Lesney products was founded in 1947 by Leslie Smith and friend Rodney Smith. The combination of the two names, Leslie and Rodney, made up the name Lesney. Lesney products was in the business of die-casting. Die-casting is the process of forcing molten metal, zinc being the metal of choice for Lesney, under high pressure into a mold, which is then machined into two hardened steel dies.
Leslie and Rodney used their war gratuity to pay for the venture. Rodney Smith, who had worked for DCMT, which stands for "Die Cast Machine Tools" and would later become manufacturer of the Lone Star die-cast toy product line, bought a die-casting machine to use for Lesney from DCMT. Rodney also kept his job at DCMT to help with the bills. The two set up shop at the old Rifleman Pub at Edmonton in North London.
At the same time Lesney decided it was time to hire a tool maker, a DCMT toolmaker named John "Jack" Odell was looking for a place to set up his own die-casting equipment. At first, they offered him a room at the Rifleman for his equipment, but eventually offered Odell a partnership in the company.
The industrial orders that Rodney and Jack were expecting to get weren't exactly rolling in, so they started making parts for a toy gun later in 1947. In 1948, they made a die-cast model of Dinky's Road Roller. This model was very similar to Dinky's but cost one third the price because there was no base plate and ALL of the parts were die-cast, including the roof supports, where the Dinky had wire roof supports (which collapses easily, unfortunately). The Dinky model also featured a driver where the Lesney model did not.
From 1947 to 1952, a number of other vehicles were made. There was a cement mixer, Caterpillar crawler and bulldozer and a milk float. All of which were eventually scaled down to become Matchbox toys in the future.
In 1951, Lesney created a die-cast souvenir stage coach featuring King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. But shortly afterwards the Korean War broke out and there was an embargo on the zinc Lesney needed to make their molds. When this happened, Rodney Smith felt that Lesney Products was doomed, so he sold his share of the company to Leslie and Jack.
The birth of the Matchbox toy
Before the zinc embargo was lifted, King George VI died, so Lesney had to modify their molds into a commemorative coach for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Unfortunately, a few hundred pieces were made with the King still riding inside before it was realized that they should remove the king from the die. In 1953, Lesney decided to scale down the model of the coach. By using better zinc and thinner castings, Lesney was able to produce smaller toys with finer detail. The miniature coronation coach was a huge hit and Lesney sold over 1 million units.
Also in 1953, it is said that Jack Odell's daughter wanted a toy to bring to school, but the school only allowed toys small enough to fit inside a matchbox. Using the better zinc and thinner castings that made the miniature coronation coach possible, Odell scaled down the Lesney road roller model to a significantly smaller size. Being impressed with the detail of the model, Lesney decided to launch an entire "Matchbox" series of vehicles, all of which would have to be small enough to fit into a replica matchbox included with the vehicle. A miniature dump truck and a scaled down version of Lesney's cement mixer became Matchbox #2 and #3 respectively.
Odell felt that the smaller Matchbox cars were crude so he went to work on a slightly larger scale model with more attention to detail. During the 1956 Toy Trade Fair at Harrogate, Jack Odell showed four new vehicles: A 1925 Allchin Traction Engine, a 1911 "B-type" London bus, a 1907 "E-class" Tramcar and a 1928 Sentinel Steam Wagon. The toy line kept it's "antique car" theme and was called "Models of Yesteryear".
All of the Matchbox cars that are not part of a particular series of larger scale vehicles, such as Model of Yesteryear, King Size (later called "Super Kings"), Sky Busters, etc. are often referred to as "1-75" vehicles. But the series did not reach 75 vehicles until 1959. The series expanded from 3 to 5 models in 1954. It quickly expanded to 21 vehicles by 1955. In 1956, Lesney was up to 42 Matchbox models and in 1958 Lesney was up to 52 different Matchbox models. In 1958, Matchbox was not only expanded to 75 models, but older models were refreshed. For example: The #1 road roller and #2 dump truck became slightly larger scale as well as some of the other models. Other models changed colors in 1958, like the #10 mechanical horse and trailer going from red and gray to a crimson and cream color. Other models were replaced completely, like the #4 tractor being replaced by a Triumph motorcycle with side car. Other than the 1977 Japanese line which numbered up to 79, this trend of only offering 75 models in the 1-75 Matchbox range continued moving forward with the series while under Lesney's control.
