We’re car people, right? So it makes sense that when we were kids, while all of our peers were playing with Lego (which is excellent, but that’s by the by) and Star Wars merchandise (pah!), we were instead laying out huge traffic jams of toy cars on the living room carpet. Here are our favourite brands from our youth.
Gotta start with the obvious. Began as a British company and ultimately ended up in the ownership of Mattel, the company which – for decades – made the main transatlantic rival line in the form of Hot Wheels. Most of Matchbox’s favoured models were at the (roughly) 1:64 scale, hence why they were called ‘Matchbox’ cars as early packaging for the 1950s models actually looked like contemporary matchboxes of the time; however, later, larger 1:43 vehicles went under the Super Kings label. Weird variations on the theme included Colour Changers, which changed colour if you ran them under hot or cold water, and Graffic Traffic, a series of white-bodied models of the existing liveried range that came with a set of pens, so you could colour them in as you saw fit. Basically, though, if you had toy cars as a kid, there’s a good chance the vast majority of them were Matchbox models.
Funny one, Corgi, because Matchbox always seemed to be the market leader in terms of both sales and also the varied range of its products, and yet if you are looking for examples of toys from your youth on eBay now, it’ll be early Corgi vehicles in pristine presentation boxes that garner the serious money. Another British product with metal bodies, we always preferred Matchbox’s 1:64 range to Corgi’s equivalents, mainly because the Matchbox cars had a form of ‘suspension’ that meant their wheels could squish up into the body, whereas Corgi’s cars were fixed axles. Still, did some wonderful stuff over the years, if with a rather UK-centric product line – although we remember a 1:43 scale, dark blue E34 BMW 535i Sport from Corgi we had when we were younger that was the absolute best thing we’d ever seen at that age. Fact.
If you want expensive eBay finds revolving around toy cars, you want a Dinky model. This brand, an offshoot of construction toy Meccano and based in Liverpool, predated all of Matchbox, Corgi and Dinky as it arrived in 1934, which is presumably why well-kept examples of Dinky’s 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s stuff costs a fortune online. The arrival of both Matchbox and, to a greater degree, Corgi and their more detailed models saw Dinky try new things in the mid-1950s, like working suspension, jewelled headlights, detailed interiors and the ability to steer the cars using finger-tip pressure on each side of the roof, but ultimately the arrival of Hot Wheels in the late 1960s precipitated a decline for Dinky and by the late 1970s, the brand was gone. Still doesn’t stop these toys having a huge and avid fanbase in this day and age, though.
An odd one that always seemed exotic to us as kids, mainly because – as it was a French company which started up in the 1960s – it was typically patriotic in its Gallic way and so most of its models were of unusual French models that you wouldn’t get anywhere else. We fondly remember Majorette’s 1:64 Renault 25 model, for instance, but there was a whole host of other brilliance from this Lyon-based company. Still going today, albeit manufactured in Thailand, Majorette’s models weren’t always the best-quality or most highly detailed, but they always had oodles of left-field appeal. A bit like a lot of the French full-sized car industry, if we’re honest.
If Majorette reflected the French car industry, Siku’s toys were emblematic of Teutonic stolidity. Always made of really heavy metal and with loads of related mechanical stats printed on the bottom of each of the car’s chassis (all in wonderful German measurements like ‘zyl’, ‘ccm’ and ‘PS’), German cars were the forte of Siku – Mercedes 300 TE Kombi, anyone? Or Opel Senator saloon? Glorious! – and the mainstay was the 1:55 scale Super Series, which meant that Siku’s cars were always that bit bigger than Matchbox, Corgi and Hot Wheels comparables and so you were sort of subliminally brainwashed or conditioned at a young age to think that German stuff was stronger, larger and better than everything else. Siku also ventured into larger scales, including some beautiful lorries and trucks that we coveted as children (and we’ve still got some up the loft, thank you), and also a superbly detailed 1:32 range of farm machinery, but it was those weighty toy 1:55 cars from Germany that we adored the most. Siku continues today but the models have lost some of that sheen of solidity in later years – and they’re still expensive compared to rival mainstream toys. So German, eh?
