South West Wales

How Corgi cars sparked 'toy arms race'

They were the toy cars marketed as "The Ones With Windows", and were made right here in Wales.

Image copyright West Wales Museum of Childhood

Whether it's the Batmobile, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, James Bond's Aston Martin DB5, tanks, racing cars, or even a humble Mini, if you grew up in Britain anytime in the last 60 years, the odds are you will have owned a Corgi car at some stage in your childhood.

As early as 1933, Philip Ullmann - a German Jew who had fled the Nazis - had been making tin-plate toys in Northampton, under the name of Mettoy or the "Metal Toy Company".

But in 1956 Mettoy began producing a new range of die-cast cars from a factory in Fforestfach, Swansea, and named them Corgi in honour of the tiny Welsh dogs.

Popular with children and collectors alike because of their attention to detail and innovative features, Corgi were soon taking on the more established brands of Dinky and Matchbox.

Image copyright West Wales Museum of Childhood

As well as being the first toy cars to have plastic windows, other features to appear in Corgi cars were fibre-optic style working lights, friction push-along motors, removable wheels, horns, sirens, guns, and even ejector seats.

Paul Kennelly, of the West Wales Museum of Childhood in Llangeler, Carmarthenshire, believes Corgi helped drive forward the entire industry.

"The beauty of Corgi was that they were always looking for the next gimmick, to see how far they could push the envelope.

"You have to remember that when they first came out, you're still talking about only a decade or so after the war, so these incredibly realistic-looking cars with working lights and motors were something almost magical for boys like me.

"Of course, once Corgi had done it, everyone else had to keep up in some way, so it began a sort of toys arms race which really pushed the industry forwards.

"At the height of their powers Corgi had 5,000 people working in Fforestfach and were exporting all over the world, and they were just one of a number of toy manufacturers in south Wales."

Image copyright West Wales Museum of Childhood

James Bond's Aston Martin DB5 is the most popular toy car of all time, selling over seven million units.

Originally sold in gold, as Corgi designers believed the original James Bond silver made it look unpainted, the model boasted machine guns in the front wings which popped out at the touch of a button, a bulletproof shield which popped up to protect the rear screen when the exhaust pipes were pressed, and an ejector seat which fired through a roof panel.

Image copyright West Wales Museum of Childhood
Image caption Five Aston Martin DB5's on the workbench

It was launched in time for Christmas 1965, and as Corgi found themselves swamped by the demand for it, the papers reported near-riots in toy shops.

Though the DB5's sheer ubiquity means it's actually far from the most valuable Corgi car today.

Image copyright West Wales Museum of Childhood
Image copyright West Wales Museum of Childhood

"Most of the big film models like the DB5, the Batmobile and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang are still very common, and you can pick up a mint condition boxed example for as little as £50 or £60," Mr Kennelly said.

"The rarest of all are the promotional models made for advertising, or prototypes which were never actually sold, and whilst they don't look as spectacular, these are some of my favourites."

Mr Kennelly himself owns what is thought to be the rarest of all the Corgi models, and exhibits it at his museum.

Image copyright West Wales Museum of Childhood

Only 12 red Rover Stirlings are known to have been made before the Fforestfach factory closed, and it is believed they were prototypes for a new paint and were never intended for sale.

Examples as rare as these have previously sold for £200 or more.

But despite their popularity, by the 1980s Corgi were in terminal decline.

They were sold to American giant Mattel in 1989 and the factory in Swansea closed two years later.

Traditionally the demise of toy cars has been blamed on computers, but Mr Kennelly has several other explanations.

"In Mettoy's case their unsuccessful foray into computing with the Dragon 32 was what really sunk them, as Corgi was still very popular. As with the toy cars they just didn't have the financial clout to carry on investing and innovating.

"But more generally there's several reasons for the decline. Whereas workers had been cheap in Wales after the War, by the '80s it was difficult to bear the cost of such a labour-intensive product.

"Also birth rates dropped, and there just weren't as many children around to sell to as there had been in the baby-boomer generation."

Image copyright West Wales Museum of Childhood

Corgi were relaunched following a management buy-out in 1995, and the brand is now owned by Hornby, joining a stable which also includes Scalextric and Airfix.

Today they produce high-end model cars and reissues of classic Corgi ranges, mostly aimed at the adult collector market.

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