Why Cover Vintage Lesney Matchbox on a Hot Wheels Website? Simple answer: Why not? All Hot Wheels collectors are familiar with the fact that Matchbox is now owned by Mattel, so it makes sense in that aspect. But, that's not my reason. My reason is based on my recent fascination with these early gems of diecast cars. Many of us can go back to our childhood and recall owning a few, if not several Matchbox cars, regardless of which brand we preferred. I grew up in the mid-70's/early 80's SuperFast era, so some of my old favorites were the Flying Beetle, Wildlife Truck and so many more. That being said, I've recently gotten into the ORIGINAL Matchbox cars; you know, the ones that started it all, from the 50's and 60's? Sure, there was NO comparison to Hot Wheels in the early days, really. Matchbox cars didn't roll well. There were a LOT of construction and utility-type castings. The enamel paint didn't stand out like the Spectraflame paint on Hot Wheels. The castings were unfamiliar to most U.S. collectors, with cars that appeared pedestrian, like something your grandfather would drive. The tires were simple, with what appeared to be a thick, nailhead axle. But, these cars ruled the diecast world up until the release of Hot Wheels. So...what is it about these early models?

For me, here it is: The Regular Wheel era provided us with detailed castings, with a lot of metal and moving parts, for most. These cars are AMAZING, when you take a closer look. I shunned them for years, thinking they were too archaic for me. And, in a sense, they ARE...compared to what we're used to. It was simply a different time, then. But, the more I looked at them, the more I could appreciate these frozen-in-time castings that really were an indicator of what was being driven back then. It's a look back into history, really. And these models captured the spirit of the age in which they were made. But, what really caught my attention was the humble beginnings of Lesney...how an early struggle turned into a major success story in England, and all over the world. Here's just a small glimpse into that story! (Bibliography credits for some information within goes to Bruce and Diane Stoneback's excellent "Matchbox Toys" book from 1993).

Post WW II
Former schoolmates Leslie Smith and Rodney Smith (unrelated) were reunited after the war and agreed to follow through on a childhood pact to start a company together, producing something. The decision was made to utilize Rodney's diecasting skills and Leslies sales skills as the basis of the company.
Lesney Products is officially founded, with the names of both men combined to create the company name. Both utilized their post-war earnings to buy their first diecast machine from Rodney's former employer
The first location to work from is found: an old, run-down pub in North London called "The Rifleman." While needing some work, the place afforded cheap rent.
Jack Odell, a former associate of Rodney's, made a deal with the Smiths to store his machinery at The Rifleman, in exchange for paying the rent and the cost of electricity he used. He was almost immediately contracted to make the dies for Lesney. Shortly after, he became a full-time partner in the company. Lesney begins to produce various diecast products.
Late 1947
Experiencing a painfully slow time, a toy manufacturer requests Lesney to make a cap gun part, which provided a boost to Lesney's sagging capital. The group came to realize that they were easily capable of producing items other than industrial castings.
Late 1947
Employees request to make toys for their children during the slow Christmastime period. Lesney studied Dinky Toys, and came up with an economy line of models that sold for much less than their Dinky counterparts. The Aveling Barford Diesel Road Rollers were the first in line, followed by a Cement Mixer and a Caterpillar Bulldozer, which were painted in a variety of colors. Lesney's toys began to be distributed to many new markets.
Another partner is brought into the Lesney fold: Richard Kohnstam, whose family sold toys made by German toymakers under the name "Moko". Moko would handle the marketing, packaging and distribution of Lesney's products.
March, 1949
Lesney becomes incorporated as a private company producing toys and diecastings. "The Rifleman" is destroyed and replaced by newer facilities in London's East End.
The Prime Mover, Bulldozer and Trailer are issues for a short period before a zinc embargo was put into place due to the beginning of the Korean War. Zinc's use in toys was banned by the government and only permitted for creating vital products. Lesney once again falls into despair, despite having a huge stockpile of zinc, ready for use.
Rodney Smith decides to leave Lesney. Leslie and Jack pay him off with a sum of 8,000, which was all they could scrape together.
Jack Odell comes through with contacts in the automotive industry, who contract Lesney to create castings used in car production. This provides the company with a very healthy financial comeback.
The ban on zinc use is finally lifted.
Lesney produces 33,000 Royal State Coaches in honor of the newly-appointed Queen Elizabeth II. Lesney also produces a "Muffin the Mule" toy, which was based on a BBC children's show character. Moko's name appeared on the box, while Lesney's did not.
Inspired by the fact that his daughter could only take toys to school that could fit into a matchbox, Odell comes up with a small-scale Road Roller. Matchbox was born!
The 1-75 Series is initiated. The Aveling Barford Road Roller (#1), the Muir Hill Site Dumper (#2), the Cement Mixer (#3) and the Massey Harris Tractor (#4) are all scaled down from their larger 1947 Christmas versions and designated as the first 4 models in the series. They were packaged in small yellow and blue boxes with "Matchbox Series" and "A Moko Lesney Product" on the front of the box, along with art of the contained model along with the number of the toy itself.
After a slow start, 1954 would bring more extensive sales after the introduction of the #5 London Double Decker Bus. New issues soon followed: The (#6) Quarry Truck, (#7) Horse Drawn Milk Float, (#8) Caterpillar Tractor and the (#9) Dennis Fire Engine. The toys became so popular that the company was forced to expand.