All of the Matchbox cars up until 1959 were distributed by a company called Moko. Moko Toys was a toy wholesaler started in Furth, Germany in 1875 by Moses Kohnstram and they owned 50% of the Matchbox name. With branches in Milan Italy, Brussels Belgium and London England as well as Furth, just outside of Nuremberg Germany, Moko was very capable of packaging, warehousing and distributing large quantities of toys throughout Europe. These Matchbox cars all had "A Moko Lesney Product" on the box. In 1959, Lesney bought out Moko interest in Matchbox, but kept the "Moko Lesney" designation on the boxes until 1961 when it was changed to simply say "A Lesney Product".
Initially, Lesney only had die-casting capability and the vehicles featured no plastic parts and even had metal wheels up until 1958 (and in some cases, even longer!) Eventually, Lesney implemented plastic parts into their cars, but had to outsource because they did not have any plastic molding equipment in house. Lesney also did not have it's own electro-plating equipment, so a company down the road from Lesney's Hackney factory called "Spegelstein & Sons" did all of Lesney's electro-plating. Eventually, Lesney grew to have their own plastics molding and electro-plating equipment.
In 1960, Lesney went public. By 1962, Lesney was cranking out one million toy vehicles a week. By 1968, Lesney was the largest die-cast toy manufacturer in the world, producing 5,500,000 models per week. These were exported to 130 different countries. They employed nearly 6000 people in 12 factories making Lesney one of the largest employers in North and East London.
Matchbox cars go "Superfast"
All of this success did not go unnoticed. Mattel co-founder Elliot Handler decided that his company should start producing a line of die-cast toy cars. It cost Mattel nearly $10 million to launch Hot Wheels, but by releasing innovative models that the public have yet to see in the die-cast toy car market, such as custom cars, hot rods, concept cars and show cars, all featuring "Spectraflame" paint jobs, Hot Wheels became extremely successful almost immediately after their launch in 1968. Another innovation Mattel implemented was a white bushing between a Delrin wheel and the axle that resulted in a very low friction wheel that allowed the Hot Wheels cars to go faster and farther. Hot Wheels cars also had a simple suspension system. Mattel's Hot Wheels took the market by storm. Within the year of 1969, Lesney went from top toy company to near financial crisis. The company was £700,000 in the red and that was before having to pay £2 million in taxes for the profits they made during better times.
In 1970, almost all of the 1969 product line was refreshed with the new, lower friction "Superfast" wheels. Some new models were released in 1970, and these were all launched with the new Superfast wheels. Only one model escaped having its wheels upgraded and that was the #16 Case Bulldozer, which had treads instead of wheels, and that model actually remained unchanged from 1969 to 1974. The Matchbox wheels did not have the bushings the original Hot Wheels cars had, but even Mattel phased out using the bushing after only a year.
In 1973, Lesney introduced a few "Rolamatic" models into the Matchbox line up. This included the #10 Mustang "Piston Popper" which had moving engine pistons as the car rolled, and the popular #47 Beach Hopper, which was a beach buggy with a rider that would bounce up and down in his seat. But 1973 also so many set backs for Lesney.
In the first quarter of 1973, no Matchbox cars were produced due to a national strike that lasted 8 weeks. Following this, Lesney's fettling staff went on strike. The fettling shop is where all of the castings are cleaned up. Then, the Rochford factory where all of the Models of Yesteryear vehicles were made had two disasters. First, there was a fire that destroyed a large part of the factory and thousands of plastic pieces used to assemble cars. Then there was a flood that ruined a number of machines. Lesney focused on the Superfast product line while the Rochford factory was practically rebuilt. It was two years before the market would see Models of Yesteryear again.
