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From The Telegraph. Not relevant to model trains but possibly the Frank Hornby of the miniture toy car world and the Les in Lesney. He had an interesting life and who among us has not got nostalgic memories of his products:-

Leslie Smith, who has died aged 87, played an important part in the lives of post-war children as the maker of Matchbox cars, a range of authentically detailed miniature vehicles which fitted snuggly into small hands.

While he was the managing director responsible for Lesney Products' sales and marketing, his partner Jack Odell was the engineer in charge of manufacturing. Within little more than 15 years they were selling more than a million cars a day to more than 100 countries, and had 14 factories around the world.

The company did not have the market to themselves. But for long it maintained a lead, thanks to Odell's flare for constantly improving the detail on their models, which included dashboards with the dials in the right place and doors and bonnets which opened. When the company wanted to produce a model of the Maxwell Roadster of 1911 for its American market, a team was dispatched to Texas to photograph and measure an original.

Smith was also responsible for the welfare of the workforce at their main factory at Hackney Marshes, ensuring that women workers were able to pick up their children from school by conveying them in a fleet of buses.

He avoided the problem caused by having too many models for merchants to stock by limiting their number to 75 at one time, regularly withdrawing some to make way for others. When Smith found that Queensland would not permit any lead in toys, he took the expensive decision to use a lead-free paint, which proved a problem because the colours were not strong enough at first; but he was later proved a pioneer in the field.

The son of a carpenter and jobbing builder, Leslie Charles Smith was born on March 6 1918 at Enfield, Middlesex, where he was to live throughout his life. He worked as an exporter of carpets to Australia before joining the Royal Navy to become a signals rating in 1940.

Young Les and his three brothers were advised to join the Navy by their father, who, having served in the trenches during the First World War, said they could at least expect a bed for the night aboard ship. His first vessel was the converted trawler Phineas Beard, which he left a week before it was bombed and sunk. After being commissioned at HMS King Alfred, Brighton, he commanded a motor torpedo boat on the Dieppe Raid, then served in landing craft at Sicily and Salerno before commanding a minesweeper off Gold Beach at D-Day.

With the return of peace, Leslie and Rodney Smith, who was no relation, decided to invest their combined service gratuities of £600 in a die-casting company which they set up in a bombed-out pub at Tottenham. Called Lesney after the beginning and ending of their Christian names, it used zinc to make car engine parts until the government commandeered all zinc supplies for the Korean War.

Rodney Smith left to emigrate to Australia, but they had been joined another partner, Jack Odell, an engineer with a love for model-making who had made his first miniature vehicle for his daughter when she was told she could bring no toy to school that could not fit into a matchbox.

Soon they started to produce models of a steamroller, tractor, dumper and cement mixer before embarking on a more ambitious project, the State Coach with the figures of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth inside, for the approaching royal silver jubilee.

The prototype was already complete when the lack of zinc halted the project. By the time the zinc restrictions were lifted, the King had died. However, Lesney resolved the problem for the Coronation the following year.

The figure of the former Queen was now deemed to be her daughter Elizabeth II, though sharp-eyed children might spot that the new Queen had a spare pair of trousered legs beside her, where the late king's upper body had been removed. Produced in two sizes, the larger one selling for £2 11s and the much smaller one for 1s 11d: a million copies were sold.

The Matchbox series, beginning with smaller versions of the first models they had produced, was then launched. An ever-increasing number of would-be young motorists, keen to spend their pocket money on its products, sent Lesney's fortunes rocketing.

The company, which was launched on the Stock Exchange in 1960, continued to expand until 1968, when Smith and Odell were both appointed OBE and the company shares reached £6 16s; it had a market capitalisation of £120 million, about one third of British Leyland's.

But their operations gradually became affected by economic turbulence and the emergence of rivals in Hong Kong, where Smith had declined to open a factory because he did not want to sack the Hackney workforce and thought that Chinese craftsmanship would not prove sufficiently skilled. He and Odell responded by cutting their own salaries by 75 per cent to £25,000; "no man is worth £100,000," Smith explained.

The company continued to widen its appeal, bringing out Superfast cars, Tomcat fighter aircraft and dolls, but it was hit by the oil crisis, raging inflation and shop-floor problems as one of the largest firms in London, along with Kodak, which had no in-house unions.

It finally went into receivership, in 1982, though Matchbox toys continue to be made by its American rival Mattel Toys.

While saddened, Smith found plenty to occupy him in retirement. Always a keen yachtsman, he once dived into the sea to rescue a crew member who had fallen off his yacht Breakaway in a collision with a cargo ship; he also developed a successful marina at Poole, Dorset.

In addition, he took great delight in planning his two-acre garden and also in his role as chairman of the governors for two schools at Winchmore Hill and at Enfield, where he lived throughout his life.

Leslie Smith, who died on May 26, is survived by two sons and a daughter; in later life he had to buy them a set each of Lesney Matchbox models from a dealer because he had never bothered to collect them himself.

Leslie Smith RIP

· Administrator
10,720 Posts
QUOTE who among us has not got nostalgic memories of his products
Along with my dad's tinplate Hornby clockwork trainset, Matchbox is probably the toy I remember best from my early childhood. They had the advantage over the trains of being much more affordable and widely on sale. On a trip to our local shopping parade for the groceries or whatever, a glance in the newsagents window to see what Matchbox toys were on offer was also on the agenda. After all we had walked about half a mile to get there and it's a long way when you're five or six years old.

Thanks for posting the obit Gary


· Chief mouser
11,779 Posts
QUOTE (dwb @ 8 Jul 2007, 21:27) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>Matchbox is probably the toy I remember best from my early childhood. They had the advantage over the trains of being much more affordable and widely on sale.

Very true David,

When I was a lad I was in the local church choir (duck and wait for comment from DBC50). During the summer, weddings were a lucrative source of income for a nine year old as we were paid 2/6(12.5p) for each one we sang at. Over the road from the church was Hornes toy and wool shop where a Matchbox car could be bought for 2/-(10p). No prizes for guessing where my earnings went.

Those were the days!


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