Leslie Smith, a Matchbox Car creator 6/4/05
Leslie Charles Smith died at his home in North London on May 26, 2005 at age 87. His son Andrew said the cause was cancer (reported by the NY times). Mr. Smith's wife, the former Nancy Jackson-Moore, died in 1969. He is survived by his sons Andrew, of Hertfordshire, and John, of Dorset, a daughter, Karen Brouard, of Kent, a sister, Mollie Rissbrook of Enfield, and 9 grandchildren.
Smith founded Lesney Products with co-founder Rodney Smith (not related) in 1947. John W. "Jack" Odell subsequently joined the company. Lesney became successful producing miniature vehicles under the Matchbox name. The company was listed in 1960 in an offer that was oversubscribed 15 times, and made Smith and Odell millionaires. While Odell was attached to the factory floor, Smith was the marketer. He traveled the world, securing the company’s immediate future with a well-calculated foray into the US in 1956 with the help of his friend and agent Fred Bronner.
Smith took a particular interest in labor relations, which were among the best in the country. Because women made the best toy makers, but had to get their children to and from school, he organized a convoy of double-decker buses to enable workers to pick up their children.
Smith continued active after leaving Lesney. He was chairman of the board of governors for two North London schools, taking St Paul’s at Winchmore Hill from deep debt to £500,000 in trust. He was a passionate yachtsman who would squeeze a 200-mile race into a weekend. He gave a talk in 2004 to collectors and former employees at Hackney Museum when it held the exhibition Matchbox Memories. He had been appointed OBE in 1968.
Leslie Smith was born in Enfield, in Middlesex County, England, on March 6, 1918. He left school at 14. He had been an export buyer before joining the Navy as a signals rating in 1940. He was later commissioned and served at Dieppe and on D-Day in a motor torpedo boat.
He was reunited with boyhood friend Rodney Smith (not related) in the navy. After the war, he took a job with a carpet firm, but in June 1947, as a side venture set up shop with Rodney in The Rifleman, an abandoned pub in Tottenham, as "Lesney Products", an amalgam of their first names, with £600 capital to buy an old metal press from Rodney’s employers, and a plan to make industrial pressure die cast zinc products.
They cast ceiling hooks, toy cap-guns, engine parts and window blades for Ford and Vauxhall, and components for Plessey and AC Delta. The first toy was a large Aveling Barford road roller sold in London shops in 1948. They eventually rented factory floor space in Hackney. Then the British Government commandeered all available zinc for the Korean War.
Rodney Smith left the firm, eventually emigrating to Australia, and John W. "Jack" Odell, a boyhood friend of Rodney who had been forbidden by his local council from die-casting in his own home joined Lesney. Odell's first experiment was to create a tiny steamroller for his daughter who could only bring toys to school that could fit into a matchbox. With Odell’s arrival Lesney gained a highly inventive engineer with a love of model-making.
When restrictions on zinc were lifted in 1952 the pair put an earlier idea into production and a miniature state coach, struck for the Festival of Britain in 1951, was gilded and released for the Queen Elizabeth II's Coronation in 1953. A million of the small coaches were sold.
In 1953 Lesney also released the earliest miniature construction vehicles (1/64 scale, 2-3") bearing the Matchbox name, including a dumper, a road roller, a Massey Harris tractor and a cement mixer. The toys were introduced in the United States shortly afterward.
The die-cast toy market was competitive. Dinky, a division of Meccano, had been the market leader before the war and the only one to survive it. Other competitors included Tekno of Denmark and Solido of France, both producing more detailed creations.
In 1956, Lesney introduced its 1/46 scale Models of Yesteryear line based on turn-of-the-century vehicles which allowed Odell to indulge his love of detail: dashboards, opening doors and bonnets and Perspex windows.
In 1969 Lesney Lesney was being challenged by Corgi, Bluebird, the US brand Bayco and, above all, Hot Wheels, from Mattel, whose range of cars was not aimed at loving collectors, but could reach high speeds, travel many meters with the slightest push and loop the loop on a flexible track. Lesney introduced its Superfast line in response to competition from Mattel's Hot Wheels cars.
In 1973 Jack Odell resigned as director, though remaining as deputy chairman, leaving Leslie sole director.
Eventually the cost of the worldwide research required to ensure the accuracy of toys became unsustainable. In 1982, Lesney was in receivership and the company was sold to Universal Toys. Most production was moved to existing Universal plan facilities in Macau, except for Yesteryears, which stayed in Rochford, England until 1985, when it also moved to Macau. Smith fought against relocating production to the Far East. He hated cutting British jobs and was unconvinced Hong Kong, Macau or Bangkok factories could meet his quality standards. When the move was made, it was already too late.
In 1992 Tyco Toys purchased Universal. Tyco was purchased by Mattel in 1997.
See my history page for additional information.
London UK Times article http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,60-1636881,00.html 6/5/05