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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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