Matchbox cars were first created in England in 1952. While working for Lesney Products, owned by Leslie Smith and Rodney Smith (no relation), die-caster Jack Odell created the first ever Matchbox car. It was a brass Road Roller made small enough to fit into a match box, at the request of his daughter. She wanted to take something to school for show and tell but school rules mandated that all items had to fit into a match box. The first line of Matchbox cars was sold by the Lesney company in 1953 with the #1 Road Roller, #2 Dumper and #3 Cement Mixer. New cars were added to the existing line each year until the line reached 75. (The line was increased to 100 in 2008 but let’s stick to history for now.)
In 1967 Mattel, well known for its most popular toy, Barbie, began to develop their own line of die-cast toy cars. This line, called Hot Wheels, came out with its first series in 1968 with 16 cars. When sales were ten times more than expected, they added 24 more cars for the 1969 line. Continued sales caused the line to grow to 73 cars in 1970 and then 108 in 1971. With all of this growth, the Matchbox cars by the Lesney company struggled to keep up. In 1982 the Matchbox car line was sold to Universal Toys, who later sold it in 1991 to the well know Tyco company. Over the years Matchbox and Hot Wheels were the only two significant competitors in the die-cast toy car saga and therefore even viewed as rivals. Ironically, in 1996, Mattel bought the Matchbox product line from Tyco. Hot Wheels and Matchbox were now owed by the same company but continue to live on as two lines of toy cars.
Having grown up with dozens of toy cars as a child, and having two young sons with cars themselves now, I have done much research (playing) with both the Hot Wheels and Matchbox brands. In recent years, the Hot Wheels line has obviously become the favorite of many collectors and children, and some even consider the Matchbox cars to be of lesser quality and design. In fact, go into any store that sells the cars and compare the selection of Hot Wheels to Matchbox. In the way of individual cars, Hot Wheels displays almost always out number Matchbox ten to one easily. However, one observation that I have made in buying cars for my sons is the drastic difference in style between the two lines. The vast majority of Hot Wheels cars are not modeled after or painted like actual cars. Many of them are variations of actual cars or new creations all together. In fact, I personally have a few Hot Wheels in my collection that are shopping carts or toilets with wheels. Other cars by Hot Wheels are often painted with much graphic and text details. Matchbox on the other hand is entirely ‘normal’ cars. The majority of cars in their line are ones you are likely to see on the street. The models are one or two tone painted, rarely with added graphics or text. One of the benefits of this is that you are more likely to find police cars, fire trucks, tow trucks, utility vehicles etc, with Matchbox than with the Hot Wheels line.
Matchbox cars were the beginning. Hot Wheels brought in high quality and enormous sales. Now, between the two lines of cars, you can find just about any custom or actual car imaginable. Die-cast cars have been a huge part in the lives and many children and are becoming huge in the realm of collectors. (One might wonder if these two groups are the same people!) I have heard some argue that die-cast cars are now primarily for collectors and are a thing of the past as children’s toys. I can only respond by stating that my two sons have much more fun playing with their 100+ cars than they do buying and looking at them. I also must admit that I’m glad that I have two sons so that I can still play with die-cast toy cars at age thirty!
Author Wesley Skiles is creator of [http://www.mattelmatchbox.com], a novice collector and father of two boys that love die-cast cars.
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