December 17, 2005
Brieﬂy on little cars for a change, rather than big ones: with Christmas nearly here, I’ve ventured to stores to check out the jouets on offer for kids. Corgi is overpriced, something the Welsh brand has said it will change for 2006, as it’s not building new future customers who used to spend a few pence for a three-inch toy car. Hot Wheels is Hot Wheels: fanciful designs with little relevance to the real world, but some kids like that. The European manufacturers (Majorette, Norev, Siku) are going through a renaissance, creating toys that allow kids to re-create the street scenes they see every day and use their imagination. Tomica of Japan, as you would expect from the Japanese, continues to improve every day. But the big disappointment is Matchbox. It’s still present, offering a selection that alienates most kids.
When Matchbox became part of Mattel a few years ago, it had already been suffering. Through most of the 1990s, cheap Red Chinese production saw to ill-deﬁned dies and cars that were barely recognizable. The features that were used to make it a leader—opening doors, suspension and detailing—were being deleted, model after model. But for most of this decade, Matchbox alienated kids further by designing cars that didn’t exist in real life—great for a few designers inside Mattel, those who were nostalgic for the ﬁctional Superfast cars that the brand used to have in the 1970s, and the accounts’ department, which didn’t have to fork out a licensing fee.
Mattel, to its credit, is addressing this. Latest models, including a Dodge Charger R/T and a Volvo XC90, are gradually returning to the detailing of the late 1960s ﬁnally (still some way to go before they get to the early 1980s), although opening doors and suspension remain out of the question. However, Mattel is clearly doing its addressing from an American headquarters.
There is nothing particularly wrong with this, but I remember the days when Matchbox was as English as Roger Moore. And it still managed to sell its products in America by being aware of the cars that were being produced there. It also managed to sell all over Europe. The miniature Plymouth Gran Furys, Mercury Cougars and Ford Mustangs appealed to the US market as much as any other; but today’s non-American children will wonder what the relevance of the Dodge Charger, Cadillac Escalade and Lincoln Navigator is.
I can’t help but feel the international feel of Matchbox, once an integral part of its brand, has been lost. American cars do not dominate the planet and one may as well be an extraterrestial when talking of Buick, Saturn and Mercury to most children; at least when Matchbox was English, you could buy Ford Cortinas, and other products British kids saw, in most of the world. And we played with them and it sparked off an interest in some of us. We talked to our friends about them. Some of us became adult collectors and we are buying models that look like the real thing, not a ﬂight of fancy from a studio.
Heck, maybe kids don’t care in 2005, but in 1975, we sure did. The fact Matchbox is changing its tune to showing real cars suggests I’m right—but a less US-centric approach could increase its miniature sales in international markets. permalink
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