By on July 18, 2014

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Perhaps it’s appropriate that the term “collectible diecast” most often refers to detailed scale models of cars and trucks. After all, the industrial process of molding metal parts by forcing liquefied low-melting point metals into a die was known as “hydrostatic moulding” before Herbert H. Franklin reportedly coined the term “die casting”. Franklin, who started the first commercial die casting company in the world, was also the founder of the Franklin Automobile Company, the most successful American maker of cars with air-cooled engines. It was the money that Franklin made  in the metal die-casting industry that allowed him, in 1901, to engage engineer John Wilkinson, who was the technical genius behind the Franklin cars, which stayed in production into the 1930s. I’ve been working on a post about Wilkinson and the Franklin cars, but right now let’s look at a couple of other brands of cars that wouldn’t have existed were it not for Franklin’s success with die-casting. Those ‘car’ brands are TootsieToy and Matchbox. It was TootsieToy that likely first made die-cast model cars and it was Matchbox that took them from being mere toys to being accurate scale models.

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It’s interesting that right around the same time that Herbert Franklin and John Wilkinson were starting up the Franklin Automobile Company, two sets of brothers were already using the process Franklin perfected and popularized (he’d bought some patents on the process, which was invented in the early 19th century by Elisha Root) to make die-cast toys, soon to make model cars.

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Samuel and Charles Dowst started a trade journal for laundry operators in 1876, in Chicago. As part of their business, the brothers also sold promotional items like thimbles and sewing kits. At the Columbian Expostion of 1893, Sam Dowst watched a demonstration of the Mergenthaler Linotype machine. Though he was a publisher he was more interested in how the type was molded than in using the machine to set that type, realizing the process could be used to make small metal items besides printer’s type. The brothers adapted the machine to make thimbles, buttons and cufflinks, items they could sell to their existing customer base. A tiny iron they made for the Flat Iron Laundry along with a couple of other promotional pieces, a small thimble and a little Scottie dog would later be adopted by Parker Brothers as playing pieces for the Monopoly board game.

The first TootsieToy die-cast model car, circa 1911, and a reproduction.

The first TootsieToy die-cast model car, circa 1911, and a reproduction.

According to Toys and American Culture: An Encyclopedia, the Dowst brothers made the world’s first die-cast model car, a replica of the Ford Model T, in 1908. It was a big hit and the success of that first model car led to an extensive product line of toy trains, trucks, buses and airplanes using the TootsieToys brand. Tootsie was apparently a nickname for one of the Dowsts’ granddaughters and the brand was trademarked in 1924. However, there’s apparently some discrepancy about when Dowst made their first model car.  As mentioned, the toy encyclopedia says it was 1908 and and a Model T.  On the other hand, Tootsietoys.info, which appears to be authoritative, says that while the Dowst company made some small, charm sized miniature cars early on, their first actual model of of a car that they made was in 1911, a closed limousine, followed in 1915 with a model of the Ford Model T.

TootsieToy 1915 Model T

TootsieToy 1915 Model T

Around the same time that the Dowsts were starting to make die-cast items at the turn of the 20th century another set of brothers, the Shures, owned a firm named the Cosmo Company, which around 1901 started making a similar line of die-cast items like charms, pins and cuff links. Shure Bros. would eventually buy the Dowst company in 1926.

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In addition to their retail model cars, TootsieToys also made “dealer models”, scale models that were given out by car dealers, usually to the children of car buyers. In the mid 1930s, TootsieToy introduced the Bild-a-Car set with five chassis, coupe, sedan and roadster bodies along with wheels, tires, axles and assembly clips.

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Just as the makers of TootsieToy model cars and trucks started out publishing a magazine, the originator of the Matchbox line of accurate scale models, Lesney Products, didn’t start out as a toy company. Two men recently discharged from the British armed forces after service during World War II, Leslie Smith and Rodney Smith (no relation), used their severance pay to start a small die-casting company in the remains of a bombed out pub in Tottenham in 1947. They originally made small parts under contract for industrial purposes. One of their early employees, Jack Odell, used the down time during the Christmas holiday season to make some toys that could be sold as children’s gifts. The first models they made were a tractor and a pavement roller, about 8 inches long, and they sold well enough that the company started making fewer industrial parts and more toys. Rodney Smith didn’t think the toy business was worth pursuing and he sold his shares to Leslie Smith and Odell, who by then had become a partner.

