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.” 

More Video Game Museums in Europe

Following the blog I wrote recently on video game preservation in Europe, readers sent me emails about a couple of other museums there. One is at the Musée des Arts et Métiers, which currently has a temporary exhibit on the history of video games. The other is the Museum of Soviet Arcade Games in Moscow. Let us know about your experiences with these or any other video game museums.

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Age-Appropriate Play

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Creating MMORPGs: The Neverwinter Nights Story

Veteran game designer Don Daglow recently gave the International Center for the History of Electronic Games a collection of design documents, early drafts of code, play test reports, and other papers that document the development of his games, including Neverwinter Nights (1991), one of the most important games in the history of the industry.

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Killer Video Game Apps

Space Invaders. Tetris. Mario Brothers. Sonic the Hedgehog. Final Fantasy VII. Halo.

Whether you’ve played these games or not, you recognize them as some of the most influential titles ever released. They are killer applications—the type that lead  gamers to shell out big bucks for a brand new system just for the opportunity to play one game. A killer app can provide stability to a fledging game publisher for years or cause a new video game console to excel.

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Taking Video Games Outdoors

As legendary game designers David Crane, Steven Cartright, and Garry Kitchen spoke at the recent Classic Gaming Expo, I couldn’t help but reminisce about some of my favorite Activision titles from the early 80s. As the first third-party developer in the video game industry, Activision released fascinating titles, such as Barnstorming, Keystone Kapers, and Kaboom!, for the Atari VCS. Crane’s classic platformer Pitfall! came to dominate my play experiences—both on the screen and off.

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The Story behind Strong’s Folk Art Monopoly Game

As a curator, I’m enthusiastic about every item I acquire for the museum’s collections, but cert

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Saving Video Games in Europe

Recently, a couple of things have prompted me to think more about the history of video games in Europe. First, I’ve been reading Tristan Donovan’s excellent new book: Replay: The History of Video Games.

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My Space

The summer of 1979 will live on in my childhood memories. At the ripe old age of nine, my neighborhood pals and I were already masters of summer vacation fun. We made numerous trips to the community pool; played innumerable backyard games of tag, hide-and-seek, and red light, green light; and spent countless hours dashing through our lawn sprinklers. We took every opportunity to play outside, where we would remain from dawn until dusk. Mom would call us in when it was time to eat lunch, then again for dinner, and finally, when it was time to call it a night.

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Video Game Villains Countdown 5: The Most Evil of Them All

Here’s what you’ve all been waiting for—the top five most iconic video game villains of all time.

Donkey Kong from Wikipedia

#5: Donkey Kong: King of video game gorillas!

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Top 25 Video Game Villains 4: Mind Games

Welcome back to our countdown of the all-time top 25 villains. Below we have a nice combination of villains from both classic games and exciting newer ones, along with one of my personal favorites coming in at number six!

#10: Space Invaders Aliens: “Just…one…more…quarter…”

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