The term die-cast toy here refers to any toy or collectible model
produced by using the die casting method. The toys are made of metal, with
plastic, rubber, or glass details. Wholly plastic toys are made by a similar
process of injection moulding, but the two are rarely confused. The metal
used is either a lead alloy (in the first toys), or more commonly Zamak (or
Mazak in the UK), an alloy of zinc with small quantities of aluminium and
copper. Lead, as previously so widely used for cast metal toys, or iron are
impurities that must be carefully avoided in this alloy, as they give rise
to zinc pest. These alloys are also referred to casually as white metal or
pot metal, although these terms are also confused with the lead toy alloys.
The most common die-cast toys are scale models of automobiles, aircraft,
construction equipment, and trains, although almost anything can be produced
by this method.
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, Dowst Brothers (TootsieToys) in the United States and Fonderie de
précision de Nanterre (Solido) in France. 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 alloy to result in zinc
pest; the casting would distort or crack for no apparent reason. As a
result, diecast toys made before World War II are difficult to find in good
condition. The later high-purity Zamak alloy avoided this problem.
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 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. Because they looked fast and were fast
(they were equipped with a low-friction wheel/axle assembly), 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
Although this practice has been used by Meccano (Dinky Toys) as far as 1934,
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 some other airlines quickly copied.
Beginning in the mid 1970s, 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 Harrods
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.