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The company had designed a large, 12-14 inch long horse drawn ceremonial coronation coach and when King George VI died and his daughter Elizabeth was crowned queen, Odell produced copies of the carriage to sell to tourists attending her coronation. They sold out. Spurred by that success, he scaled down the coach to just four inches long, still keeping much of the detail. Lesney ended up selling a million of them, firmly establishing the company as a toy maker.

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Odell and Smith looked to miniaturize other toys when Odell had a flash of inspiration from a rule about toys at his daughter’s elementary school. Pupils were only allowed to bring toys to school that were small enough to fit inside a standard matchbox. Odell scaled down the model road roller that Lesney had designed, cast it in brass, put the finished model in a matchbox and sent his daughter off to school with it. It was a hit with her classmates, particularly the boys. Lesney registered the Matchbox brand as a trademark, launched the new toy line, starting what is now a worldwide industry that produces model cars ranging from $1 impulse items to painstakingly detailed 1:18 models with thousands of parts that cost thousands of dollars. The first official Matchbox models, though, were not cars.

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They were the company’s original road roller, a dump truck and a cement mixer. In short time, though the company started produced model road and race cars. Unlike other model companies, Lesney did not use numerical scales like 1:43 or 1:64. Instead their scale was “1:box”, as the finished products all had to fit in a standard size box.

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The Matchbox line had competitors. Dinky, Cigar Box, Husky and Corgi all made die-cast model cars and trucks but those British firms didn’t really pose a threat to Lesney. That threat would materialize from across the Atlantic Ocean.

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An American toy manufacturer named Elliot Handler was looking for a boys’ toy that would complement the success his company had with the girls’ doll his wife Ruth had named after their daughter Barbara. The doll was a smash hit, giving the Handlers considerable wealth, and they liked to travel. On a vacation to Europe, Elliot bought some Matchbox cars to bring home as souvenir gifts for their grandkids. The children liked the models’ detail but didn’t like how slowly and poorly the little cars rolled. Handler had the idea for his boys’ toy. Patented, low friction wire axles and wheels were developed that had the added benefit of giving the cars a sprung suspension, making them even more realistic. From Husky/Corgi Handler borrowed the idea of using clear plastic blister-packs to package and display the vehicles, instead of hidden in boxes as Matchbox vehicles were. Some were more or less scale models of existing production and show cars but Handler also hired a GM designer with winning show car experience to create some original designs. Handler’s little cars were an even bigger hit than the Matchbox originals. They were so successful, in fact, that the company Handler started eventually bought the Matchbox brand to complement its own after Lesney declared bankruptcy, unable to compete with the American toy giant. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, Elliot is the source of the “el” in Mattel (the Handlers’ original partner, named Matt, had left the firm many years prior), and he named his own line of little cars Hot Wheels, but that’s another story.

I still have a Matchbox Lotus 33 somewhere in a drawer in my mom's house.

I still have a Matchbox Lotus 33 somewhere in a drawer in my mom’s house.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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29 Comments on “The Die It Was Cast – A Little Bit of Little Car History...”


  • avatar
    bullnuke

    Another good one, Ronnie. Keep ‘em coming. Very enjoyable reading. I collected a pretty large set of Hotwheels while working at the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho 40-years ago – they were given away by one of the gas-station chains in Southeast Idaho. You got a car with each 10 gallons, IIRC. Driving about 70 miles a day roundtrip allowed me to collect a lot of the little cars and track sections. My land-lady’s grandkids got my collection when I was transfered back to sea in late ’73.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    Die cast replicas gave hours and hours of fun to my brothers and myself when we were little.

    Although we knew at the time they were metal, they felt different in a strange way from steel things. One of us had the brilliant idea that they were perhaps made of lead, and we could perhaps melt them down in the pan where our mom used to cook things.

    So…we set a pair of them in the gas stove and waited…and waited. The darn things appeared to take longer to melt than the lead soldiers; but by then the kitchen had started to stink badly (The paint?) and shortly thereafter our mom noticed.

