Leslie Smith

Co-founder of 'the world's largest car-maker', the maker of Matchbox toys
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The Independent Online

Leslie Smith is someone to whom the frazzled parents of small, whining boys are forever grateful. The model vehicles he helped create, sold at loose-change prices under the Matchbox brand name, have quelled countless impending tantrums. At the same time, their Lilliputian representations of real vehicles have fired millions of junior imaginations as they have been pushed along tabletops and propelled across kitchen floors.

Leslie Charles Smith, industrialist and toymaker: born Enfield, Middlesex 6 March 1918; joint managing director, Lesney Products 1947-73, managing director 1973-80, chief executive officer 1980-81, vice-chairman 1981-82; OBE 1968; married 1948 Nancy Jackson-Moore (died 1969; two sons, one daughter); died London 26 May 2005.

Leslie Smith is someone to whom the frazzled parents of small, whining boys are forever grateful. The model vehicles he helped create, sold at loose-change prices under the Matchbox brand name, have quelled countless impending tantrums. At the same time, their Lilliputian representations of real vehicles have fired millions of junior imaginations as they have been pushed along tabletops and propelled across kitchen floors.

Matchbox toys are still on sale today. But rare, perfectly preserved examples from the golden Matchbox era of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s lead grown men to saleroom brinkmanship; in 2000, a Matchbox model of a Mercedes-Benz 230SL in super-rare green paint sold at auction for £4,000 - a world record for one of the so-called "1-75 Series" toys. Heady stuff, yet Matchbox had an inauspicious start.

Leslie Smith left school at 14 and, by the time the Second World War broke out and he joined the Royal Navy, he was working as an export buyer in London. He served with a schoolfriend, Rodney Smith, and in January 1947 they pooled their savings, bought a secondhand die-casting machine for £600, and installed it in a former pub in Tottenham, north London, called the Rifleman. They named their business Lesney Products, the "Lesney" an amalgam of their Christian names, and the "Products" appellation reflecting their willingness to turn out absolutely any industrial widget that would turn a profit.

The company did well, thanks to the energy and determination of Leslie Smith and a casting engineer called Jack O'Dell (Rodney Smith departed the venture soon after its inception). One customer ordered a diecast part for a toy gun, and Lesney realised that manufacturing its own metal toys could be lucrative, especially as this could use time when the machines were inactive.

O'Dell designed a range which included a model road-roller, a horse-drawn milk cart and even a pocket-sized press that could turn bits of bread into fishing bait. They turned out a detailed model of the coach used for the Coronation, selling a million of them, and were in early on television merchandising, with a metal puppet model of Muffin the Mule. The model vehicles sold strongest and, unlike the costlier Dinky Toys, they were not just sold at toyshops but also at novelty stores, tobacconists and sweet shops. "Christmas cracker trash", one wholesaler called them, but exasperated parents couldn't get enough.

Then, one day, O'Dell's daughter complained that the only toys she could take to school were those that fitted inside a matchbox. He made a tiny replica of his Lesney road-roller that fitted perfectly inside a box made by the Czechoslovakian Norvic Match Co. O'Dell had hit on a brilliant idea and in 1953 a series of finely detailed "Matchbox" toy vehicles was launched, including a Land Rover, a London bus, a bulldozer and a fire engine. In 1954, and at No 19 in the series, came a dainty MG TD, the first Matchbox car. They were sold in tiny cardboard boxes that really were at home beside a packet of Woodbines. To make them fit, the various models were hopelessly out of scale with each other, but children didn't mind that.

By 1959, with the unveiling of the No 75 Ford Thunderbird, the "Matchbox 1-75 Series" was rounded out, but changed continually. Three years previously, Lesney introduced its "Models of Yesteryear" series of intricately detailed historic vehicles, another highly profitable line. Smith also produced a children's book, Mike and the Modelmakers (1970), telling the story of an American boy brought to Britain by his father to show him the "world's largest car-maker" - Lesney.

While O'Dell was immersed in designing new toys, Smith ran the business with panache, and Lesney joined the stock market in 1960 in a massively oversubscribed listing. He employed thousands of women to assemble and pack the little cars - up to a million each week - and laid on double-decker buses so that their children could be picked up safely from school. As Len Mills, a former tooling and engineering manager, recalled, "It was like a family. Lesney was not so much a job as a way of life".

Matchbox cars went down a storm in the US, where they sold for 49 cents each, and the company was awarded the Queen's Award for Export in 1966, 1968 and 1969; every employee got a bonus to celebrate, and Smith, by then a millionaire, was appointed OBE in 1968. By 1969, Lesney had over a dozen factories across north and east London, employing 6,000.

That was also the year Lesney felt the first heat of rapacious rivalry. The hollow plastic wheels of Mattel's flashy Hot Wheels cars allowed them to perform high-speed stunts on specially made track. They were inexpensively made in Hong Kong. Smith responded in 1970 by fitting "Superfast" wheels to Lesney's Matchbox cars and persevered throughout the 1970s by broadening the product range to include dolls and plastic kits.

Smith was reluctant to switch production to Far East sweatshops, concerned for his workforce and product quality. However, in June 1982, Lesney was declared insolvent, renamed Matchbox Toys Ltd, and sold to Universal Toys of Hong Kong. Production immediately shifted to Macau, later Thailand and then China. Even the trademark cardboard boxes gave way to plastic packaging. In 1997, the Matchbox brand was acquired by its old nemesis Mattel.

"Once the cashflow starts to slow you find that the banks are not willing to help you through a difficult period," Smith reflected at a 2004 exhibition devoted to Lesney's importance to the community of Hackney, east London. "It was a sad story, but there are many good memories".

After leaving the toy industry, Smith devoted himself to his chairmanship of the board of governors for two north London schools.

Giles Chapman

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