History updated 9/16/07

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Leslie Smith and Rodney Smith (not related) were school friends. They met again while serving in the Royal Navy in the 1940's, and, in June 1947 after World War II, they took £600 in finances, combined their names ("Les" from the first half of Leslie and "ney" from the last half of Rodney) and formed "Lesney Products". Until the business grew to support them full time, Leslie was employed for several years by J. Raymond Wilson Company which confirmed overseas orders, doing the Lesney financial records in the evenings, and Rodney was employed by the engineering firm of Diecast and Machine Tools in London. Lesney purchased the Rifleman Tavern in Edmonton, England, and some used die casting equipment with a plan to make industrial pressure die cast products. John W. "Jack" Odell who was a recognized die cast expert also employed by Diecast and Machine Tools joined Lesney. Rodney had got to know Jack whilst at D.C.M.T. Jack was initially to run his own business from The Rifleman (his local council refused him permission to manufacture in his own premises) and contribute towards the £2 a week rent. He used his own machines to make industrial castings as well as molds for Lesney Products. Jack was quite successful and the 2 Smiths asked him to join them as a full partner. By 1948 Lesney consisted of 8 employees and 3 partners.

Businesses decreased their inventory to limit tax imposed on inventory held on January 1, so business for Lesney was slow during the months prior to the end of the year. In late 1947 a toy manufacturer placed an order for a component of a toy gun. This helped Lesney over the period and sowed the seed for the later direction of the company. Lesney tried alternative products, including toys, which had also been done by other die casting firms. Anticipating the next year's lean period they made diecast models similar to Dinky toys but at a third of the price. The first toy was a large Aveling Barford road roller and was sold in London shops in 1948. Merchandisers were not enthusiastic, but children's enthusiasm and demands for the toys prevailed. Lesney struck the molds for a toy state coach in 1950, but from 1950 to 1952 during the Korean War, the British government restricted use of zinc to essential purposes, and Lesney made only the tin "Jumbo the Elephant". By Christmas 1952 Lesney was supplying toys to some Woolworth stores in London. By 1952 the restrictions had been lifted and a revamped version of the coach gilded in anticipation of the coming Coronation was ready.

Early Lesney toys

By 1953, thirteen (or possibly as many as seventeen) toys comprised the line, including:

  1. Aveling Barford road roller (1948);
  2. cement mixer (1948);
  3. Caterpillar tractor (1948);
  4. Caterpillar bulldozer (1948)
  5. horse drawn milk float (1949)
  6. rag and bone cart (1949)
  7. soap box racer (1949)
  8. Jumbo the elephant (1950)
  9. prime mover with trailer and bulldozer (1950)
  10. Ruston Bucyrus shovel (1950)
  11. Muffin the mule (1951)
  12. large coronation coach (1952. Originally with king and queen cast inside but then only the queen. The model had been conceived in 1950 before the death of King George VI in 1952. It was launched in time for the Queen’s Coronation the following year, hastily rebranded to sport the royal livery, and became a runaway success); and
  13. small coronation coach (1953. More than a million were produced).

A variety of toys were manufactured, including mechanical animals, wheeled vehicles, horse drawn vehicles, and the bait press, before Lesney finally concentrated on wheeled vehicles. Jack Odell began designing smaller scale toys, the first of which were for the most part smaller versions of the first larger Lesney toys. The smaller toys were very successful and became the 1-75 range continuing to today, with the larger toys being phased out.

Jack's skills were amply demonstrated by the production of an exquisite model of the Royal State Coach produced for the coronation of 1953. A miniature version was also produced with over one million being sold.

Soon after this success came the idea for more tiny toys housed in replica matchboxes. Jack's daughter, Ann, had just started school, and the school only allowed her to take into school a toy that could be contained within a matchbox. When Jack made her a miniature road roller out of brass, and painted red and green, all Ann's school friends wanted one so Jack made a mold and cast a few. Thus the "Matchbox" miniature 1-75 range was born. As the engineer it was Jack’s task to monitor developments in the car industry, updating the models frequently to make sure that details on dashboards, bonnets and wheels were correct. The smaller toys weren't just sold at toy shops, but also through tobacconists and sweet shops, and the cost was within the reach of the average child's pocket money (Matchbox prices started from about 1s 8d).

