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.” 

Top 25 Video Game Villains 3: Is Your Favorite Listed?

This edition of our video game villain countdown will take us more than halfway through our list and will, I hope, bring back some wonderful memories for you.

Dracula from Gamexeon

#15: Dracula: Evil is seductive.

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Top 25 Video Game Villains 2: Monsters, Machines and Many Arms!

Here are our next five classic favorites, as we continue counting down the Top 25 video game villains.

Cyberdemon from Giantbomb

#20: Cyberdemon: Demon to the nth degree

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Top 25 Video Game Villains 1: Evil Beginnings

Who’s the baddest of them all? Find out one opinion here. This and each of our next four ICHEG blogs are dedicated to those nefarious antagonists we love to hate—video game villains! For five consecutive postings we will cite five villains, leading up to the biggest baddie of all time. As with all lists of this nature, everyone has individual ideas and personal favorites. I used the following criteria when compiling the list:

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Backyard Adventures

As a kid, my summers included family camping trips, excursions to the amusement park, and Fourth of July fireworks. But those were the landmark events that punctuated the extended freedom of June, July, and August. On a day-to-day basis, my activities centered on the fun we created ourselves. And the location for those activities tended to be the small patch of sun, shade, and lawn in our suburban backyard.

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Traditional Influences on Digital Media

As a fan of the hit television series Man vs. Wild on Discovery Channel, I was thrilled by my chance encounter with the show’s celebrity adventurer Bear Grylls at E3. On screen, Bear inevitably finds himself in harrowing situations that test his expert survival skills. Publisher Crave Entertainment is betting gamers will want to walk in Bear’s shoes in their upcoming video game adaptation of the show. From Bear, to Wonder Woman, to Mickey Mouse, countless faces from other media showed up in games demonstrated at the Expo this year.

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Ever the Crafty One

They say that the best things in life are free, and that concept definitely applies to my creative endeavors. I’ve always been a scavenger (and hoarder) of craft materials too pretty or unique to pass up. I picked up the habit at summer camp, where I spent as much time as possible on arts and crafts. Half the fun of those projects was in dismantling them later for parts.

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Three Themes of E3

Between individual meetings about our work here at ICHEG, I grabbed an opportunity to wander the E3 conference floor in LA. After interacting with the various displays, I concluded that this year's E3 encompassed three themes:

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On the Road with Video Games

Last week, my husband and I took a road trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan. Our drive took us through parts of Pennsylvania and Ohio, and over the course of our six and a half hour drive, we visited many of the convenient highway stops along the way. While stretching our legs at these rest stops, I happily discovered that the vast majority contained small video game arcades!

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Haven’t We Seen this One Before?

Work and play aren’t opposites, far from it. Here’s a story about how it’s sometimes hard to see the difference between a task and a pastime.

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CHEGheads Going to Gaming Paradise . . . E3

The CHEGheads are headed to E3 Expo 2010. Both a trade show and a celebration of gaming, the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo presented by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) is one of the most talked about industry events of the year. With the opening only a few days away, the E3 excitement is building on the blogosphere as gamers anxiously await news on “what’s next” in the gaming world.

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