23 September 2022
In the first of a three-part series, we dig out some unusual diecasts from the back of sofa.
The rise of toy manufacturers in this country was impressive. If you want to blame it on something, then I guess you’d better look to the Industrial Revolution as the culprit in this instance. The UK was in the enviable position of being first to harness coal and steam power, and these, along with iron and steel manufacture, allowed it to thrive. Many small businesses sprang up in the succeeding years: our automotive heritage, for example, is considered second to none.
The 1950s and early 1960s saw a rash of players enter the toy-making market. The austerity years were fading rapidly and there was a demand for playthings, whether plastic or metal. Even though household names like Dinky and relative newcomer Corgi were already established in the diecast market, and that of Moko (Lesney) was selling well, that didn’t deter others from eyeing up an opportunity.
Some companies thrived and carried on for years: Lone*Star, Benbros, Charbens, Budgie, Timpo and Britains, for example. Others, though, like a bubble in that popular drink of the period, 7up, came to the surface and disappeared. In these brief articles I’m looking at some company names that defy easy recognition; about which not much is known; and, for the most part, have had no reference books published on their output.
K is for...
If you thought Kembo was a brand of coffee, then you’ve not been paying attention. During my research I was surprised to come across several marques whose wares started with the letter K. Kembo is one. Kembo was the brand name belonging to the Lovell Brothers (Donald, Gerald and Kenneth) & (Paul) Jardine, who were based in the leafy stockbroker belt in Reigate, in Surrey. It seems that the enterprise produced a very small range of models in the late 1940s and then stopped; this may have been because of the Korean War, which led to a ban on the purchase of zinc in 1951. The conflict certainly impacted other diecast manufacturers of the period.
An articulated open lorry (based on the Scammell) is one model to look out for and it is fitted with six tinplate wheels. The company also repurposed the model, taking the cab unit and adding a simple (but operating) winch to the rear: this became a breakdown truck.
Other vehicles included a British saloon car, reminiscent (although by no means a copy) of our homegrown Jowett Javelin. This was also available in black as a police car and sported a huge siren on the roof, very much in the style of the tinplate Minic version. A clockwork motor gave the car an extra level of play value. This model was also made sans motor.
The above models are easy identified, having KEMBO and MADE IN ENGLAND embossed on their chassis or undersides.
... and for Kemlow
Kemlow, also referred to as Kemlow Automec or Kemlows, is one company that has survived – and by all accounts is still in the diecasting business, although it’s not producing toys these days. It’s also a company that had a prodigious output, largely focussed on the requirements of the model railway enthusiast under the Mastermodels moniker. Charles Kempster and William Lowe were the brains behind the outfit and their surnames were joined to form the brand.
These days you’ll come across trackside accessories at swapmeets without too much trouble; and if you are in any doubt about unboxed or unbagged items, then helpfully there’s a thorough reference book available: The Illustrated Kemlows Story, by Paul Brookes, is a real tour de force.
In terms of diecast, there is plenty to tempt the military collector. The diminutive Sentry Box range of military toys is a competitor for the Matchbox series (although a little coarser in detail); and there are bigger, Dinky scale models that include the Bedford army lorry with a limber and field gun, as well as a Daimler Armoured Car (reputedly a copy of the Dinky version but minus the baseplate). A ground-based rocket launcher is also worth looking out for because it’s so unusual. Other military items include a rather basic, angular field car towing a simple cannon and a quad, again very similar to the Dinky model. In terms of civilian output, there’s a rudimentary caravan which accompanies a Fleetmaster saloon car: both are very hard to find now.
...as well as for Kay
Yes, another brand name that begins with K. I’m not sure quite why companies should opt for a letter in the midst of the alphabet (today an early letter would ensure prime billing in any sort of listing), but maybe marketing was in its infancy over half a century ago.
Kay dates from 1934 and was run by the Kempner family. Initially wholesalers, the company also released some six models in its Midge range. These very occasionally crop up and even less occasionally will have a box. The emergency services are represented by a chunky fire engine and an ambulance, the former looking very unlike any fire engine that I’ve ever seen. This model is usually bereft of its ladder which locates on two lugs on the roof. The saloon car looks similar to one or two other manufacturers’ products but then this was of an era when copies were made and dies were shared. A coach, an Esso petrol tanker and a racing car were also in this range. Kay obviously manufactured garage accessories too, including petrol pumps, oil dispensers and the like, and even a couple of lead figures.
All in all, Kay is a bit of a mystery range and one that surely would merit some more research?