With remote control cars and simulated racing games clogging toy stores, it's hard to remember that, once upon a time, humble little die-cast cars represented the ultimate gift for any burgeoning car freak. Then, Matchbox's tiny little 1/78-scale automobiles were the absolute alpha and omega of child car culture. When I was five or six, it seemed like every little boy had his collection of 10 or 20 (or 70 or 80) of the tiny cars, and there was no finer thrill than racing them down our driveways and across our kitchen tables.
Created by engineer Jack Odell, the first matchbox car was intended to keep his daughter out of trouble. A mischievous child, Anne Odell liked to smuggle spiders to school in little matchboxes. In search of a suitable alternative, Odell created a tiny little steamroller that could fit into a matchbox. When the children at school saw the toy, they were instantly captivated, and the orders began rolling in. By 1953, a year later, Odell and a few friends had built a factory and were producing a small collection of miniature cars. That same year, their model of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation coach captured the public's interest and their business took off.
Although Odell's company, Lesney, coined the name "matchbox cars," the term came to be generically applied to any super-small die-cast car. In America, Mattel's Hot Wheels line quickly became the market leader. Although less accurate than Matchbox, Hot Wheels cars had wider, lower-friction wheels and could be raced. By 1970, however, Matchbox had retaliated with a line of cars that retained their trademark accuracy, but also had lower-friction wide wheels.
This is where I came in. As a kid, I obsessed over Matchbox cars, collecting them with a fervor that, even now, I consider disturbing. In fact, when my little sister came along in 1974, my parents took to hiding matchbox cars in her bassinette, blankets, clothes, and diaper in an attempt to establish some measure of brotherly affection. While the affection didn't develop, I was happy to fake it in return for the cars.
Over the ensuing years, Matchbox and Hot Wheels continued to duke it out, releasing ever-more-elaborate products, including racing cars, cars with "crash damage" and various "fantasy" vehicles. In many cases, the cars were designed to run on specialized tracks, halving the distance between matchbox cars and model railroads. Today, Mattel (which now owns both lines) offers an almost dizzying line of cars, ranging from "superfast" models that are built for speed to "treasure hunts," which are designed to be instantly collectible. Numerous fans continue to meet on websites to share tips and show off their collections. In other words, while Matchbox cars no longer have a corner on the toy car market, they seem as healthy as ever!
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