In 1974, Lesney diversified into dolls and in 1977, Lesney acquired the Vogue Doll company from Tonka.
In 1978, Lesney acquired model kit manufacturer AMT, forming the Lesney AMT Corporation in Baltimore, MD.
By the mid 70's, Matchbox was back on top. 1-75 models were successful, Models of Yesteryear were back in production and Lesney landed quite a few promotional model accounts. But going into the late 70's and early 80's, there was a decline in business for all of the British based die-cast toy companies. A number of the competition, including Mattel's Hot Wheels, were made in lower wage factories in Asia and were able to sell for a much lower price while still earning the company respectable profit margins. Matchbox's competition from England started going out of business. In 1979, Dinky Toys, of Liverpool, closed its factory's doors, and in 1983 Corgi Toys went into receivership.
From Lesney to Universal Toys
In June 1982 Lesney went into receivership. The company was reorganized as Matchbox Toys, Ltd. and a buyer was sought. In late 1982, Universal Toys, a company owned by one David Yeh, bought the "Matchbox" division of the company and created Matchbox International. AMT was bought by another die-cast toy company, Ertl, while the Vogue Doll company remained in limbo for a couple years before being resurrected by Meritus Industries.
David Yeh and Universal Toys were no strangers to the die-cast toy market. Since 1977, Universal's Kidco brand was a huge competitor to Matchbox in the United States. In 1978, Universal bought 80% of LJN toys, the company known for Rough Riders and Stomper toy cars. After Dinky closed it's doors in 1979, Universal Toys was the manufacturer of Dinky Toys sold in Europe, which were actually nothing more than the Kidco cars one would find in the U.S., but with "Dinky Toys" stamped into the base plate. In 1981, Universal set up a factory in Macau for manufacturing die-cast toys.
Matchbox boxes no longer have unique artwork for each vehicle on them. Boxes now only have a red grid design on a yellow box with the model of the vehicle stamped on the side of the box. Of course, blister packs have generic artwork on them just as they always did.
Much of Lesney's tooling and machinery was moved from the Lee Conservancy Rd. factory to Macau. A large hole was punched through the factory's roof and machinery was removed with a crane. In 1982, Jack Odell partnered with Burt Russell and bought some of the machinery and tooling back from Universal and had it shipped to a factory in Enfield, England where Odell started Lledo Toys; "Lledo" being Odell spelled backwards.
Starting in early 1983, the first "Made in Macau" Matchbox cars started showing up on store shelves along side some "Made in England models".
In 1984, Matchbox International re-issued some GoLion figures manufactured by Bandai in both Japan and Taiwan as Voltron in the U.S. After Matchbox released Voltron I, II and III during 1984, including a recall of some toys due to lead paint, a company called Panosh Place took over selling Voltron toys in 1985. In 1997, Trendmasters took the tooling that Bandai used for the Matchbox branded series and sent them to China to continue manufacturing the Voltron III toys.
In 1986, Matchbox International used a number of the old 1-75 dies to create a new product line called "Super GT". A number of familiar Matchbox models, such as the Vantastic, Gruesome Twosome and Fandango, were re-cast. These cars did not have interiors and had blacked out windows to hide this fact. The baseplates were also plastic and not metal, a trend that would soon become standard in the 1-75 Superfast range as well. The numbers of these models were prefixed with a "BR", which stands for "Budget Range". These models were sold at a much lower price than the other Superfast models and were often bundled in large "Value Packs". Some of the models were even given away in McDonalds Happy Meals. Despite the extremely low cost of these vehicles, quite a few of these were actually produced in England until 1987 when the Rochford, Essex factory finally closed down. Once this factory shut down, all production of Matchbox vehicles was done in either Macau or China.
In 1987, Universal bought the Dinky brand name from Kenner-Parker. Ironically, Kenner-Parker also became a division of Tonka in 1987. The same company Lesney bought Vogue Dolls from just ten years ago! Initially, Universal's Dinky toys were just Matchbox models with different colors, but eventually the product line was expanded beyond this, starting with a line of cars from the 1950's.
