A Major achievement?
We consider what might be termed the poor relations of the Lesney Matchbox range, the Major Pack and King-Size series.
I may, of course, have upset some readers already with that brief introduction – but are Lesney’s Major series really mainstream collectables? Talking recently to Matchbox guru Graham Hamilton of Rockertron Toys, I think that there is some justification for that remark. Insofar as he’s aware (after many years of dealing in the Lesney market), he sees collectors buying Majors as an add-on – but definitely not for their own sake.
“I know of no-one who collects just the Majors,” he told me, “and the same goes for the King-Size. They are subsets of the Matchbox output and those primarily into the 1-75 series will buy them – but certainly not exclusively.”
This set me thinking. Why are the Majors not so popular; and why are their prices depressed when compared to the 1-75 vehicles? Spanning the years 1958 to 1964, there were plenty made although, of course, they were knocked out in far fewer numbers than their smaller stablemates. The range was quite finite, with just ten reference numbers featuring and, rather akin to the 1-75 series, some numerals doubled up in use, as a new model was introduced. But even that ploy only led to a 16 model range in all. On that basis one would have thought that here was a happy hunting ground for the collector with a known, established series and nothing so frustrating as colour variations and pre-production models to complicate matters. After all, we know that those trials and essays can run into hundreds of pounds when it comes to the 1-75 series.
Graham is a little dismissive of the price guides doing the rounds, declaring that any seller would be hard pressed to get more than £300 or so for a mint Major example; indeed, the bulk of the M series falls under the £100 mark. Scarcer models do exist though, that cannot be denied: a good example is M5, the Massey Ferguson 780 Harvester, of which at least seven versions are known. One or two are colour variations but for the most part it’s the wheels and hubs that single out the oddities. There are shades of the 1-75 series at play here, although this is small beer in comparison. Ramsay’s quoted a mixed wheel arrangement involving silver hubs and grey tyres (not black) and knobbly grey plastic wheels as falling into the £1,500-2,000 bracket back in 2009 – but that seems a tad optimistic, to put it mildly. The orange-hubbed harvester examples tend to be pricey and then it’s more down to box art, with later artwork attracting some buyers.
Construction vehicle based
But back to the rationale behind the Lesney move to slightly bigger models. The range, as anyone will tell you, is largely construction vehicle based. Why? Well, maybe it was something to do with the burgeoning motorway system that was finally getting underway in the UK, with the M6 being an initial section. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that neither Dinky nor Corgi had heavy plant and earth scraping models in their ranges at the time. Lesney had the small scale miniature market tightly sewn up, so expansion probably necessitated the thought of larger models. When your competitors were already fielding plenty of cars, commercials and vans, clearly some thinking outside the box (if you’ll pardon the pun) was requisite.
For that reason, perhaps, there are some delightful models to ponder on. The Ruston Bucyrus (does anyone know how to pronounce that name?) broke new ground (sorry, I’ll try and stop this), and was, and is, a superb replica of the real thing, even if it does lack the necessary wires and connecting belts. Dump trucks also have a following, even if they are less prosaic; and there were plenty of tractor cabs and trailers to keep the youthful purchaser occupied. Some truly innovative models were manufactured, with the usual high degree of detail that was a Lesney hallmark.
Paradoxically, the company fell down on packaging, which can infuriate today’s collector. Take M6, the Scammel Transporter. A great little toy, with detachable tractor unit, finished in eye-catching claret and blue and with Lesney logos, it’s a memorable model (and I had one, years back): however, you try finding a mint example. The tractor was simply placed on the carrier bed when packaged so that it rolled back and forth in transit. The hitch on the tractor can scrape the trailer paintwork; and the drawbar itself is capable of puncturing the box. In short, it’s a recipe for disaster and because there were no packing pieces, mint examples simply don’t surface.
I also have to admire the Inter State Double Freighter, a real slice of Americana that would have never been seen over here. Marked with the Cooper Jarrett logo, it’s an impressive model and is even famous, for it appeared on one episode of Thunderbirds. Yes, honest – check out the Zero-X drama when the jet cannot land because of a bomb and you’ll see this vehicle in the background, at the airport.
But back to my initial question: why the lack of interest? Part of the problem could well lie in the King-Size range (which will be a follow-up article, for anyone who is interested). The King-Size were more or less concurrent in terms of dates, and bit by bit the Major range was absorbed by the former. Yes, the King-Size range was bigger, both in numbers and physical size, but the cross-over models are there for all to see. This was a real attempt to take on the establishment in the shape of Corgi and Dinky - but that’s another story. For my money, the Majors were a stepping stone to (literally) bigger things. Graham has another take on this: to his mind, the irregularity in box sizes doesn’t help matters. Lesney’s 1-75 series packaging was pretty uniform in that respect, making them rather more user-friendly.
Whatever the reason for the Major’s fall from grace, the fact remains that they are every bit as good as their smaller brethren – and much more affordable.
Could now be the time to indulge?