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.
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.
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