Universal expanded the use of the Matchbox brand beyond die-cast toy cars. In 1984, Matchbox distributed toys in the U.S. from Japan based on the Voltron cartoon. In 1985, Matchbox introduced a line of figures and vehicles from the Robotech cartoon. In 1987, the Matchbox brand appeared on the "Rubik's Magic" puzzle. In 1988, Matchbox released "Ring Raiders" which were plastic airplanes that would launch from rings secured to the user's finger. A line of Pee Wee's Playhouse figures were also releasd. In 1989, a talking Freedy Krueger doll was introduced. In 1990, the Matchbox brand appeared on "Monster in my Pocket" plastic figurines.
In 1988, in a belated celebration of Lesney's 40th anniversary, Matchbox International released a gift set of five pre-Superfast models from the 1950's. The models reproduced were the #1 Road Roller, #4 Massey Harris Tractor, #5 London Bus, #7 Horse Drawn Milk Float and #9 Dennis Fire Engine.
In 1989, White Rose Collectibles was granted license to use the "Matchbox" brand on a number of sports related vehicles. NASCAR vehicles as well as a number of cars and trucks that featured names of sports teams and Universities on them. The relationship between White Rose Collectibles and Matchbox International ended when Mattel bought Matchbox.
In 1991, the models included in the 40th Anniversay gift set were re-released as individually packaged models, although colors and tempa changed. For example: the Road Roller was green in 1988, but is now blue and the London bus now says "Matchbox Originals" instead of "Buy Matchbox Series". These models were sold as "Matchbox Originals".
The Lesney factory at the corner of Lea Conservancy Rd. and Homerton Rd. actually remained a die-cast factory under the name "Lesney Industries" until 2008 when the factory was moved farther North East to Harlow, Essex. That factory was demolished in 2010. Lesney Industries claims to have "over 60 years in the die-casting industry", although its uncertain how related this Lesney company is to the original.
The Tyco years
In May 1992, Universal Toys sold Matchbox International to Tyco Toys. Tyco also acquired Ideal Toys. The irony here is that with the purchase of Ideal, Tyco gets the rights to Rubik's Cube. This brings both Rubik's Magic and Cube puzzle toys under the same roof. At least for a while before the licensing of manufacturing Rubik's puzzles for sale in the U.S. was granted to Hasbro.
Under Tyco, little changed with the actual Matchbox 1-75 product line up. Blister pack art changed and some new models and new paint jobs were released, but Matchbox International remained an independently run division of Tyco. Manufacturing was moved to China and Thailand and, although not all Matchbox cars had metal bases in the past, more and more Superfast cars came with plastic baseplates, much like the cheaper Super GT cars from 1986. At least most of the cars continued to have interiors.
In 1994, White Rose Collectibles began releasing high-detailed versions of the 1-75 line up called "Collector's Choice". 10,000 of each of the 75 models in the 1-75 product line were to have a Collector's Choice counterpart, but due to poor sales, the line was discontinued after only 24 vehicles.
In 1995,White Rose introduced a line of NHL Zamboni's. Each Zamboni had a different NHL team on it and there was one model produced for the All Star game. Although there had been White Rose Collectible Matchbox cars in the past with NHL sports teams on them, specifically the #38 Model A Ford vsn, White Rose chose to release these vehicles under their own brand name, although some "error cars" were released in the first year with "Matchbox" stamped on the base plate. These are apparently very rare. Supposedly only 100 units of each model were made.
Starting in 1995, Tyco started the "Matchbox Collectibles" range of toys. The line featured 1:43 scale reproductions of cars such as a Lamborghini Diablo and Jaguar XJ220. Also, a number of reissued Models of Yesteryears and Superkings were given new paint jobs and sold as Matchbox Collectibles for several years.
In 1996, Tyco reissued the Matchbox Originals series, changing some of the colors of the original five castings as well as releasing five more models as "Matchbox Originals Series II" and then finally "Matchbox Originals Series III" the following year.