    Suffice to say that our allowances were withheld to pay for a new pan.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    In Canada the British connection must have still been fairly strong in the 50′s and 60′s. Much like our preference for British ‘chocolate bars’ rather than American ‘candy bars’, the scale model toy cars that dominated our lives were primarily from Dinky Toys, with the occasional Corgi or Husky. Matchbox cars were available but not as popular as the cars made by Dinky.

  • avatar
    ClutchCarGo

    I had that Lotus as well, part of a set of open wheel F1 style cars. I distinctly remember visiting the local toy store that had a display case of the current Matchbox models, and agonizing over the decision of which one to get with my meager holdings. Dinky/Corgi were bigger and cooler but so expensive, and when Hot Wheels came along they didn’t appeal to me because they weren’t realistic. Matchbox cars hit the sweet spot of authenticity and affordability.

  • avatar

    I still have a handful of matchboxes (including the Rolls you can see on the assembly line in the video), a couple of Dinky toys, and a bunch of Corgis, mostly late ’50s early 60s vintage, including a corgi car carrier I got for xmas 1960.

    I started out with Dinkys, which my mother and I started getting at Miss Cannon’s shop in Harvard Square when I was 4 (Miss Cannon was Arthur Schlesinger Jr’s mother-in-law’s sister). I think the shop closed, and I started getting Corgis at another shop which had them, rather than Dinkys. I didn’t like matchboxes as much, because they were too small in my opinion, but I had some. When I was 14, I put all the cars in a box in the basement, telling myself I’d have them when I was an adult and they would be antiques. And indeed, now they decorate my kitchen.

    I remember being scornful of the tootsie toys, because they just weren’t as well made. But if I hadn’t read this article, I probably never would have thought about tootsie toys for the rest of my life, and I don’t think I’ve thought of them for at least 45 years.

  • avatar

    I love the dump truck and the cement mixer

  • avatar
    RogerB34

    Nice article.
    I had forgotten Tootsie Toys.
    Pretty crude but cheap.
    Ebay has a number for sale.

  • avatar
    NoGoYo

    When I was younger I had a huge collection of various 1/64 scale cars. I usually preferred the Matchbox cars for whatever reason, but I always seemed to have more Hot Wheels.

    Actually re-bought one of the cars I really loved as a kid but lost somewhere along the way, the Matchbox Thunderbird Turbo Coupe in a wild blue and pink color-scheme.

  • avatar
    jhefner

    I had a large collection of Tootsietoy, Matchbox, and Hot Wheels cars when I was young. It was nice that you could slip them in your pocket and take them to school and a friends house to play with; I remember my classmates and I playing with some of mine around the roots of a tree one recess. There was also the wheel shaped Hot Wheels carrying case and the square Matchbox carrying case; and of course all that yellow Hot Wheels track.

    The Tootsietoys I remember most was the “breadbox” Ford GT and the Jaguar roadster. When I got older, my mom convinced me to take my whole collection to two boys that lived near us, and they were gone.

    Now I have boys of my own and even grandkids, I have enjoyed collecting cars with them. I even confess to raiding some of the Fords out of their collection to use in my Ford timeline, though I bought or gave them others to replace them.

    Not too long ago, I was in the back yard playing with the dog when something in the ground caught my eye. I carefully dug it out, it turned out to be a Tootsietoy Roadster No. 4 from the 1950s or 1960s. It was apparently buried just enough that it never got hit and destroyed by a lawn mower all these years. Looking on the web to learn more about it; they are apparently sometimes found by guys with metal detectors.

    I added a 1:87 scale Ford Tempo to my Ford timeline; completing the 1982-2013 timeframe. I am now working backwards to a 1903 Ford Model N. Another maker I run into pretty often who made some nice cars is Johnny Lighting; a quick Google search reveals that their product line goes back to 1969. There are a few of those in my timeline as well.

    Which brings up an interesting point; I think adults are as much into collecting diecast minitures nowdays as kids are. Several of them; including the NASCAR collectibles and Greenlight Collectibles are in fact geared to the adult collector. Nowdays, there is also Miasto; some of them are nice, but they are often made to “3 inch” scale rather than true 1:64 scale. I did decide to include a Miatso 2010 Ford Mustang rather than a Hot Wheels edition because it is a fastback, and well detailed on the exterior.