The first smaller toys included:

Lesney wanted to concentrate on manufacturing, and in 1953 arranged for the Moko Company, a marketing agent specializing in toys, to package and market the toys for a percentage. Moko founder Moses Kohnstam had moved from Germany to England at the turn of the century, and by 1953 Richard Kohnstam was in charge of Moko. Moko eventually distributed the toys worldwide. The Moko name appeared on all products distributed by the company and not just Matchbox. The name "Matchbox" was used and registered in 1953, with that name belonging 50% to Moko and 50% to Lesney. Moko also provided financial services and backing to Lesney, as it did to other toys manufacturers.

In 1954, a dainty MG TD roadster, the first Matchbox car was issued as the 19th vehicle in the smaller toy series.

also in 1954, Rodney left for Australia and left Lesney, and set up a die casting company in joint venture with Moonstone, a company formed by toy wholesaler Morris & Stone.

In late 1955 Dalston (Shacklewell Lane) was Lesney's only site, having moved from Edmonton. Lesney brought Barretts Grove late 1955 or early 1956. The two works (Shacklewell Lane and Barretts Grove) ran at the same time and were eventually moved to the Eastway Hackney. On splitting the works, Shacklewell Lane retained an enlarged toolroom and a foundry. Barretts Grove had a toolroom, a larger foundry and assembly facilities. The Shacklewell Lane toolroom became toolroom one at the Eastway, while the Barretts Grove toolroom became toolroom two. [information from toolmaker Peter Dawson] new 7/11/07

The idea of a "matchbox" to put toys in was not original with Lesney, having been used for German toys in the early 1900's and again in the pre-war 1940's with toys called "Matchbox Toys". The first boxes were plain boxes with tuck in ends, usually single color printing without a model picture, replaced during the early 1950's with more attractive color boxes with images of the models, first in simple drawings, then in more detail, and eventually the images were in color. The original design was similar to a Czechoslovakian matchbox design by Norvic matches. Early boxes with the first seven models for the 1953–54 series carried the Moko name in script in a scroll underneath the drawing next to "Lesney", with Moko later changed to block letters. The Moko name appeared through 1960. Later when the size of the models was increased to enhance play value, the box size also increased to accommodate the larger models. The history of boxes is a project in itself, and they are of great interest to collectors and a strong element in determining value of a particular piece. Some box variations are extremely rare, and in some cases value of the rare box has exceeded the model contained in the box, with hundreds of dollars being paid for rare examples. The first blisterpacks with the contents displayed in a sealed plastic bubble or blister appeared in 1963, with blisterpacks from the 1960's generally also including a box until sometime after the introduction of superfast models. Blisterpack are generally a US marketing tools as European markets used window boxes until approximately 1994.

The first Yesteryears were introduced in 1956, with the first 3 Yesteryears were shown at the 1956 Toy Trade Fair, Harrogate. The range was subsequently limited to 16 models, replacing models to introduce new ones. The models were packaged in boxes similar to those used for the "Matchbox" 1-75 series.

The "Matchbox" trade mark was owned jointly by Lesney Products and their distributor J. Kohnstam & Co. Ltd. Around 1958, Leslie wanted to expand to Asia and particularly Japan, but Richard Kohnstam disagreed. In order to open the far east market, Lesney purchased Moko's 50% interest for £80,000. In 1959 the first and second catalogs of toys was issued.

Joint managing directors, Smith ran the business while Odell was in charge of manufacturing and product design. Lesney became one of the biggest employers in north and east London. especially of women. In 1960 the company went public.

New York salesman Fred Bonner was conducting American sales in 1954, and by the late 1950's became the sole US importer (US price was typically sold for 49¢). In 1964, Lesney Products (USA) was formed as a division of the English company, and purchased Fred Bonner's inventory and installed him as president. By 1962 Matchbox was knocking out a million toy vehicles a week, more than the number of real cars made by all the world's major automakers combined. By 1966 more than 1,000,000 models were being sold a year. More than 75% of Lesney Products’ output went abroad (the models were immensely popular in the US and Japan). In 1969 the Fred Bonner Corporation became the Lesney Products Corporation in the US. By 1969, Lesney made 5,500,000 models per week, exported to 130 countries, with 40% going to the USA, and employed some 6,000 people in 12 London factories.

Jack and Leslie were each awarded the OBE in 1968.

The late 1960s Mattel introduced "Hot Wheels" cars with their frictionless wheels and increased "play" value. Competition from Hot Wheels had serious negative market consequences for Lesney. Lesney was slow in responding, and did not introduce the "Superfast" models until the second 1969 catalog. During 1970 and into 1971 the entire range was converted to Superfast wheels, including the Kingsize range, renamed "Superkings". Models of Yesteryear production was stopped in the end of 1971, with no production 1972-73, and only old stocks were sold. Yesteryears were presented in the 1973 catalogue, but they were not issued. New Yesteryears models were produced and old ones painted with new colors.

