Matchbox toys were designed with incredible care and sold millions. Philip Thornton looks back to the golden era of a great British brand

For anyone of a certain age the name Matchbox brings back a golden era of toys -- hand-designed models built exactly to scale with Made in England stamped proudly on the chassis.

Until 1983 the range of 75 numbered models was made in London or, to be more precise, in a complex of factories in Hackney in the capital's East End where it employed upwards of 6,000.

Matchbox went bust two decades ago and has changed ownership three times since -- it is now under the control of the US giant Mattel -- but for many people the heyday was its 35 years under British ownership.

There is, without doubt, a certain magic to the Matchbox story. The company was set up by two school friends returned from the Second World War, Leslie Smith and Rodney Smith, who set up an industrial diecast business in 1947 in a condemned pub.

They combined their names and £600 of savings -- £14,400 in today's money -- to form Lesney Products but it was not until 1953 that they ventured into toys, making a five-inch model of Queen Elizabeth II's Coronation coach.

But it was the arrival of Jack Odell, an engineer, that changed the history of the company -- and model car manufacture in the UK. He made the first miniature steamroller for his daughter because her school insisted that pupils could only bring objects to school that were small enough to fit into a matchbox. All her friends wanted one and the Matchbox brand was born.

At its peak it had 14 factories worldwide making more than a million cars a day and was one of the largest employers in Hackney. As Len Mills, former tooling and engineering manager, recalls: "It was like a family. Lesney was not so much a job as a way of life."

Such was the cult surrounding the brand that Lesney produced a hardback children's book, Mike and the Modelmakers, telling the story of an American boy brought to Britain by his father who wants to show him the "world's largest car maker".

The launch of an exhibition commemorating Matchbox which opened this month attracted scores of former workers to hear Mr Odell and Leslie Smith recall the glory days of the 1969s and 1970s.

Much of the charm was generated by the care that went into producing the cars and trucks -- which might appear astonishing to parents used to buying today's plastic toys. As much attention went into the research and design of a toy car as big automakers -- at least back in the 1970s -- spent on producing their latest vehicles.

Matchbox experts would travel to any place in the world to get the exact details of a car. They would take hundreds of measurements and several photographs, which would be handed over to the draughtsmen who took a month to produce a full blueprint.

This drawing was used to make a detailed 12-inch resin model. This was then used to make a metal mould with more than 300 separate parts.

Graham Woods, who worked in the toolmaking division in the 1970s, recalls it took two years to produce a model of the USAF Tomcat plane. "The end costs of the toy was £15,000 and as they were selling for about £1.20 it took a lot of sales to make up the cost."

He recalls Mr Odell used to patrol the shopfloor, at one point intervening in the way he was cutting the passenger seat cushion -- a one-inch piece of material -- for a Model T Ford: "He said he wanted it deeper as he felt it did not look as if you could sink into it, so he started cutting it himself until he said 'that's what I want'. He was an engineer inside and out and he wanted perfection, which was nice.

"On the dashboard they had all the clocks and dials which you would only notice if you really looked. A lot of effort went into making it so the finished article was very pleasing to see."

When a rival produced the Hot Wheels range that easily outpaced the traditional Matchbox, Lesney had a new range of Superfast cars and racing track within a matter of weeks.

Mr Wood says: "Jack got the tools off the production line and had them cut for finer axles and smaller plastic wheels -- it was blood, sweat and tears with everyone pulling together."

At one point the company erected a 100-metre racing track through the factory to test the cars -- some of which were clocked at 70mph.

The owners appear to have treated their staff with as much attention as the toys. They laid on a fleet of 30 buses to bring workers to the factory, ran an apprenticeship scheme and set up a non-contributory pension fund that former workers are still drawing on. When the company won the Queen's Award for Industry in 1966, every employees was given a present to commemorate the achievement.

But it came to an end in 1982 when the firm was forced into liquidation as 25 per cent inflation and a 15 per cent surge in the value of the dollar made its products too expensive for its key markets. Mr Smith says: "Once the cashflow starts to slow you find that the banks are not willing to help you through a difficult period."

Mr Mills, who is now chief product development manager at fellow toymaker Corgi Classics, believes if Lesney had moved the labour-intensive products to the Far East sooner to take advantage of cheaper wages, it could have kept the less labour-intensive items produced in the UK.

After Matchbox folded the brand was bought by Universal International of Hong Kong and Mr Mills was responsible for moving Matchbox production first to Macau and later to Shanghai and Bangkok. "Had Matchbox looked to the East earlier and more positively it could have lasted longer," he says. "It was unpleasant because I had worked with these guys for 20-odd years and I could see them slowing going out the factory gates."

Mr Smith said: "It was a sad story but there were many good memories."

'Matchbox Memories' is at Hackney Museum,1 Reading Lane, London E8, from 16 March until 28 August. Telephone: 020-8356 3500

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