Matchbox at 70: small, but perfectly formed

| 29 Sep 2023
Classic & Sports Car – Matchbox at 70: small, but perfectly formed

It feels strange to consider, in the least-sentimental terms possible, what Matchbox toy cars actually are, because the ones produced today in Thailand are fundamentally little different from the originals made in a London pub basement 70 years ago.

They come from melted-down zinc-alloy ingots, whose molten metal is force-fed into moulds inside diecasting machines.

These thundering contraptions spit out hundreds, thousands, millions, even, of identical small-scale car bodies.

Classic & Sports Car – Matchbox at 70: small, but perfectly formed
Co-founder of Lesney Products Leslie Smith (left) and Matchbox toys inventor Jack Odell with a selection of their ‘Matchbox’ diecast range, October 1968 © Getty

Each has spigots cast-in underneath and, once the axles, wheels and interiors are in place, these get pushed through holes in a baseplate and then flattened, to seal the vehicle together.

The only way these babies will come apart is with a hammer, pliers and a level of brute force that is beyond most kids.

They can get damaged, certainly, but they usually keep on rolling, and when made in big enough quantities they sell for the price of a bar of chocolate.

Classic & Sports Car – Matchbox at 70: small, but perfectly formed
The Aveling-Barford road roller is an early Matchbox model © Matchbox

The concept had been well tried for many years before 1953, by Meccano in Liverpool, where Dinky Toys were produced.

Yet really these were the preserve of the wealthy middle classes.

A Dinky Austin-Healey 100 or Dinky Supertoys Foden petrol tanker was expensive, heavyweight and desirable, and attainable for working-class kids as special treats only at birthdays or Christmas.

Only affluent children like William Brown in Richmal Crompton’s Just William had pocket money that might stretch to more; everyone else just pressed their noses against toy-shop windows. And yearned.

Classic & Sports Car – Matchbox at 70: small, but perfectly formed
Skilled employees operated the busy ’60s production lines as Matchbox’s popularity boomed © Getty

Leslie Smith, Rodney Smith and Jack Odell weren’t from well-off families.

Leslie was a jobbing builder and carpet salesman, Rodney worked in an engineering factory and Odell had most recently been salvaging parts from old army vehicles when, in 1947, they pooled their meagre savings into a business to make small diecast components.

The machines they used were secondhand, and they transformed The Rifleman in Tottenham, north London, from a derelict backstreet boozer into a tiny factory.

Their partnership was called Lesney Products (Les- of Leslie and -ney of Rodney; Odell was a latecomer to the enterprise) because they weren’t sure what they would be manufacturing, but it began with electrical fittings, fishing-tackle accessories, and parts for toy guns and handcuffs.

Classic & Sports Car – Matchbox at 70: small, but perfectly formed
Much like the full-scale equivalent, the Matchbox Mini was a popular, long-running model © Matchbox

There were often long gaps between orders for batches of widgets; the partners needed to fill the downtime, and their brushes with the toy industry gave them the idea to make their own.

Booming sales of Dinky Toys provided inspiration, and it fell to vehicle enthusiast Odell to design a cut-price range of diecast vehicles, which included a road roller, cement mixer, Caterpillar tractor and bulldozer.

The real opportunity lay in Meccano’s sniffy attitude.

A Dinky Toys agency was regarded as a privilege accorded only to the best toy shops.

Lesney, however, cheerfully hawked trays of its brightly painted, well-detailed models around London shops, the plebeian Woolworth’s included, in classic Del Boy style.

Classic & Sports Car – Matchbox at 70: small, but perfectly formed
White-coated draughtsmen discuss the designs of the latest Matchbox diecasts at the Lesney Products & Co Ltd factory in Hackney, east London, in 1968 © Getty

Managers who had been snubbed by Meccano put in orders because the cars could be retailed at a third of the price of the Dinky equivalent.

In 1951, distribution started to be handled by East End wholesaler J Kohnstam Ltd, but the partners had their big breakthrough when Odell designed a souvenir model of the coach used for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

It was just 4.5in long, and more than a million examples were sold.

Then, one day, Odell’s daughter Anne received a telling-off for bringing bugs into school in a matchbox, so for fun he crafted from brass a version of the Lesney road roller small enough to fit inside her Norvic Match Co box.

