Lesney revolutionized collectibles in more ways than one.
Lesney Products & Co. may not have invented die-cast toys with their Matchbox cars, but they certainly set the standard for miniature cars for over 60 years.
Founded in 1947 by Leslie Smith and Rodney Smith (no relation) in north London, Lesney Products did not originate for the production of toy cars. On the contrary, Lesney’s foray into toys was mostly a byproduct of a declining number of industrial die-casting orders, and their first “road roller” was primarily inspired by the miniature cars of the English toy giant Dinky Toys. Lesney’s venture into die-cast cars proved to be successful within the market, and after the new company produced the million-selling toy replica of Queen Elizabeth II’s Royal State Coach following her coronation, the company had enough capital to steadily and reliably produce many more cars for years to come.
Of course, as the story goes, the actual “Matchbox” car line was created somewhat serendipitously. John Ordell, a partner of the company at the time, wanted to design a toy his daughter could take with her to school. The school required toys to be small enough to “fit inside a matchbox,” which guided Ordell as he produced scaled down versions of existing Lesney Cars. This ultimately sparked the idea of selling tiny cars in replica matchboxes and calling them “Matchbox cars,” and the rest, as they say, is history.
From their inception in the 1950s to the present day, Lesney’s Matchbox cars have always found favor with collectors. Yet what is it about these tiny cars that makes them such unique collectibles, even among other die-cast toys? As it turns out, Lesney Products both intentionally and unintentionally catered to early collectors in ways that set the stage for how collectibles are marketed and produced to this day.
Starting with the very first “yesteryear” series of cars, Lesney Products made the Matchbox line standout by taking a somewhat artisan approach to their design. At a conceptual level, the idea was to base Matchbox cars around vehicles that the designers fondly remembered from childhood, which included everything from buses to Bentleys. As a result, the proportions and the details of these cars were exquisitely designed, which made the cars feel authentic and true-to-life. Also, the size and functionality of the cars lent themselves well to collectors of all kinds. Car enthusiasts could set up a display of their favorite models with ease, while kids could handily keep one in their pocket for playing with their friends. Compared to, say, toy soldiers that “required” an entire set to be fun to play with, it’s easy to see how Matchbox cars appealed to all ages.
It’s true that the earliest Matchbox cars were primarily designed as toys, but as the years wore on and these former Matchbox kids became adults, the nostalgia for these small cars became practically tangible. During the 70’s, collectors started to catalog all the different models and years of Matchbox cars, and entire collectors clubs were formed that even had accompanying newsletters. Some might expect a phenomenon like this to be niche in scope, but diehard collectors congregated in both the United States and all across Europe. It’s important to keep in mind that Matchbox was far from the only die-cast car brand at this point in history. Toy lines such as Mattel’s Hot Wheels were in full swing, and they represented a significant chunk of the market. That Matchbox specifically found such widespread favor with collectors is not to be understated, and this fact was not lost on Lesney Products.
Lesney actually reached out to representatives of these collectors clubs, providing exclusive information while keeping a pulse on the collecting community. This led to the production of special edition vehicles that exceeded the usual “matchbox” size, packing more detail and being specifically built to be displayed. The “Matchbox Collectibles,” as they were called, also featured limited edition branding of companies like Coca-Cola. Shifting to an adult audience was a risky move for the time, but not only were these limited edition cars a hit with collectors, they also proved to be very profitable for Lesney.
This sort of engagement with collectors may not seem particularly noteworthy nowadays, but at the time, this was a revolutionary move in the world of toys. None of Matchbox’s competitors had done anything like this, and it was such a successful marketing move that it became an industry standard in the world of die-cast cars. Collectors were not a “new” concept by any means (look at the history of Stamps, for example), but it was not exactly normal for collectors to be officially recognized and catered to. It’s not hyperbolic to say that modern day “limited edition” or “collector’s edition” items owe some small thanks to Lesney, because it was their bold innovation that set the stage for collectors to prove themselves as a valuable market.
Sadly, due to the poor economic climate of the U.K., Lesney wasn’t able to keep afloat despite the continued success of their Matchbox cars. They claimed bankruptcy in 1982, and ownership of the Matchbox brand would continuously change hands over the next 15 years. Mattel would indirectly purchase the brand in 1997, thus housing the once rival Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars under the same roof. Though this was initially controversial among Matchbox collectors, the community is still strong today, and fans of all die-cast cars share their mutual love for these nostalgic, influential toys.
Though you may not be able to visit the Lesney factory anymore, their vintage Matchbox cars remain as popular as ever at conventions and museum displays everywhere. With over 17,000 different Matchbox Car designs that exist today, collectors have no problem finding a miniature car to call their favorite. But regardless of how much we love these cars – or even love cars at all – collectors of all kinds owe a measure of gratitude to the innovation and success of Lesney Products.