The Boom, and the Birth of the Model Car Collector (The Abbreviated History of Model Cars, Part 3)

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As improbable as it may sound to modern enthusiasts, the concept of a “car collector” is a relatively recent development, dating back only to the economic boom that followed World War II. In the same way, model car collecting was born in the a postwar economy; the earliest known retail shop that specialized in miniature cars was founded in England in 1952. This growing craze for model cars was fueled by an expanding number of diecast manufacturers who supplied the market with an ever-increasing number of models. Britain’s Dinky and France’s Solido resumed production with a renewed focus on improving the detail of their models, and even veteran company Marklin rose from the ashes of a devastated Germany to apply their expertise in modelling to the now-standard diecast medium.

The first significant new diecast car company to arrive after the war was Lesney. Founded in 1947 as a general diecasting company by Englishmen John Odell and Leslie Smith, Lesney moved into toy production in 1949. However, success was elusive until 1953, when Odell and Smith hit upon the idea to issue well-made but inexpensive diecast replicas of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation coach. These were a blockbuster hit, and their success granted Lesney the financial freedom to expand its offerings to include model construction vehicles and road cars in a small scale, each packaged in a unique replica matchbox. The success of these Matchbox models surpassed even that of the coronation coach, establishing Lesney as a major player in the diecast model business.

Also based in England, the Mettoy Company was founded in 1934, but didn’t start making diecast model cars until 1956, concentrating on popular British automobiles of the day like the Ford Consul and Austin Cambridge. Their brand name, Corgi, would soon become synonymous with highly detailed toy-level model cars when a broader variety of vehicles were added to the line, most notably a series of cars inspired by popular movies and television shows, such as the Batmobile and James Bond’s Aston Martin.

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At the dawn of the 1960s, a nascent Italian model car industry arose to challenge the dominance of the English and the French. These early Italian diecasters included RIO and Dugu, who focused mainly on detailed models of vintage Italian cars to compete directly for adult customers with Matchbox’s popular Models of Yesteryear line. They also included Mebetoys, a quality toy car company founded by the Besana diecasting family to compete head-on with Corgi and Solido.

For most of the ‘60s, all diecast cars enjoyed a sort of homogenous appeal to children and adult collectors alike, though a few companies such as the aforementioned RIO and Matchbox Models of Yesteryear were aimed specifically at the latter. In 1968, however, a deep and nearly permanent schism between the generations was opened when Mattel introduced its smash-hit Hot Wheels line. Intended strictly as kids’ toys with an emphasis on wild design, their success drove Matchbox and Corgi to follow suit with eccentric paint schemes and low-friction wheels and axles, mostly abandoning the adult collector market and its preference for authenticity.

And where would these adult collectors turn to get their model car fix? We’ll explore that in the final installment of our series on Monday.

Images used by permission of Vectis Auctions, Ltd. (www.vectis.co.uk)

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