When Corgi struck gold: the story behind the greatest toy ever

| 6 Dec 2019
Classic & Sports Car – When Corgi struck gold: the story behind the greatest toy ever

In October 1965, a 4in-long model car became the very first Christmas blockbuster toy, causing retail frenzy among parents desperate to get hold of one.

The Corgi Toys replica of James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger was made by Mettoy, the brand’s parent, at its Swansea factory. The clamour led to workers’ shifts extending late into the night, with lorries on standby to deliver by morning.

The factory could produce about 10,000 daily, each with 28 components. Fiddly assembly by hand was the only option. The cars were sprayed in gold enamel, rather than the authentic silver, which was perceived as unpainted and unworthy of the 10-shilling price.

Regardless, it suited the smash-hit’s title. The frazzled production line (almost entirely female, chosen for their nimble fingerwork) got 750,000 into shops before Christmas Eve. But that was only the start: almost four million had been sold by 1970.

Classic & Sports Car – When Corgi struck gold: the story behind the greatest toy ever

Gold paintwork matched the name if not the car in the film

Improbably, the world’s most famous toy car almost didn’t happen at all. And but for the skills of these two men, reunited today, its joyful, action-packed features could never have sprung to life.

John Marshall and Tim Richards worked in Mettoy’s Northampton design centre, where every new Corgi diecast car, lorry, bus, tractor and more took shape. Marshall started there as a pattern-maker in 1961, following a spell designing moulds for plastic 00-gauge train kits.

“My first job was designing a plastic roof for a horsebox,” he says. “But I loved experimenting; I designed a lorry with a working tail-lift in 1962 and, although they never made it, it got the attention of [Mettoy founder] Philipp Ullmann.”

Richards, meanwhile, had been to art school and held several exhibitions of his sculptures when Mettoy spotted his talents: “I kept saying ‘no, sorry, I’m an artist’. It was 1959 and I was all black polo-necks and French cigarettes!

“Eventually I succumbed because they offered me a great career opportunity, plus art-school outplacement. I was good with Plasticine, so suddenly I was making wax originals for squeezy baby toys, things like that. Shortly afterwards, Mettoy switched to making vinyl footballs so they shuffled me into the design department of Corgi.”

Classic & Sports Car – When Corgi struck gold: the story behind the greatest toy ever

Creators (l-r) Richards and Marshall

On the second floor of the Mettoy building there were two identical workrooms, with tight security to thwart industrial espionage from rival firms. The pair worked in the sample room, while the drawing office next door was run by Marcel Van Cleemput – the self-styled ‘Mr Corgi’. He oversaw every issue from 1956 until 1983 and tended to take the credit for the entire design output, to the chagrin of the shopfloor.

“He was definitely self-promoting,” says Richards. 

Marshall agrees: “You’d think Marcel was the only one who worked there.” Their feelings are justified where the Aston was concerned.

Mettoy heard about the car three days before Goldfinger opened in September 1964. Four pictures of the DB5 with Sean Connery in the film were printed in the local Northampton paper, and Van Cleemput left a copy on the desk of Corgi head Howard Fairbairn with a note that read: ‘Something we should get on to quickly.’ 

The usually bullish Fairbairn was unmoved, feeling it would be too complex. However, as the film’s global success rocketed, he knew he had goofed. At a hastily convened meeting in early January, Mettoy top brass said they simply must do the car, and that three key features of the full-size DB5 were essential: the ejector seat with a flip-up roof panel, a pop-up bulletproof rear screen, and front bumper overriders that sprang out along with concealed machine guns.

“They suddenly said ‘yes’ and all hell broke loose,” Richards recalls. “The film was already out and they’d really dragged their heels on it. We already had a DB4 in the range and I had to modify that into a DB5 and make a resin mould mega-quick. It was a botch job, to be honest.” 

Classic & Sports Car – When Corgi struck gold: the story behind the greatest toy ever

Clever exhaust-activated shield

There was no time for the usual modelling process involving painstaking drawings, beautiful 1:12-scale masters in hardwood, resin casts, and accurate reduction by pantograph to produce the moulds for diecasting.

