Obituary: Arthur Katz

BIZARRE, REALLY, that tiny scraps of Perspex could cause such a sensation. Yet in 1956, they made Corgi Toys, "the ones with windows", top of every schoolboy's wish list.

Die-cast metal toy cars weren't new - Frank Hornby's Meccano company had been making them as Dinky Toys since the early 1930s. But with the addition of the tiny clear plastic windows, snugly fitting and riveted inside the roofs of the Morris Cowley and Riley Pathfinder and Jaguar 2.4-litre so the 1:43 scale cars were glazed just like daddy's real thing, Corgi Toys had an instant advantage in realism and - in the toy industry's vernacular - "play value". For Arthur Katz, it was the start of something big.

Where Hornby was almost a figure of Britain's second industrial revolution, Katz was part of Germany's toy-making aristocracy. Based around Nuremberg, Germany's toy-makers had an unrivalled international reputation for quality and innovation - everything from the teddy bear to intricate clockwork playthings.

Katz was born in Johannesburg in 1908 to German-Jewish parents, returning to Germany aged 12 with his mother after his father died. After school and apprenticeship he started work at Tipp & Co, a famous manufacturer of pressed tin toys owned by his cousin Philip Ullmann. Hitler's rise to power in 1933 persuaded Katz to move to Britain - South African-born, he had a British passport. Philip Ullmann soon joined him and together they set up a new company, Mettoy, in Northampton.

The town had reason to thank the new arrivals: within six years the Mettoy factory there employed 600. Its success as a maker of metal toys led to lucrative contracts to make gun components during the Second World War, and a large extra factory was acquired in Swansea to cope with demand. Katz was now managing director and, when peace returned, Mettoy gradually moved away from tinplate toys to plastic ones, grabbing the chance to establish strong export markets.

It was Katz's decision to launch the range of Corgi die-cast model cars - named after the Welsh dog favoured by the Queen - that took his company into the big time. Corgi hit the innovation trail from day one and never stopped finding new details and features which ensured that its toy cars, trucks, buses and tractors provided hour after hour of fun. It came up with opening bonnets, detailed interiors, shining glass headlights, opening doors and boots, and working jacks that could be lowered to release perfect miniature wheels.

A model of a Lincoln limousine had a tiny illuminated television screen in the back, a Renault 16 had seats that could be folded down, a Mini Cooper had a sliding sun-roof. Corgi's Simon Snorkel fire engine was a masterpiece of lilliputian engineering, while its Chipperfield's Circus models provided an entire, magical world that children could lose themselves in for hours.

Perhaps Corgi's most famous toy cars were its James Bond Aston Martin DB5 and other film- and television-related models, which meant that you could enact scenes from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Saint, Batman, The Man From UNCLE and The Avengers on the dining-room table. Ironically, although the Bond Aston is one of the best- selling toy cars of all time, perfect examples are now worth some pounds 200 each, with the box alone representing around pounds 130 of that value, according to Brooks auctioneers.

Each new Corgi model seemed to hit the target for car-mad schoolboys, with the company's chief designer Marcel Van Kleemput scouring the world for new subjects that Corgi's engineers - referred to as "the Corgi Technocrats" on the company's distinctive blue and yellow packaging - would then turn into pocket-size marvels. Mass-produced they may have been, but Corgi Toys were beautifully made. If you found your new model was faulty when you pulled it out of its box, you could write to the company to complain; Katz ensured they always sent a complimentary replacement.

Mettoy brought out a smaller range of cars in 1964 to rival the phenomenally successful Matchbox toys. Continuing the dog theme, Katz called them Husky models and they were sold by the million in Woolworths.

The world of die-cast toys was turned on its head in 1968 when the American company Mattel launched its Hot Wheels series. Painted in gleaming metallic colours, these tiny cars had hollow plastic wheels on thin axles which meant they could hurtle across flat surfaces at lightning speed. They were cheap to make and, when production switched to Hong Kong in 1970, it seemed to spell the end for the highly detailed and intricately made offerings from Corgi and, latterly, Dinky Toys. Katz's response was Whizzwheels, similarly fast-running plastic wheels, and henceforth Corgi Toys sacrificed much of their detail - even if they did become more appealing to young children rather than their car-mad dads. It was good for business.

By the early 1970s Mettoy was employing 3,500 people and turnover leapt from pounds 9.3m to pounds 19.9m between 1972 and 1976. The gentlemanly Mr Katz, who loved nothing better than being on the factory floor early in the morning to see his toy empire whirr into life, had become a grandee of the British toy industry. He was president of the British Toy Manufacturers' Association from 1971 until 1976; he was appointed OBE in 1961 and CBE for export achievements in 1973 - Mettoy won a Queen's Award for Export three times. Katz admitted to loving work in an industry that gave pleasure to children, and branched out into Playcraft pre-school toys and Wembley footballs.

He retired in 1976; by then Peter Katz, his son, was managing director. But things were never quite the same again. Soaring inflation and a strong pound meant British manufacturers struggled to compete with Far East rivals. But it was also the growth of sales of electronic games, computers and action figures that saw Corgi Toys sink in popularity. Toy cars were just too dull for the modern small boy.

One by one the old names fell: Dinky Toys were finished in 1979, Matchbox in 1982 and Mettoy itself was bankrupt by 1983; its Swansea plant, at one time the area's biggest employer, was bulldozed and production shifted to China. Its old rival Mattel bought the name and it was sold again in 1995 in a management buy-out.

Corgi still exists today, its Far Eastern-made models now appealing to the collectors' market with myriad "classic" special editions. Grown men who should know better buy its gold-plated replicas of that 1960s 007 Aston Martin - except that, this time round, they will be exhibited in a glass case on a mantelpiece with their "certificates of authenticity" carefully treasured, rather than played with until they break, as Arthur Katz had intended.

Giles Chapman

Arthur Katz, toy manufacturer: born Johannesburg 21 March 1908; managing director, Mettoy 1944-76; OBE 1961, CBE 1973; three times married (one son, one daughter); died London 25 June 1999.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album