Tuesday, December 31, 2013

December 31 Matchbox Ambassador Report, by Nigel Cooper...

Ambassador Report 19

By the time you read this, Christmas will be over for another year and most of us will have indulged too much. I wonder what the New Year will bring.  Last week I heard that Skybusters had been found in Hot Wheels packaging. How strange!! I wonder whether the humble collector can read anything into this? What do you think?
The Matchbox team are on holiday for another week or so and so there is nothing to add in terms of answers or photos of models for 2014. I believe that part of the Ambassador’s role is to bring collectors together the world over and I am happy to publicise Matchbox related events. To this end I include below Jim’s information regarding the July Convention:

It's coming soon.  Time to register for the 12th Annual Matchbox International Gathering of Friends Convention.  Registration starts at 12 noon (Mountain Standard Time) on Sunday, 20 January 2014.  Be sure to reserve your place at the fantastic dinner and auction and reserve your table(s) for the Sunday Toy Show.  All profits from this event will once again, go to Rachel's Courtyard Children's Hospital. 

Registration forms available online @ your favorite Matchbox collecting web site, the Lamley Blog, Face Book Pages Matchbox Collectors Gathering or Mattel Landy Travels.   Or please contact promoter Jim Gallegos matchb0x1@aol.com 505-892-8848 with any questions.

The event includes:
  •  The Mattel Matchbox Design and Marketing Team from El Segundo California.
  •  The top collectors from around the world.
  •  Exciting presentations form world renown experts in the world of Matchbox.
  •  A Sit down Dinner followed by  a Mattel Mini Line Preview Presentation by the   Mattel Team.
  •  Charity auction featuring many proto types as well as a large selection of models and memorabilia donated by Mattel and collectors from around the world.
  •  Huge Sunday Toy Show.
  •  Custom contest from novice to expert.
  •  First responder vehicle show featuring, the Albuquerque Fire Department, Bernalillo County Fire Department, Albuquerque Police, SWAT and Bomb Squads as well as many others.
  • Come meet old friends and make new ones.  This event is all about the friends we make and hobby we share.  
I look forward to meeting as many of you as possible and handing over the reins of the ambassadorship at that meeting.

My first visit to the Lesney factory.

It was by complete chance that I had a friend in the 1970s whose father owned a company which produced ball bearings. One day over a cup of coffee he casually remarked that his father was particularly pleased as he had a lucrative contract to supply ball bearings to Lesney for a game called “Cascade”. (It was advertised as an all-new, mechanised, family fun game from Matchbox. It featured 10 steel balls flying over three Thumper Drums  in a variety of games – I am not sure Healthy and Safety would approve today!) I mentioned that I had a few Matchbox models from my youth. He said he had a large number of them because as a boy he always went with his father to the factory when ball bearings were being delivered and he was always given a biscuit tin full of models from the R & D department. He mentioned that in order to gain this reward he had to say which models he liked in the range and why together with comments on various other products and so he usually stayed a few hours, playing with the products.

He even showed me the contents of one of these tin boxes of models and I think he may have given me one model but I remember that he did not want to get rid of them as they held particular nostalgic value. I do not remember recognising even one model in its issued colour. When I said I would love to see round the factory he said he could arrange something as he knew several of the managers. He was a metalwork teacher, (probably then called craft, design, technology) and true to his word he organised a trip to Lee Con for his 15/16 year olds to see the Matchbox machines in action as many of the boys had an interest in apprenticeships. I was to accompany the group as a responsible adult.

I remember being given strict instructions along with the boys to keep hands inside pockets at all times and not to remove anything. We were given a complete tour of the works and I had to hide my impatience in the various fettling and casting workshops as I wanted to see the design department and the planned and pre-production models.