Meanwhile, the task of engineering the internal mechanisms fell to Marshall: “I got the car functioning in a week. That’s when they gave it the go-ahead – I kicked it off, really. I cut the aperture in a DB4’s roof and figured out how to do the ejector seat. Plastic slides would wear out in a week, so I made an arm and bearing across the back-seat moulding, on two pins in a bearing housing. It was frictionless, and incorporated a butterfly spring in the release.”

To open the roof and trigger the ejector seat to jettison Bond’s adversary, Marshall positioned a tiny release button under the Aston’s sill. There was a similar control to deploy the concealed machine-guns, while the pop-up bullet shield in the boot was activated by pushing in the exhaust pipes. Corgi management had to be convinced the miniature mechanisms were strong enough to withstand being played with relentlessly.

“I built my own test rig,” he explains. “I settled the car tightly in a kind of nest, and then positioned just above the roof an electric motor from a shop-window display turntable, which rotated an arm at about 4rpm. I made the arm like a simulated aircraft undercarriage leg: as it came round it brushed the sprung roof to close it, resetting it, and a slight extension of the shaft hit a spring-steel strip flicking the button. The cycle lasted 15 secs and ran 20,400 times before failing.”

About 30,000 man-hours went into the design of the toy, while the tooling cost £45,000. 

The ever-smiling Van Cleemput received the plaudits, but Marshall’s name was attached to eight Mettoy patents: “It was a good grounding for an engineer because you needed to come up with things that were cheap, easy to assemble and reliable. Because there was a huge production run, development costs were negligible; we’d be making millions. So you could come up with neat ideas and the company would say yes.”

Classic & Sports Car – When Corgi struck gold: the story behind the greatest toy ever

Corgi’s Volvo P1800 for The Saint was an earlier success

Corgi’s first involvement with moving-image merchandising had been straightforward. Peter Katz, Mettoy’s regional sales manager for Scandinavia, was talking to a Swedish wholesaler one day when he asked if there was anything Corgi could do for the territory that would boost sales. He was told: “Well, a popular programme in Sweden is The Saint, and he drives a Volvo P1800; can’t you sell that as The Saint’s Volvo?”

Katz took the idea back to Northampton and Van Cleemput regarded the transformation as “a natural”. The existing Corgi P1800 gained a white paintjob, The Saint ‘stickman’ bonnet decal and a tiny, plastic Roger Moore driver figure.

Together with new box artwork and eager approval from ATV (although, according to Van Cleemput, no royalties were paid for a licence), the effect in 1965 was electric. The standard Volvo sold 315,000 examples in three years, but the Saint version shipped 321,000 in its first nine months, and went on to sell 1.2m. “I think I had a minor coup [with it] in my export sales days,” recalled Katz. “It sold extraordinarily well.”

The ‘as seen on TV’ tag was clearly an enormous draw among toy-car buyers, so Corgi brilliantly exploited the goldmine awaiting a successful collaboration with 007.

The car came packaged in a superb box with display stand and ‘secret operating instructions’, a 007 jacket lapel sticker and spare baddie. It hit the shops in October ’65, a year since Goldfinger itself had opened, but still took the toy market by storm.

Newshounds descended on the toy sections of department stores to report on the clamour. Mettoy advertising manager Bill Baxter told the Daily Mirror: “We never in our wildest dreams expected such phenomenal sales. We have now doubled production but many children will not be able to get one for Christmas.”

Classic & Sports Car – When Corgi struck gold: the story behind the greatest toy ever

Clever box design

The car won the inaugural Toy of the Year award from the National Association of Toy Retailers in 1966. But demand remained huge long after Goldfinger left cinemas. An upgraded edition was launched in 1968 with cleaner castings, an authentic silver finish, and a new feature in the form of miniature tyre-slashers in the rear wheel centres. It sold more than 1.2m units and was in the Corgi catalogue into the early ’70s.

