Exhibition highlights popularity of Matchbox cars

Photo: CTK

This week the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague launched a new exhibition highlighting the fascinating history of the Matchbox brand – the famous die-cast toy cars. Matchbox and similar toy cars, traditionally referred to in Czech as Angličáci, have long proven popular here and there is no question the show will be a hit with families as well as collectors.

Photo: CTK
I discussed the phenomenon of Matchbox cars with Alexandr Pícha – fellow Czech Radio journalist and co-author of Matchbox Models of Yesteryear 1956 – 72 – asking first what he thought of the show.

“I think that the first thing to note is that the show is dedicated to the broader public – it isn’t just for collectors. That’s a good thing: they approach it not from the view of collecting but as a bigger phenomenon. Many Czechs remember playing with die-cast toys as children and for those who attend the exhibition it will bring back very fond memories.”

I’ve read that there are about 1,500 die-cast model cars at the show…

“That’s not so many when you compare it to the number of Matchbox cars produced, which is around five billion, of which there are 17,000 different designs. Each model has specific variations, and so there is a lot to choose from and indeed it is difficult to choose what are the most typical models. The Lesney company was founded in the late 1940s and began focusing on Matchbox cars in 1953. At first the company produced bigger toys but it was the Matchbox car that cemented the firm’s success.”

How did they hit upon the idea of the Matchbox car? I’ve read, indeed, that there was a direct Czech connection which is fascinating.

Alexandr Pícha,  photo: Khalil Baalbaki
“There is. The original idea came from the company’s co-founder Jack Odell: his daughter was not allowed to bring any toy to school that would be bigger than a box of matches. So he designed a tiny steamroller for her that she took to school and it became a big hit among all her friends. They all made clear they wanted one of their own when visiting the family’s home after school, so that was how they got the idea of producing them professionally. He explained the reason for the cars’ success: if you have one die-cast soldier it isn’t enough: you need more to interact, to form a unit. But you only need ‘one’ Matchbox car to play with and you can be alone and that was the secret.

“As for the Czech connection, Odell had a box of matches from Czechoslovakia’s famous match company Solo Sušice in southern Bohemia, actually the company’s export brand Norwic, and he designed the small die-cast cars so they would fit and borrowed elements from the design. He loved the design and used similar art. When you look at the original design of the Solo Sušice matchbox, there is a house outlined in black in the middle and red clouds on the sides. When you look at the original packaging for Matchbox cars you see a black outline of a car in the middle and red clouds on the sides. All the original packaging had this and used similar colours, including a brown strip which was reminiscent of the lighting strip on a box of matches – non-functional of course! And those colours and that packaging was used from 1953 to around 1965.”

At the beginning you mentioned that many here will have fond memories of ‘Angličáky’…

Photo: CTK
“Absolutely. This is the name in Czech which indicates the toys were made in England, not Great Britain as was later the case. In the 1950s and ‘60s mainly Matchbox cars but also others like Corgi and Dinky and other brands were imported to Czechoslovakia and became very popular.”

For you as a collector, what is the more important philosophy for a company producing these kinds of toys or model cars: historical accuracy and detail… or invention?

“Increasingly, the former: in the 1970s and 1980s children gradually lost interest in die-cast cars, becoming attracted by electronics, video games and so on, so collectors became more important as the intended audience. More models were not meant to be played with but displayed and that means that they could sacrifice durability in exchange for greater detail. The cars came with their own display stands and effectively were not taken out of their see-through case. Collectors desired more accurate replicas and that is what was produced.”

You are the co-author of an extensive publication on Matchbox cars entitled “Matchbox Models of Yesteryear 1956 – 72”: how rewarding was that project which represents around four years of work?

Photo: CTK
“As an historian, I think the book captures a very nice stage in history of die-cast production before the electronic revolution. I really like this period. But there is another aspect to consider when discussing replicas: when you want to downsize an existing car and you want it to look real, you have to consider the perspectives from which the vehicle will be viewed. Typically, playing with a Matchbox car is like looking down from the 20th floor of a skyscraper and this perspective required tiny changes in proportion to look authentic. The designers at the Lesney company did a fantastic job and the models produced in the 1950s and ‘60s have a special spirit which is very difficult to describe. But it is there and you can feel it.”

As a collector, are there any models you’d name for which you have an affinity?

“From the cars of yesteryear I could name the Bugatti 35 racecar which I like perhaps because it was raced by Eliška Junková. I also enjoy many of the later American designs. All those models were prepared with a special sense of their real proportion but also ‘art’ in mind. For example, when the ‘models of yesteryear’ line was launched, the founders decided to produce vehicles they themselves remembered, that was the extent of the marketing. Leslie Smith remembered a steam lorry from his childhood that used to deliver milk so they produced that! One thing they did do, was produce mock-ups of many of the cars in different colours and took them into the classroom where they would watch which cars and which colours children opted for first.”

Photo: CTK
That is brilliant: regarding playing, the matchbox show at UPM is of course providing a play space. Given the subject, good idea?

“Absolutely. The tag is that all visiting children have to bring their own toy car which they can race on a track there. These tiny cars were – and are – toys first, long before they were collector’s items.”