One might think that a delightful collection of scale model cars would be something that a child would want to lovingly protect from harm. Something about a car, however, brings out a more sadistic side to kids. Try as they might, they can’t help being lured into a world of fantastic car crashes and death-defying stunts – paint scratches be damned. Probably no other toy has consistently faced the abuse that Matchbox cars have been put through; an impromptu demolition derby is just too enticing to pass up. But for over fifty years, these little die-cast metal beauties have won the hearts of kids everywhere and somehow a small portion have survived unscathed enough to be coveted by collectors everywhere.
Die-cast metal cars have been in existence for about the same amount of time as their full-scale counterparts and offered by numerous companies. One such manufacturer, Lesney Products in England was founded in 1967 and enjoyed marked success in 1953 when they issued a Queen Elizabeth II Coronation coach that sold over a million units. Inspired by this success, one of the owners, Jack Odell, came up with the idea of creating smaller vehicles – the result of a rule at his daughter’s school that stated that no toys larger than a matchbox were allowed to be brought from home. His creations fit the bill (and the box) and were advertised as being a ratio of 1:Box (although the vehicles were technically classified in the 1:64 category, they often ranged from 1:100 scale to sizes that exceeded 1:64)
Matchbox initially released four models: the Road Roller, Cement Mixer, Massey Harris tractor and the Muir Hill site dumper. Over the years, the collection would grow to a consistent 75 models offered at any given time, no more or less. By 1968, they were the biggest selling die cast car in the world. Shortly thereafter, the collection from Mattel’s Hot Wheels line would start to give Matchbox cars a run for their money in terms of popularity but Matchbox answered with the Superfast line and managed to retain a respectable share of the toy car market. They would also release the vintage Cars of Yesteryear line, as well as Skybusters (aviation vehicles,) Sea Kings (naval vehicles,) Battle Kings (military vehicles) and the Convoy line of big rigs. And, of course, no collection was complete without having your very own Matchbox City playset to cruise around in.
In 1982, Lesney Products went bankrupt and the Matchbox brand was sold to Universal Toys. It would pass hands numerous times – to Tyco Toys in 1992 and eventually to Mattel in 1998, makers of the competing Hot Wheels line. Such sacrilege didn’t manage to deter collectors though, who have always held a strong affinity for the little vehicles and will go to any length to find the rare specimen that hasn’t managed to be run forcefully into numerous walls or found itself the poor victim of repeated twenty-car pile-ups.
The value of an unblemished pristine Matchbox car is such because kids never wanted to store them in a box anyway; they wanted to engage in some veritable vehicular mayhem – and Matchbox cars were tough enough to take the abuse, time and time again.
If you spent your formative years playing with these beloved toys, we welcome your thoughts in our comments section, as we tip our hats to these iconic toy autos.