Friday, September 9, 2016

The '71 Skyline is not Matchbox's first foray into the Nissan/Datsun world...

There is a lot being said about the brand new 1971 Nissan Skyline 2000GT-X from Matchbox.  Most of you are as excited as I am, others of you not so much.  Some even think it is downright ugly, maybe because you aren't used to the fact that the actual stock Skyline was more Camry than cool car back in the day.

Supercool, or treacherously ugly, there is no doubt the Skyline is a very interesting model, and definitely a refreshing release from the orange brand.  With that in mind, there has also been a lot of talk about what the Skyline represents for Matchbox.  "Finally, a true JDM from Matchbox" to "Playing into the JDM hype".  Neither of those comments are correct.  All the Skyline represents is a continued return to realism, because this is not even close to Matchbox's first JDM model.  Nor is it Matchbox's first Nissan.  

Recently I was having a nerd-out discussion with the Toy Pimp himself, Jeff Koch, about this very topic.  Jeff is an encyclopedia of car knowledge - he has to be as a writer for Hemmings Motor News - and is equally as knowledgable about diecast.  In fact, it is Jeff who helped hone my interest in Japanese cars.  My love for all things Japanese auto started with my father's Honda in 1982, but it was Jeff years later who spearheaded my now ongoing education.  I am sure he loves the late-hour texts from me asking for help to make me look knowledgable on the latest TLV release.  Every non-Japanese speaker needs someone else to teach them the proper pronunciation of "hakosuka".  For me that person was Jeff.

He mentioned many of the previous Nissans and Datsuns that Matchbox has done, and I asked him to send me a few to photograph.  He did, and I asked him about each of them.  What follows is Jeff's take on each model, interlaced with a little history.  He even scanned a few ads from his personal collection of car ads and photos.  Like I said, Jeff is a true car nerd, and a cool car nerd at that.

(And by the way, if you aren't aware of Jeff's alter ego, the Toy Pimp, then you had better follow him on Instagram.  It's one of those diecast must-follows.  And yes, he will be at JCCS again this year.)


"Lots of firsts here. This was Matchbox’s first Japanese model, and it was Nissan’s first concept car—in 1970. The model has a 1971 date on the base, so it could have showed up as late as 1972. Usually Nissan showed either race cars on their stand, in keeping with their performance bent, or upcoming production models. So the Nissan 126X was unusual—and perhaps that’s why Matchbox gravitated to it. The show car had a transverse-mounted straight-six in the rear, something that the Matchbox showed off with an opening engine cover. Period photos show it in a silvery-blue, with a black engine cover, but Matchbox decided to make theirs yellow; early versions were solid yellow, while later versions got the flame pattern seen here. Believe it or not this car had a safety aspect to it: that ribbed nose were meant to depict a series of lights on the real car, which changed color to help a pedestrian judge whether it was in motion or not. Matchbox called it the Datsun 126X because the Nissan name was unknown in England at the time; the Datsun name was sent out overseas to help the company get a foothold in new markets, so that if it failed for some reason, Nissan could save face. It’s also worth noting that there are a ton of diecast companies who knocked this very car off in the ‘70s: Aguti of Argentina, Mira of Spain, and both Playmobil and Metalcar of Hungary (the latter of which offered two castings, one with incorrectly opening doors)."


"In the late ‘70s, Matchbox sales were faltering—at least, they were in this country. A decade of Hot Wheels had done damage to the brand’s sales volume, and they needed a cheap-and-easy way to get attention. Hence a series of cars outside the standard 1-75 line, marked on the package (and tooled into the chassis) with roman numerals and hawked as Limited Editions. Other than the chassis tweak, the only difference was a new paint scheme: the old flat-gendered Army jeep became the Sleet-n-Snow mail delivery vehicle, the old Dodge Charger funny car became the Hot Streaker, the VW camper was retooled to have a closed roof and no interior to become the Pizza Delivery … and the Datsun 126X became the Datsun Golden X thanks to its gold-plated body. Unsurprisingly, it was Number X, or Roman Numeral 10 in the line. Whenever someone grumbles about how Matchbox should get back to the 1-75 line, I laugh to myself and think about the Roman Numeral cars … Matchbox themselves haven’t done the 1-75 lineup for 40 years!"