In 1997, Tyco decided to fold the Dinky castings into the Matchbox Collectibles model range. Despite being Matchbox Collectible branded, they still had Dinky part numbers on them. The Dinky part numbers were continued on the Collectibles product line until 2000.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Lesney, Tyco releases models from the Superfast range in a special gold color paint scheme. These cars are called "Challenge" cars and each casting is limited to only 10,000 units. Only about 57 of the 75 vehicles of the Sperfast line were released before Mattel bought Tyco.
The Mattel years
In 1997, Mattel bought Tyco. Of course, part of this by out included Matchbox International. Although the separate "Matchbox International" division was eventually terminated, Mattel assured collectors that Matchbox would continue to do develop it's own product independent from Mattel's Hot Wheel's product line. The massive diversification of the Matchbox brand was eliminated as well and the brand only appeared on vehicles, although not only die-cast vehicles. Some larger plastic vehicles also bore the Matchbox name.
Initially, there was no change to the Matchbox 1-75 line up. But the next year, in 1998, the Matchbox line up changed drastically. All of the baseplates were made of plastic and the term "Superfast" was dropped from the packaging. Sixty three of the models got new paint jobs. The remaining twelve were replaced with new models. Matchbox cars were separated into groups, such as Street Cruisers, Super Cars, Rough n' Tough, Cool Concepts and Big Movers.
In 1998, Mattel sold the remaining gold painted 50th anniversary Challenge cars through KB Toys and Toys R' Us. These cars were sold in individual blister packs as well as within 10-piece sarter packs. In fact, the only way to get the gold #55 Flareside Ford pickup truck and #70 Pontiac GTO is to buy a whole 10 pack of cars.
In 1999, Mattel expanded the I-75 line to 100 models. In 2001, the line up returned to 75 models, although 50 additional models were released in the U.S. as "Matchbox Across America" to celebrate a 50th anniversary of Matchbox (one year early).
In 2000, two Matchbox Originals (the #9 Dennis Fire Engine and #26 ERF Cement Truck) made a brief reappearance as the load of a Matchbox Collectibles Peterbilt semi-truck. In 2002, the #9 and #26 Matchbox Originals made another, final appearance, once again with different paint schemes and 50th Anniversary (too late for Lesney, too early for Matchbox) tampo.
In 2003 Mattel managed to alienate every current and potential Matchbox collector by revamping the entire 1-75 line up into the "Hero City" theme. In 2004, Mattel revamped the line up again and the cars became even more ridiculous and further from what made Matchbox cars popular in the first place: realism. Sure, we had the Tailgator and Rhino Rod in 1994, but cars like this was the exception and not the rule... and besides, Tailgator is cool.
Also in 2004, to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the Matchbox Superfast, Mattel brought back the "Superfast" brand by releasing a series of 75 cars with special paint jobs and tempa, packaged in special blister pack that included a collectors box reminiscent of the early Lesney Superfast years with a picture of the vehicle on it, the vehicle name and the 1-75 number (something not done since 1982).
In 2005, Mattel realized that their decision had hurt sales and the 1-75 line up was changed back to a more traditional Matchbox product line.
In 2008, the Matchbox product line was once again expanded from 75 to 100 models per region.
In 2009, Mattel released a 40th Anniversary edition of Superfast cars. This time, 100 cars with special paint and packaging (once again, depiction of the vehicle was represented on the packaging) was released in addition to the standard 100 Matchbox models released during 2009.
In 2010, Mattel released 20 models called "Lesney Edition", which were reissues of other Mattel released Matchbox models, but unlike the previous anniversary models, these models not only in special paint jobs, but featured metal baseplates instead of plastic. These also came in custom packaging that consisted of a box contained within a blister pack that depicted artwork representative of the vehicle.
In 2011, Mattel started to release all Matchbox vehicles in blister packs with unique artwork for each model. The artwork depicted an artist's rendition of the vehicle contained within.