Thursday, July 7, 2011

Matchbox Cars: Diecast Toys with a Long History

You might think that Matchbox cars and Hot Wheels are interchangeable, but you would be sorely mistaken. Both lines of diecast toy cars have very different histories and paths to greatness. It’s a long story - so hang in there and enjoy !

Matchbox cars grew out of a company that began in 1947 by two former Navy friends in London - Leslie and Rodney Smith (no relation). They combined their names to form "Lesney Products" and decided to start die-casting from a vacant pub that had been burned out during World War II.  After they purchased the building, the two friends began making die cast zinc alloy components for the industry and military uses.

Lesney "Rag and Bone" Cart

 However, they soon joined the die cast toy craze. The tin wind-up “Jumbo the Elephant” and the marionette “Muffin the Mule” were some of their first toys. They also created a hard-to-find “rag and bone” cart - essentially a junk cart that came with a driver, bike frame, washtub, part of a bed frame, a bucket, a crate, and kitchen sink accessories.

Aveling Barford Road Roller
The first Lesney diecut vehicle was released in 1948 - a 4 ½ inch Aveling Barford Road Roller. It was so popular that they introduced 3 new pieces later that year with a Caterpillar Bulldozer, Tractor, and a Cement Mixer. The toys were packaged in a “matchbox-type” box and became known as Matchbox cars. Lesney first marketed its cars in the United States in 1958.

The first cars had metal wheels but were quickly changed to plastic (known as “regular wheels”). Slight color and style variations are common due to paint or part shortages - these cars with the slight differences are now highly collectible. Matchbox cars continued to grow in popularity with the 1956 release of the “Models of Yesteryear” series and the Kingsize line (1957 - marketed as “Major Packs”).

In the 1970s, Matchbox was producing 5 million cars a week (today, its dropped to about 75 million a year). This was also when they started putting dates on the bottom of the cars. To compete with the popularity of the flashy Hot Wheels by Mattel (to be discussed later, keep reading!), Matchbox converted most of its models to a line called SuperFast (introduced in 1969) with thinner, low-friction axels and wheels (these are much easier to find than those produced prior to 1969). In 1998, Matchbox issued a 40th Anniversary set of 5 models that were replicas of the 5 originals. This set was repackaged in 1991 as the Matchbox Originals (a 2nd series was released in 1993).

40th Anniversary Collection
The last Matchbox car to carry the “Lesney” mark was produced in 1982 when Lesney sold the Matchbox line to Universal Holding Co. of Hong Kong, headed by David Yeh. In 1987, Yeh purchased the Dinky brand of England and incorporated the 2 lines into “Matchbox Toys International” (this mark replaced “Lesney” on the bottom of the cars). In 1992, the Matchbox line was again sold - this time to Tyco Toys. Then, during the Fall of 1996 through May 1997 Matchbox and Tyco Toys was sold to its former die-cast car rival - Mattel. The new Mattel Matchbox toys started appearing on the market after the New York Toy Fair in February 1998.

The average mint price of a Matchbox car is $33.46 (as of 1997).

Our next post will give you the low-down on Hot Wheels - so sit back, buckle up, and stay tuned!

The above information was compiled from the following sources:

Huxford, Sharon and Bob, eds. Shroeder's Collectible Toys: Antique to Modern Price Guide. 7th ed. Paducah: Collector Books, 2001.

Johnson, Dana. Matchbox Toys 1947-1998: Identification and Value Guide. 3rd ed. Paducah: Collector Books, 1999.

McManus, Mark. "The Making of a Household Name" in Collecting Toys: Identification and Value Guide by Richard O'Brien. 8th ed. Iola: Krause Publications, 1997.

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