DATSUN 260Z 2+2

"It wasn’t until around 1977 that Matchbox did its first Nissan street car: the 260Z 2+2. In retrospect, and to American eyes, it seems an odd choice: the 260Z only lived for 18 months in the US, and the 2+2 variant seems less desirable than the two-seater. But in Japan, when the 2+2 version of the Z-car launched, it was a big deal. Remember that performance was going away Stateside and in Japan in the mid-70s, thanks to emissions and bumper regulations plus spiraling insurance premiums. There was a wholesale shift toward luxury cars, and the 2+2 was a step in that direction: longer wheelbase, room in back for the kids, etc. It was seismic enough that Tomica did a 2+2 in their Limited Vintage Neo line in just the last few years. Anyway, play value remained strong with the 260 as doors opened."

"Matchbox actually did three different S130-generation Zs—all different tools." 


"In the late ‘70s, Matchbox farmed some of their manufacturing out to Hong Kong. The first models to turn up were a set of four Japanese-home-market GT cars: the Mitsubishi Galant Eterna (sold here as Dodge Challenger/Plymouth Sapporo), the Toyota Celica XX (first-generation Supra), Mazda Savanna RX7, and the Datsun 280ZX, simply called Fairlady Z (its Japanese home market name) on the chassis. It’s hard to explain, but they looked different somehow: the wheels made little effort to fill out the wheel wells, and the detailing somehow seemed more delicate. This was the first two-seat Z car that Matchbox did; most were black, and later versions had a variety of bright tampos. Where this silver one came from, I confess I have no idea." 

DATSUN 280ZX 2+2

"Matchbox does enjoy continuity, and following the apparent success of the 260Z 2+2, Matchbox went and did the new-generation Datsun Z 2+2. Doors still opened, and this version had lines cut into the roof to simulate T-tops. Again, most versions are black, although there are some special versions—the one done like a Japanese police car is a particular favorite. I chose this Made in Macau racing version despite its inaccuracies: I’m pretty sure Bob Sharp never raced a RHD 2+2 280ZX with T-tops, but the race livery tickled me."


"Part of the short-lived Glo-Racers series, with glow-in-the-dark plastic bodies and metal chassis, they were built for an available track set. Other available cars included the Porsche 928, a Triumph TR7, a second-generation Pontiac Trans Am, a Corvette, and of course the 280ZX. The body offered good detail but the metal chassis and big wheels gave it a tallish stance. In person it looks huge, but the body is really only a couple of millimeters bigger than the other two MB Zs. Made in Hong Kong." 

NISSAN 300ZX (Z31)

"Matchbox was no longer owned by Lesney, which entered bankruptcy in 1982; now, it was owned by Universal, the Hong Kong-based toy giant. The paint scheme reflects the 50th anniversary of Nissan in 1984 (only just recently changed over from Datsun in the States), with its silver body, black rockers and gold trim, and the body captures a transitional period in the Z31’s evolution: there’s still a scoop on the hood, but the front fenders have been reshaped and widened slightly, while the rear quarters made due with flares. Later ZXs had other body changes that really make this model specific to its era. The hood opens, though the engine is cast in relief between the fenders (unlike the 126x, whose engine was molded as part of the chromed interior). A race-car version, often with Fuji Film markings, was also available."

(Nissan 300ZX at hobbyDB)

NISSAN 300ZX (Z32)

"Maybe it’s my age (born in ’70) but for my money some of the sweetest Matchbox models ever were during the Universal era, in the late ‘80s through the early-90s. Model choice, proportioning, paint, how the wheels sat in the wheel openings … all good stuff. Really, the cars from this era felt like a modern iteration of what Matchbox was in the ‘60s, with the bonus of wheels that would roll on a track if need be. The Z32 300ZX is a part of that era. It has no opening features but it’s so pretty I don’t care. Most of the Universal-era examples I run across are yellow, although high-detail World Class and Premiere versions were a variety of colors, all of which suited the flowing lines. (I’ll argue that those World Class cars were what helped kick off the whole high-tampo-detail small-scale diecast movement that was later taken up by Johnny Lightning, et al, but that’s another story for another time.) During the Tyco era, this casting was disgraced with a number of unspeakable paint jobs in the basic line.

