Matchbox Series: Hong Kong copies

12 August 2022
Looking at the replicas produced of the famous models
Matchbox Series: Hong Kong copies Images

During the 1950s and 1960s it was common practice for manufacturers of plastic goods in Hong Kong to make copies of British diecast toy cars.  Many Dinky, Corgi and other subjects received this treatment, generally being scaled up to larger dimensions and fitted with a friction-drive motor.  The smaller Matchbox 1-75 series vehicles were copied too, but in this case the copies tended to be similar in size to the originals.  This article examines a selection of these, and considers why it is often difficult to identify who made them.

One of the best-known Hong Kong makers of plastic toys which can be identified is Blue Box, founded in 1952 by Peter Chan Pui.  His most successful toy product was, of all things, a doll that could drink and wet! Blue Box went on to make copies of familiar subjects by Dinky or Corgi but the majority were inspired by Matchbox products.  Sometimes these came boxed singly, the boxes of course being blue in colour, carrying the message in not quite accurate English: “This is one of the Blue-Box toy cars. How many kinds you have?”  In the absence of any systematic listing, we can only guess as to how many of the smaller Matchbox 1-75 models appeared in this series.

Making copies of other people’s models might suggest a lack of creativity and originality, but Blue Box revealed a certain amount of imagination in the way that these were frequently combined and packaged in sets.  There are, for example, at least three separate boxed sets containing four models each: ‘Civil Engineering’, containing digger, road roller, dumper and cement mixer; ‘Commercial Vehicles’, containing the Bedford Tipper, Morris Pick-up, Commer van and double deck bus; ‘Auto Series’, with Hillman Minx, American Ford Station Wagon, Jaguar XK Coupe and MGA sports. You hardly need to be a specialist Matchbox collector to know where all these subjects came from! Again, there were numerous different boxed or carded ‘garage sets’ with a mixture of vehicles and accessories such as petrol pumps (again, Matchbox-based) and figures. Blue Box didn’t worry about things like scale, and happily mixed together Matchbox-sized copies with larger Dinky-type ones. One ‘Road Repair Set’, for example, combines small Matchbox copies with replicas of the figures of workmen found in the Dinky Road Maintenance Personnel Set.

But the picture gets even more complicated as another series exists, apparently much the same as the Blue Box models – until you read the name on the box: ‘Blue Bow’. If Blue Box copied Matchbox, then it seems that the Blue Bows are copies of the copies! Very similar models can also be found in the ‘12 piece vehicle set’, mounted on a card backing with the initials NFIC and supplied in a polythene bag, though not all of these are based on Matchboxes.

Bigger Hong Kong toy cars – the ones scaled up from Dinky and other subjects and fitted with friction motors – often carry names like Telsalda, Clifford Series or Lucky Toys but such names are much less common with the Matchbox-sized toys.  Hence, there are many of these around, quite often attractively boxed, which give no clue to their source. Neat red boxes, with models often moulded in red plastic too, are used for a series marked simply with numbers – 101, 102, etc. Among the well-known Matchbox subjects identified in this range are an Austin Taxi, Austin Cambridge, Leyland Royal Tiger Coach and Rolls Royce Silver Cloud. Then there’s the ‘Polythene Miniatures’, in Matchbox-style boxes, in red/yellow rather than the blue/yellow used by Lesney. The box artwork, too, is clearly copied straight from the Matchboxes. Intriguingly, some of these boxes are described as ‘Clifford Miniatures’ a trade name of one of the biggest British distributors of Hong Kong plastic toys, F. Levy and Co. of London. There’s yet another ‘Miniature Vehicles’ series in a similar polythene material, in light green and brown boxes.

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All of these, are of course, hardly more than the tip of the iceberg, and undiscovered toys of this type turn up all the time.  A recent find was a Ford Thames, clearly based on the Matchbox ‘Singer’ van, with a surprising twist: this one has a driver like the Matchbox sports cars, while at the back there’s a hole to insert a pencil, for it’s not only a toy car but a pencil sharpener too.

Collectors may well ask why Hong Kong toymakers were so reluctant to identify themselves - after all, the makers of most products generally want to advertise their wares. Part of the reason is that European toys were usually copied without permission and many Hong Kong makers did not want to  draw attention to themselves. The way the Hong Kong toy trade operated in the 1960s was that British toy buyers would go out to the Colony and meet in the offices of trading agents where toymakers would come to show samples of their products. Bulk orders would be placed and thereafter distribution in the UK would be in the hands of the importer. It was consequently the distributors rather than the manufacturers who would become the primary contacts as far as UK retailers were concerned.  These retailers were more likely to be small corner shops or market stalls than specialist toy shops which would be agents for more prestigious branded products from the likes of Meccano Limited, Tri-ang and Mettoy.

Such factors all add to the mystery surrounding Hong Kong plastic toys which were for so long seen as inferior, throwaway playthings with no appeal for collectors. Compared to robust metal products like Dinky Toys, the survival rate of these cheap toys is poor, especially with their original packaging but that only adds to their desirability for collectors who like a challenge!