It is the birthplace of Catherine Zeta Jones and Sir Harry Seacombe. And all British drivers know Swansea as the home of the Driver and Vehicle Licencing Agency. But for boys of all ages, the “ugly, lovely town” beloved of the poet Dylan Thomas keeps a welcome in the hillsides for Corgi and – more recently – Oxford diecast models. You might even say “Dai Cast”!
Sixty years ago on 9 July 1956, the first range of Corgi diecast cars was launched. It including such contemporary models as the Ford Consul, Austin Cambridge, Vauxhall Velox and Riley Pathfinder. They were not the first diecast toys available. Liverpool based Meccano had been making its Dinky range since 1935 and Lesney had launched Matchbox in 1953. However, Corgi cars were sold in individual boxes rather than loose by retailers and contained a much greater level of detail than their predecessors. Instead of empty window frames there were plastic windscreens and crystal headlights. Later developments included Glidamatic suspension and opening bonnets. In their first year of trading, 2.75 million Corgi cars were sold. By 1966 too, the individual blue and yellow boxes featured cellophane windows and were every bit as alluring as the models inside. In that year Corgi won both The Queen’s Award to Industry and the National Association Of Toy Retailers’ Highest Standards Award.
The genius behind Corgi was South African born Arthur Katz. Before fleeing the Nazis in 1933, he had worked for Nuremberg toy firm Tipp & Co – run by his Mother’s cousin Philip Ullman. Ullman soon followed Katz to Northampton, where Katz became Ullman’s first employee at a new tinplate toy firm, Mettoy. During the Second World War, Mettoy made tinplate items for the war effort and the Ministry of Supply moved some of its production to a factory in the Swansea suburb of Fforestfach. After the war, Mettoy decided to expand production and bring much-needed jobs to South Wales. Their new factory that was opened by King George VI in April 1949.
Now being based in the Principality, Katz and Ullman decided to name their new diecast car range Corgi after the small, friendly Welsh dogs favoured by the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II. Such was the success of Corgi that Mettoy, which also made Playcraft plastic toys and Wembley branded footballs, was floated on the Stock Exchange in 1963. By this time television was rapidly taking over from radio and cinema as a the most popular mass medium of entertainment. Corgi saw the value of tying its products in with popular TV shows. The first of these was the Volvo P1800, driven by Roger Moore as The Saint, with a plastic Simon Templar behind the wheel and the familiar stick man with a halo symbol on the bonnet. Not far behind was the Lincoln Futura based Batmobile and The Man From UNCLE’s “Thrushbuster” Oldsmobile. More ambitious though was James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 complete with telescopic bumpers, machine guns in the wings, bulletproof shield behind the rear window, wheel hub spikes and the unforgettable front passenger ejection seat. With seven million units sold – and production continuing today – Corgi’s James Bond DB5 became the best selling toy car of all time.
Corgi lavished similar attention on another of Ian Fleming’s automotive creations – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – to tie in with the launch of the 1968 film. Not only were Caractacus Potts, Truly Scrumptious Jeremy and Jemima seated in their four fendered friend but all the delicate flying surfaces retracted too. Agent 007 also left Mettoy profits stirred up by 20% after the launch of his aquatic Lotus Espirit “Wet Nellie” from the 1977 film “The Spy Who Loved Me”. But by then a strong Pound was hampering exports and making cheaper imported diecast models more attractive to shopkeepers and their customers. Despite trying to diversify by launching the Dragon 32 home computer in 1982, Mettoy went into receivership in November 1983, having last made a profit in 1979. The Corgi brand also suffered a great setback when a factory fire destroyed a year’s worth of model production in 1969.
A new company, Corgi Toys Limited, became part of long time American rivals Mattel in 1989 and, with its headquarters relocated to Leicester, Corgi finally moved production from Swansea to China in 1991. Arthur Katz died in 1999 aged 91 but since 2008 the Corgi name has been a part of Hornby Hobbies, which still produce the splendid 1/43 scale Vanguard range of cars ( first made by acquired company Lledo), 1/72 and 1/144 scale scale Aviation Archive aircraft (including the Handley Page Victor at the top of this feature) and 1/76 scale Original Omnibus Company buses and coaches (pictured above) to name but three product lines. Most recently there have been die cast buses and 1/43 scale Minis in regal purple to celebrate Her Majesty the Queen’s 90th birthday and a twin pack of James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 and new DB10.
A new company called Oxford Diecast acquired the former Corgi factory in Swansea and in 1993 commenced manufacture for themselves and Corgi. Oxford Diecast then developed a range of promotional stylised vehicles and maintained its manufacturing base in Swansea until 2000 when it relocated its production to a plant it owned in China. As such it was the last large scale producer of diecast models to manufacture in the UK. However it chose to own and build its own Chinese factory rather than outsource production entirely. Despite this, Oxford Diecast are still headquartered in Swansea and produce some of the most exciting yet affordable die cast vehicles available in the World today. In 2005 Oxford Diecast entered the scale accurate market with range of vehicles in popular British railway scales of 1:76 and 1:148. This and a radically enhanced product in its 1:43 scale range meant the company rapidly grew sales and UK market share, becoming the dominant player within 5 years. One example of their omnipresence is the Oxford Diecast range of Land Rovers, every bit as beautiful in 1:43 as in 1:76 and 1:148 scales (pictured) Licensing agreements with BBC TV for the Top Gear programme and UK Haulier Eddie Stobart followed as they expanded into licensed product. I salute Oxford Diecast as my life and that of my layouts and dioramas would not be the same without their benign presence.