19 December 2011
Andrew Ralston looks at what the Mettoy company had to offer the toy trade for Christmas 1958. ...
Mettoy had such phenomenal success with its Corgi Toys range that it’s easy to forget that the company had been making other toys for 23 years before Corgi appeared, and continued to do so for many years thereafter.
Mettoy’s history goes back to 1933 when Philipp Ullmann, a refugee from Nazi Germany, left his business, Tipp and Co, and with the help of Lord Marks of Marks and Spencer fame, started making tin toys in a factory at Northampton, later moving to a new and bigger premises in Swansea.
As happened elsewhere in the toy industry, production halted during WWII as defence work took priority – one of Mettoy’s contributions in these years was to produce a cooking stove suitable for use by troops in the jungle!
The tin toys were reintroduced in 1946 and continued until the early 1950s. They followed the typical pre-war pattern of tinplate lithography and clockwork motors and included not only cars and trucks but aeroplanes and railway engines. The colourful trade advertisement produced is full of nostalgic appeal for collectors but, let’s face it, even in the 1950s these must have looked pretty old-fashioned.
However, Mettoy was a forward-looking company and was soon designing new lines and experimenting with new raw materials. In 1948 came a range of six ‘heavy cast mechanical perfect scale models’, originally sold in Marks and Spencers.
The best of this group, a 6in Morris Delivery Van, reappeared again under the ‘Castoys’ name in liveries such as Royal Mail, Post Office Telephones and BOAC Airlines. In addition, Philipp Ullmann’s son, Henry, came back from a visit to the USA full of enthusiasm for the adoption of plastic and a Rolls Royce and Standard Vanguard were made in various scales, as well as a series of Austin trucks.
Although Corgi dominated Mettoy production from 1956 onwards, numerous plastic toys continued to be made. These tended to be larger and more expensive toys, making them more likely to be seasonal sellers at Christmas time.
As such, they are perhaps not as well known, and illustrations of them are more likely to be found in trade catalogues than in advertising material distributed to the buying public, unlike the Corgi range where annual catalogues were issued. Mettoy’s policy was to deal through wholesalers, whereas they used a different approach in order to establish Corgi in the diecast market and employed a team of travellers to go round toy shops with samples.
A good idea of what Mettoy was offering the trade for Christmas comes from a supplementary catalogue issued in November 1958 to encourage extra seasonal orders, as suggested by the holly decoration on the front page. Wholesalers were informed of “lines available for immediate delivery by fast road service”, though a warning was added that “at this late season of the year we are unable to guarantee delivery of additional orders against the remainder of the lines contained in the full range of Mettoy Playthings”.
The inventory is certainly a mixed bag, covering toys made from diecast, tinplate, plastic, polythene and vinyl. Some of the retail selling prices seem a bit steep, too. 47s 6d. (£2.37½ in today’s currency) would have bought a Mechanical Tractor Set containing an antiquated tinplate tractor with a selection of attachments.
A collector would love to find such a set today, but for Christmas 1958 a boy would probably have preferred Santa to bring him the latest Corgi Major Carrimore Car Transporter Gift Set, complete with four cars, for 29s 11d (just under £1.50) or the Bloodhound Guided Missile set for 34s 6d (£1.72½)
That season, Mettoy continued to offer the large and heavy diecast ‘Castoys’, such as a tractor and trailer at 24s 6d (£1.22½p) and a single deck bus for a reasonable 10s 6d (52½p), complete with opening side door with passenger stepping out.
Though plastic toys are often considered cheaper than metal ones, it’s interesting to note that another Mettoy coach, moulded in plastic with a transparent superstructure and fitted with battery lights, cost more than twice as much (25s or £1¼p).
Being larger, it was, of course, easier to fit batteries inside plastic toys, and another of the 1958 offerings, a Fire Chief car (based on an American Packard), also had electric headlamps. A plastic jet fighter that fired rockets out of the front could also be seen as prefiguring the action features that made later Corgi models like the James Bond Aston Martin so popular.
Lithographed tin still had its place in a series of buildings – a filling station, service station and airport, which at around £3 each, are likely to have been only available in the lead up to Christmas.
The same material was also used for another Mettoy speciality line, the toy typewriters, which still turn up quite often at toy fairs. The nicely lithographed keyboard is only for decoration, however. If you actually want to type something, you have to turn the central knob to select every letter of a word individually. In the 1950s these were no doubt seen as suitable toys for girls to play with in preparation for moving on to working as typists.
Even more politically incorrect by today’s standards were a toy automatic machine gun and a ‘pop apart shooting set’ consisting of a rifle and a native tribesman whose head can be blown off! Compared to these, the ‘Sunshine’ vinyl toy range of baby animals look innocuous enough.
But Mettoy’s piece de resistance for the 1958 season has to be its electric Jaguar, a 9½in long model with plastic body and diecast base. The level of realism exceeds any of the other Mettoy cars: it has separately cast chrome bumpers and grille, realistic white wall tyres, interior fittings, steering and battery-operated forward and reverse movement. Even the leaping Jaguar bonnet mascot is present and correct!
At 39s 6d (nearly £2) this would have been an expensive toy in 1958, when an average wage was just over £16 per week. It might be that Mettoy had difficulty selling its more expensive toys which is why stocks were still being offered to the trade as late as November, by which time shops would presumably have already placed their advance Christmas orders.
One thing’s sure, though: if a collector could buy some of these toys today at 1958 prices, well, that really would make his Christmas special, wouldn’t it?
PICTURED CLOCKWISE FROM TOP RIGHT Dating from 1953, this Austin lorry was an early Mettoy venture into the field of plastic toys; Mettoy’s Jaguar was the best of its plastic toys; This Mettoy Jet Plane made of ‘unbreakable’ polythene and powered by a friction motor.