Matchbox toys were really designed to fit in a matchbox

The classic matchbox cars were loved childhood toys for decades. Toy vehicles were first created by a British company in the 1950s, but the idea behind small collectibles was really because a father wanted his little girl to be able to enjoy her toys at school.

In the 1940s, a couple of friends named Leslie and Rodney Smith (no relation) started a business together in London. By mixing their names, they created Lesney Products. Initially an industrial company, Lesney Products began by manufacturing parts for agricultural and automotive businesses. After hiring an engineer named Jack O’Dell, they had no idea that small cars would soon be in their future.

Initially the company moved into small cars when its usual business was slow, but after the success of the Coronation Coach, inspired by Queen Elizabeth II’s coach in the early 1950s, they refocused their efforts.

O’Dell’s daughter couldn’t bring toys to school with her unless they fit in a matchbox, so the toys were reconfigured to be this small in size and the name “Matchbox Toys” remained. In the 1960s, Matchbox was the most popular toy brand in the world. They sold their toys as a gift set in matching matchboxes as a tribute to their name.

Read more: Radio Flyer: How the Little Red Wagon Became a Classic American Toy

In addition to racing cars, there were also cement mixers, dump trucks, Volkswagens, Fords, Mercedes Benzes and even disney cars. The company faced some competition in the United States with other die-cast car brands like Hot Wheels, but hit hard with their Models of Yesteryear and Superfast Matchbox series which came with a race track. The little plastic toys were everywhere in no time. The price guides that the company has set itself set it apart from the competition, being generally less expensive than other sets of competing car models on the market.

Unfortunately, the Matchbox brand went bankrupt in England in the 80s, with die-cast vehicle sales just not being what they were in the 50s and 60s. Mattel, which already owned Hot Wheels, ended up by buying Matchbox in 1997.

Lesney Matchbox vehicles had recognized the potential of an adult collector audience early on and Mattel took advantage of this. Different Matchbox models including the Models of yesteryear, Cute and Convoy were sold as “Matchbox Collectibles” at a higher price.

Despite the change in ownership, Matchbox toys continue to be special for children even to this day. Major retailers like Target continue to sell the brand and keep the love of new generations alive.

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