The famous Matchbox brand was created by Lesney Products in the years after WW2. So the story goes, the idea was hatched when the daughter of one of the owners wanted a toy to take to school. The problem was that only toys small enough to fit into a matchbox were allowed!
Whatever the truth of this, there was solid commercial sense in making a range of affordable diminutive diecast vehicles. Dinky had by then a dominant presence in the market for larger models. However, these were relatively expensive, so the new ‘Matchbox Series’ launched in 1953 quickly became popular.
The models were of all types of vehicle, including personal, commercial and public transport, racing cars, and those serving the military and emergency services. They were packaged in cardboard boxes reminiscent of matchboxes. The range quickly grew to 75 items, and thereafter was capped at that number. Hence, it is sometimes called the Matchbox 1-75 range, a moniker that I will adopt for this website. However, it’s important to bear in mind that although the size of the range was limited as described, the actual models comprising it were regularly upgraded or replaced, so over time there were hundreds of models in the range.
In 1969, new low-friction Superfast wheels were adopted to compete with the new Hot Wheels range from Mattel which had wowed the US market, and a shift to larger models with brighter designs gathered pace. Collectors normally consider this change a watershed, and my focus in these stories will be on the pre-Superfast (“regular wheels”) models from the 1950s and 1960s, of which there are more than 400. Nevertheless, the subsequent history of the range is long, and indeed the Matchbox range, now owned by Mattel, continues to this day.
Let’s use the model of the M3 Personnel Carrier, a military half-track, as our entry point to the range.
The M3 was an American vehicle, conceived of as a battlefield transport. It could carry an infantry squad and was armoured on the sides sufficiently to provide some protection against shrapnel and small arms fire, though open at the top; it was half-tracked which gave it good cross-country performance at the expense of some mechanical complexity; it could mount machine guns to provide fire support or air defence; and various specialised versions were created for more specific roles. In these basic details it was analogous to the German SdKfz 251.
The vehicle could carry a driver and 2 passengers in the cab, and a further 10 in the back, and could travel at a maximum speed of 45mph on roads.
The M3 was produced in huge numbers, some 53,000 of all variants, and saw widespread service during WW2 from 1941. Many examples were used by the British Army (hence its inclusion in the Matchbox range) as well as the Soviets via Lend-Lease, and it went on to see action during the Arab-Israeli wars, being gradually phased out in favour of fully enclosed vehicles giving greater protection to the occupants.
Matchbox 49 M3 Personnel Carrier
Year first produced:1958
L61 x W25 x H20, Metal 30g, Scale 1:90, Features: 1
You can see that the model is small, measuring only 6cm in length. So, what does this simple model consist of? The bulk of it is a single diecast metal casting, into which a second metal part – possibly a bent plate metal rather than a casting – is fitted to provide the floor and interior of the cab. This latter is fitted into the main casting via a tab that is inserted into the passenger compartment, and secured by the front axle together with a slight pinching of the sides of the main casting over the floor.
The running gear consists at the front of a pair of grey wheels on a metal axle, and at the rear two more axles each with a pair of grey metal rollers. The running gear between the rollers is modelled as part of the main casting. Green rubber tracks are fitted onto the rollers. The front wheels and the rollers rotate freely, and the vehicle can be pushed forward on its tracks.
Under the model can be found the following markings:
“No 49”, “M3 PERSONNEL CARRIER” and “MADE IN ENGLAND BY LESNEY”.
The paint scheme is green overall, and there is a white star decal (used as an air recognition symbol for the Allies during WW2) on the bonnet.
The sides of the hull have some good detail, and the engine louvres are shown at the front. However, the back of the vehicle is bare (except, sadly, for a prominent mould line), as is the interior, except for lines in the passenger compartment perhaps suggesting a planked wooden base – which would be inaccurate.
When it comes to concerns of accuracy, the obvious shortcoming is the typical sort of compromise that toys makers make when strict accuracy would pose an awkward manufacturing challenge. For example, the rollers are large and touch the ground (through the tracks), which is a simple and robust arrangement. On the historical M3, by contrast, the drive wheel and rear idler were smaller and raised off the ground, giving a different shape to the tracks – see the earlier photo.
Other issues are primarily about a lack of detail rather than errors. The vehicle lacks both the prominent front bumper and winch that adorned the M3, and the machine gun position typically installed in the front of the rear compartment. These were optional, so it isn’t strictly wrong not to have them. A more serious omission, however, is that there is no passenger seating in the rear, and that the armour plating usually fitted over the cab windows (which could be raised to a horizontal position when not in use, or lowered into place as circumstances required) is missing. It may seem churlish to worry about these simplifications in what is a very small toy, and it is representative of the level of detail that you get with the early Matchbox models, but the net effect of these omissions is to make the model seem unnaturally ‘naked’ and a bit too boxy in shape.
A final thing to note is that the Matchbox models were not just small, but more specifically they were made to fit the standard ‘matchbox’ packaging. The effect of this is that the scale of each model varies depending on how much it needed to be reduced to the dimensions of the box. In the catalogue image shown above, the brief statistics for each model include some figures that appear to indicate the scale. For the M3, it reads “60-1”, indicating a scale of 1:60 – which happens to be the scale adopted by Dinky for the bulk of their military series. This is also the scale often quoted by ebay sellers, presumably on the authority of the catalogues.
However, although generally the scales given in the catalogue appear plausible, this certainly isn’t the case for the M3 model. It is far too small to be 1:60, and in fact I estimate that it is roughly 1:90. Perhaps the 6 got turned through 180 degrees? In any case, it’s a warning that you have to be careful and not trust what you read!
In the same year that the M3 was released, Matchbox also released a model of the British Army’s first enclosed personnel carrier, no. 54 Saracen Personnel Carrier. This remained in the range until 1965.
During the 1970s, Matchbox released a new selection of largely imaginary military vehicles. One of these was the no.54 Personnel Carrier, another open-topped vehicle.
2 thoughts on “Matchbox 1-75 – Introduction”
Your posts are so well done, textually and visually!
Hi Stuart, Thanks very much, it’s nice to be appreciated and I’m glad you enjoy them.
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