Originally sold as pocket-money toys, miniature models in cardboard 'matchboxes' helped create a successful international company and have
attracted collectors from all over the world.
In January 1947, two former school friends, Leslie and Rodney Smith, fulfilled a childhood ambition and pooled their savings to
set up a business. They pooled their Christian names, too, and called it Lesney. Leslie had experience as a buyer and an administrator, while Rodney worked with diecast metals.
Leslie Smith kept his day job to make sure they had some income, and they bought a
die casting machine to make industrial components. A proper workshop was beyond their means, so they took over an old pub in North London. They were soon joined by Jack Odell, a former colleague of Rodney. Odell worked for himself, but his model-making skills soon won him a full partnership in the business.
Lesney began making diecast metal toys as cheap alternatives to the popular Dinky ranges. They hooked up with a merchandizing company, Moko, and moved to their first factory, in East London. Business was up and down for a while and, with prospects looking gloomy, Rodney Smith decided to leave.
THE MATCHBOX CAR IDEA
In 1953 Lesney made successful models of the Coronation Coach, including a miniature version. Odell was interested in making more tiny toys, and was inspired by a rule at his daughter's school - no one could bring any toys to school that were bigger than a matchbox - to design some model vehicles to be sold in little packets resembling a matchbox.
The first models, scaled-down versions of the company's larger toys, were marketed in late 1953, and soon caught on. Lesney opened up new markets in Australia, New Zealand and the USA. New models continued to be introduced to the series until number 75 was reached. After this, old models were dropped and new ones took over their numbers.
Jack Odell's next innovation, Models of Yesteryear, was launched in 1956. Its detailed models of vintage cars, lorries and buses
appealed to a different, more adult market.
More new series were introduced in the company's golden years in the 1960s - in 1968 Lesney was making 5.5 million models a
week. Accessory packs complemented the 175 range, while larger models appeared in the King Size and Major Pack series.
In 1969, under competition from Mattel's Hot Wheels models, Matchbox began to revamp their models with Superfast
low friction wheels. The changeover was complete by 1971. Lesney bought out other toy-makers in the 1970s, overstretched its resources, and became bankrupt in 1982.
The Matchbox lines were bought up by the American company Universal, which was itself taken over by Tyco Toys in 1992. An expanding range of new models continues to be produced, but collectors' interest focuses largely on those made before 1970.
Matchbox toys from all periods are collectable but models from the 1950s and 1960s are particularly prized, as are the rare, larger-scale diecast toys made by Lesney in the 1940s and 1950s. Condition is not always that important, especially for rare models, except when items have missing parts or have been clumsily repainted.
MATCHBOX CAR COLLECTOR'S NOTES
The 1-75 Series and Models of Yesteryear are the most sought-after Matchbox toys. There's plenty of scope for collectors. Though there have never been more than 75 models in the standard series at any one time, some numbers have seen plenty of variation. Accordingly, models are identified by a number and a letter; 35C is the third model with that number. Yesteryear numbers have also been re-used, but these are given a number suffix; the first ~ model, a traction engine, was Y1-1.
Old Matchbox models may still turn up though rarely in good condition - in boot sales, junk shops and the like, but collecting is fairly well established and toy fairs, specialist dealers and collectors' clubs - the Matchbox International Collectors Association has branches in the USA, Australia and the UK are probably the best sources for adding to your collection. There is a great deal of mail order trade, too. And, if you want to find out more about Matchbox toys in general, several books have been published in recent years.
WHAT MATCHBOX CAR COLLECTORS LIKE
The highest prices quoted in any catalogue will be for mint, boxed items - so much so that some collectors happily buy empty boxes so they can upgrade their collection. The next most expensive are mint items with no box.
Models don't have to be mint to be collected, though. This is more true of the 1-75 models, which were seen as toys to play with, than items from the Yesteryear range, which were often bought for display and so won't have suffered so many knocks.
A little wear and tear to the paintwork is okay, but amateur paint jobs or missing parts can bring a price tumbling. Check also for bent axles, missing drivers, overstretched rubber caterpillar tracks and broken hitches (the hooks at the back of some vehicles for attaching a trailer or caravan).
Before 1975, Lesney used transfers to pick out details such as logos and advertisements. After this date, a rubber stamp called a tampo was used. Transfers weren't always perfectly applied, but they should be there, and not too badly scratched.
Variations in paintwork and transfers fascinate some, but not all, collectors. There is a whole sub-category of collecting around MB38s. This is a Model A Ford van (38G), first produced in 1982, which has been used by hundreds of businesses as a promotional item, with different posters on the side.
The two most respected publications on Matchbox are:
Matchbox Toys 1947 to 1998: Identification & Value Guide by Dana Johnson,
Collecting Matchbox*t Regular Wheels, 1953-1969 by Charles Mack