Monday, June 18, 2012

All About Matchbox

There are certain toys nearly every boy has growing up. Footballs and action figures of some kind are just to name a few. However there are some that are even more common than that. We are talking about Matchbox cars and as it turns out they have quite they history behind their name.

Matchbox was created and owned by the British die-cast toy manufacturer called Lesney Products.  Lesney was founded in 1947 Rodney Smith and Leslie Smith. A quick read of Lesney will reveal the company got its name by combing the last names of the owners.  Back then die-cast toys like Corgi and Dinky were extremely popular and Lesney hoped to break into this market. That same year a die-casting engineer they hired named Jack Odell became one of their partners as well.  The Matchbox name would come about through an interesting story of his creation.

In 1953 Odell’s daughter informed him that they were only allowed to take toys to school that would fit into a matchbox. This inspired Odell to come up with a line of toys that students could take to school and it wasn’t before long when the first Matchbox cars were produced. Popular among collectors, these early toys are often referred to as the “Golden Age” of toy collecting.

 The first series of Matchbox cars were known as the I-75 series, although it only contained a few models.  Up until then Lesney’s best-selling product had been a replica of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation coach which sold roughly one million units but Matchbox changed everything for them as the toys became a huge hit. Matchbox was so successful that the term became synonymous with small cars everywhere. One of its most successful series was the Models of Yesteryear, a line of classic cars from the early days of automobiles. It is slightly ironic since these Matchbox cars are now considered classics as well. Another popular series was the Major’s Packs which consisted of larger construction vehicles and the King Sized sets which was made up of larger trucks and tractors.

Matchbox dominated the die cast toy industry for over a decade and nobody could touch but then in 1968 something would happen that would change everything. Mattel invented the Hot Wheels. The Hot Wheels were painted bright metallic colors, had fancy wheels, slick accurate designs and featured the popular low friction, high speed “racing” wheels. For Matchbox it was a disaster as every kind in America wanted the new, shiny Hot Wheels. 

Matchbox, and everyone else for that matter, desperately tried to come up with something to rival the Hot Wheels. Their answer was the “Superfast” series that could also be bought with tracks and accessories. Matchbox made another bold move by reworking their cars and parts to be the same size as Hot Wheels. This would allow kids to buy Matchbox cars to use their Hot Wheels tracks. The plan worked well and by the 1970’s they were back on track.

The 1980’s saw a rough time for England’s economy and due to financial problems Lesney was sold to Universal Toys who moved production to China. It would be the beginning of a series of sales for the Matchbox brand. While they survived the 1980’s Universal Toys decided to go ahead and sell Matchbox to Tyco Toy is in 1992. Tyco did continue to produce the Matchbox name. Then in 1997 Tyco was sold to its fiercest competitor and ultimate rival: Mattel. This sparked outrage and fear among Matchbox fans who were afraid that Mattel would change or even discontinue the line. Fortunately Mattel realized the value of this brand and had no intention of changing it what-so-ever. Thanks to this bit of wisdom both collectors and children can continue on in enjoying these iconic toys.

RJ plays with toys and writes in sunny Southern California. He writes about pop culture, toy collecting and history. Enterprise Car Sales is one place to find great used vehicles.

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