In 1973 Jack Odell resigned as directory, but remained as deputy chairman, leaving Leslie sole director. 1973 also saw many new products including "Rolomatics" which had parts that moved as the wheels revolved, an 8 week strike, a fire then a flood which destroyed much of the Rochford factory, and the cessation of yesteryear production until 1975.

In 1974 Lesney diversified into dolls. In 1977 Lesney acquired Vogue Doll Company, and in 1978 it acquired AMT, maker of plastic model kits. AMT was sold to Ertl in 1982.

By 1980 Lesney was feeling financial strain. Jack came out of retirement as joint vice-chairman in 1981 for a year, and David Yeh of Universal Toys struck a deal to manufacture Matchbox toys in his far east factories, one of the first being the Disney character figures. Manufacturing in the far east proved too costly and ceased.

After suffering huge losses and under pressure of creditors, on June 11, 1992, Lesney was declared bankrupt, a receiver appointed, the company was reformed as Matchbox Toys, Ltd., and a buyer sought. Fisher Price and Mattel were possible buyers, but Universal Toys bought the company and the marketing companies for France, Germany and Australia, for £16.5 million on September 24, 1982. Jack purchased much of the company's tooling and machinery and formed Lledo ("Odell" spelled backwards) and concentrated on limited models in the larger scale. At that time much of the Matchbox production was moved to existing Universal plant facilities in Macau. Yesteryears production stayed in Rochford, England until 1985, when it also moved to Macau. Matchbox International Ltd. (later Universal Matchbox Group) was formed in Hong Kong in 1983. Lesney Products still appeared on toys until as late as 1985. In 1986 the company changed its name to Universal Matchbox. During 1986–87 (1985–86) production was moved to Macao. In 1987 the Rochford factory in Essex closed.

In 1987 Universal purchased the "Dinky" trademark from Kenner-Parker. Six miniatures were repackaged as Dinky cars to preserve the mark, and in 1989 the first prototypes appeared. In 1990 new facilities were opened in China for Yesteryear production to replace the Macau facilities, and production was moved in 1990-91. Throughout the 1980 unusual toys other than die cast appeared, including Pee Wee Herman and Freddie Krugger.

In July 1992, following financial downturn, Universal Matchbox Group Ltd. was sold to Tyco Toys, Inc, New Jersey, USA for just over $100 million USD, and in October it was merged with Tyco. Late in 1992 Tyco formed the Matchbox Collectibles division to be responsible for sale of Yesteryears. On November 18, 1997 Mattel purchased Tyco for $755 Million.

Numbers 76 & greater (& renumbering of existing models) new 12/1/98

A "#76" (& greater numbered) model appeared in Japan twice – in 1977 with a Mazda RX-7 and models continuing through 79, and the second time in 1984 when the Japanese line was expanded to 100 (16 models different than the rest of the world ("ROW") line).

The third appearance of the #76 cam in 1995 when for a short time models occupying numbers 76, 77 and 78 were issued and then cancelled, with the explanation that "the factory did not have some of the new castings ready for the outgoing assortments so they put three old models into the extended numbers, which got rid of old stocked models and filled the assortments being shipped" [source "Matchbox Collectors Club Newsletter", December 1998] (sometimes referred to as "error" cars).

In fall 1998, Mattel issued another number #76 (old #38 Model A van in red, white and blue, and "tampo"ed with "special 76 model" on the box and ""Make it real" on the doors), & announced the line would be expanded to 100 models in 1999). Mattel had previously announced that it would renumber existing cars to form "theme groups", e.g. "adventure", "oceanics", "wilderness" , "adventure", "law & order", "at your service' & 13 other groups.

Mattel History new 1/1/99

Founded in 1945 by Ruth and Elliott Handler. From inception to 1959 it produced simple and conventional toys. Ruth designed "Barbie" in 1959, and with increased revenues Mattel hired master electronic engineer Jack Ryan to head a large research and development staff, and production of cutting edge toys was one of Ryan's accomplishments. By using modern technology Mattel stayed ahead of the competition and are the lone survivor of the "Big 4": Marx, Ideal, Mattel and Remco, that controlled the toy market in the 1960's. [see links to other persons' history pages at top of this page]

See the following books which were sources for the above information for more history: