A Collector’s Guide to Diecast Cars
A group of repainted Dinky Toys Bedford and Guy Vans . Sold for £50 via Vectis Auctions Ltd (August 2019).Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes • Last updated: 12.04.19
Diecast cars are built from zinc alloy — and offer a healthy dose of nostalgia. In the peak of their production, these small-scale cars — typically no larger than the palm of a hand — were carefully modeled after real-life designs produced by automobile manufacturers. For collectors in the market today, diecast cars perfectly marry two popular collecting categories: vintage toys and classic cars. Car enthusiasts may find they can fit a few more 1:43 scale diecast cars in their garage than full-scale Ford Pontiacs, for example, and toy collectors may find joy in the careful details offered by each of the four major manufacturers of diecast toys. And, just about everyone can find joy in rolling diecast cars down imaginary roads.
What is a Diecast Car?
A diecast toy (sometimes written as die cast or die-cast) is any toy produced through the die casting method of metal casting, and is typically made of a zinc alloy (or, in some cases, lead). Die casting is a process in which a molten metal alloy is forced under high pressure into a mold creating a product similar to injection mold plastic but made of metal. This relatively simple method was perfect for mass-producing toys of all kinds in the era before inexpensive plastics were developed. In addition to diecast model cars other vehicles such as planes, trains, motorcycles and even spaceships have also been produced. Japanese toy manufacturer Bandai first developed the ‘Chogokin’ (the Japanese word for “super alloy”) line of diecast giant robot toys that have been in production since the 1970s. The painstaking process for creating these toys is the same as in the production of classic car lines.
One major appeal of diecast cars is how brands have been able to authentically recreate full-size cars at a much smaller scale. This has been the case since the early days of die casting. One of the first diecast cars from iconic toy manufacturer Dinky Toys was a model of the 1930s race car ‘The Speed of the Wind,’ driven by British race car driver and engineer George Eyston when he broke the land speed record. Many famous car brands such as Chrysler, Ford, Rolls-Royce and Volkswagen have also been captured in miniature size. Trucks are also a popular style among collectors, and branded models like the Heinz truck from Dinky Toys are particularly sought-after.
A Brief History of Diecast Cars
The story of diecast car production begins in England: Of the major toy brands that competed for market share in the 1950s and ‘60s, two were British companies. Later, following the success of the original British makers, came an American diecast manufacturer called Hot Wheels — which eventually grew to dominate the market. But roughly forty years before those toys even crossed the Atlantic Ocean, a formidable company named Dinky Toys changed the toy market forever.
A true pioneer of the industry, Dinky Toys began producing diecast toys twenty years before any of the other major players even entered the market. As a result, for collectors seeking out a pre-war antique toy car, Dinky Toys is likely the relics’s manufacturer. Established by Frank Hornby in a factory in Liverpool in 1908, the company was originally named Meccano Ltd. and produced primarily model trains and construction sets. In 1934, the company began to sell miniature accessories to compliment their train line under the name Meccano Dinky Toys. By the following year, they dropped “Meccano” altogether and officially became Dinky Toys. That same year they produced their first diecast car.
The first diecast toy cars were sold in a set of six cars together: a sports car, a delivery van, a tank, a sports coupe, a truck and a farm tractor. These six cars were cast in lead and were based on a generic version of the listed car. The cars proved popular, and soon Dinky Toys was producing dozens of new models including diecast planes, diecast tanks and diecast ships. For twenty years, Dinky Toys was the only name in diecast cars, until a little company named Corgi Toys introduced “the ones with windows”.
Corgi Toys was first introduced as a sub-brand of Mettoy Playcraft, and was named after the eponymous dog breed that also hailed from the company’s headquarters in Swansea, South Wales. Mettoy Playcraft specialized in metal toy production, but had primarily focused on tin plate toys, not diecast toys. Their products were initially popular, but in 1956 they shook the industry by developing glazed plastic windows, an invention so essential it’s hard to imagine a time before they existed. Corgi Toys was so confident in this new innovation, they sold the new toys with the simple slogan “the ones with windows”. Their initial 1956 line comprised of eight classic vehicles, including the Ford Consul, the Morris Cowley, the Austin-Healey 100 and the Triumph TR2.
Both Dinky Toys and Corgi Toys produced cars in O scale, harkening back to their origins in model trains. O scale refers to the zero gauge size of model trains, which are the smallest available. Dinky Toys was already working in this scale, so they sized their cars accordingly and Corgi Toys later followed suit. O scale for cars ranges from about 1:43 diecast cars to 1:48 diecast cars, depending on the model.
Soon after Corgi introduced transparent windows, another British company, Lesney Products, unveiled “Matchbox” cars — what would soon become a household name. These cars, named for the faux matchbox they came in, were significantly smaller in size, but very affordable. Lesney Products produced an array of models, quickly outpacing their competitors in volume if not in quality. It also helped that Matchbox cars were made in approximately 1:65 scale, though proportions were often modified to fit their pint-sized packaging. This did not affect their popularity.
The appeal of “the ones with windows” and the affordable Matchbox cars forced a sort of diecast arms race. Dinky Toys and Corgi Toys produced car after car, each trying to outdo the other with new features: jeweled headlights, detailed interiors, working suspensions, and licensing deals. For ten years, the three major companies were caught in a stalemate that seemed certain to last. That is, until Hot Wheels emerged.
In 1968 Elliot Handler, toy industry legend and founder of Mattel Toys, created a new line of tiny toy cars: Hot Wheels. What made these cars so different from their competitors was that instead of being modeled after real-life cars, Hot Wheels were conceived as fantastical custom hot rods with exaggerated proportions and pull-back racing functionality. “The Original Sweet 16” cars alongside a racing track set (sold separately, of course) were released in America to outstanding success. In 1969, they took that success to Europe.
Consolidation in the Market
The British companies simply could not compete with the American-made cars. For ten years they played catch up as Hot Wheels sold better each year, so well they actually made their slogan ‘Go with the Winner’. Dinky Toys was the first to fall to the success of Hot Wheels, and they closed their factory in 1979. The Dinky Toys brand, along with Matchbox and Corgi Toys, would later be purchased by Mattel. Mattel eventually sold Corgi Toys, which was reestablished as “Corgi Classics”. They still produce replicas of original Corgi toys today. Mattel currently produces toys under the Matchbox brand name, but they have allowed the Dinky Toys classic line to languish.
Diecast Car Values
Diecast cars, including exceptional examples from Dinky Toys, Corgi Toys, Matchbox and Hot Wheels, are commonly found at auction. For individual cars, Dinky cars tend to sell for a few hundred dollars, depending on condition, demand, and availability of original packaging. Due to scarcity, some pre-war Dinky cars can sell for a few thousand dollars. Corgi Toys licensed cars tend to be the most sought-after of their toys, with their “James Bond” and “Batman” cars selling in a range from several hundreds to several thousands of dollars, again depending on condition and packaging.
True to their origins as a discount diecast toy line, Matchbox Cars items tend to sell for less, with individual cars typically selling for one hundred dollars or less. Meanwhile, Hot Wheels in unopened packaging can easily sell for thousands of dollars, and special sets can go even higher. The most expensive diecast car ever sold was a pre-production Volkswagen Read Loader Beach Bomb. The car was too top-heavy to go into production and the prototype reportedly sold at auction for around $70,000.
In collecting vintage diecast cars keep an eye out for zinc pest (also known as zinc rot). Zinc pest is caused by impurities in the zinc alloy and can be found in diecast object made before the 1960s. For diecast cars, that means zinc pest crops up in early Dinky Toys and Corgi Toys cars. Zinc pest causes a white corrosive to form on the surface of the metal and compromises the structural integrity of the toy. Also always remember that many of these car lines have been reproduced over the years, so make sure to do your research when purchasing a vintage toy.
Diecast toys are fun for nostalgists and collectors of all ages. The sheer volume of cars produced over the years makes acquiring quality models accessible for any level of interest in the field of vintage toys. Whether you’re interested in a classic Dinky Toy diecast car, a revolutionary Corgi, the economical Matchbox, or the fantastical Hot Wheels, you’ll find plenty of examples to capture your imagination in the market today.