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History and Understanding the Term:

Diecast as it relates to the diecast toy model car industry


Some History on the term diecast

Diecast (or die cast, or die-cast) toys were first produced early in the 20th century by manufacturers such as Meccano (Dinky Toys) in the United Kingdom and Dowst Brothers (Tootsietoys) in the United States. The first models on the market were basic, consisting of a small car or van body with no interior. In the early days it was common for impurities in the Zamak alloy to result in metal fatigue; the casting would crack or decompose for no apparent reason. As a result, diecast toys made before World War II are difficult to find in good condition.

Lesney began making diecast toys in 1947. Their popular Matchbox 1-75 series was so named because there were always 75 different vehicles in the line, each packaged in a small box designed to look like those used for matches. These toys became so popular that "Matchbox" was widely used as a generic term for any diecast toy car, regardless of who the actual manufacturer was.

The popularity of diecast toys as collectibles developed in the 1950s, as their detail and quality increased. Consequently, more companies entered the field, including the Corgi brand, produced by Mettoy, which appeared in 1956 and pioneered the use of interiors and clear plastic windows in their models.

In 1968, Hot Wheels were introduced in the United States by Mattel, to address the complaint that they had no line of toys for boys to balance their line of Barbie dolls for girls. Hot Wheels quickly gained an important niche in the diecast toy market, becoming one of the world's top sellers and challenging the Matchbox 1-75 series in popularity.

During the 1960s various companies began to use diecast vehicles as promotional items for advertising. The idea that children can play a large part in a family's decision as to what products to buy came into wide circulation. In addition, by the 1980s it was apparent that many diecast vehicles were being purchased by adults as collectibles, not as toys for children. Companies such as McDonald's, Sears Roebuck, Kodak, and Texaco commissioned toymakers to produce promotional models featuring their names and logos, or licensed their use. One early example was an American Airlines London bus produced by Matchbox, an idea other some airlines quickly copied.

Beginning in the mid '70s trucks and other commercial vehicles took a lion's share of the diecast market. Matchbox started the trend when they re-launched their Models of Yesteryear range. They made a score of different versions of their Y-12 Ford Model T van, along with other trucks in colorful liveries such as Coca-Cola, Colman's Mustard, and Cerebos Salt. They also made promotional versions for Smith's Crisps (potato chips) and Harrod's department store. Some models were made exclusively for certain markets and immediately became quite expensive elsewhere: Arnott's Biscuits (Australia) and Sunlight Seife (soap, Germany) are examples.

Corgi copied this idea when they expanded the Corgi Classics line in the mid-'80s, producing more than 50 versions of a 1920s era Thornycroft van. Some collectors disparaged this development as "collecting paint," as the castings were identical; only the decorations were different. Other collectors created what they called the "10-Foot Rule" when the collecting of minor variations of the same vehicle got out of hand. The idea was that, if you couldn't differentiate between two versions of a model from 10 feet away, it wasn't worthwhile to collect both of them.

Despite their popularity, many diecast manufacturers went belly-up in the 1980s. Meccano (Dinky), Matchbox, and Corgi all went bankrupt within a three-year span, which essentially reflected the economic climate in the UK at that time. It had become virtually impossible to manufacture in England and compete on the world market. (Mattel had also long since shifted most of their production from the USA to the far east.) Matchbox was purchased by a Hong Kong conglomerate named Universal Holdings, which moved production from England to Macau. Later (1997), Mattel bought Matchbox, essentially making Hot Wheels and the Matchbox 1-75 line sister brands. The two brands continue to sell under their own separate names.

Meanwhile, Corgi had been acquired by Mattel, which moved the office from Swansea, Wales to Leicester, England, and moved manufacturing to China. Matchbox also bought the Dinky Toys name, long after the Liverpool factory was closed. Manufacturing resumed in China. In a series of subsequent shifts, a group of Corgi executives bought back the Corgi Classics line from Mattel, and portions of the Matchbox line were sold to an Australian company named Tyco (no relation to the Tyco line of HO scale trains, originally made by Mantua Metalworking in New Jersey, USA).

Effectively from the ashes of Matchbox's bankruptcy arose Lledo, a company created by former Matchbox partner Jack Odell. Odell believed that British collectibles for British collectors could still be profitably produced in England. Lledo took over part of the Matchbox factory in Enfield, Essex and introduced their "Models of Days Gone" line of diecast vehicles in 1983. The first series of Days Gone models included re-makes of some of the most popular and respected first and second-generation Matchbox Models of Yesteryear. Lledo models were very popular collectibles in the '80s, leading to a period of diversification (incl. the Vanguards line of classic post-war British vehicles), but by the '90s they were eclipsed by other brands, and by 2002 Lledo went broke. Parts of their line were purchased by Corgi, which moved production to China.