Not shown, but also made, was the rare Swop Tops version. Swop Tops were sold for about a year, only in Europe; the gimmick was a rotating cabin that could simulate a coupe or an open-top convertible with full interior detail. Six were made, and two (Mustang and Porsche 968) are impossible to find; the pink 300ZX is among those that are easier (if not cheaper) to find. I have one, and I actually forgot about it one until just now, which is why Mr. Lamley doesn’t have any photos of it. I suck. Sorry."

(Swop Tops on ebay)


"Another model from the Universal era—a real car with lovely proportions. In the States it was called Nissan Axxess, which followed on from the ungainly Nissan Stanza Wagon. No one bought them and they lasted about two years before Nissan gave up on selling ‘em here; the Matchbox model lasted much longer. The first MB issue was blue with silver rockers, then came all silver, then a variety of paint schemes—yellow taxi, dark green metallic, a red one in a Costco 30-pack that I have yet to find, a quasi-ambulance. The paint in those years, IIRC, wasn’t the best—uneven gloss, more dust in the paint than I recall from the England years. That said, I confess to something of a fetish for this particular model—the dual sliding side doors, a decade before that was a big deal in the Dodge Caravan, were something I would find useful for my day job, and soon after being hired at Hemmings I went looking for one around my then-home of Southern California. Shockingly enough, none were to be found—even in California, land of weirdo cars that never ever rust. I did once find an old man in a supermarket parking lot who had a lovely white one, and I gave him a business card, telling him if he ever wanted to sell, to call me. He just laughed at me. Some years later, I bought a Mazda 5 instead. They’re not making those anymore either."

photo credit hobbyDB


"First Nissan product in the Mattel era, this one was part of the Superfast line, with more realistic tampos. I tend to shy away from 1/64 scale diecast painted black—the details don’t show up so well—and to be honest I’m not a giant fan of trucks either, but I know someone who used to bump around town in one of these and she was absurdly sexy, so I keep it around. (It was this or the Crocodile Hunter version … ) I love that the real XTerra had a mandatory roof rack and (I think) a mandatory sunroof … and the roof rack was designed so that you couldn’t open the sunroof."


"Return of the Z! This is another Superfast version. I have rather more yellow NIssans than I expected, now I look at the photos. Nothing opens, but it’s still a good clean stock version. In my mind it’s continuity from the Universal-era Z32. This casting is the last Matchbox Z so far; they haven't seen fit to do a 370Z, and it’s now late enough in that model’s life that it seems unlikely. Whatever ends up being next, why, I wouldn’t bet against it turning up."


"Part of the late 2000s resurgence of real cars in real colors that are just now coming back into vogue. The real car was sold in Japan as the Nissan Skyline coupe until fairly recently—Infiniti is just a made-up upscale marketing affect for the US that has moved on to other markets—and so technically this is the first Skyline that Matchbox has done. It only had the one release, in blue, until the very recent grey one. I never understood why both Matchbox and Hot Wheels did the same model in both of their lineups. The Z-cars, I get, because Hot Wheels’ versions are all blinded out and Matchbox’s was stock. But two stock G37s? Maybe that’s why Matchbox only had the one release, in blue, until the recent silvery-grey one that’s just turning up in stores."


"Another recent Nissan, one of the last of that late 2000s resurgence, I’m assuming (probably wrongly) that this one took the place of the Scion xB in the lineup; years of listening to the presentations at the Albuquerque Gathering each July has taught me the value the team places (placed?) on having a variety of interesting silhouettes in the blister cards, and if something square went out, something square needed to come in. The blue version (the first version) is shown here, but there was also a sort of mossy green version, as well as a white one with records (i.e., 12-inch wax discs that play music through a diamond-tipped needle, like grandpa used to play on the gramophone)."  


"All of the best stories loop back around to where they started. Matchbox’s journey with Nissan/Datsun is no different. The Hakosuka has become strangely iconic for a car that was never sold in this country—hell, not sold in any country whose cars have the steering wheel on the left. But seeing a new production model from the era when Matchbox itself was making its first tentative steps into the world of Japanese cars with the 126x … it helps provide continuity. That continuity will be extended with the upcoming Nissan Junior pickup and the 510 sedan, two more models that were produced when the hakosuka Skyline was in showrooms." 