It went down a storm with her classmates, and Odell regaled the reaction to his business partner Leslie Smith (Rodney had by this time departed).

Here was the impetus for the Matchbox series, launched in 1953: a range of tiny vehicles scaled to fit in a matchbox-sized pack, and priced at 1s 6d so they were available even to the poorest urchins.

Classic & Sports Car – Matchbox at 70: small, but perfectly formed
‘In the 1970s, Matchbox got back to what it did best: good-quality models that captured the real thing’s character’ © Matchbox

The first four were an Aveling-Barford roller, a Muir-Hill site dumper, a cement mixer and a Massey-Harris tractor.

In 1954 came a London bus, a quarry truck, a horse-drawn milk float, Caterpillar tractor and Dennis fire engine.

The choice of subject reflected vehicles kids might see on the street, or that their dads drove at work.

There was no car in the range until the 1956 issues of No 19 MG TD and No 22 Vauxhall Cresta E Series.

The little toys were highly appealing in themselves, but their phenomenal success rested on the individual abilities of three exceptional talents involved.

Odell not only modelled the vehicles, but also conceived their construction and even designed his own machines to cast them.

“We still are in awe of Jack Odell as the spark, the engineering mastermind behind everything,” says Ted Wu, head of Matchbox design today.

“The shrinking down of the car to 1:64 scale – we feel like Jack and Matchbox created that.”

Classic & Sports Car – Matchbox at 70: small, but perfectly formed
Promotional toys, like this Kellogg's van, proved popular © Matchbox

Smith was the organisational guru, opening a network of factories across east London.

Richard Kohnstam, meanwhile, handled the marketing, and found new and willing stockists in sweet shops and tobacconists; playing on the Matchbox theme, the little models were stocked where dads bought their smokes – youngsters who’d been good might be rewarded with one spontaneously.

These were perhaps the first-ever impulse-buy/pester-power toys…

Matchbox issued something new every two weeks as the range swelled to 75 different vehicles, topped off at No 75 with a Ford Thunderbird in 1959, by which point the earliest releases had already been replaced with new models at least once.

There were plenty of cars among the galaxy of different machines, expanded to cover American and European models as sales went global.

Odell’s design department, where apprentices wore white coats, was a thriving ideas lab, and soon the 3in-long cars had hitherto unseen detail and features including plastic windows, opening bonnets and doors, detailed interiors and, later in the 1960s, working steering and tiny chrome wheels with separate plastic tyres that moved on working suspension.

Classic & Sports Car – Matchbox at 70: small, but perfectly formed
Fitting wheels to toy trucks on the assembly line was a fiddly task © Getty

Back in 1956, Lesney had launched its more expensive (2s 6d) Models of Yesteryear, which broke new ground by targeting adult collectors.

At first, at least, they also relayed Odell’s deep love of impressive historic machines, and his Fowler Showman’s Engine of 1957 was an incredibly well-detailed model for the money.

Later on, the company’s larger King Size range took the battle for sales directly to the established Dinky Toys and new arrival Corgi.

Growth was stellar. After resolving a dispute with Kohnstam over the ownership of the Matchbox trademark, Odell and Smith floated Lesney on the London Stock Exchange in September 1960.

By 1964 the company’s value had quintupled to make it Europe’s fourth-biggest toymaker.

Then, Lesney made a million vehicles a week; by 1969 it was a million a day, and the wealthy founders had collected OBEs and Queen’s Awards for Export.

Classic & Sports Car – Matchbox at 70: small, but perfectly formed
The Matchbox Superfast series was created in response to Mattel’s Hot Wheels models and track system, launched in 1968 © Matchbox

For all of us car fanatics who lived out our childhoods in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, Matchbox models fuelled our passion.

A whole world of cars and trucks was in the palms of our hands, with collector’s cases and annual catalogues willing on the urge to acquire more.

The ingenious way in which Odell and his team could animate a tiny model with moving parts or a trailer to tow, or give an authentic look or livery that summoned up the real thing was uncanny.

But little did we know that Smith’s rigorous cost control underpinned everything.

Vehicles in the 1 to 75 series had a strict average of 13 components and were carefully designed for hand-assembly by literally thousands of deftly dextrous female employees, working as many extra shifts as they could manage.

