What makes today’s die-cast toy cars so appealing? Is it the bright colors? Is it the wheels? Or is it the fine details in the interior and exterior?
Whatever the reason, toy cars have captured the imagination of kids everywhere since the beginning of toy car production, which began not long after the first automobiles hit the market.
While the toy cars of the early 20th century were an inspiration to little kids who dreamed of driving a vehicle of their own someday, these miniature replicas (putting the term loosely) were bulky with not a lot of great wheel movement. In addition, impurities in the alloy were common for the early die-cast cars, resulting in the distortion or cracking in the casting.
Following World War II, however, improvements were made in the design and quality of die-cast cars. And by the end of the ’50s, a toymaker on the other side of the Atlantic would make a name for itself with design innovations undreamed of at the turn of the century.
German immigrant Philipp Ullmann founded Mettoy Co. Ltd. in Northampton, England, in 1933. Mettoy was soon a major player in producing a wide variety of tin lithographed toys like vehicles, airplanes, and trains. By the ’50s, however, the toy market was slowly moving away from stamped tin toys and more toward detailed die-cast toys.
In 1956, Mettoy created Corgi Toys, named after a breed of small herding dog native to Wales, where Corgi Toys were produced. The new toys debuted on the British market with a huge bang, thanks to an aggressive advertising campaign that introduced a complete range of die-cast vehicles (Austin Cambridge, Austin Healey 100, Ford Consul, Hillman Husky, Morris Cowley, Riley Pathfinder, Rover 90, Triumph TR2, and Vauxhall Velox) that featured … windows.
Introduction of windows was a brand new innovation at the time, and it generated great demand among young boys. Corgi Toys soon adopted the slogan “The Ones with Windows.”
“From the beginning, Corgi knew that if they wanted a foothold in the die-cast marketplace, they would need to produce a better and more unique model for the money than their competitors could offer,” said Dr. Douglas Sadecky, Corgi Toys expert and collector. “They were always on the cutting edge and were not afraid to take big gambles that usually paid off for them,” he added.
One of the big gambles that paid off for fledgling Corgi Toys was going head-to-head with Dinky, who arguably was the die-cast toys market at the time. Thanks to innovative features like windows and more fine details in the wheels, paint, interior, and exterior, Corgi Toys stayed ahead of Dinky, who was slow to respond to the challenge by not producing its first toy cars with windows until 1958.
Despite enormous sales growth realized by Corgi Toys, Mettoy knew that winning the competition with Dinky in the British market alone was not going to be enough to maintain a stronghold on the general die-cast toys market. In order to compete and continue to grow revenue, Corgi Toys would need to expand to the European and American markets by producing not only British cars, but also European and American cars.
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In December 1957, Corgi Toys introduced its first European car, the 210-A Citroen DS19. In February 1958, Corgi Toys released its first American car, the 211-A Studebaker Golden Hawk. Soon a wide variety of non-British cars were released, and in the U.S., Reeves International was selected as the exclusive importer of Corgi Toys.
The innovations continued in the ’60s with features like spring suspension with a vacuum formed interior, which hid the workings of the suspension. Though not new or radical by any means, opening parts on die-cast toys first appeared on Corgi Toys with the release of the 218-A Aston Martin DB4 in March 1960.
Other unique features on some cars included Trans-o-Lite (light transmitted through plastic tubes from a collection point on the body), steering front wheels (wheels could be steered by pushing down on the front part of the car), jeweled headlights and taillights, and a working windshield wiper system—possibly the most unique feature of them all. “They (Corgi Toys) were first with so many unique gimmicks and high detail that they were so irresistible for kids and adult die-cast collectors alike,” said Dr. Douglas Sadecky.
Corgi Toys hit it big in the mid-’60s with the release of character vehicles, the first of which was the 258-A Saint’s Volvo P-1800. Other enormously popular character vehicles followed like the Batmobile and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
But it was the release of the 261-A James Bond Aston Martin DB5 in October 1965 that made Corgi Toys a household name worldwide. Today, the Aston Martin DB5 remains the highest selling toy car in history.
Justin Moen is a collector of 1:18-scale die-cast cars, 1:16-scale die-cast farm tractors, and Hot Wheels. He has edited more than 25 titles for Krause Publications. He may be reached at Justin.Moen@fwmedia.com.
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