For generations, Matchbox cars has delighted children (and collectors) with their wide variety of diecast vehicles. But how did the company start? Let's find out shall we?
Matchbox cars were first produced by a English company that called itself Lesney Products, due to the fact that at its inception its two founders, Leslie Smith and Rodney Smith (no relation) had no idea what exactly it was that their company was going to produce, but since they had bought some war surplus die casting equipment, whatever it was would be diecast.
With a third man, John ("Jack") Odell, who was skilled in the die casting process, Lesney Products started producing diecast components on June 19, 1947. Since the tax laws of England taxed companies by what inventory they had on hand starting January 1st of each year, few companies bought parts in the latter part of the year. This hurt many parts companies including Lensey Products, so the owners had to try to find a new source of revenue.
So, in 1948 Lesney Products started producing diecast toys to small shops in the London area. Their first toy was a Aveling Bardford diesel road roller. By 1952 they had even succeeded in getting the Woolworth chain to distribute some of the different toys they produced.
These toys sold well, but the people at Lesney didn't want to hire the personnel necessary to launch a full toy line. So they turned to Moses Kohnstam, a East End London toy distributor who took toys from several different toy manufacturers (such as Lesney) and sold them all under his brand name, "Moko".
By 1953 Jack Odell started making molds for smaller scale vehicles (approximately to the scale of today's toys). The resulting toys were very successful. In fact they were so successful that the larger scale toys were phased out in 1954. The smaller car series became the original 1-75 series, these toys being highly prized by collectors today, especially if the toys come with its distinctive "Moko" box.
The actual name "Matchbox" had been trademarked in 1953, with Moko owning 1/2 of the name. The toys' name was at least partially due to the fact that the boxes the toy cars came in at the time resembled... well, matchboxes! With this new name, the toys continued to sell quite well in England.
With this success, one of the founders of Lesney Products, Leslie Smith, wanted to expand the line of Matchbox toys to the rest of the world. In 1954, Fred Bronner, a salesman from New York, became the first distributor of Matchbox cars in the United States. In 1958 Lesney wanted to expand to Asia and particularly to Japan. But people in Moko disagreed, so in 1959, Lesney bought Moko and produced its first catalogue on its own.
In 1964, Lesney Products (U.S.A.) was formed as a division of the English Lesney Products. Lesney acquired all of Fred Bronner's stock and he became the first president of Lesney Products in the U.S.
Matchbox had little competition for many years as far as the diecast car market was concerned. But all of that changed in 1969, when the Mattel company released their first edition of Hot Wheels.
Hot Wheels were unique in that they had low friction axles which allowed the cars to roll more easily and allowed them to be raced on special Hot Wheels toy tracks. Matchbox responded quickly to this new threat, coming out with their own low friction models in the latter half of 1969. Matchbox called these the "Superfast" models.
While Matchbox now had a big time competitor to fight against, both lines of diecast cars did very well. As far as Lesney Products was concerned, by 1977 they were employing over 6,000 people, even diversifying into the toy doll and model kit market. But the good times would not last much longer.
In 1980 a rough recession hit, and all toy companies, including Lesney were beginning to feel the financial crunch, Lesney even took on various loans to stay above water. But this only helped for a short time and by 1982 Lesney Products had a operating loss of 15 million dollars. They could not continue to function under this heavy debt load, so Lesney Products declared bankruptcy on June 11th 1982. Many collectors were worried about the Matchbox toy car line, they asked "Would the Matchbox car survive"?
Indeed they would. Lesney Products mired in its bankruptcy decided to rename itself "Matchbox Toys Ltd" after their best known line of toys, and look for a buyer, so it would have someone to pay its debts. Matchbox generated a lot of interest, especially from Fisher Price and Mattel, but Universal Toys owned by David Yeh bought Matchbox Ltd on September 24, 1982.
After the purchase Universal moved production of Matchbox cars to Macau, with all Matchbox cars being made there by 1985. Under Universal's direction Matchbox toys expanded all over. If it wasn't diecast cars, it was dolls, if not dolls it was Pee Wee Herman action figures. Perhaps because they had their hand in too many pots, Matchbox again took a down turn in the 1990's. It was at the time that David Yeh started to shop around his Universal Toy company which included Matchbox. The Tyco Corporation heeded the call and bought Universal Toys in 1992.
Tyco continued producing Matchbox cars until 1997 when Tyco itself was bought out by... Mattel! Now when you see Matchbox and Hot Wheel cars on your local toy store shelf, isn't it strange to know that both are owned by the same company?