Play Stuff Blog

The Strong’s historians, curators, librarians, and other staff offer insights into and anecdotes about the critical role of play in human development and the ways in which toys, dolls, games, and video games reflect cultural history.

Matchbox Cars Cross the Finish Line into the National Toy Hall of Fame

Matchbox No. 29 Austin A55 Cambridge Sedan, The Strong, Rochester, NY

 

Parents understand the importance of having a trick up their sleeves to distract and entertain within a moment’s notice. When I had to bring my toddler to a solemn family affair, I knew just what to slip into my pocket—a Matchbox car. It didn’t require power, it was quiet, and it was inexpensive. On November 7, 2019, Matchbox cars rolled into their place of honor in The Strong’s National Toy Hall of Fame.

It all began in a bombed-out pub, The Rifleman, in Tottenham, a district of North London, England. English die casters Leslie Smith and Rodney Smith (unrelated) founded Lesney Products in 1947 to produce industrial parts and, along with partner Jack Odell, began making small die-cast toys to fill slack demand during wintertime. In 1952, Odell was inspired by a rule at his daughter’s school that permitted students to only bring toys that fit inside a matchbox. Story goes that his daughter had the mischievous habit of taking spiders to school in a matchbox. Odell scaled down Lesney’s road roller toy, tucked it into a matchbox, and sent his daughter to school with it instead. The Matchbox car was born.

Plenty of toy cars existed in the 1950s, but when Lesney introduced Matchbox cars, they revolutionized the market. Lesney advertised that, with Matchboxes, children could buy for pennies “a toy that is a complete toy.” Odell visited automakers to get the latest designs and conducted historical research. He designed a machine to spray-paint the headlights on the models and another machine to mold the interiors. The dashboard dials were accurately placed, the windshields had wipers, and the interiors had ceiling hooks. Some cars had more than 100 die-cast parts. Matchbox cars passed his inspections.

Matchbox Rocky the Robot Truck, The Strong, Rochester, NY U.S. sales began a few years later, and Lesney added a Ford Customline Station Wagon to its formerly all-British fleet. In 1960, Lesney exported 70 million tiny vehicles. American kids became collectors, buying and taking 100 million Matchbox cars for a spin annually. Such success, achieved with little advertising, made Lesney Products one of England’s most profitable companies.

In 1968, Mattel roared in with Hot Wheels. Kids traded in the British product for these flashier American muscle cars. Lesney countered with the Matchbox Superfast line of cars and pumped up its advertising campaign. Lesney also diversified the designs, introduced a line of fantasy cars, and produced Disney-themed vehicles. The company’s innovations included the pressure-initiated “autosteer” and the “Rola-matics,” whereby a pin in one of the wheels caused something in the vehicle to move up and down. Despite these efforts, Matchbox’s high cost of manufacturing in England drove Lesney into bankruptcy. Universal Internal Ltd. acquired the product, formed Matchbox International, and moved most of the production to Asia.

Matchbox Motorway M-2, The Strong, Rochester, NY

Today Matchbox cars still drive sales for Mattel, the brand’s current owner, and continue to reach an eager corps of kid and adult collectors. Some of the most sought-after vehicles include an apple green Mercedes-Benz 230SL, a 1966 sea green Opel Diplomat, and a 1968  crane truck. In my role as the curator responsible for toys at The Strong, I would love to add the No. 19C green Aston Martin Racing Car, the No. 74 Mobile Refreshments Canteen, the No. 50 Ford Kennel Truck, the No. 36A Lambretta Scooter and Sidecar, and the earliest Matchbox Garage from the late 1950s. And, until my son turns 16, I will continue to appease his need for speed for less than a few dollars with new renditions of Matchbox cars.

A formula for high quality, impressive detail, and affordable prices set Matchbox apart from their competitors and fueled such an enduring success that some people continue to call a miniature car, no matter the maker, a “Matchbox.” 

Strong Connections

The signs are everywhere: YARD SALE, GARAGE SALE, ESTATE SALE, MOVING SALE. Like the sirens of Greek mythology, their sweet song proves irresistible. My sister and I spend many a weekend chasing down sales—a favorite leisure activity. I don’t consider myself a collector but a treasure hunter caught by the whimsical item that seizes my attention, making an almost instantaneous connection for reasons both known and unknown. I enjoy the hunt and am equally pleased to find something for my brother or sister, both collectors with specific interests.

Read more >

Everyone's a Gamer

The Entertainment Software Association just released their newest data on the current state of video game play in the United States. The document reports that sales of video game software and hardware topped $25 billion last year, the average age of a gamer is 37, and 29% of gamers are over the age of 50. The report also notes that 72% of American households play video games.

Read more >

Where Are the Couch Potatoes?

Let’s face it. Technology has permanently changed the way we play, children and adults alike. Kids can power up a Nintendo DS and instantaneously find hours of amusement in a metallic box no bigger than their little hands.

Read more >

Let the Force Be with You

Here’s a little story about the difference between transportation and “being transported” while at play. Cooking up the story requires three ingredients, Mario Kart (the video game), your memory of the first Star Wars film, and a bicycle.

Read more >

Which Matters Most--the Game or the Name?

As a buyer, I’m surrounded by a myriad of game choices, and each one has about 30 seconds to capture my attention. The easiest way to hook me is with a snappy name. At ICHEG, I see thousands of games every year, but these titles are the ones that stuck with me:

Read more >

One-on-One Strategy Games

Growing up in a small town on a street full of houses populated by kids my age, I always found ways to occupy my weekends and summers. Often that meant playing next door with my friend Christine, either on her front porch or in her horse-themed bedroom. Time with Christine usually involved a game or two. We liked all kinds: card games (war, go, and gin rummy), board games (Life, Clue, Monopoly, and Charlie’s Angels), and my personal favorite, one-on-one strategy games. Christine and I were well matched and equally competitive in our game play.

Read more >

Saving Our Heritage, One Game at a Time

We CHEGheads and everyone else at ICHEG and The Strong are thrilled that we’ve received a grant from the Institute of Museums and Library Services (IMLS) for $113,277! Here’s what the grant is for and why it is important.

Read more >

With a Song in my Heart: A Brief History of American Sheet Music; or, How to Search The Strong’s Database

As I write this, Katy Perry’s “E.T.” featuring Kanye West ranks as the number one pop song. Country’s top pick is “Heart Like Mine” by Miranda Lambert, while R&B’s current number one is “Sure Thing" by Miguel.

Read more >

Adult Swim Video Games

When Rolling Stone mentioned recently that Adult Swim plans to release a wave of new mobile video games, fans of the channel’s crass cartoons responded with uncertainty. Adult Swim dabbles in the video game industry regularly, and its track record makes it difficult for gamers to determine if these new games will sink or swim.

Read more >

The Pogo Bal Paradigm

If you grew up with siblings, you probably recognize that a brother or sister doesn’t always make the first choice for playmate but will usually suffice. As the youngest of three children by five years, I yearned to play along with my older brothers but could never quite keep up. Both seemed more knowledgeable, more agile, and more talented when it came to play. My oldest brother constructed amazing snow igloos and drove a snowmobile. My middle brother excelled at video games and fort building. I envied them both, until one miraculous day, when the tables finally turned.

Read more >

Pages