Diecast model cars merge our love of the automobile with the childhood pleasure of playing with toys. Their palm-of-the-hand size, attention to detail, and relative scarcity make them a fine collectible, too.
Dowst Brothers of Chicago is generally credited with producing the first diecast cars, which began not as toys but as cuff links, charms, and other decorative personal objects. Dowst was already in the diecast business in the early 20th century, making, among other things, some of the tokens used on board games such as Monopoly.
By 1915, Dowst offered its first diecast toy car, a Ford Model T tourer. A year later, the company added a Ford pickup truck to its tiny fleet, and by 1922 the company was selling a variety of diecast vehicles under the TootsieToy brand...
The Depression years were good for diecast model cars, perhaps because people could not afford the real thing. TootsieToy expanded into Mack trucks and Yellow cabs, all the while improving details and quality. For example, its cars’ metal wheels were upgraded to white rubber in 1935, and then to solid black rubber in 1941.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Solido was making diecast cars for French children and Marklin dominated the German market. In pre-World War II England, Meccano’s Dinky Toys reigned. Today its colorful delivery vans and trio of '38 series' sports cars from that era are highly collectible.
Besides their age, one of the main reasons pre-war diecasts are so prized is because they were not especially well-made. They used a zinc alloy which was susceptible to metal fatigue. Children wore the toys out quickly, so few have survived.
World War II put the diecast business on hold as metals of all sorts were funneled into the war effort. Post war, Dinky continued to flourish but two new companies kept things competitive. Lesney launched its Matchbox brand in the late 1940s, and made a name for itself with several versions of a Coronation Coach to mark the accession to the throne of Queen Elizabeth II. Corgi entered the fray in 1956, introducing clear windows and aluminum hubs on its cars.
By the end of the 1950s, it was standard practice to package a diecast car in its own cardboard box, the condition of which can affect the value of a car for today’s collector. The 1960s brought clear plastic panels to the boxes, allowing customers to see the car inside without opening the box.
Mattel elevated this practice to a science with its Hot Wheels toys, the first of which appeared in 1968. Hot Wheels differed from other diecast cars in a number of important respects. First, their 1:64 scale was smaller than the 1:43 of most Dinky and Corgis, but a bit larger than the 1:75 favored by Matchbox.
Second, Hot Wheels cars featured wire axles that added to their play value, which makes finding a mint version of any of its first “Sweet Sixteen” models a challenge. Finally, being U.S.-based, Hot Wheels was able to tap into American car culture in a way that the British companies could not.
Of its first 16 models, most Hot Wheels were classic muscle cars (Barracudas, Corvettes, Cougars, etc.) and the rest were race and show cars, including a model designed by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth called the Beatnik Bandit. Corgi was selling Ramblers and Dinky was peddling Morris Minis. American boys yawned.
As the 1970s progressed, Hot Wheels left competitors such as Johnny Lightning and others in the dust. It signed licensing deals with NASCAR and Formula One teams, produced larger 1:43 models for adult collectors and had so much demand for its freewheeling products that it had to turn to Hong Kong for manufacturing help.
Key terms for Vintage Diecast Model Cars:
Diecasting: The process by which molten metal such as zinc, aluminum or tin is forced under pressure into a mold. Diecasting can produce fine details inexpensively, which is why it is the choice of many toy manufacturers.
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