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.” 

Preserving Memories

I was a kid once, too. I spent every summer, between the ages of seven and ten or so, with my Mom's parents at their big house in the country. There were four of us kids, and I think it was a favor to Mom to have us out from under her feet for a few weeks.

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Thinking Outside the (Console) Box

In my last blog you read about OnLive’s new streaming games-on-demand service (now in beta, expected to be launched in winter 2009). That entry discussed OnLive’s potential for changing the way games are played, which got me wondering about the possibilities for changing how games are developed and distributed.

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Graphic Violence as a Motivator for Game Players?

The debate over violence in video games is one that has shadowed, and at times nearly overshadowed, the electronic games industry (despite the fact that they account for a relatively small percentage of the game market). When did all this fuss begin and where has it led?

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Play’s the Thing—Really

Some years ago, I watched Maggie Jane, my four-year-old niece, play with a few of her toys.

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Playing in the Stream - OnLive's New Gaming Service

This could be the game-changer… or perhaps not.

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NCHEG Welcomes Videotopia to Strong

Prior to the museum opening of Videotopia, I was assigned to “test” the vintage arcade games that were arriving as part of the exhibit. That’s right—I got paid to play arcade games for the better part of a week. I know what you are thinking, but this is research. At least that’s what I keep telling everyone.

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Ralph Baer Brings His Brown Box to NCHEG

I was getting crushed. There’s no two ways about it—I was being soundly beaten at Ping-Pong by a man forty-five years my senior. I pride myself on being a good Ping-Pong player, but here he was, demolishing me. Serve, miss, point. Serve, miss, point. He was putting unbelievable English on the ball, and I didn’t stand a chance.

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OMG! It's NKOTB!

Let me confess—I'm a Blockhead. For those of you who don't know what that means, it simply implies that I am a fan of New Kids on the Block.

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The Time of My Life?

I snagged my prom dress off the Macy's sale rack for $26. What was wrong with that? Nothing, I suppose—until my mother discovered that I'd mentioned it in an interview with the local newspaper.

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Travels with Charlie

At a loss for what to write next, John Steinbeck embarked on a tour of the country in 1960, accompanied by his standard poodle, Charley.

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