Mettoy also added a James Bond Aston Martin to its smaller, pocket-money ‘Husky’ range, featuring a none-too-robust rendition of the ejector seat and selling for just 2s 6d. Among purists, it’s a source of merriment because this was a modified version of the Husky series DB6, and so seriously inauthentic. But its very young owners probably didn’t notice. Rebranded as a Corgi Junior in 1969 and in production right into the 1980s, several million were sold.

In 1977, Bond-car mania exploded once more when Corgi issued its ingenious model of the submarine Lotus Esprit, this time coordinated in advance in partnership with Eon Productions to hit the shops the week the film opened.

At the same time, the company revived the DB5, complete with all its key gadgets. To match the Lotus, it was re-tooled at the bigger 1:36 scale of the latest Corgi Toys range – the original scale had been about 1:50. This edition alone surpassed one million sales and was still being made when Mettoy collapsed into bankruptcy.

Classic & Sports Car – When Corgi struck gold: the story behind the greatest toy ever

Richards and Marshall pore over their legacy from decades working for Corgi

In 1965, Marshall became the Corgi gimmicks guru almost overnight, and was soon given the title of initial project leader. His next major challenge was to mastermind Corgi’s 1966 Batmobile.

“Some of the ideas came from our bosses and some were mine,” he says. “The sequential triple-firing rockets I achieved using a piece of spring steel with three ‘fingers’ on it: you operated it by flicking a thumbwheel. The chain cutter at the front was fairly straightforward. I thought up the plastic jet flame pulsing in and out at the back, simply because it would be fun!”

The Batmobile was even more successful than the Bond Aston, selling five million near-identical examples and helped enormously by Batman’s near-permanent place on Saturday morning children’s telly of the 1960s and ’70s. 

But as The Green Hornet proved, the synergy wasn’t always so sweet. “I’m afraid Mettoy truly got stung with that one,” chortles Richards. “They went ahead with it, but the show never appeared on British television!”

Marshall was tasked with creating the customised Chrysler Imperial used by the masked crime-fighter as he graduated from comic strip to half-hour TV show: “In the comic it had a drone in the boot, and I spent a week experimenting. I thought we could mould it like
a propeller, and when you opened the boot it would fly upwards. That proved a bit dangerous so we settled for a spring to flick a spinner out.”

Classic & Sports Car – When Corgi struck gold: the story behind the greatest toy ever

The ejector seat and gadgets were tested more than 20,000 times

Both Marshall’s and Richards’ talents were required on Corgi’s elaborate and clever Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in 1968, which cost £100,000 to design and tool and sold 776,000 in five years.

Concealed wings that popped out were called for, and Marshall rapidly devised the winning solution: a push on the sprung handbrake lever pinged them out. A team from Corgi visited the movie set at Pinewood Studios, and Richards recalls an issue with the film prop car itself.

“We had no idea what the bottom of the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang looked like,” he says. “There was no reference, and it was the usual rush job.”

Indeed, no one could be proud of the car’s underbelly; it was an unsightly Ford Zodiac floorpan roughly cut and welded to support the fake bodywork on top. So in one evening, a Corgi sculptor fashioned it to look like the underneath of a boat. “It was total fiction, dreamt up that night,” says Richards.

Classic & Sports Car – When Corgi struck gold: the story behind the greatest toy ever

The concealed machine guns were a popular feature

Collectors today will find the imprint of our two Corgi veterans all over the company’s much-loved and now-cherished 1960s and early ’70s output. Richards, for example, sculpted the figures that came with the Daktari Land-Rover Safari set, while Marshall designed the ‘Golden Jacks’ system and take-off wheels, put firing mechanisms into model tanks, and sirens and water cannon into scale fire engines.

As the 1970s dawned, teenagers lost interest in diecast models. Computers and Star Wars would soon divert budding imaginations from toy cars. Fashions changed, and Mettoy was bust by ’83. Richards left in 1972 to pursue his artistic ambitions, while Marshall remained to the bitter end.

“Everything seemed so glamorous in the ’60s,” he says, wistfully. Richards agrees: “You felt the energy of the time with Corgi.”

Images: John Bradshaw


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