The Matchbox name started in 1953 as a brand name of the now-defunct British Lesney toy company, founded in 1947 as a industrial die caster company. Lesney had been started by Les lie Smith ( March 6, 1918 - May 26, 2005 ) and Rod ney Smith. The two men were not related, they had been school friends and served together in the Royal Navy during World War II.
Shortly after they founded the company, Rodney Smith indroduced to his partner a man named John "Jack" Odell, an engineer he met in his old job at D.C.M.T. (a diecasting company). Initially renting a space in the building from Lesley to do his own diecasting products, he eventually joined the company as a partner in that same year.
In late 47' they received a request for parts to a toy gun. As that proved to be a viable alternative in the low periods of industrial business, they started to make diecast models (a clone of a Dinky Toys road roller ) in the next year. Howewer, seeing no future for the company, Rodney Smith left the company in 1951.
In 1953, with the crowning of Queen Elizabeth II, a great shift was coming for Lesney. They produced a replica of the Royal State Coach, wich sold over a million units. The great shift, however, was to be a toy that Mr. Odell designed, surprisingly, for his daughter: her school only allowed children to bring toys that could fit inside a matchbox, so Mr. Odell crafted a scaled down version of a Lesney green and red road roller, thus becoming the first of the 1-75 miniature range.
The first miniature cars came later in that decade, first with an MG Midget TD, and later which a Vauxhall Cresta and a Ford Zodiac. To make such miniatures, the designers took detailed photographs of the real models, even obtaining some original blueprints.
Lesney Toys went bankrupt on June 11, 1982, and went into receivership. The Matchbox brand name was then sold to Universal Toys, although some of the Matchbox tooling became property of Lesney co-founder Jack Odell, who continued to market Matchbox-like products under the Lledo brand name. Although no longer British-owned, matchboxes still felt British, with limited production in England continuing until the mid-1980's, and the re-using of many old Lesney castings. Matchbox expanded beyond die cast cars into other markets, with mixed success, and by 1992, Universal was also seeking a buyer. In May 1992, Universal sold the brand to Tyco Toys, whose toy division in turn was bought out by Mattel in 1996, uniting Matchbox with its longtime rival Hot Wheels under the same corporate banner. In 2002, Matchbox Sky Busters made a comeback, but with Continental Airlines as the only major airline to sponsor the product. Matchbox also came out in '02 with a line of cars to celebrate its 50th anniversary. And in 2004 appeared the horrid series of fantasy "Heroic" vehicles called "Ultra Heroes" as part of the "Hero City" theme. The sales dropped and the project ended. The next year, Matchbox, with a new team in charge, based in El Segundo, California, started the return to Matchbox roots of real vehicles with good detailing and sensible colours. And that spirit will be kept and improved in the future, with, for example, the return of the old and beloved Matchbox logo from before 2001, now without the classic quotation marks.
Matchbox decided that models would only ever be numbered up to 75, and when a new model appeared, one of the existing models would be discontinued. Thus the display stands only had to accommodate 75 models.
Matchbox cars are made in two sizes. The smaller versions are approximately 1:64 scale and measure about 2.5 inches, or 6.5 centimeters, in length, and are the form most often seen in toy stores. However, Matchbox has also manufactured cars in 1:43 scale, called "Major" or " Super Kings " (which measure about 3.5 inches, or 9 centimeters, in length). This was the same size as Corgi or Dinky. Matchbox's designers favored this larger size because it permitted more detail. The 1:43 cars are still made, but are primarily marketed as collectibles, rather than as toys.
Although Matchbox is best known for its die-cast cars, during the 1970s it bought the AMT corporation, the dominant American plastic model kit manufacturer and set up its own plastic kit division in the UK. Concentrating on 1/72 scale military aircraft and vehicles, it competed with the then-dominant Airfix company. the matchbox kits had a distinct appearance, the parts in each kit were produced in two or more colours compared to the single colour plastic of Airfix. The boxes were also more colourful and included clear panels so the contents could be seen. Matchbox also continued AMT's extensive line of 1/25 scale cars. Within a decade, the hobby was declining and Lesney sold AMT to Ertl Company and shut down its own kit division. The Matchbox kits were well made, with modern tooling and techniques, but critics felt that the kits were too coarsely detailed in comparison with other models on the market, and too "toy-like". Yet they were still just as complex and time consuming to construct as any other kit, which limited their appeal to more casual model builders. Unable to fully satisfy either market, Matchbox was one of the first companies to abandon model kits once the hobby started its decline.
While the Matchbox-branded kits were not a success, the same was not true of the AMT line. By the 1970s AMT had 20 years' experience tooling car kits, and the only difference European ownership made was a somewhat broader selection of subject matter than had been seen from them before or since.
During this time, Matchbox also tried its hand in the die cast airplanes area, under the name Matchbox Sky Busters . Sky Busters produced plane models for such airlines as Aeroméxico, Air France, British Airways, Iberia, Lufthansa and Saudi Arabian Airlines and the Ring Raiders.