Benbros: Best of British
Remembering British diecast manufacturer Benbros
My memories of Benbros toys are still as vivid today as they have ever been and hopefully will remain with me forever. They date back to the early 1960s when I fondly remember being taken for a bus ride to the local outdoor market every Saturday morning by my dear mother. There we trawled along row upon row of stalls selling all manner of goods and mum would always linger for what seemed like hours at the pot stall. This was back in the days when market stalls were far different to those timid affairs of today. In those days the goods were stacked high and costermongers shouted at the top of their voices to attract trade. On the dreaded pot stall tea sets were sold from large wicker baskets lined with straw. The pot woman, as mum called her, was a little fat lady with no front teeth who stood behind a battered old tea chest holding a big wooden mallet barking out her prices until someone raised their hand to bag a bargain. Every time a sale was made her hammer hit the top of the tea chest as if a shot gun had been fired sending all the fat pigeons racing for cover. My mum could never resist a bargain and nearly always fell for the sales patter of the pot woman. Already loaded up with vegetables, fruit and countless other groceries, mum would rely on me to carry home any crockery she bought. “You will carry it for me won’t you son, you’re a good lad,” she would say loading me up like a human pack horse. In the bottom corner of the market was the toy stall that we had to go past to get to our bus stop and every now and then I’d have enough money to buy a toy. If mum had any money left she would often top up what I had in order to get what I wanted. The interesting thing was that this market stall was almost entirely stocked with goods from the lesser known diecast toy companies including Charbens, Lone Star, Crescent, Budgie and, of course, Benbros. The mouthwatering array of toys stacked high at the back was a sight to behold and making a decision on what to buy was never easy.
The fact that so many Benbros toys found their way onto market stalls is reflective of the distribution chain of the smaller diecast firms who wholesaled large quantities of stock into trade warehouses where market traders bought their goods, rather than developing their own complicated direct distribution systems to retailers. Benbros did, however, employ travelling salesmen to visit shops and take orders after launching its smaller TV Series and Mighty Midget ranges. I once owned a Benbros travelling salesman’s sample box with the toys neatly stitched onto card inside the flat red box. I can never remember seeing Dinky Toys on this market stall as they obviously distributed directly to toy shops rather than trade warehouses. Basically I would imagine Dinky Toys were too expensive for market traders to handle. Benbros toys by comparison were always far cheaper than Dinkies – much to the relief of my mum! They were great value toys despite being of lesser quality and detail than Dinky, but they could not stand the same amount of playwear as Dinky or Lesney Toys.
Another place where Benbros Toys were always to be found were those little seaside souvenir shops and arcades, one of which I clearly remember visiting during our caravan holidays in Skegness.
Benbros was formed by two brothers, Jack and Nathan Beneson who hailed from the Golders Green area of London. Dates relating to the formation of the company, originally known as Beneson Bros, vary but it was sometime during the late 1940s. One thing that is certain, however, is that metal toys had been in short supply during the Second World War so the post war years offered great opportunities for new firms with millions of kids ready to sink their precious pocket money into new exciting diecast toys. It became a very competitive market in which some thrived and others fell by the wayside - usually through lack of sufficient funding. North London became a hot bed of diecast toy firms in the late 1940s and Benbros was there right there in the thick of it. The name was derived from a simple contraction of Beneson Brothers and the factory was located at 145 Gosport Road, Walthamstow. Sadly little detail is known about the early years of the company. Like most of its competitors its first toys were a little crude in design and detail and included various ranges of soldiers, cowboys and farm animals marketed under the ‘Qualitoy’ banner. The range grew quickly to include all manner of toys from a cap firing machine gun to a tractor equipped with various agricultural implements and another with a front loading shovel. Other early Benbros toys included Buffalo Bill’s horse-drawn covered wagon, a model of Stephenson’s Rocket and a nicely proportioned model of a Ruston Bucyrus 10RB face shovel which they also mounted on the back of a Guy lorry. The latter was always a great favourite of mine as a kid although the swinging door at the back of the bucket and the side rope winding handles were always prone to break off after a while. It wasn’t uncommon for the whole digger to break off the lorry if you were a bit too rough with it! ‘Qualitoy’ models came in good looking boxes with attractive pictorial graphics. Some collectors maintain that the box illustrations were almost always better than the models themselves! I suppose that was a common marketing ploy. At some stage Benbros purchased a range of dies from Timpo Toys when it ceased production of road vehicles. One of these was an articulated truck that came with various trailers including a box van, petrol tanker and a log hauling unit. These are all rare models today if found with their original boxes.
It seems highly likely that the Beneson brothers formed a fairly close association with Les and Rodney Smith of nearby Lesney Toys as in 1951 Benbros was contracted to cast the horses for the large Lesney State Coach made for the Festival of Britain celebrations. This model was short lived, however, as the Korean War brought severe restrictions on the use of zinc. Relations might have strained a little later, however, when Benbros released its own version of the miniature Royal State Coach which was almost an exact replica of the Lesney toy. While Lesney’s coach sold over a million the Benbros version was somewhat less successful as by this time Lesney was way ahead of Benbros in terms of production capacity and marketing. Collectors are sometimes confused by these two models as they are so similar. The difference is that the Benbros coach has the ‘E.R.’ Royal insignia cast into its doors whereas the Lesney coach does not and the Benbros horses have ‘MADE IN ENGLAND’ cast into the top of the centre draw bar between the horses. Following the launch of Matchbox Toys in November 1953 Benbros responded by releasing its own range of miniature vehicles a year later.
While Lesney had been clever in putting its toys inside a replica matchbox the Beneson brothers came up with the quirky idea of putting its toys inside boxes made to look like tiny television sets with the picture of each model printed on the TV screen. It was a novel idea with the first few models being horse-drawn vehicles. Gradually more road vehicles were introduced to this range known as the ‘TV Series’ including an AA motorcycle unit, electric milk trolley and a Dennis Fire Engine. One of the more interesting of the early Benbros TV series was a Foden timber tractor with log trailer that, to my knowledge, is the only diecast Foden DG timber tractor ever made. As the range progressed some Benbros models became very similar to Matchbox issues. These include the orange and yellow crawler tractors, Centurian tank, ERF petrol tanker and Coca-Cola delivery truck.
The Benbros miniature range was modified in 1957 and re-branded as ‘Mighty Midgets’. The old ‘TV Series’ television boxes were replaced by new red yellow and black boxes with a simple line drawing of the model top and bottom. They now looked more like Matchbox Toys than ever. The series grew to number 51 different models by the time production ceased.
In the early 1960s Benbros launched a new range of larger scale diecasts under the Zebra Toys banner, which grew to include a number of very pleasing diecast models. One of my favourite Zebra’s was the orange and yellow ready-mixed concrete lorry based on a Foden DG cab and chassis. I saw one of these priced up at an incredible £250 recently - I think mine cost 3/6d (15.5p) – those were the days! Another great little Zebra model. Colours of models varies greatly throughout the whole range of Benbros toys which makes collecting them great fun as you never know what oddity you might find next.
For many years Benbros toys were considered to be somewhat of a poor relation to their more illustrious big brothers such as Dinky, Corgi and Spot-On, but with a huge upsurge of interest in the more obscure diecast companies of the post-war era prices are soaring ever upward.
The end of Benbros came along in the mid-1960s although existing stocks already in the distribution chain took many more years to be sold through warehouses and retail outlets. Finding them today is getting harder and harder but they are well worth the effort and they’re a British classic.