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20th Anniversary of Matchbox

January 1973 - What city produces more cars than any other in the whole world?

If you think that Detroit is the answer, you're wrong. There's one factory in eastern London that makes the Michigan setup look like the Little League.

Matchbox cars

In an average week, Lesney Products & Co. Ltd. turns out close to five and one half million cars, trailers, trucks, buses, and other vehicles. There's just one catch: you could pick up any three Lesney autos in the palm of your hand and have room left over for half a dozen paper clips and a wad of bubble gum.

The output of this remarkable British company is the successful "Matchbox" series of miniature toy vehicles, each one small enough to be packed into an empty wooden-match carton.

Throughout the ages, toy vehicles have been popular as children's playthings; in fact, a history of transportation could probably be written just by studying the toys of other eras. Nowadays, there are more toy cars and trucks than any other kind of toy—one trade magazine estimates that there are twice as many vehicular toys as any other plaything. An examination of the available products shows an immense range of quality and type, all the way from poorly made "stocking stuffers" with dangerously sharp metal edges, chiefly imported from the Orient, on up to precision-engineered, safety-tested, accurate scale models from companies like Tonka and Corgi.

Browse vintage Matchbox merchandise

But who would ever want a dinky little toy car like the ones Lesney makes? "Fits in a matchbox?" retailers asked when they first saw the line back in the nineteen-fifties. "Why, they're nothing but trinkets!"

The public disagreed. Literally hundreds of millions of "Matchbox" toys have been sold since their first introduction, and demand for them is now so widespread that they can be found in stores in 132 countries, making "Matchbox" the most widely distributed toy in the entire world.

The amazing thing about "Matchbox" toys is their incredibly high quality in terms of durability and the wealth of detail included in each miniature. It seems reasonable that they would sell for a few dollars each, but their price has never even risen as high as a dollar a toy. The first models in the nineteen-fifties sold for about forty cents. Today, they are priced in America at seventy-nine cents apiece—still quite a bargain.

Detailing on "Matchbox" cars is so precise that even the tire treads are duplicated. When a specific model of automobile is being reproduced in miniature, it is compared with the original every step of the way. If the full-size auto has tires with the manufacturer's name on them, Lesney will even put that on the model.

With so much money sunk into designing each new car, it would seem necessary for Lesney to restrict the number of toys in the line. On the contrary, there are always seventy-five models in the "Matchbox" series, and though not every number is changed each year, a big turnover still takes place. New ambulances, dragsters, tipper trucks, pony trailers, beach buggies, and many other kinds of vehicle are brought in regularly to keep the product mix rotating for the eager shopper. In addition, Lesney puts out two lines of larger-size models: Super Kings (industrial vehicles such as tractors, bulldozers, harvesters, and building transporters) and Speed Kings (police cars, camping cruisers, etc.). Finally, Lesney has a special "Matchbox" assortment called "Models of Yesteryear," which includes classic cars like the 1928 Mercedes Benz and the 1909 Thomas Flyabout.

One season, faced with strong competition from Mattel's Hot Wheels and other gravity-powered autos, Lesney decided to turn "Matchbox" vehicles from stationary objects to moving toys. But even though "Matchbox" soon returned to its customary format, the Hot Wheels lesson taught Lesney that it was vulnerable as long as it made only one product. Today, Lesney also makes Steer 'N' Go, which enables the child to "drive" a small car over various kinds of model terrain; a game called Carpow!, and a nonvehicular game, Cascade. In addition, the company also has entered the preschool toy business.

It all began at the close of the second world war, when two buddies in the British military service decided to go into business together. They were John W. Odell, a twenty-seven-year-old engineer, and Leslie C. Smith, twenty-nine, a marketing specialist. The only assets the two had were native ability and their respective war gratuities. Pooling their service money, they opened up a pressure die-casting factory to provide various goods for industry. They set up their first plant in the bombed-out ruins of an old pub in Tottenham, North London.

Although the new operation brought in a steady, if modest, income, the pair decided to look for a sideline business, mainly to keep the factory in full operation. In 1949, the ex-servicemen decided to manufacture a toy, a sixteen-inch State Processional Coach with a team of horses.

Their efforts seemed doomed from the start. The Korean War had just broken out, and the supply of zinc was curtailed. An important material in die-casting, zinc was no longer permitted for use in making toys.

But Odell and Smith continued planning. In 1952, Queen Elizabeth II was about to ascend the British throne. What could be more logical than to bring out a model of the royal coronation coach? The old sixteen-inch toy was just the thing—except that it was too big for "impulse" sales. The Lesney executives decided to reproduce it in miniature. Without sacrificing a single detail, the coach and horses were produced at a size little more than five inches long.

In the coronation year of 1953, Britons bought over a million Lesney coaches. Flushed with their first success, Odell and Smith mapped out a scheme for manufacturing a whole line of tiny motor vehicles, each small enough to fit into a box of matches. Then the pair followed the idea one step further and decided to actually package the toys in replica matchboxes.

The conception was perfect, and the Lesney toy line suddenly acquired a name, an identity, and a unique look. Today, the matchbox package is used sparingly, and more than 70 percent of the models sell in blister-pack cards. But the memorable name has remained.