As you played with your Matchbox Silver Shadow, Ford Mustang or Ferrari 250GT Lusso, you’d never know they were all built by someone else’s mum, sister or grandma.

Classic & Sports Car – Matchbox at 70: small, but perfectly formed
The Ford Escort RS 2000 was made in various liveries © Matchbox

Matchbox received a sudden and brutal shock in 1968, when Mattel launched against it with its Hot Wheels range.

Odell’s world of miniature detail was ransacked by garish Californian hot-rods with low-friction wheels, designed to hurtle along specially made track systems.

It was Scalextric without the electricity, and kids loved it, abandoning the world of collecting for high-speed thrills.

Hot Wheels had a devastating effect on the Lesney culture.

The London company was forced to retool its range as Superfast competitors, along with larger Speed Kings and Super Kings vehicles, which appalled Odell and sapped capital.

Also, in 1973, the Essex plant making Models of Yesteryear cars caught fire and then flooded, stopping production for two years.

Lesney did bounce back eventually, although its traditional collectors disdained its peculiar style of dragsters and elaborate fantasy cars intended to repel the Hot Wheels challenge.

Classic & Sports Car – Matchbox at 70: small, but perfectly formed
Designers examine the latest Matchbox models at the Lesney works © Getty

In the later 1970s, Matchbox got back to what it did best: good-quality models of cars that captured the real thing’s character (even if they weren’t always faithful reproductions), gave endless hours of enjoyment and cost less than a pound.

In 1980, though, Lesney Products crashed to a £3.5million loss.

It had firmly resisted transferring production to the Far East and now paid the ultimate price when, in June 1981, the company was declared insolvent.

It had also stuck to its toy cars business while most attempts to diversify failed; now, diverted by Star Wars, video games and rock music, kids lost interest in them at age 10, rather than 14 to 15 as they had in the 1950s.

The company was sold off to Hong Kong’s Universal Toys and manufacture shifted, inevitably, to Macau and China.

Through various changes of ownership Matchbox was eventually acquired by its old nemesis Mattel in 1997, to the consternation of collectors who feared the famous name would soon be consigned to history, along with all the several thousand different vehicles, most of which they cherished.

Classic & Sports Car – Matchbox at 70: small, but perfectly formed
Julian Payne Snr, Matchbox manager of product design, works on a recreation of the big-selling 1953 Coronation Coach that helped to establish the Lesney name © Matchbox

And yet the Matchbox brand has continued since, and for its 70th anniversary this year there’s a special roster of some 40 celebratory editions.

“We think they will be great for collectors to go out and hunt for,” says Ted Wu, vice-president of global vehicle design at Mattel, where the Matchbox design identity has recently reasserted itself.

“Three years ago, we started building a whole new brand foundation for Matchbox,” he continues.

“Our market research found that kids really do care about realism and authenticity.

“It helps them connect with the grit of the real world, but starting in the safety of the living room.

“I’m 43, but even growing up here in the US, Matchbox was used ubiquitously for ‘toy car’, like Kleenex or Xerox.”

Ted estimates four billion Matchbox vehicles have been produced so far, yet it still takes 18 months to bring a new issue from first sketch to hanging on a supermarket rack.

Classic & Sports Car – Matchbox at 70: small, but perfectly formed
Now owned by old rival Mattel, Matchbox is celebrating its 70th birthday with a run of limited editions © Matchbox

Back in Odell’s day, the process was entirely analogue, involving clay sculptures, wooden mock-ups and pantographs, and it took around the same time.

Today, a 3D printer can have a first sample shape on a meeting table within a few hours, but much more time is now spent to test liveries and ensure that the model won’t hit any glitches in the highly automated manufacturing process – even if it is still basically a pocket-sized carcass of moulded zinc.

There is no doubt that Matchbox cars will continue to leave lasting impressions on car-mad kids who play with them up close. As they always have.

Indeed, in the 1970s, when Matchbox churned out millions of its small-scale Pininfarina BMC 1800s, Lamborghini Marzals and Monteverdi Hais, that’s how those near-mythical exotic cars existed in our imaginations; it always came as a shock to see how strangely inaccurate the real things actually seemed.

Images: Getty/Matchbox

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