Matchbox is a die cast cars and airplanes trademark started in 1952 by the British Lesney Toys company. The name was once widely used by the public as a generic name for all die cast toy cars measuring approximately 2.5 inches (6.5 cm) in length, regardless of brand.
Matchbox is so named because of the small boxes in which the products were packed, like those for matches. In the 1980s, Matchbox switched to the more conventional, plastic and cardboard wrapping style other die cast car trademarks use.
During the 1970s, Matchbox bought the AMT corporation, the dominant American plastic kit manufacturer, and set up their own plastic kit division in the UK with concentration on 1/72 scale military aircraft, as a competitor to the then dominant Airfix company and to complement AMT's specialty of 1/25 scale cars, but by the 80s the hobby had passed its heyday and Lesney sold AMT to Ertl and shut down their own kit division. The matchbox kit product was well-made, with modern tooling and techniques, but aficionados of the hobby felt that the kits were too coarsely detailed compared to their competitors, and too "toy-like". However as a toy they were still just as complex and time consuming to construct as any other kit. This inability to fully satisfy either market led to Matchbox being one of the first companies to abandon kits once the decline of the hobby started to be felt.
These comments don't necessarily apply to the AMT products- by the 1970s AMT had 20 years' experience tooling car kits- and the only difference European ownership made was a somewhat broader selection of subject matter than had been seen from them before or since.
During this time, Matchbox also tried a hand in the die cast airplanes area, under the name Matchbox Sky Busters. Sky Busters produced plane models for such airlines as Aeromexico, Air France, British Airways, Iberia, Lufthansa and Saudi Arabian Airlines.
Lesney Toys went bankrupt on June 11, 1982, and went into receivership. The Matchbox brand name was then sold to Universal Toys, although some of the Matchbox tooling became property of Lesney co-founder Jack Odell, who continued to market Matchbox-like products under the Lledo brand name. Matchbox expanded beyond die cast cars into other markets, with mixed success, and by 1992, Universal was also seeking a buyer. In May 1992, Universal sold out to Tyco, whose toy division in turn was bought out by Mattel in 1996, uniting Matchbox with its longtime rival Hot Wheels under the same corporate banner. In 2002, Matchbox Sky Busters made a comeback, but with Continental Airlines as the only major airline to sponsor the product. Matchbox also came out in '02 with a line of cars to celebrate their 50th anniversary.
Matchbox cars come in two major sizes. The smaller versions are approximately 1:64 scale and measure about 2.5 inches, or 6.5 centimeters, in length, and are the form most often seen in toy stores. However, Matchbox has also manufactured cars in 1:43 scale, which measure about 3.5 inches, or 9 centimeters, in length. Matchbox's designers favored this larger size because it permitted more detail. The 1:43 cars are still made, but are primarily marketed as collectibles, rather than as toys.