In addition to trucks, Corgi produced hundreds of versions of their 1/64 scale Routemaster bus in the '80s and '90s. Like other collecting and promotional model trends, it started as a trickle and soon became a flood. Many versions were made to be sold exclusively in the stores whose advertising appeared on the buses. Harrods, Selfridges, Gamley's, Hamley's, Army & Navy, Underwood's, and Beatties were among the British stores employing this idea. A South African chain called Dion was one of the few overseas firms to follow suit.

Then 1/76 scale buses became very popular in Britain in the late '80s and early '90s, with competing lines from Corgi (the Original Omnibus Company) and Gilbow Holdings (Exclusive First Editions, or EFE) fighting for the market. The 1/76 scale fits in with British 'OO' scale model trains.

By the 1990s NASCAR enjoyed increasing popularity and a large number of racing-related diecast cars and trucks, painted in the colors of the different racing teams, appeared from various manufacturers. Racing Champions was a leading brand of such models, but there were many others.

In addition to cars, trucks, buses, agricultual implements, and construction equipment, diecast aircraft and military models were popular. While Dinky had made such models decades earlier, new companies entered the field in the '80s and '90s. One producer was Dyna Flites, which went bankrupt in the 1990s, but their market share was quickly taken up by their competitors, including Schabak, Gemini Jets, Herpa, and Dragon Wings.

Model Scales
1:18 scale - large models often targeted at adults
1:24 scale - very common size sold in toy stores - similar to G scale model trains, which are 1:22.5 scale
1:43 scale - made popular by Dinky and Corgi, popular with collectors - similar to O scale model trains
1:48 scale - aircraft sold in this scale to match plastic model kits - same as O scale model trains
1:50 scale - trucks, buses, construction equipment, promotional models, military vehicles - similar in size to O scale model trains
1:64 scale - Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars are nominally this size, as well as truck and tractor models - same as S scale model trains
See also: List of scale model sizes, Scale model

Items such as toy restaurants and filling stations are sometimes sold separately from the cars, to be used as playsets. Toy raceways are also sold for use with die-cast cars, which have become more complicated in recent years, usually involving loops and complicated curves. Also produced are luggage bags made specifically for children to be able to travel with their cars.

Facts and trivia
British die-cast toy fans were particular in that they called every die-cast model, no matter what company they were produced by, a "matchbox".
Two of the die cast toys that have become important collectors' items are the aforementioned American Airlines London Bus, and the Rocky car, produced in 1979 after the release of Rocky II.

List of die cast toy brands
American Highway Legends (AHL) - see Hartoy and Tonkin
Brooklin Models
Brookfield Collectors Guild
Classic Carlectables
Code 3
Conrad: Germany maker of construction, truck and bus models in 1:50 scale
Crown Premiums: Manufacturer of diecast promotional cars and trucks
DG Productions
Diapet: Japanese cars, mostly in 1/40 scale.
Die Cast Promotions (F.F. Ertl III)
Dinky Toys
Dragon Wings
Exclusive First Editions (EFE)
First Gear
Gear Box
Gemini Jets
Golden Wheel
Hot Wheels
Husky/Corgi Juniors/Corgi Rockets
Jada Toys
JLE Scale Models (Joseph L. Ertl)
Johnny Lightning
Liberty Classics
Lion Car
Lledo: Models of Days Gone, Vanguards

MTH RailKing
NZG: German maker of construction models, trucks, buses in 1:50 scale
Plasticos Argentinos
Precision Engineered Models (PEM) - see Hartoy and Tonkin
Racing Champions
Red Line
Road Champs
Spark Model
Team Caliber
Tomica: Japanese diecast about Matchbox size.
Trofeu: Made in Portugal 1/43 scale.
UT Models
Winner's Circle
Vitesse: Wide range of 1/43 scale European and Japanese cars.
Von Dutch

Additonal Resources

Understanding Scale
1:18 Scale
Diecast Directory
See ALL 1:24 scale diecast model cars (in stock and out of stock)
See only IN STOCK 1:24 scale diecast model cars


This page was last modified 4 January 2007.
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