Leslie Smith and Rodney Smith were unrelated school friends when they were reunited by chance in 1940, both serving in The English Royal Navy. They each shared an ambition of one day having their own engineering factory, and discussed joining each other once the Second World War was over. Finally, they formed a partnership and began "Lesney Products" on June 19, 1947. The name was a composite of the founders' first names (LES from Leslie and NEY from Rodney,) and the word "Products" seemed appropriate because they had not yet decided what they would make. Leslie Smith was also employed by the J. Raymond Wilson Company which confirmed overseas orders, in a position he continued for several years. He worked in the evenings keeping the financial records of Lesney until Lesney products grew sufficiently to support him full- time. Rodney Smith found employment with the engineering firm of Diecast and Machine Tools in London.
With about 600 pounds in combined revenue, the pair bought the old tavern "Rifleman" at Edmonton, London, and some government surplus die casting machinery. They now were determined to make pressure die casting products for industrial use.
Another employee at Diecast and Machine Tools was John W. Odell, always called Jack, who contributed his particular casting skill and joined into the Lesney venture. As subcontractors for industry, the three began producing small die-cast components. They were among many such small firms in London contributing to the rebuilding of the city.
The English business custom of taking stock inventory for taxation purposes on the first of January led to reduced orders for component suppliers during the last two months of the year. Therefore, the few Lesney employees were not kept busy producing die-casting during those months, and the founders considered alternate products. Some of the other small die-cast firms had made a few toys, and the Lesney people experimented with this, too. In 1948 the first of these toys was produced and sold locally in London in small shops. By 1952, Lesney was supplying a few toys to some of the Woolworth stores in London for Christmas season.
The London toy distributors considered these little toys "Christmas cracker trash" and were not enthusiastic about handling them. Children, however, just loved them and the shopkeepers wanted more. By Christmas 1953, the Lesney people recognized that there was a market for their toys, but were not interested at this time in developing a sales force, storage facilities, and marketing techniques to distribute toys for a few months a year. They turned, instead, to agents who specialized in marketing to handle their toys. In the east end of London there were several agents well established long before the war. The one they contacted was "Moko."
Moses Kohnstam was a German agent from Nuremberg who came to England in about 1900 to develop the toy industry. He specialized in packaging, storing, distributing, and financial backing for many small toy manufacturers; for this he received a percentage of the selling price. Moses Kohnstam's company was Moko, and the toys he distributed carried his company's name -- Moko, no matter what various small firm made them.
When Lesney Products began manufacturing metal die-cast toys in 1948, it started with the Aveling Bardford diesel road roller. By 1953, seventeen other toys joined the Lesney line. The variety of toys in this group reflects the uncertain direction of this branch of the company at that time. mechanical animals, vehicles with wheels, and even fishing novelty item were all tried before the success of the wheeled vehicles eclipsed efforts in the other directions.
Between 1950 and 1952, the English government restricted the use of zinc for non-essential products during the Korean War, and therefore no die-cast toys could be made. Only the tim "Jumbo-the- Elephant" was made by Lesney during this period.
During 1953, Jack Odell began designing smaller scale toys. The first were smaller versions of the original Lesney toys. These small toys were enormously successful, and were continued to become the 1-75 series. With the growing success of the small series, the larger toys were phased out by 1954.
Each of the early Lesney toys was packaged in a cardboard box which was printed with a picture of the toy, its name, and in some cases the name of the distributor of the toy -- Moko. From a collector's point of view the toy is more interesting with its original box in good condition, and some have made a science of collecting the boxes.
In 1953, Moses Kohnstams' successor Richard Kohnstam was in charge of the Moko company. Lesney Products and Richard Kohnstam entered into an agreement whereby Moko would package and distribute the toys. Eventually, Moko became the sole distributor of the toys worldwide. This was the year that Lesney began the small 1-75 series of toys.
By 1954, Lesney produced eighteen models which were distributed by Moko. The trademark "Matchbox" had been registered in 1953 and belonged 50% to Moko who continued to provide its services and financial backing of the toys, Rodney Smith by now had moved to Australia and left Lesney, which was being managed by Leslie Smith and Jack Odell.
During 1958, Leslie Smith felt there was potential for the toys in Asia, particularly Japan, but Richard Kohnstam disagreed. In order to open up the market Lesney realized it had to go off on its own marketing course, so it must buy out the Moko interest in the toys. In 1959, Lesney concluded an agreement to buy "Moko," and produced their first catalog of toys. Since then Richard Kohnstam has formed his own firm -- Riko. In 1959, a second catalog also was produced including the new Models of Yesteryear series. In 1954, distribution of Lesney toys to the Unites States was conducted by a salesman form New York named Fred Bronner. He became the sole U.S. importer during the late 1950's. In 1964, Lesney Products (U.S.A.) was formed as a division of the English Lesney Products. Lesney acquired all of Fred Bronner's stock and he became the first president of Lesney Products (U.S.A.).
It was in 1969 that the Fred Bronner Corporation became the Lesney products Corporation in the United States. It was also in this year that Lesney Products faced their biggest competition, as it was in the late 1960's that Mattel introduced their Hot Wheels cars. As Matchbox cars didn't move fast at all down a track in 1969, it was do or die for the miniatures giant. This is an end mark event in Lesney history and it is at this point we take our first break. Please continue to read for more history (1969 - 1982).
Back to: | | Matchbox Main Menu | Lesney Superfast Years Era | Universal Toys Era | Tyco Years | Mattel Era |