Corgi’s Batmobile and Batboat trailer set along with a James Bond Goldfinger Aston Martin DB5.
Drive Cars and Bikes

Small wonders: a brief history of classic toy cars (and the fanaticism behind them)

“They look exactly the same as the real car, I can display it inside my room, I can buy any model I want from abroad and bring it to the Philippines without having to pay any taxes.”
Iñigo S. Roces | Oct 22 2018

It was a photo shoot with some of the world’s rarest vehicles parked side by side: a bright red 1962 Ferrari 250 GT, a silver Aston Martin DB5, an AMG SLS gullwing, and the original 1966 Adam West Batmobile. Of course, they were all in scale. Nevertheless, even in this size, gatherings like these are still hard to come by.

Every man has a dream garage in mind, and while the availability or cost of the real thing can be prohibitive, die-cast toys like these fulfill grand fantasies in miniature. “What’s not to love about die-cast cars?” says die-cast Ferrari collector Sheine Ebora. “They look exactly the same as the real car, I can display it inside my room, I can buy any model I want from abroad and bring it to the Philippines without having to pay any taxes.”

A 1:18 scale Austin Healey 100/6.

Die-cast toys are made of metal with plastic, rubber, or glass details. Liquid lead alloys are poured into a mold and allowed to harden. They are sold in completed or near-completed state, requiring only minor assembly. The toys were first produced in 1901 by manufacturers like Meccano based in the United Kingdom and Dowst Brothers in the United States. Intended for children, the first offerings were empty shells consisting of a die-cast body (with windows punched out) secured to an underchassis with wheels.

Impurities in the alloy caused the casting to distort or crack. Lead alloy was eventually replaced by high-purity Zamak (an alloy of zinc with small quantities of aluminum and copper) to solve this problem.

The die-cast toys were not intended to be successes on their own. Meccano’s most successful product at the time was Hornby Railways O scale (1:45) model train sets. In 1933, Meccano issued a series of railway and trackside accessories to complement the trains. It produced miniature structures and model rail set accessories replete with villagers and a canvas landscape with roads and streams in natural colors. The first car it did was a BSA three-wheeler, made as a generic representation with die-cast metal bodies, tin plate bases, and wheels with rubber tires. These accessories were first called “Modelled Miniatures,” but in April 1934, they were given the name “Dinky Toys” (from the Scottish word “dink” meaning neat or fine). By 1935, a new series was introduced which featured accurate likenesses of specific vehicles.

In 1947, Lesney Products, which was formed in 1935 by boyhood friends Leslie Smith and Rodney Smith, went from making toy gun parts to producing a miniature die-cast model of a Dinky Toys Road Roller. John “Jack” Odell, an engineer from another die-casting company, initially rented a space in the Lesney building to make his own die-casting products, but later joined the company as a partner.

The company’s most iconic products ultimately owe their existence to Jack Odell’s daughter. The school she attended would only allow children to bring toys no larger than a matchbox. Upon learning about the restrictions the school had set, Jack went about making a small toy for her. He crafted a miniature version of one of Lesney’s die-cast toy cars, the green and red Road Roller. Once the prototype was completed, Jack’s daughter took it to school in a matchbox. Soon after, the Matchbox 1-75 series was born, composed of 75 different vehicles in the line, each packaged in a small box designed to look like those used for matches.

A Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa.

The popularity of die-cast toys grew in the 1950s. Corgi appeared in 1956 and pioneered the use of interiors in their models. Competition drove up their detail and quality. By the 1960s, companies began to use die-cast vehicles as promotional items for advertising. McDonald’s, Sears Roebuck, Kodak, Texaco, and Coca-Cola commissioned toymakers to produce promotional models featuring their names and logos, or licensed their use. Although the miniature models were meant for children to influence their parents, by the 1980s, it was becoming apparent that many die-cast vehicles were being purchased by adults as collectibles, not as toys for children.

Soon, brands like Matchbox were targeting collectors, creating more expensive models for adults, or “limited edition” miniatures.

Despite their popularity, the U.K. economic climate in the 1980s forced many die-cast manufacturers to shut their business. Mattel’s Hot Wheels survived by moving their production to Asia. Dinky, Matchbox, and Corgi all went bankrupt within a three-year span and were eventually bought by Mattel which resumed manufacturing in China.

Soon, smaller brands were making precision-detailed miniatures in Asia for an adult market. The traditional 1:43, 1:64, or 1:87 scale cars, originally designed to be compatible with H,O, and HO gauge train sets were eventually overtaken by the larger 1:24 and 1:18 scale premium models.

The Who’s VW Magic Bus.

Today, a slew of brands offer die-cast toy cars in various scales, detail, and price points. Often specializing in certain brands, these makers pre-sell to hardcore collectors. There are conventions and clubs devoted to die-cast miniatures.

But some collectors stress that it’s not all worry-free ownership. “Die-cast cars, though they need not be topped up with fuel or given a tune-up and oil change, still require some degree of maintaining especially with dust, humidity and handling,” says Andy Adan, member of the Diecast Car Collector Philippines Club (DCPH).

Like other hobbies, collecting and trading is very active at online auction sites, allowing more and more men and women to build their dream collection.

“In my case, my vision is to collect at least 1,000 1:18 scale Ferraris and build my own little Ferrari Museum,” shares Sheine.

It’s a dream that, thanks to scale, seems entirely possible for any collector.


This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Vol. 8 2012.