Code 3 Models of Swansea celebrates 21 years in business

02 November 2011
imports_CCGB_code-3-photo-1_81777.jpg Code 3 Models of Swansea celebrates 21 years in business
Paul Lumsdon chats to Tony Graham and Lindsay Hurlow of Code 3 Models, Swansea, as they celebrate a rather unlikely 21st birthday. ...
Code 3 Models of Swansea celebrates 21 years in business Images

To most people, reaching the age of 21 is a pretty significant milestone in their lives. But, to Tony Graham and Lindsay Hurlow (pictured right), co-founders of what is today known as Code 3 Models, it is more a case of pinching themselves to make sure they are not dreaming. You see Code 3 was really never meant to be – but, as with so many other things in life, if you just happen to be in the right place at the right time, strange and wonderful things can happen!

Let’s go back in time to the early 1980s. The formidable Mettoy Empire, once the biggest toy producer in the world, was beginning to crumble.

In 1983, the inevitable happened and the company crashed. However, a group of the directors then set about a rescue plan for the Corgi part of the business and, in 1984, Corgi Toys was born, operating from the old Mettoy production facility in Fforestfach, Swansea.

That same year, as the new business began to find its feet, a young Tony Graham took on a role as Assistant Development Engineer. Two years later, in 1986, a young designer called Lindsay Hurlow started work in the studio as a designer and illustrator.

A big part of the job at that time was to hand make samples for catalogue photography and toy fairs. Tony would produce and paint the models and Lindsay would create the artwork and apply the decoration details.

The partnership flourished but, in the autumn of 1989, they, along with all the Swansea staff, were hit with the bombshell that Corgi was to be sold to the American toy giant, Mattel. With this came the desperate news that after over 50 years of continuous UK manufacture, the Swansea factory was to be closed and production moved to China. A small management and marketing team was to be retained and relocated to the Mattel offices in Leicester but, for the rest of the staff, redundancy loomed large.

This could, and perhaps would, have been the end of the story, had it not been for one significant oversight. As the factory was wound down, Tony and Lindsay wondered who would be looking after the hand-made samples. They enquired and, unbelievably, it came to light that this key element had been overlooked in the changeover.

Mattel arranged to rent back an office in the Swansea factory on a short-term basis and, in January 1990, the boys were asked to carry on with the model decoration for a transitional period. Because of the ‘limited’ technology of 1990, it was unthinkable that the sampling work could continue at such arms length for more than an interim period.

So it was no shock when, in March 1990, Mattel announced that it was no longer prepared to pay for the Swansea office. However, Tony and Lindsay decided to set up on their own because at that time they were still the only sample makers that Corgi had.

Tony became ‘The Model Workshop’ and Lindsay ‘The Artworks’ and they set-up together in The Exchange Buildings in Swansea’s docks area.

What happened next was quite amazing: Mattel decided to invest heavily in its new Corgi acquisition. The development of new tooling was massive and with it came a huge increase in the demand for toy samples. Tony and Lindsay had the skills and experience to fulfil the role, and almost overnight the boys found themselves generating, co-ordinating and distributing all Mattel’s toy fair samples worldwide.

For the next four years they worked furiously to keep up with the demands of the new Corgi business and eventually, in 1994, they had to move to larger premises and take on additional staff. Tony’s brother Stuart Graham joined at this time and their mum, Nanette, took over the office admin and reception duties.

A large scale London Taxi gets the Code 3 treatment.

PICTURED A large scale London Taxi gets the Code 3 Treatment.

Trading now as ‘The Artworks’, the move became the springboard for further growth. Investment was made in a Mac computer and an operator, Simon Williams. The Artworks had entered the digital era! Over the next two years the staff doubled from five to 10 people. The work from Mattel was becoming more complex as toys gave way to more detailed collectable models (Corgi Classics). Fortunately, the efficiencies derived from computer-generated artwork and digital films meant that they had the capacity to handle more and more work.

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The statistics speak for themselves. In 1990, Tony and Lindsay produced 90 pieces of artwork and 180 hand-made samples. In 1996, The Artworks produced 530 pieces of artwork and 2,120 hand-made samples – massive growth in just six years!

From 1996 Corgi changed ownership again. The range continued to grow but these were more turbulent times. In 1999, Corgi changed hands yet again, then once more in 2003. The biggest fear for The Artworks was when would the bubble burst? They had one client, namely Corgi – and Tony and Lindsay knew that for the security of the business they had to diversify.

The problem was they only knew how to do one thing – produce hand-made and decorated models. The obvious thought was to approach other toy companies. The response, however, was frosty as The Artworks were viewed almost as part of Corgi. Who else would want their models? The answer lay with customers that Corgi could not accommodate.

All sorts of companies would approach Corgi for commissions but many were unable to justify the high volumes required by a diecast factory. An unwritten deal was done and Corgi started to refer these customers to The Artworks for one-off and short run work.

Slowly, this side of the business grew, as did its reputation for high quality models. High-profile commissions, such as 500 Minis to give away at the launch party for Madonna’s American Life tour, opened new doors of opportunity with the music industry and within the big promotional agencies. Soon it was becoming difficult to focus on all the new work at the same time as servicing the Corgi requirements.

Tony and Lindsay decided a re-branding was necessary and spent several months looking at all aspects of the company. Eventually, in 2006, they decided to split the business internally.

Stuart Graham, as key account director, continued with the Corgi work on one side of the premises while on the other they launched the re-branded ‘Code 3’ to produce high quality, bespoke, short-run models for customers ranging from private individuals to huge corporate concerns.

A major breakthrough for Code 3 happened in 2007. Stuart had pestered Tony and Lindsay for ages to exhibit their skills at one of the Truckfest Shows, thinking that many truck drivers/operators might like bespoke models of their trucks.

Somewhat reluctantly they agreed and booked space at Truckfest Peterborough. In Tony’s words, they were “rammed with people all weekend” – the plan worked.

A truck back gets its livery applied.

PICTURED A truck back gets its livery applied.

With a small, core in-house team comprising all the necessary expertise, augmented by a group of external freelance workers, they were able to offer complete flexibility according to demand.

With less of an emphasis on the Corgi business they started to develop accounts with other toy companies such as Sun Star, Impact International, Atlas and ACE Trains. But, the Code 3 business also thrived and the client list today reads like a who’s who of major blue chip companies.

Today, they are equally happy producing a one-off retirement present for an individual to a large promotional run for a London ad agency. And, of course, they still retain the Corgi account, which since 2008 has been under the ownership of Hornby Hobbies.

Looking back over the years, Lindsay reflects on the huge output of models they have produced. “At our peak,” he says, “it was very intense with a massive production line – it’s amazing how we coped.” Tony adds: “I’m still amazed that everywhere I look I am surrounded by toys and I actually get paid for working with them – I still get such a buzz from it!”

So, will Code 3 still be making models in another 21 years? “Well,” muses Tony in a more philosophical manner, “this is more than just a business, it’s a way of life for us and it’s what we do best.” I think that was probably a ‘yes’ – the unlikely lads most likely will!

This news story was first published in the December issue of Diecast Collector. To see which issues of Diecast Collector are available to buy online, click here.