Problems arise between Smith, Odell and Kohnstam, as Kohnstam had already registered the "Matchbox" name. Forseeing a breakup in the alliance, Smith and Odell decide that the Moko name would no longer appear on the toys themselves. Smith looks overseas for new markets where Moko isn't widely distributed, and sets his sights on the U.S, Australia and New Zealand.
The U.S.-based Fred Bronner Corporation becomes the sole U.S. importer for Matchbox Toys.
Jack Odell's brainstorm, the "Models of Yesteryear" series is unveiled and marketed by the Fred Bronner Corporation. The series featured the Allchin Steam Engine, Double-Decker Bus, Double-Decker Tram Car, 1926 Morris Cowley and the Showman's Engine. All cars were sold for .59 cents, with the exception of the slightly larger Showman's Engine, which was .98 cents. The store display was a colorful 3-tiered cardboard display, which pretty much made Matchbox the pioneers of "Point of Sale" material.
The anticipated showdown with Kohnstam took place. Smith threatened to remove the names "Matchbox" and "Moko" from all of the toys by simply discarding all of the boxes and creating new ones. Kohnstam agrees to re-register the "Matchbox" name to Lesney and Moko in order to retain his lucrative association.
Lesney finally buys out Kohnstam, and the "Moko" name is immediately removed from all Lesney packaging.
Lesney buys out Fred Bronner's U.S. operations, making it a wholly-owned subsidiary of Lesney. Bronner himself would remain in charge of the operation itself. Lesney continues to release diecast models with great success.
Lesney shares go public for the first time. 400,000 shares were offered to the public for 1 each. The stock soon ran up to more than six million shares.
Lesney receives the "Queen's Award" to Industry, employing more than 3,600 workers and producing more than 100 million models annually.
Sales of over 28 million, with a profit of 5 million are achieved. The honor garners Lesney a mention in the Guiness Book of World Records, along with the 2nd and 3rd "Queen's Awards." 130 different countries formed markets for the 5.5 million models pouring out from the plant on a weekly basis. Lesney was truly the king of diecast cars!
The world's largest toy company, Mattel, introduces Hot Wheels to the American market. Mattel would spend a reported 10 million dollar promotional campaign, aggressively targeting Saturday morning cartoons. Jack Odell, on a business trip to the U.S., observed these commercials with great interest; Mattel's Spectraflame cars, with their superior axle and low-friction wheel systems far exceeded the performance of Lesney's Matchbox cars.
Due to U.S. sales dropping from $28 million to roughly $6 million, Odell orders R&D to come up with a new wheel system to compete with Hot Wheels. Lesney goes through very lean times in the process, seeking loans to ensure the survival of the company.
The "SuperFast" line is introduced, and most of the existing models have been converted to the new wheels with a low-friction lip, utilizing the concept introduced by Mattel. The axles are also reduced from 1.6mm to 0.6, similar to Mattel. Newer, more vibrant colors are introduced, as the company struggles to keep up with Hot Wheels.
The Rola-matics line is introduced, which was a line of vehicles that had moving features as the car was rolled. The wheels had contact pins on the inverted side that triggered the motion.
Jack Odell retires from Lesney.
Lesney purchases AMT, an American plastic model kit company. However, it does little to stop the slide that Lesney is experiencing. The world economy, especially Britain's, was slipping into recession.
Jack Odell is lured from retirement by the firm's bankers to help stem Lesney's financial bleeding. He instantly compares his new job to that of being the Captain of the "Titanic," further advising that he only planned to stay for one year.
David Yeh of the Universal Toy Group attribute's Lesney's troubles to high UK labor costs and the failure to pay enough attention to the American market by producing American cars for kids. This is where Hot Wheels excelled, by introducing Camaros, Barracudas, Mustangs and other "hot rod-type" models. Yeh suggested that Lesney try switching some of its production overseas to Asia, where the labor was cheaper. Leslie Smith wasn't crazy about the idea, as he didn't want to relinquish tech secrets. He then challenged Universal to produce two models that had been abandoned by Lesney due to high production costs. Universal not only completed both models on time, they came under the specified cost. Lesney had to change to survive, and it had become painfully obvious.
June 11, 1982
The end of Lesney. receivers were appointed, and per British law, the name Lesney disappeared from the list of actively trading companies. A holding company named "Matchbox Toys" was created for all of the former Lesney operations.
Sept 24, 1982
Universal Group's David Yeh flies to London to make an offer to purchases the now-defunct Lesney.
Yeh moves nearly all toy production to Macau, which greatly reduced the cost of production in England.
Utilizing Lesney's now shut-down facilities and equipment, Jack Odell begins a line of larger toy models. He chooses what he feels are the ten-best former Lesney employees and launches the line under a new company name of Lledo (Odell, spelled backwards).
Matchbox/Universal Toys purchased Dinky Toys, the second-most famous English diecast company.
New Jersey-based Tyco Toys purchases Universal Toys and brings several new licences to the line, such as "Sesame Street" and a new series of "Models of Yesteryear."
Mattel purchases Tyco Toys. After previously purchasing Corgi Toys, the purchase of Tyco now meant that Mattel owned copyrights to the 3 largest English makers of diecast cars: Matchbox, Dinky Toys and Corgi Toys.