Fun feature, eh?  I may be asking Jeff a lot more questions in the future.

(Matchbox Nissan and Datsun on hobbyDB)


  1. It's amazing to see how much better the castings are, in quality, detail and accuracy, how much better proportioned and detailed the wheels have become and how much better the paint is nowadays, yet they still cost roughly $1, which is about they cost 30 years ago...

  2. I'm very happy to say that I have some of the cars shown here!

    -280ZX 2+2 that used to be black and horrible condition (now bronze and stock)
    -300ZX Z31 (exact same one as pictured)
    -300ZX Z32 (exact same one as pictured)
    -Prairie (silver with Nissan tampo)
    -Xterra (gold)
    -G37 (exact same one as pictured)

    I'm hoping to soon add a Cube and the new Hako to the collection as well!

  3. Great retrospective John! The only one missing is the Nissan Z, first model in 2004 ( red). Then we had it again from 05 to 08 in several series.
    Thanks for the good article!

  4. The nissan xterra had an optional sunroof if you bought the se which had the sunroof and a leather wrapped steering wheel. The base model had a 4 cylinder with a manual and 2wd. The next model was the xe which my dad has in 2000 only denim blue with the 6 cylinder and 4wd automatic. In 2001 the only changes were new colors and dash with the only exterior difference being there is no key hole on the passenger door like 2000. In 2002 they refreshed them with a new front end and interior design. They also introduced the supercharged engine from the previous years frontier. In 2003 they released the world championship edition which was the se without the sunroof and apparently came with an exclusive bike and seat covers.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. The roof rack was apparently optional in some markets and the sunroof was a pretty useless option unless you removed the roof basket

  5. Great stuff Jeff, thanks very much! There's always more to learn...

  6. Every model you have featured is in my collection with the exception of the new Skyline and the Glow-Racer Z-car. (I do have the Porsche 928, though.) I also have the Japan-market four-pack (with the Celica, RX7 and Mitsu), it came with a set of stickers. I bought that from Harold's place in Lynn, MA, the mail-order go-to place for global Matchbox items in the 70s and 80s.

    that Prairie/Axxess brings back memories. My former college professor bought a light blue one back in 1989. He still drives it now. He's retired, with a long grey beard and the car looks as if it hasn't ben washed in ages, but it still runs well. I wish I could take a picture and share it with you guys, but the prof doesn't like to have his photo taken, and I respect his wishes.

  7. My favorite, well maybe second favorite now that the Skyline is out, is the Premiere Edition yellow 300ZX. I Also loved the Supra and RX-7 (3rd Gen.) from the same series.

  8. If we were to include Honda we could go back to 1967 when the Honda racing bike on its, then, orange trailer was introduced. (No.38) I think the bike might be a 1966 125 - but they've beefed it up to look like a bigger bike. Their bigger racers had more exhausts, cylinders etc.

    If I were to get my anorak on it could be argued that the Hillman Minx (No.43) was a semi Japanese model. (1958-61) Isuzu made them under licence.

    Nice article.


  9. The Fujicolor Z31 was probably one of my favorites as a kid and now seeing it came with a matching hauler and support van I'd be pissed to find out I had those and lost them thought I doubt I did.

    Very surprised to see it not included in the pics and nothing about the Celica XX either, what a shame! I wish hotwheels would fix the second gen Celica Supra tooling as their revised version looks like crap.

    1. The article is highlighting Nissans (Datsuns). I think that is why you don't see the Toyotas.

  10. I still have the sink Swop Top ZX. Sadly, I don't have the 968 anymore, which was my favourite from that line.

    1. Can you post some photos of the Swop Top ZX?

  11. May good to mention Matchbox also made Nissan Trick-shifters, Burning key cars and Speed-kings.

    1. And that the (4) Hong Kong made japanese cars started their life as Japanese made/base...

    2. Wow, great article! Still got the grey 300ZX turbo which I bought when it was first released in '86 (if you did a feature on the best years for new models I think 1986 would be right up Transit, Supervan 2, IROC-Z,Volvo 760...). Remember the yellow '90 300ZX being really hard to find at the time along with most of the '90 releases...would be cool if they brought it back...