tavern. They were Leslie Smith and Rodney Smith. (Not related to one another.) Shortly after starting the company they were joined by a reputed die-cast expert, John W. “Jack” Odell. By 1948 Lesney Products had eight employees, in addition to the three partners.
After filling an order they received for a toy gun component, the partners decided to try their own hand at toy making. Their first die-cast toy, made in 1948, was a large Aveling Barford road roller that was sold in local London stores. They continued to make the larger scale toys, including a cement mixer, tractor and Jumbo the Elephant, until the onset of government restrictions on the use of metals during the Korean War.
In 1952 the restrictions were lifted and Queen Elizabeth II was about to be coronated. Lesney Products created a sixteen-inch die-cast model of the Queen’s coronation coach. With poor sales, it was quickly redone in a smaller size in time for the coronation in 1953 and over 1 million coaches were sold. The success of the coronation carriage gave the partners the idea of manufacturing die cast toys that were small enough to fit into a matchbox. The matchbox packaging idea had been used before, primarily with German toy manufacturers in the early 1900s and again pre-WWII. This breakthrough idea gave them a gimmick, as well as a name for their product.
Beginning in 1953, Lesney Products contracted the Moko Company of England to market their Matchbox toys for them. They successfully marketed and sold the toys worldwide. In 1953 the Matchbox name was registered with equal ownership to both Moko and Lesney Products. The first Matchbox car was released in 1954. It was a MG TD roadster. The same year, Rodney Smith left Lesney Products.
The production of a Matchbox car was a very time-consuming and labor-intensive process. The car was designed after extensive research and development. The design stage alone could take from a few months to as long as a couple of years. Tools and patterns had to be made using a jewelers’ lens for precision and accuracy. Odell and Smith were very concerned with accuracy when designing their cars, but the price of a Matchbox was not reflective of the labor that was involved in its production. Matchbox cars originally sold for 15p in Great Britain (equal to 30 cents US today).
In 1958, Leslie Smith bought out Moko’s interest in the company after a disagreement about pursuing the Asian market. By 1960 Lesney Products went public and had become one of England’s largest employers of women.
By the late 1950s, Matchbox was one of the most collectible die-cast toys, resulting in the release of the Yesteryear line. These were throwbacks to earlier automobile models that collectors found the most desirable. Production began after company reps got input from collectors at Matchbox meets. Some of the Yesteryear retro car models were made with some of the old die patterns. The first Yesteryear Matchbox car was the 1899 London Horse Drawn Bus released in 1959. Another was the 1911 Model T Ford from 1964. Matchbox die-cast toy cars were no longer being marketed exclusively to appeal to children but were also being designed to meet the requirements of collectors.
The first cars to be packaged in a blisterpack were introduced in 1963 and were sold predominantly in the US market. In 1968 a fast-moving diecast car, made by Mattel was released called “Hot Wheels”. Unlike Matchbox cars, Hot Wheels were not made to scale and included fantasy models and wild paint colors. Many collectors considered the Hot Wheels cars to be inferior to Matchbox cars both in accuracy and quality. Hot Wheels were marketed with accessories like racetracks and carry cases. Lesney Products introduced a competitive model the following year. They began by retrofitting their existing product lineup with low-friction wheels and called them “Superfast”, but Lesney had already suffered significant losses in sales in the US. They continued to produce the new line, including new models with more modern colors and even produced racetrack sets to be used with them. By the mid-1970s they had recovered their market share. They continued to add new products to their line, including the Sky Busters aircraft and selling vehicles in Two Packs.
Despite their commercial success, Lesney Products fell victim to the poor economic climate in England. They went bankrupt in 1982 and the Matchbox name, as well as many of their molds and tools were sold to Universal Toys. The company was renamed Matchbox International Ltd. and some degree of production continued, but was now done in Asia. They were able to acquire the rights to the highly collectible Dinky toy brand as well.
In 1992, the Matchbox brand was sold to Tyco Toys, who in turn were bought by Mattel in 1997. This merger brought the two competing toy lines, Matchbox and Hot Wheels under the same company name. Today most of the production for Matchbox takes place in China and Thailand and Mattel has pledged to keep the two product lines separate, to maintain what many collectors feel is the integrity of the Matchbox line.