Thursday, August 4, 2011

A little history on little cars. Matchbox diecasts - a great way for a kid to burn through a buck

If you were a 10-year-old, and you managed to scrape a dollar together, what would you buy? Candy? Baseball cards? Maybe you’d try and save up for something bigger.

Well, when I was a kid in the 1970s/’80s, there was a K-Mart within bike riding distance from my house. And if I was able to lay my hands on a buck, there was a good chance I was going to buy a Matchbox car with it.

Oh sure, I liked Hot Wheels cars too. But there was something about those Matchbox cars I liked better. I really didn’t care much about racing them down a track, or seeing how fast they’d sail across the kitchen floor. I liked Matchbox cars because they were more detailed; they felt more substantial. And it bugged me that Hot Wheels made their axles too long, so the wheels would inevitably stick out too far on one corner or another. Admittedly, I was a weird kid.

British diecast company Lesney Products started building Matchbox cars in 1953. They were known as the 1-75 series, because they numbered each of their new cars from 1 to 75. Then, as other cars were cast beyond the original 75, old cars would drop from the line, meaning there would always only be 75 for sale at a time.

They were called Matchbox cars because they were all designed to fit in a little box that was about the size of a Matchbox. Usually they are referred to as 1:64-scale, but since a garbage truck die cast was sold in the same-sized box as a sports car, the scale is really more like 1:box.

Matchbox cars were sold in America and Britain, but for a long time, they were all made in England. The earliest cars sold very well. But when American rival Mattel introduced their Hot Wheels line in 1967, everything changed in the world of small diecast cars.

Those dazzling new Hot Wheels cars were brighter, flashier, faster. They featured customized vehicles and concept cars. To borrow from an old Oldsmobile tag line, these were not your father’s Matchbox cars. And in reality, Hot Wheels nearly put Matchbox out of business.

Matchbox fought back, though. By 1969, they revamped their lineup, calling their new cars “Superfast.” Taking a page from the Hot Wheels playbook, their cars received brighter paint colors, designs that appealed more to kids, moving parts, and freer-rolling wheels. They were typically less toy-like and more detailed than Hot Wheels cars though, and a serious rivalry developed between the competing brands.

Matchbox cars continued to sell well and be very popular throughout the late-‘70s/early ‘80s. Lord knows I did my part to keep them in business. But as is often the case, just because there’s a line out the door doesn’t mean a business is covering its expenses. The company went into receivership in 1982.

It was big news in my world when Matchbox was sold to Universal Toys in ‘82. I remember this clearly, because it bothered my dad when production went from England to Macau. A couple of years later, production went from Macau to Shanghai. Matchbox’s British heritage would be lost forever.

Matchbox was sold to Tyco in 1992; then Tyco was bought out by Mattel in 1997. If you’re keeping score, that means that the company that owns Hot Wheels, Matchbox’s fiercest rival, now owns Matchbox.

As a father who still loves little toy cars, I have purchased way too many Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars for my son over the last few years. For the longest time, one of the things that stuck with me was that they were still 97-cents, just like they were when I used to ride my bike to K-Mart all those years ago. But within the past year or so, they’ve jumped up to $1.06 - $1.09. I know, 9-to-12-cents doesn’t seem like much, but there’s still something that twists my psyche out of whack.

In spite of being owned by the same company, Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars are still different from each other. I think Hot Wheels cars are better now than they were in the ‘80s. They’re generally detailed and proportioned better, and they’ve fixed that long axle problem. Matchbox cars seem more like small diecast models to me. Even now, when my son and I are in the toy aisle, he finds things he likes in the Hot Wheels display as much as I find things I think he should like in the Matchbox display.

I collect a lot of things, but I’m far from a serious Matchbox collector. I still have a lot of the cars that I had when I was younger. I’ve given a few of them to my son BHo. Some of the little cars I remembered have inexplicably disappeared. Some of them are pretty clapped-out.

BHo and I dug out a couple of my old car cases recently and took some pictures of some of the old Matchbox cars I had. I’m not including any of BHo’s newer cars. These are mostly the 1980s examples that I was buying up until I guess I decided I was too old or too cool to keep getting them. They aren’t in particularly great shape, and I don’t think any of them are worth much, but I like them, and I still remember how happy getting a new one made me. If you are from my generation, maybe you remember a few of these. Heck, maybe you had some of them. If you good feelings looking at pictures of old toy cars, check out the slideshow below.


  1. There were also very cool plastic cars in the fifties...collect all the cars all the models of chevy, ford, chrysler, studebaker...they were free in Post Grape Nuts Flakes. Jeez I hated that cereal...but ate it anyway for the cars. I had dozens.

  2. I know exactly what you're talking about! They still turn up at swap meets sometimes. My dad always tells me he used to get them, too.

  3. You missed out... my first car was a 51 chevy... it was the only engine I ever took down and replaced the rings. After that, I had experts do it. I'll never forget the sound of an old Chevy going through the three gears. I replaced it after not so long, but I sure wish I"d had a place to park it, and restore it after I grew up!

    I'd love to have a car that runs from the thirties but I'm afraid they cost too much.

  4. Wow! Where/how did you get a Holden Ute in KC?!?

    I agree on the Matchbox vs HotWheels thing also. Although I am apparently about 10 or 12 years older than you and stopped 'collecting' about the time you started [and started up again about 15 years ago], I too ofttimes preferred the Matchbox cars. Oh, I had [and still have] and loved the HotWheels from their first 5 years of production, I actually USED my Matchbox cars more. The difference is kinda like the difference between street cars and race cars ; the race cars are cool, get looked at a lot and more attention is lavished on them, but the street cars get the job done and are there when you need them. When i was playing cars in the living room on my cardboard streets and neighbourhoods, or out doing 'construction' in the back yard, the Matchboxes were there and rarin' to go. The HotWheels stayed inside and [mostly] stayed on the track.
    Of course, generally, my HotWheels look better today too!

  5. Came here today for a impressed! Enjoyed Craig.

    Since I have a son in Junction City in the restoration business and many older car dealer friends around your area, I must someday pay you a visit.

    We have commonality of interests it seems.

    Just beginning to organize my 50 years of model car collecting. Model kits,promos,diecast to numerous to mention.
    My wife would no doubt make you a package deal that you could not refuse..LOL!

  6. My goodness, my son had cases and cases of the. He says I threw them out, but I know I did not. 57 Chevy was the dream car he had and what a fight to get it back from a neighbor kid. Ha, Ha, as for Matchbox, it was always the way the car looked. Not the hopped up Hot Wheels that does not look like a car you would drive.

    Love the pics, going to send to my son.

  7. Hello from Germany! Born in the early 70s Matchbox cars were the only really toys for boys! My son, 4 years old, I have thrilled him too! He knows every single car by name of the Superfast era made in England. He´s calling them "Fathers Treasures" and he´s carefully playing with my collection. It's amazing how such old toys fascinated him. Sometimes things can be quite simple.

  8. When I was a kid we used to collect matchbox and majorette cars. Those were the best ones. In my country you couldn't get hot wheels. If you were really lucky you might get a Siku toy car (the attention to detail was amazing but they were the most expensive.. and still are)

    Today I get my kid mostly matchbox and hot wheels, he loves the HW more because they're flashier but I completely dislike that all of their cars have the same hubcaps.

    I bought him a majorette car but they're not even the shadow of what they used to be but are almost double the price as matchbox and HW.
    Check out my article: Matchbox vs Hot Wheels vs Majorette Toy Cars. There's some cool images of some of the cars.