04 February 2019
Examining the history of some of Britain’s great toy makers - Matchbox Major Packs
Matchbox Major Packs: Best of British
The development of Matchbox Major Packs allowed Lesney Toys to break into new territory and produce a range of models that would not have been possible to include in the normal Matchbox 1-75 Matchbox Series due to size and scale. Not all parents could afford to buy Major Packs however. I always remember them as Birthday Toys – a bit more expensive than the standard 1-75 series but with much more WOW factor. I’ll never forget the day way back in late August of 1959 when a little parcel arrived on our doorstep containing a splendid Mighty Antar Tank Transporter and Mark III Centurion Tank. It was a gift from my uncle and aunt and that wonderful toy made it a Birthday to remember.
The Major Pack range began in 1957 with the release of M-1(a) a 1:60th scale Caterpillar DW20E tractor with a Cat 456 scraper. The reference number M1 certainly was appropriate for this model as the M1 motorway was then under construction and many powerful Caterpillar scrapers and bulldozers were hard at work shifting millions of tons of overburden as the motorway slowly snaked its way northwards. These rugged cable operated scrapers were 44 foot long with a fully laden weight of 53 tons and often required slave dozers to assist on rugged ground, hence the push bar at the rear end! The DW20E scrapers were in production until 1960.
The Matchbox DW20E had one major feature that was a first for Lesney as it sported metal wheel hubs with real rubber tyres - a combination that was not adopted again by Lesney for a further ten years. The Major Pack toy scraper outlasted the real Caterpillar vehicle by one year remaining in production until 1961.
It must be mentioned at this point that it is easy for collectors to get a bit confused over the release of the Lesney Bedford A2 Car Transporter, also in 1957, which looks every bit a Major Pack. It was, however, released in the Accessory Pack range.
A similar Bedford tractor unit did appear in second Major Pack model M-2(a) which was a Walls Ice Cream articulated box van and once again the elongated box allowed for the overall length of the vehicle. This was based on a real vehicle from the fleet used by Walls to distribute large quantities of ice cream from its Acton based factory. Grey metal wheels eventually gave way to grey plastic and the box van colour changed from a deep cream to a lighter off-white shade. If this release seemed a bit on the safe side the next was something special.
In July of 1959 Lesney issued what many collectors’ consider to be a Matchbox classic with the arrival of M-3 the Mighty Antar Tank Transporter complete with a Centurion Mark III tank mentioned earlier. It was a slightly risky release at the time as military models had lost popularity in the UK by the late 1950s. They need not have worried however as huge quantities of this model were exported to the USA. It was also included in the Matchbox No.5 Military Gift Set produced for Christmas of 1959.
M-4(a) saw a return to earthmoving with another classic in the shape of the Ruston Bucyrus 22-RB excavator, yet another Major Pack issued in 1959. It proved to be extremely popular selling over a million and remained in production until 1965. A small number of 22-RB’s were issued with grey tracks used on the 49(a) military Half-Track Personnel Carrier possibly the result of the factory running out of green tracks for a short period of time?
The 22-RB was always going to be a hard act to follow but Lesney came up trumps with its next Major Pack release M-5which was announced in July 1959 as a Massey Ferguson 780 Special Combine Harvester. A fabulous model emerged with great play value that reflected how far Lesney had advanced in terms of its outstanding engineering by this time. The intricate and detailed main body casting of the combine was challenging enough, but the intricate paddle wheel cutter certainly was a diecasting masterpiece. There were many casting modifications throughout the seven year production run of this popular model.
M-6(a) emerged in September 1959 as the monstrous Scammell Super Constructor Tractor and Low-Loader in Pickfords livery. These mighty machines were hard at work shifting huge loads around Britain’s narrow streets including all manner of industrial installations, heavy electricity transformers and huge diggers and cranes along with the odd ships propeller. The powerful Super constructor tractor unit was excellently modelled only to be slightly spoiled by the wrong spelling of Scammell with a singular ‘l’ on the base plate… Oops! When boxed the tractor had to sit on the trailer loose without any card insert.
M-7 was another articulated truck, this time with a Ford Thames Trader tractor unit attached to a Jennings cattle trailer released in the summer of 1960. Most of these toys appeared with a red tractor unit and light brown trailer although a very small number emerged with a blue tractor and metallic copper coloured trailer. These are extremely rare and have made over £3,000 at auction.
September 1960 saw the launch of the King Size Series which allowed Lesney to compete in the 1:42nd scale market. Once again earthmoving models were the early focus of this series.
The Major Packs carried on regardless and next up was M-8(a) an attractive Thornycroft Nippy 2400 gallon articulated petrol tanker in ‘Mobilgas’ livery released in 1960. This proved to be a poor seller but has always been one of my personal favourites. Appearing in 1:91 scale it retailed at 2/6d sporting grey plastic wheels which were replaced with black plastic wheels later on. Early boxes were printed as MOKO-Lesney but when that marketing relationship came to an end in 1960 boxes were printed without the word MOKO.
So far all the Major Pack releases had been based on vehicles you might see hard at work on construction sites, farms or travelling through British towns and villages. The arrival of M-9, therefore, in May 1962, came as a real surprise. This was the mighty 11 inch long HO scale Inter-State Double Freighter hauled by a Hendrickson tractor unit with two trailers in the livery of Cooper-Jarrett Inc of the USA. A fabulous toy but its price tag of 6/11d made it yet another Birthday Toy unless you saved up your pocket money or had rich parents!
Major Pack M-10 returned to the theme of earthmoving in July 1962 with a pleasing little Whitlock Dinkum articulated Rear Dumper which, had it been a touch larger, would have fitted very neatly into the King Size Series. Initially released with silver metal wheels these were later changed to red plastic.
The Major Pack numbering system was not extended beyond 10 although five more models were issued as replacements for earlier toys. M-2(b) was a Bedford tractor and York trailer released in 1961 to replace the Walls Ice Cream Truck. M-1(b) emerged as the futuristic looking B.P. Autotanker in 1962 replacing Caterpillar Earth Scraper. M-4(b) was a GMC tractor hauling a Fruehauf Hopper Train released in 1965 which replaced the 22RB Excavator. M-6(b) was a racing Car Transporter which replaced the Pickford’s Low Loader and appeared in a far greater scale. This was later transferred to the King-Size range in 1967. M-8(b) appeared in 1964 as a Guy Warrior Car Transporter. The production of Matchbox Major Packs came to an end in 1967.
There is plenty of scope for collector’s who might want to specialize in the Major Pack series with so many different variations to look out for. For many years they seemed to be less popular that the regular series Matchbox Toys but times have changed and good prices are being paid for mint-boxed examples.
Those birthday toys certainly have come of age!