Matchbox has ignited the passion of millions of car lovers around the planet. Its origins are rooted in a father’s desire to please his daughter, and it’s where the very name comes from.
Matchbox Toys were the product of Lesney Products, which was based in Hackney, a borough of London. The company was founded by Leslie and Rodney Smith. They weren’t related, but they grew up together and served together in the Royal Navy during World War II. The company name comes from a combination of the “Les” from Leslie, and the “ney” from Rodney.
Lesney was an industrial die casting company founded in 1947 to supply castings and small parts to agricultural and automotive companies. They produced several products of their own, including a press used to press small pieces of bread into bait that anglers could easily place on a fishing hook.
The cars came along shorty after Lesney hired an engineer named Jack O’Dell. O’Dell had originally rented space in Lesney’s shop, but eventually joined the company as a partner.
Soon after the company was founded, it received orders for parts for a small toy gun. Seen as a stopgap for when its industrial orders were slow, Lesney started investigating the toy market. In 1948, O’Dell designed Lesney’s first toy, an Averling Barford road roller that was a direct copy of a Dinky toy, the leader in toy cars at the time.
By 1951, Rodney Smith decided to leave the company. The next major toy the Lesney produced was the Coronation Coach, in celebration of Elizabeth’s coronation as Queen of England in June of 1953. The Coronation Coach was a major success for Matchbox, selling over a million copies that summer. It led Lesney to focus almost solely on scale models from that point forward.
The name “Matchbox” and the enduring success of the toys, came from Jack O’Dell’s desire to produce a toy for his daughter. It’s red and green road roller was popular, but O’Dell’s daughter couldn’t bring it to school because she was only allowed to bring toys that could fit into a matchbox. O’Dell scaled the road roller down to fit that scale, and the name stuck.
Quickly, Lesney capitalized on its success, developing a line of 75 model vehicles all displayed and sold in a replica matchbox, the first of which was the humble road roller.
By the 1960s, Matchbox was the largest brand of toy diecast cars on the planet, churning out a million of the tiny cars per week. Most of the cars it produced in those early days were British, leading American children who scrounged change to buy these tiny cars to wonder what a Ford Zodiac, a Vauxhall Cresta or a Foden tow truck in BP livery was all about.
The key for Matchbox’s success was the price. In the 1960s, toys like this Matchbox Lambretta TV175 — produced between 1961 and 1966 — were typically 39 cents. This one is from a pharmacy in Canada, with a slightly higher price tag of 47 cents, Canadian. You can see much more detailed photos of this model at “Live And Let Diecast” on Kinja.
In the 1960s, Matchbox faced stiff competition from Hot Wheels and Johnny Lightning toys in the United States. It ran through some difficult times until it developed its “Superfast” line of cars in 1969, which featured low-friction wheels for the 1970 model year, along with a series of tracks.
In the late 1960s, Matchbox expanded its line to include “King Size” and “Speed Kings” models of trucks and cars in a larger scale, and then hit big with collectors with the Matchbox Models of Yesteryear, an eventual series of 66 significant historic vehicles, ending with the Coronation Coach that kicked off Lesney’s greatest period of success.
By the end of the 1970s, Matchbox faced financial difficulties and ended up in receivership. The company was eventually purchased by Mattel in 1997, uniting rivals Matchbox and Hot Wheels under one roof. Manufacturing ceased in England in 1985.
Over the years, though, Matchbox cars have ignited the interest of millions of children. British Pathé has an excellent two minute clip of the original Matchbox factory from 1962, showing exactly how the cars were built:
A second video from 1965 shows the entire design process: