From very humble beginnings in ‘The Rifleman’ hotel to being the ‘Greatest Name in Diecast’ to what looks like now may be the end of days. Matchbox has a very interesting history.
1947 – 1982 : Lesney Products
With about 600 British pounds in money, the pair purchased the “Rifleman”, an old unused hotel (pub) at Edmonton in London, and some government surplus die-casting machinery. They were soon joined by Jack Odell (John W Odell), a gentleman that worked along side Rodney at “Diecast & Machine Tools” in London.
In 1948, they started with just the one toy, an Aveling Barford diesel road roller, by 1953 the range had extended to 18 toys; in 1953 Jack Odell began designing small scaled toys, these became so successful that they formed the basis of the 1-75 series, a series that still continues today over 60 years later. By 1959, sales of the small cars now spread from the United Kingdom to the United States, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and countless other places around the world.
So successful was this venture that they branched out into other ranges and related products such as the larger scaled “Kingsize” & “Models of Yesteryear” range. The ‘Models of Yesteryear’ range was first produced in 1956, produced in a much larger scale than previously made models; this meant that they could display a lot finer detail on each model.
1969 saw the arrival of the biggest threat to Lesney Products domination of the diecast toy industry, this was the arrival of the “Hot Wheels” cars from Mattel Inc. Lesney Products were forced to quickly redesign their cars for a friction less axle, so by the end of the year “Superfast” cars had been introduced to the market, and by 1971, all of the Matchbox 1-75 Series had been converted to “Superfast” wheels, the impact was so great that the “King Size” was now labelled as “Super Kings”,.
By early 1982, Lesney was now suffering from the effects of a recession in the United Kingdom and had posted an operating loss of $15 million US dollars. The creditors were hounding the company for months, and then on June 11th, they declared Lesney Products bankrupt and sent in the receivers. The receivers “R D Agutter & G T E Red” reformed the company as “Matchbox Toys Ltd” and started looking for a buyer.
1982 – 1992 : Universal Toys Ltd
Although the company name had changed, it took several years before the name of “Lesney Products” was removed from all dies; in fact some carried th
e name right up till 1985. Most of the original tooling was purchased by Jack Odell, who used it to setup his own die-casting company under the name of “Lledo”.
Within months of the takeover
much of the tooling for “Matchbox Toys” had begun to be moved to Macau. 1983 saw the first Matchbox with a “Made in Macau” baseplate. Models of Yesteryear however remained at the Rochford plant until they too moved some 4 years later.
1987 saw Universal Toys acquire the trademark of “Dinky” from Kenner-Parker, thus adding it to the Matchbox stable of brands. Matchbox Toys however was no longer just in the business of die cast toys, they started producing other non die cast toys such as dolls and the like.
By early 1992 the original “Models of Yesteryear” series of 16 models had increased to 66 models, David Yeh had begun to
look for a buyer to offload “
Matchbox Toys” and by October of that year he had found one in “Tyco Toys”
1992 – 1997 : Tyco Toys
On the advice of a trialled system by “Matchbox Collectibles” a division of the company in Australia, they changed the “Models of Yesteryear” range into a mail-order and subscription sales only, targeting adult collectors and loosing forever any remote idea that these are children’s toys.
By doing this, they lost many of the collectors that they were targeting, by making the range more thorough and therefore more expensive for someone to collect all released models and its inherent variations
On the other hand they continued the tradition of producing the “1-75 Series” miniatures, both continuing existing cars and of course adding new ones and making them available in the normal way.
1997 – Now : Mattel Inc
Thankfully for collectors and children alike, around the world, they did not do what many thought they would, and that was to no longer produce cars under the “Matchbox” brand. As Mattel now owned its major rival in the diecast toys industry, many thought it would be the end of Matchbox forever.
Thankfully those that held this view were wrong, Mattel initially did have trouble in keeping the two lines distinct from one another, but thankfully now after some false starts and seemingly bad decisions, they seem to have got the mix right.
After some year’s absence, the “Superfast” brand was re-introduced in 2004 to thunderous applause for the quality of the new models. 2006 saw a brief one off return of the “Models of Yesteryear” range that was discontinued in 2000 and the basic “1-75″ range that had developed into a bizarre range of un-realistic cars was re-invented into a range that anyone would be proud to own, play with & collect.
Sadly that hasnt lasted and after a few very successful years and rising profits, distribution problems saw a new decline in the product. With an increasing use of plastic the range has descended into a cheap imitation of what it once was, the ”greatest name in diecast” is no more than a range of generic plastic toys interspersed with some classically good looking models.
The key people: