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.” 

NCHEG Has Acquired the Videotopia Collection!

I’m psyched! Today, the National Center for the History of Electronic Games is announcing that we’ve acquired the Videotopia Collection.

Read more >

Retro Arcade Gaming…in the Adirondacks?!?

My recent family vacation to the Adirondacks was a great respite from work, school, and the seemingly endless yard work that has consumed the better part of my summer.

Read more >

Raggedy Ann Makes Her Move

It was a sunny August day when the Strong curators rolled into the little town of Arcola, Illinois.

Read more >

Ouija Board: “Yes, Yes” and “Oh, No!”

First patented in 1891, the Ouija Board has been popular ever since—a remarkably long run.

Read more >

Why collect gaming magazines?

Game enthusiast Joseph Qualls recently donated more than 750 back issues of video game magazines to NCHEG. The magazines, mostly from the 1990s, wonderfully document the industry’s transition into the 32-bit era and beyond. Select almost any time from that decade and you will learn about the state of video games from this collection.

Read more >

Alternate Interfaces and Project Natal

Read more >

Game Boy’s 20th Birthday, Already?

Can it be 20 years already for Game Boy?

Read more >

Research on Roller Coasters

Maybe you think that I mean “research about roller coasters,” but you’d be wrong.

Read more >

NCHEG Advisor Tallarico Praises Museum During Visit

Tommy Tallarico, Executive Producer of Video Games Live, made a special visit to Strong National Museum of Play recently to spend time with the CHEGheads and museum President and CEO, Rollie Adams.

Read more >

Buckleitner’s Great Gift

NCHEG’s collections have grown rapidly, and I wanted to take a moment to highlight one of the largest recent additions: more than 5,000 educational children’s computer games donated by Dr. Warren Buckleitner, Founder and Editor of Children’s Technology Review.

Read more >

Pages