I was overwhelmed. In the R & D department there were models I had never seen before and others in colours that I thought were far superior to the released versions. To my horror, many of these desirable models were in waste bins to be melted down. It was an amazing sight to see so many designers drawing out plans for future models. I could have stayed in that department so much longer. Unfortunately, I can remember very little of the day and nobody had thought to bring a camera. One thing I did remember was seeing four plastic trays from a carry case with 48 black painted Londoner buses, without labels. (These were not the later, over-sprayed John Player buses which were Code 3). I so would have liked one of these black buses. At the end of the trip the boys were given bags of models and I had to look on imploringly until I plucked up the courage to say I had a very young daughter who liked Matchbox so that I, too, would receive one of the goody bags. Alas these were all standard models. I asked about the black buses and was told I had made a mistake as all buses were painted red. Further enquiries revealed that it may have been a special order but I have never seen or heard of a genuine black painted bus. Many years later I asked Jack Odell and Les Smith about the black buses and both had no knowledge, though Les Smith pointed out that with hundreds of employees, he had no idea of what may have happened regarding small quantities of models.

Last week I watched a programme “The Toys That Made Christmas” on a lesser known channel in the UK called Watch. I was delighted that one part of the programme featured early Matchbox models. Andrew Smith, the son of Les Smith, was interviewed and revealed that as diecasters his father’s company made parts for the electrical industry such as pieces for record players and aerial sockets. The tax laws in the early 1950s were such that any stock a company had at the end of the year was taxable and so there were no further orders for these electrical components after September in order to keep stock to a minimum at the end of December. Lesney realised that there would be a market for toys at Christmas and so a decision was taken to make toys to fill the vacuum. This was to be done in a cellar in Edmonton in 1951 – it had to be in the cellar as the rest of the building had been blown up in the war and thus it was cheap to rent. The emphasis was on vehicles that a child would see rebuilding London. The film clip showed the Euclid Dump Truck, a Bedford Tipper Truck and a Bulldozer and also recognised that collectors bought Matchbox Toys and so the details had to be accurate. The display shown below was featured in the clip and presumably would have stood next to the miniature display in a large store.

When Lee Con was built it included a quarter of a million square feet of production space and employed over 1500 workers and could produce a million toys per day. The newsreel clip indicated that it was the fastest growing toy company in the world. The footage taken outside of the factory showed real vehicles that had been reproduced in miniature such as the Bedford Dormobile, Austin Cambridge, Ford Anglia and Thames Trader Truck. When the Queen visited to bestow the Queen’s Award for Industry, Andrew Smith revealed that the factory had never been cleaner and everyone was dressed up. The Queen stayed for three hours and went away with some toys for the boys! He said that his father “lived and breathed Matchbox Toys” and that his father’s favourite model was the London Bus because any child from around the world would instantly recognise a red London Bus. The two images below show Code 1 variations and just a sample of the many hundreds of Code 2 and 3 releases.

Tricentrol was the car hire company in Essex which supplied company cars to the Matchbox representatives and senior employees. One Christmas, in grateful recognition of their business, Matchbox produced a number of ashtrays to which was attached a small number of white buses, complete with the Tricentrol label.

There was also an extended look in the programme at Muffin the Mule, which was probably the first star of children’s television appearing in a programme with Annette Mills, a singer of the time. Fan letters were even sent to Muffin to help children with their problems. Here is my played with version.

It may be another week until I have more up-to-date information. I wish you all a Happy New Year.

Nigel Cooper      31st December 2013


  1. Happy new year to you too Nigel. I'm also concerned about doing the ambassador report on Tuesday haha.

    Anyways, sorry about the registration. I'm not doing it. I don't have a registration. I'm just a regular collector. So sorry I cannot do it.

    Speaking of my apology, what does the last picture of a horse have to do with Matchbox? Weird! One or more animals in the old days in a brand of Matchbox! Funny! But yes, that's how mattel and Matchbox does it their way.

    Nigel, some questions, I mean- 2 or 3 questions, I- umm I mean 1 question.

    "Why did Matchbox stop the convoy line?"

    Certain put it up.
    Not certain, I'm OKAY with it.

    So my only question. How I thought of that question is because the Coca-Cola convoy truck pictures remind me of the Matchbox convoys.

    That's it for now. See you Nigel next ambassador report. Happy new year again.

    John, you're up.

  2. Excellent Report Nigel, very informative. The historical part is always my favorite, The Gathering looks like a real blast. Hope to see you there. Too bad some wanna be Matchbox board administrator had to edit this excellent report, Some people never grow up.