The Story Of Matchbox
Toys Part 1
by Roger Cantrell
Bring yourself back to post
war Britain to the years just following World War II. It was a very
bleak time indeed and many parts of Britain were still just piles of
rubble, a tragic consequence of bombing and V weapons.
Into this bleak post war time period, thousands of British army men were
being "demobbed" and were returning home after a hard and bloody war
that cost many people their lives.
It was against this back drop that two friends named Leslie Smith and
Rodney Smith who had just been demobilised from the Royal Navy decided
to start a company together. The two men - Leslie in sales and Rodney in
die casting, formed Lesney Products in January 1947. The name of the
company combining the first syllable of Leslie and the last syllable of
The two men needed a premises for their new company so one was found in
Edmonton in north London in a rundown pub called The Rifleman. Leslie
would run the sales side of things and Rodney would make products on
their first die cast machine.
At this time Lesney Products were struggling to keep afloat when along
came John William Odell, otherwise known as Jack. Jack had just left the
army and wanted to strike out on his own but was having problems setting
himself up in business. Then he remembered that the Smith brothers had
set up in a old pub that had some room, so a deal was made where Odell
would rent a space in the Smith brothers pub for his own enterprises.
As the three men worked under the same roof the skill of Odell was
recognized by the Smith brothers and soon Odell was making dies for
Lesney Products and soon after this jack was made a full partner in
The turnaround for the struggling company came when they were asked to
produce a part for a cap gun. Then as the story goes, some of the
company workers asked could they make toys for their own children in the
slow periods. The partners started to study Dinky toys and came up with
the idea of producing a line of cheaper economy die cast models that
could be sold much cheaper than the dinky's.
First off the production line were a cement mixer, a road roller, a
caterpillar tractor and a caterpillar bulldozer. The Aveling Barford
diesel road roller, being the first in the line, was sold without a box
and was sold to shops in trays by the dozen. They were sold to local
shops including Woolworth's.
As Dinky's marketing system limited its wares to exclusive retail
outlets, shopkeepers who had not been permitted to carry stocks of dinky
toys were now only too happy to have something comparable to dinky toys
In 1948 a new player was brought into the Lesney family, a company run
by two men called Emil Kohnstam and his son Richard who owned the German
toy firm "Moko" and this relationship ended up with the Kohnstam's
having the rights to most of the Lesney marketing in the UK.
In 1949 the company was moved from The Rifleman pub premises to the east
end of London. At this time the Smiths and Odell wanted to bring out
bigger die cast toys which would go on to be known as Matchbox King
Size, the first of which was a horse drawn milk cart, then a horse drawn
rag and bone cart and a soapbox racer.
The milk cart is significant as it was the first die cast Matchbox to be
sold in its own box, the other models the rag and bone cart and the
soapbox racer did not sell well and only about 1400 were made and anyone
who has one of these babys today is sitting on a gold mine.
Next came the prime mover, trailer and bulldozer were issued in 1950 and
was the largest model from Lesney to date. It also bore the "Moko" name
along with Lesney and in the same year Jumbo the elephant was created
for "Moko" based on their prewar model of a wind up elephant. Outside
contractors were found to make the parts for the elephant with the
exception of the legs which Lesney made themselves.
In the next part we look at the fortunes of Lesney from the start of the
Copyright Roger Cantrell 2008.
For information on restoring the classic die cast car the corgi 267
Batmobile go to
http://www.allbatman.com/ There are some great pictures and
good modeling tips there, as well as some spare parts for sale... or if
you just like collecting go to
Samples of a few Designs
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