One of the most popular lines of miniature die-cast toy cars was introduced by the British manufacturer Lesney Products. The company was founded in 1947 by two school friends, Lesley Smith and Rodney Smith, who also served together in the Royal Navy during World War II. Later that year a third partner joined, John W. “Jack” Odell, who was directly responsible for the “Matchbox” name and its success.
The first toy car model was introduced in 1948 and it was a die-cast road roller based on a model made by Dinky, who were the leaders in die-cast toy production in those years. The first major success for Lesney Products was the replica of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation coach, which sold over a million pieces. Two versions were produced, a larger one which was 15 3/4-inch long and a smaller 4 1/2-inch long which sold even better.
The real breakthrough happened when Jack Odell scaled down one of the first Lesney toys, a green, and red road roller. He did this for his daughter Ann, whose school would allow children to bring only toys that could fit in a matchbox. The small toy became very popular among Ann’s friends and in 1953 Lesney trademarked the name “Matchbox” which would put them at the top of toy car manufacturers in the years that followed. The road roller model became the first of three initially released “Matchbox” 1-75 models that would mark the beginning of a legendary series. The other two were a cement mixer and a dump truck. The early models were entirely made of metal and didn’t have interiors nor windows. The toy’s size inspiration also led to the idea of selling them in a replica matchbox. Lesney decided that the models in the standard series would be numbered from 1 to 75 when a new model appeared it would take the number of an older model which would be discontinued.
The next decade saw the introduction of new models, most of them British. As time passed, the collection grew and new international models were introduced such as Volkswagen, Citroën, and American cars. Despite the size of the cars, the levels of detail were amazing. To be able to do this, the designer took detailed photos of original cars, sometimes even using the original blueprints of the cars. Although at first the toy cars sold poorly, kids loved Matchbox cars, and they were pretty cheap, which allowed children to buy them with their own pocket money.
Lesney produced four other series of cars between 1950 and 1960. The Models of Yesteryear were introduced in 1956 and produced until 1982. It was a series of models of vehicles from the steam era and early automotive days. The Accessories Packs in 1956 (including petrol pumps and garages), Major Packs (larger-scale models) in 1957 and the King Size (trucks and tractors) in 1960, were added in order to expand and diversify their production.
By the mid-1960s, Lesney was the biggest seller of small die-cast cars in the world, selling more than 100 million toys a year, and the name “Matchbox” was a synonym for small toy cars regardless of the brand. By this time the cars had interiors, plastic windows, wheels with tires and spring suspensions. Some of them included steering and in 1969 a new Auto-Steer pressure-based system was introduced. The Matchbox line included a variety of vehicles; apart from cars, it featured trailers, buses, tractors, motorcycles, and others.
In 1968 the American toy giant Mattel introduced their “Hot Wheels” line. The new attractive models, marketed aggressively, became very popular. Matchbox took a huge hit on the American market. The UK market was also targeted by competitors so Lesney had to respond fast. Unfortunately, it took a whole year for a new line to appear. The Superfast Wheels line was finished in 1970 and it featured low-friction wheels, tracks, new car models and new colors. This allowed Lesney to return among the top companies in the field.
Turning to target collectors turned out to be a great idea for Lesney Products. In the 1970s they started contacting collectors, sending company representatives at collectors’ meetings and carefully observing their tastes and interests. The idea wasn’t new to Lesney because they had already produced some of their models in gold and silver-plated versions, but they went one step further, introducing the “Matchbox Collectibles”, items made with the purpose to be collected. The collectibles were made in limited quantities and sold at a higher price. Lesney also collaborated with other major companies like Coca Cola, Jack Daniel’s or Texaco and put their logos on the cars, making the collectibles even more desirable.
Following the footsteps of other die-cast toy cars producers, Lesney became bankrupt in 1982. After being run by several enterprises, in 1997 “Matchbox International Ltd.” was bought by Mattel, creators of “Hot Wheels”, Lesney’s major competition for decades.