BARNET, England – John William “Jack” Odell, creator of Matchbox Toys, died July 7 at a nursing home here after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 87.
Odell was born March 19, 1920, in London. After leaving school at the age of 13, he held various jobs before joining the 8th Army “Desert Rats” during WWII, then serving in Italy maintaining military vehicles. After the war, Odell joined a small die-casting company called Lesney Products.
In 1952, Odell’s daughter, Ann, who had a habit of taking spiders to school in a matchbox, asked her father to give her something different (and less scary to friends and teachers) to take to class. So Odell fashioned a tiny model of a road roller, crafted in brass and painted red and green, which fit inside the box.
Odell realized that making toys could be lucrative, so he and his partner, Leslie Smith, designed a line of die-cast metal playthings, ranging from a horse-drawn milk cart to a pocket-sized press that could turn bread into fishing bait.
In 1953, Smith and Odell launched a range of detailed toy vehicles, sold in tiny cardboard matchbox-sized containers. In 1954, and at No. 19 in the series, came a dainty MG TD, the first Matchbox car.
The company went public in 1961, turning out a million toy vehicles a day. By 1969, a year after Odell received the Order of the British Empire, Lesney had more than a dozen London factories employing 6,000 people.
Odell retired in 1973, but was persuaded back as joint-chairman in 1980. Lesney Products was declared insolvent in June 1982, renamed Matchbox Toys Ltd. and sold to Hong Kong’s Universal Toys.
Odell launched Lledo – his name spelled backwards – in 1983 with a range of die-cast models called “Days Gone,” aimed at the collector market. He sold the firm in 1996.
Odell is survived by his wife, two daughters and three stepdaughters.