    You can see pictures of all the above on my Flickr photo stream at:

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/75105572@N08/

    This is a subject matter I have enjoyed going back to my childhood; thank you Ronnie very much.

  • avatar
    Lorenzo

    I remember getting a kit in the early 1960s for a 1930 Packard eight Tourer, made of die cast metal, with chrome add-ons and rubber tires. You had to assemble and paint it yourself – it even had a file to remove the flashing. I tried to find a similar kit for my nephew 20 years later, and found only “antique” unassembled 1960s kits, marked up 1000% (and up). By then all the kits and complete models were injection molded plastic, to be displayed but not played with.

  • avatar
    Blackcloud_9

    Good Lord, you had me at Tootsie Toy! Had a bunch of these and Matchboxes as a kid. If I had been “smart” I would have tried to keep them in pristine condition. They would have been worth a fortune. But what did I know, I was a kid and I actually played with them until they were shadows of their former selves.
    Oh well, I fun with them while they were around.

  • avatar

    My favorite die-cast story was in a Wall Street Journal article about a Hot Wheels convention. The reporter joined the owner of one of the biggest Hot Wheels collections, a big shot in the Hot Wheels community, as he and his young son went through the vendor area. The boy wanted a particular car, it was a “common” so it was just $1, and the father bought it. The first thing the kid did was rip open the blister pack so he could play with it, horrifying all these serious collectors standing around the booth. When they asked the dad how he, a collector, could let his kid destroy the packaging, making the model less than mint in the box, he said, “It’s a toy. Let him play with it.” I have a small collection of die-cast models. Unless they’re some kind of limited edition, press-only swag, when I get a new Hot Wheels or Matchbox car (they have to be cars that I like and have normal, not wild, paint jobs) the first thing I do is open up the blister pack and play with it. Sometimes I’ll give one of the limited edition models to a kid who’s old enough to understand what a collectible is and explain that if he wants to, he can play with it, or he can save it as a collectible.

    • 0 avatar
      jhefner

      I have been throwing the packaging in a box “just in case.” :)

      Am I the only one of the B&B who has a diecast of his car sitting on the dashboard?

      • 0 avatar
        zaxxon25

        I have one of my C30 sitting on my office desk at home … I figure it’s sorta like having a picture of the wife, it reminds me why I’m working!

      • 0 avatar
        NoGoYo

        I would but the only die-cast MN-12 I’ve ever found isn’t even die-cast, it’s a Hot Wheels with a plastic body. I mean, I’d settle for an 89-93, but I’ve never liked plastic-body Hot Wheels.

        • 0 avatar
          jhefner

          Yes, I have that one on my timeline for the MN12 Thunderbird. I’ve had to resort to NASCAR and WRC cars to fill in for some generations; along with the occassional police car and taxi.

          • 0 avatar
            NoGoYo

            I think I have an old McDonalds NASCAR Thunderbird around here somewhere, that has a metal body so I’d rather use that than Hot Wheels’ plastic body Thunderbird.

          • 0 avatar
            jhefner

            NoGoYo, I have one of those McDonalds NASCAR Thunderbirds from my boys collection; the paint was mostly gone from it so I cut the cab from a Hot Wheels Deora II concept car and turned it into a Taurus wagon.

            https://www.flickr.com/photos/75105572@N08/14688778891/

            https://www.flickr.com/photos/75105572@N08/6923192319/

  • avatar
    zaxxon25

    I still have a huge paint bucket full of the Matchbox, Hot Wheels and Corgi ones that I played with as a kid, in far less that mint condition. I used to stage large races around the house and keep a notebook with the results so I could track their performance.

    To this day when I see an interesting one at the grocery store I pick it up … right now in the office I have a ’70 Chevelle SS Wagon and a (’67?) Toyota 2000GT. Never take them out of the package, though.

  • avatar
    the passenger

    I had dozens of Matchbox and Hot Wheels, and a few Tootsietoys. I started getting them in the late ’60s when I was around six. While I was away at college my mother sold all of them at a yard sale, without bothering to ask me if I still wanted them. Some of them are now worth $200 each. Thanks, Mom.

  • avatar
    readallover

    Preferred the Matchbox series. Hot Wheels always seemed to have tires and wheels that tucked under like early VWs`. Still have my baseball cards, too.