This is arguably the most successful toy-car line in history. Where this Mattel series won over the masses so early and so quickly is that its creator, Elliot Handler, realised that kids who loved toy cars might not want achingly realistic detailing or perfect machined quality in their models. They might, instead, want brightly painted bodies, hot-rod looks, outlandish designs not based on real-world machines at all… and, most importantly of all, a selling price that was super-budget. ‘Real’ cars were cast too, of course, but more genius from Hot Wheels was that the bearings and the design of the ‘tyres’ (wide, hard plastic) made them roll with much lower friction than contemporary Matchbox, Corgi and Dinky cars. Cue the fabled orange-plastic Hot Wheels track system and complete disruption of the toy car industry. Launching relatively late in the 1960s, Hot Wheels today is easily the biggest brand of them all. And, better for us kids trapped in adult bodies, a large proportion of Hot Wheels’ stuff these days is indeed based on real cars, modelled with superb accuracy – like the Subaru Impreza 22B that the company does, for instance, which is just sublime. There’s a huge collectors’ fanbase for Hot Wheels and they are mainly adults – people who played with these brightly coloured, go-faster toy cars in their youth and who have evolved into grown-up devotees in the 21st century. Count us among their number.
With a confusing name (the double-capital-B is correct) and an even more confusing logo, which didn’t exactly ‘sell’ the whole double-B thing, BBurago nevertheless is a name held in much affection. This Italian company didn’t target the Matchbox-size consumer, but instead offered larger 1:24 and 1:18 scale models, often supremely detailed outside, inside and underneath the bonnet, of all manner of European, American and Japanese icons of the full-sized production car world. BBurago was also particularly good at doing rally cars, like the Renault 5 Turbo 2 and the Peugeot 205 T16 (as well as a fabulous 1:24 Dakar-spec 405 T16 in full, bright-yellow Camel colours), but one of our favourite models as kids was a glorious Rolls-Royce Camargue in dark red, with proper R-R centre caps in the silver flat-dish wheels. BBurago also did a range of less detailed, slightly more affordable 1:43 cars that were equally good, usually finished in motorsport colours and featuring weird plastic wheels that could be easily popped off and back onto the simple mounting spurs of the chassis – so you could pretend you were doing a tyre change in the pits with them. Oh? Was that just us, then…?
Maisto is now the dominant force in 1:18 scale models and has been since the turn of the millennium, but it was a latecomer to the scene – originating in the Far East in the 1990s and eventually migrating into European markets, where it went head-to-head with BBurago and Polistil. Today, Maisto’s stuff is brilliantly detailed and covers all manner of real-world automotive scenes, although we must confess, we’d already become grown-ups by the time Maisto was rising to prominence.
Polistil was like the weird alternative to BBurago, making some truly bizarre and wonderful stuff in 1:18 scale – it made an Opel Diplomat V8! – and it suffered at the hands of Maisto more than its Italian rivals at BBurago. Polistil disappeared from the shelves in 1993 but we bet you’ve got one or two examples of the brand’s model cars stuffed away somewhere, right? Like the Porsche 904 it used to make. Fabulous.
Bit of a cheat, this one, as Tamiya is most well-known for its radio-controlled cars – not small, push-around toys. Nevertheless, if your childhood didn’t include dreams of one day owning the Lunchbox 1:18 scale RC monster truck or the Grasshopper Baja-type buggy, then you weren’t a real toy-car fan. If anything, after years of bashing around Matchbox, Corgi, Dinky and Hot Wheels cars on the floors of your home, the natural progression as you got older was to step it up to a Tamiya. And, like all good hobbies that got a hold of you as kids, you still want a Tamiya now, don’t you? Admit it. Ooh, look – they still sell the Midnight Pumpkin. Excuse us a second, we just need to find the credit card and pray it’s not maxed out…