Here is a quick quiz. One question, one word, easy to answer. Name the world's biggest car producer. No prize if you went for Toyota, Japan's most prolific car-maker but ranked third among the world's car companies. No prize, either, if you picked Ford. And you still did not win if you went for General Motors, though GM is the obvious answer and definitely the world's biggest builder of life-sized automobiles. This time you only get top points if you said Matchbox. That is right, Matchbox!.
The world's biggest maker of tiny toys has punched out more than 4.5 billion automobiles since it began business in Britain in 1947. It has built more cars than anybody else for decades and its production peaked at five million miniatures a week in the 1960's. Matchbox toys have been first choice with car-mad children for generations, from the rough-round-the-edges offerings of the 1950s to today's high-speed, high-tech and high-style models.
There are not too many Matchbox originals in the company's history, but it has lured youngsters with Mustang's, Miuras, Mercedes and many more. Starting with a scale model of the Queen's coronation coach, through to today's SuperFast family and the Matchbox Collectibles line-up, the company has matched its models to the times.
But Matchbox was less than a dream when Leslie Smith and Rodney Smith went into business as Lesney Products with their L600 (Pound Sterling) military payout after World War II. They took over an abandoned British pub for a die-cast foundry before making their first miniature car -- for an early partner, whose daughter could take a toy to school only if it could fit in a matchbox.
A miniature brass road roller fitted perfectly and, after the company discovered the matchbox design from the Norvic Match Company in Czechoslovakia was ideal for its products, demand took off. Matchbox did best in the early days with its 1:75 scale range, which continues today and is updated every year. It has always included a London bus, but most models are less than a year old and -- in recent times -- have often been copied from motor show star cars. It takes only 18 months to go from real-life to 1:75 family, so the range is always changing and normally has something for every car-crazy youngster.
In the early days you could get a Matchbox for less than two shillings. Every one of my friends had a matchbox collection, and I remember building roads in the dirt and dreaming of the days when I would be at the wheel -- for real.
In the 1960s, the best accessory from a Matchbox fleet was the snap-together two -story plastic service station which cost about L1 (Pound Sterling). It had a forecourt, a small new-car display area and a ramp to rooftop parking. Bliss for a 10-year-old. The emphasis was on British cars because matchbox was a British brand and most of the cars on Australia's roads started their life -- one way or another -- in a British factory. But the collectors' star cars were the American exotics, such as Ford's Thunderbird and Mustang.
The scale was not always perfect, at least for youngsters who wanted their collections to match, but they were still great things. Matchbox has diversified a lot since then, absorbing its rival Dinky toys and eventually becoming part of Tyco, on of the world's biggest toy manufacturers. The company still makes model miniatures, but few are ordinary productions cars. The kids of today go for high-performance exotics, Jeeps, racing cars and the high-speed SuperFast miniatures. And the Baby Boomers who collected their first matchbox cars when they were kids are more likely to be big-time hoarders of the limited-edition collectors' models, including the Yesteryear collection.
"When I first joined Matchbox, I was struck by the deep affection Australians had for our models," said David Cole, general manager of Matchbox Collectibles. "Matchbox is part of our heritage. I think collecting is a important way of preserving and showing our history. Our collectors do as much research as we do."
There are many Matchbox enthusiasts with collections valued at more than $50,000 and Mr. Cole knows of some which would bring more then $1 million at auction.
Tom Mathieson is a leading Australian collector with more than 1,000 models, including early rarities now worth more than $10,000 apiece. Even for somebody who played with Matchbox toys as a child, discarding the boxes and scratching the paint in day-to-day running, the prices for some of the rare pieces are a shock.. A basic 1:75 from the 1950s will cost $8 to $25 with rare models fetching closer to $200. My dream, the snap-together service station, is worth $40-$200 today. And the prices jump when you get in the Yesteryear collection, where limited-edition models and rare color combinations can easily take prices into the thousands. Even if you are buying today, a mainstream Yesteryear model can increase in value by five or six times in five years. but most Matchbox toys are still that -- toys for children, from three to 103.
"I can't see a time when Matchbox won't be an Australian household name," Mr. Cole said. "It's quite simple really -- as long as there are kids, there will always be Matchbox."
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