  • avatar
    whynotaztec

    As a 70s kid I had plenty matchbox and hot wheels cars. As noted earlier, the matchbox tended to be more realistic so I preferred them to hot wheels. Although hot wheels could produce some very realistic models – see the Oshkosh plow truck for instance. But mine were all heavily played with, the sign of a good product I suppose. I do still have 2 mint dinky toys though, a tank and spaceship of sorts from the British show S.H.A.D.O.

  • avatar
    geozinger

    Hi Ronnie, great post again! When I was a little boy in the mid to late 60′s, a nearly weekly ritual with my dad was to go to the local department store and get whatever we needed for around the house. If I had been well-behaved that week, I would get my pick of a Matchbox car. Being the miniature motorhead that I was, I eventually got a pretty decent collection. Then Hot Wheels became available and shortly after that Johnny Lightnings. All of those were great, they really appealed to the elementary school kid in me.

    Same story as many other guys; I grew up and out of playing with tiny cars and started on real ones. When I was about 14, my mother gave my massive (300 or so) collection to my two nephews, again, without my knowledge.

    Once I got married and had kids (and mortgage and car payments and orthodontia, etc.) I had no way to scratch my motorhead itch; so I introduced my daughters to Hot Wheels. If they had been well-behaved all week before we went our weekly shopping trip to Meijer, they could pick one out. I too, started a new collection and over several years amassed about 1200 cars (both in and out of packaging). During the long winter months here in Michigan we would set up the HW track and I showed the girls how to do eliminations and we would have our own family championship races. It was great fun.

    I was a huge Mustang fan in my younger years, and it became a tradition that someone in our friends and family would always get me a tiny Mustang for Christmas or birthdays. Fast forward 30 years later and we have expanded the tradition to both my girls, too. My older daughter has a thing for VWs & Audis, and my younger one likes vintage Pontiacs. Sometimes when I’m at the grocery store I’ll see one hanging in the checkout lane and pick it up to give it to them, just because…

    BTW, I did not know the story behind the Tootsietoys. I guess you DO learn something new every day…

    • 0 avatar
      jhefner

      Geozinger, both the Hot Wheels and Maisto 2015 Ford Mustangs will be out in the next month or so.

      • 0 avatar

        I’d expect something from Revell soon too. At the Detroit and Chicago auto shows, they had a second story display of 50th anniversary Mustang stuff where kids could assemble some simple snap-fit 1:24 plastic models of the ’15 Mustang, made by Revell. Since they also let the autojournos play with them during the media previews, I managed to snag a couple, one that’s assembled, one still in pieces in the original packaging.

        • 0 avatar
          jhefner

          Ronnie;

          The Revel kit is out, at least in the United States. I have found the following thread to be the most useful for tracking new Mustang miniture releases, they show the Revell kit and the Maisto and Hot Wheels releases. The page below from the thread shows the Revell kit and the Hot Wheels preproduction pictures:

          http://forums.themustangsource.com/f638/official-lookout-thread-477130/index33/

  • avatar

    I think that one of the worst “my mom sold my stuff at a garage sale” story happened to my best friends, twin brothers. A family friend of theirs was the official photographer for the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings. He managed to get my friends one of Al Kaline’s Louisville Slugger bats and one of Gordie Howe’s Northland hockey sticks. They weren’t game-played but they were the real deal, not souvenirs or replicas. I think the Howe stick may even have been autographed. When my friends went away to college, their mom threw them out. My mom’s a bit of a hoarder, so like I said in a caption, somewhere in her house are some Matchbox cars from my youth.

  • avatar
    3Deuce27

    Another great post, Ronnie.

    I have been collecting metal cars of all scales since about kindergarten, it numbers in the thousands now, and I have yet too figure away to display them, so they are mostly in big plastic storage boxes.

    Some of the Hot Wheels are still in their original shipping boxes, I picked those up at a service station back in the early 80′s that had full boxes from the late 60′s and early 70′s, never opened those boxes which have quite a few packages of Hot Wheels per box.

    I have also made a serious investment over the years in exquisite scale metal models made in Europe, US, and Japan, mostly the thirties classics and Grand Prix, Formula, and race cars, engines, and airplanes.

    Those Tootsie cast iron cars can be quite a weapon when launched by a disgruntled child at another.

    Thanks for the post.


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