Tuesday April 24, 2018
For me, a Matchbox toy is always to be associated with the display cabinet of the village newsagents and stationers; one situated between the Wavy Line grocers and the gentleman’s tailor with a window display akin to a miniature Are You Being Served? In a glass-fronted cabinet next to the racks of Mackintosh’s Weekend Assortments and Sherbet Dabs were the sort of die-cast models seen in this ’72, ’74 and ’75 catalogues. Some were replicas of the kind of vehicle you might see every day – a Ford Zodiac Mk. IV or a VW Type 2 Camper. Others seemed more exotic such as a Lotus Europa or a Citroen SM while you were very unlikely to encounter a Saab Sonnet when travelling along the A27. But this was far less important than the crucial facts that a) each car looked tremendous and b) each was highly affordable.
The story behind Matchbox is a part of automotive legend – in the early 1950s, the engineer Jack Odell of the Lesney Company created a small-scale version of their toy road roller for his daughter Annie. One version of the tale has it that school rules dictated that Miss Odell could only bring a toy in her satchel if it were small enough to fit into a matchbox. Another, which does sound more plausible, is that she would use said receptacles to transport spiders and various insects to class and so a miniature vehicle was a means to have her cease this practice. Either way, the models were to enter full production, commencing with the 1a roller, followed by 2a Site Dumper, 3a Cement Mixer and 4a Massey Ferguson Tractor.
One early challenge faced by Lesney was that some shopkeepers were loathed to stock their new product lines, as they equated small toys with small profits. But within months, the attention to detail of a Matchbox toy and the fact that prices commenced at 1/8d mark (which was within reach of most pocket money) meant that their popularity was assured. 1954 marked the launch of the first Matchbox car, an MG TD and by 1962 Odell was able to inform The New York Times that ‘We produce more Rolls-Royces in a single day than the Rolls-Royce company has made in its entire history’.
And this indescribably brilliant Pathé news film from the same year gives an impression of Matchbox’s abiding appeal:
We commence with a gentleman with a late-period Teddy Boy quiff at the drawing board with pictures of Wolseley 6/110s and other excellent motor cars on the wall. He and a colleague discuss the merits of a replica Austin A55 Cambridge Mk. II, another technician (whom I am convinced is played by Peter Sellers) creates a wooden model while a Wendy Richards look-a-like sorts through some double-deckers. Incidentally, Lesney also owned a fleet of full-size London Transport buses that were repainted in the corporate blue and yellow livery and served as works’ transport.
Three years later the newsreel cameras returned to the factory - – with an opening shot of the Matchbox production line of Ford Corsairs and the Foden tipper lorries. By 1966, the Matchbox brochure was able to claim that ‘it is a true but amazing fact that if all the models from a year’s work in the Lesney factories were placed nose to tail they would stretch from London to Mexico City – a distance of over six thousand miles!’ The Hackney Wick complex was now manufacturing 100 million models per year; a feat that was recognised by The Guinness Book of Records.
The sheer variety of models on offer was remarkable, from a Bedford TK Shell Petrol Tanker, a Jaguar Mk. X, a Vauxhall Victor FB to a Morris J2 pick-up, a Commer Milk Float and a Studebaker Wagnoaire with its trademark retractable rear roof panel. In 1968 Movietone paid a visit to the plant at Lee Conservancy Road - but this footage comes with an urgent warning. Some readers may find the close-ups of the Rolls Royce Silver Shadow, and the footage of the Ford Cortina Mk. II in production, highly addictive.
Lesney ceased trading in 1982 and the factory was demolished in 2010, but the brand is still very much with us today - http://play.matchbox.com. My own favourite memory is of their “King Size” police Jaguar XJ12, as demonstrated by Arthur Lowe - as with all great Matchbox cars, it was more than worth the effort of carefully saving pocket and birthday money -