Lesney started out by producing three miniatures: a cement mixer, a dump truck, and a road roller. But the initial reaction was discouraging: the buyers didn't take "Matchbox" cars seriously. To them, they were just more junk for the bargain counters.

Smith and Odell had to press hard to get retailers to carry the miniatures at all. And yet, despite this resistance and the fact that Lesney did no advertising in those days, the "Matchbox" toy began to gather sales momentum in Britain by word of mouth. In the United States, similar troubles arose in selling "Matchbox" to buyers, and even veteran toy salesman Fred Bronner was forced to work exclusively with small wholesalers; the big ones weren't the least bit interested.

But the public was interested in the accurate, inexpensive little cars. Children enjoyed them as toys. Adults bought them as decorative knick-knacks. By 1955, barely a year after they were first put on the market, "Matchbox" toys were being bought in quantity by the same toy buyers who had at first shaken their heads in derision. The line was so successful that Lesney had to expand its manufacturing quarters.

The company went public in September I960, and the initial stock offering was oversubscribed fifteen times. Today, its manufacturing facilities are located both in London and Essex; total floor area amounts to more than one million square feet. In addition, Lesney has operations in the U.S., Canada, and Australia. More than sixty-five hundred people are employed by the company, and 80 percent of all "Matchbox" models made in London are earmarked for export, earning the firm several Queen's Awards to Industry for export trade. "It's gotten so prestigious to be made by Lesney," a company spokesman said, "that major auto makers are constantly suggesting we pick their new cars for patterns and eventual 'Matchbox' versions of their originals."

The technique of producing any single "Matchbox" model is extremely demanding. The first stage is design, which includes research and development, tool and pattern making.

In this early stage, the scale of the model is laid out to conform with the "Matchbox" format. Initial design and development can take many months. On some models, it has even stretched as long as two years—far more time than the "Matchbox" price structure would seem to warrant. But Odell and Smith are sticklers for accuracy.

Next, specialized craftsmen carve each new model out of resin blocks. These are called "patterns" and are four times as large as the miniatures so that any error in shape or measurement can be easily detected. Every detail of the pattern is compared and recompared with the photos and specifications to make sure that the model is in scale with itself and—as in the "Models of Yesteryear" series—in agreement with the original automobile.

Once a pattern has been perfected, it serves as a guide in the cutting of the actual-size molds. More than three hundred skilled toolmakers are involved in this delicate cutting operation, which uses a needle as fine as a dentist's high-speed drill. The operators wear jewelers' lenses to check and double-check for accuracy.

The final "Matchbox" production step is the assembly, packaging, and shipping of the completed models. This takes place on some sixty assembly lines, where miniature car chassis are automatically riveted to bodies, plastic windows are fitted in, axles are positioned, and wheels and tires are attached. Transfers, or decals, are affixed in the last stages of assembly.

The models are then put in trays, which are carried to automatic packing stations. When the plant was being set up, Odell and Smith became worried that the many women who worked on the assembly line would have trouble lifting the heavy cartons of die-cast vehicles. Odell worked out a scheme for transporting the products in containers the size and shape of cookie tins, which seemed to hold the right weight for the women to lift. As a result, the whole Lesney conveyor belt system was built to accommodate cookie tins.

The assembled "Matchbox" cars and trucks are packed and sealed at the automatic packing station. Nimble-fingered employees picking up six vehicles at a time place them into larger cartons. At last, fully packed and enclosed, the models travel in batches to the storage area, where electronic equipment routes each package to a specific shipping point.

Lesney's millions of elf-sized cars and buses seem to appeal equally to children and to automobile enthusiasts, a double market that is quite unusual in the toy business. Unlike the electric train, which has become more and more the province of the collector, miniature cars and related vehicles continue to capture the imagination of auto lovers of every age and interest.

While the quality, detailing, cuteness, and very low price of "Matchbox" toys contribute to their popularity among both children and adults, there is a major difference in the psychology of collecting in these two consumer groups.

Children from about the age of two up, according to Irwin Goodman, a vice president at Lesney, love "Matchbox" models. But they want a lot of them chiefly because they see a lot of vehicles on the streets and roads and highways. Kids tend to amass, rather than collect; they want to look at and play with as many little cars as they can get. When youngsters get older and a bit more sophisticated, they will expand the richness of play by putting "Matchbox" (and other) autos into fantasized situations: cars strung along a busy interchange, trucks loading and unloading at the supermarket, buses picking up figures of boys and girls for school. The awareness of detail and recognition of vehicle types comes later, according to the degree of interest the child finds in cars as machines and/or material possessions. When the youngster has reached this stage, he has crossed over into the province of the collector.

There are several "Matchbox" fan clubs in the country: one for kids, run by the company; and others for hard-core collectors, independently operated. The latter groups hold conventions where old "Matchbox" cars are traded, auctioned, and sold, and also publish fan magazines which Les-ney's staff often consults when trying to recall some early model it once produced.

"Matchbox" collectors, like hobbyists in any other field, know their product thoroughly. They can recite the axle size of every single model, or tell you the color of the original car the model was patterned after.

Thanks to enthusiasts of all ages, the Lesney factories turn out enough "Matchbox" toys every year to construct a line of miniature cars, bumper to bumper, from London to Melbourne, Australia.

Hugging the highway of success with its small, but extremely authentic tires, the "Matchbox" model keeps rolling along.

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