Palitoy: Best of British
Palitoy, the all-action company that ventured to the stars.
Growing up the Palitoy name didn’t really mean a great deal. In fact, the name on the packaging of numerous Star Wars or Action Man figures was hardly noticed as they were gleefully ripped open to snag the contents inside. Now, of course, I realise just how much influence the Palitoy name had on my formative years, as many of my favourite toys – particularly those based on Star Wars – were all made by the Leicestershire-based company.
Nowadays, the Palitoy name is big business with collectors willing to pay large money for that all-important logo. Take the recent Star Wars auction at Vectis in which a Boba Fett figure sold for an incredible £18,000. In some ways it wasn’t the figure that people were paying for, it was the name on the blister pack because the Palitoy logo was slightly unusual compared to more common examples. Now auctioneers are crying out for those original Palitoy Star Wars figures because there simply aren’t enough to go around – once again another testament to the company’s influence.
Before we move on to the history of Palitoy, it’s worth mentioning that interest in the company is still so high that urban legends about it are in abundance. One of the most engaging is that when the factory closed hundreds, if not thousands, of Star Wars figures were sent to landfill. Many have tried to pinpoint where that landfill might be, just in case the figures have somehow survived. Now, this may sound fanciful but a similar rumour did the rounds about Atari’s ET videogame, released in 1982. Atari had high hopes for the game, as it was based on the hugely popular Spielberg film, and manufactured five million cartridges – sadly only one and a half million were sold and the rest had to be sent to landfill. Incredibly the landfill site was located last year and 1,300 of the original 700,000 cartridges were discovered, with others buried too deep to excavate. So, some urban legends are true… time to get your metal detectors out everyone!
Although Palitoy is best known for Action Man and Star Wars, the company’s history dates back to 1919 when, at the age of just 18, founder Alfred Pallet decided to set up a company to manufacture celluloid and plastic fancy goods, including a small amount of toys. Originally the firm was known as Cascelloid Limited and progress was exceptionally slow – in the first year it only made £90. Cascelloid’s first factory was based inside an old lodging house in Britania Street, Leicester. However, the company was saved – like so many early toy manufacturers – by Woolworth’s, who wanted cheap celluloid toys to sell in its stores. In 1920 it placed orders for several Cascelloid items, including a toy windmill known as the Flitafast. A bit like Airfix, Cascelloid also produced hair slides, rattles, egg timers and other kitchen utensils… toys were just part of the business.
Things were going well until a fire in September 1927, which destroyed the Britania Street factory, along with an entire stock of products and raw materials. Even worse, one worker was killed in the blaze. Despite this tragic set back a new factory was opened six months later in a new location: Cobden Street, Leicester. Once in the new premises, things progressed at a rapid pace and by 1930 Cascelloid was employing 250 people and manufactured products for Woolworth’s, Marks and Spencer, Boots, Rowntrees, Courtaulds and Huntley Palmer. Then in 1931 Cascelloid became a subsidiary of British Xylonite Company Ltd. which specialised in plastic innovations – in fact, it was the first company to use injection-moulding to make products. By 1937 new premises had to be opened in Coalville on the site of a billiard/dance hall. That same year the ‘Palitoy Playthings’ trademark began to be used on a new range of soft-bodied dolls.
Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s Cascelloid continued to add to its toy range and began producing push and pull-along toys, squeaky baby toys, model vehicles, fancy dress costumes, board games and even table tennis sets. However, it was really the mid 1960s that saw the company rise to new levels, thanks to the introduction of the Tiny Tears doll in 1965 and then Action Man a year later. Now trading as Palitoy, the company fought off fierce competition from Lines Bros to acquire the production rights to create toys based on Hasbro’s exceptional GI Joe line of boy’s ‘dolls’.
The story goes that Palitoy sales director Hal Belton bought his grandson a GI Joe figure during a trip to the States and, once he realised how much his grandson loved it, he quickly took the toy into work to show general manager Miles Fletcher. Initially there were concerns about whether boys should play with a ‘doll’ and, in fact, the term was banned when discussing the range. Despite this Action Man was launched in 1966 and, although at first they were just repackaged GI Joes, in the 1970s Palitoy began producing its own British-themed figures.
In 1968 the Palitoy division was sold to American company General Mills Incorporated, which despite being a food company, had diversified into consumer products with the acquisition of Parker Bros. and Kenner. This link with Kenner led to one of the most important periods of Palitoy’s history and, after sub-licensing the Star Wars rights from Kenner, it began releasing Star Wars toys in 1978. By November 1978 the company had grown to 1,000 employees and sales topped £20 million – the demand, in particular, for Star Wars products was phenomenal and initially the company struggled to keep up.
In fact, this struggle to keep up with demand is now why so many collectors are keen to acquire those original Palitoy Star Wars toys because they simply weren’t produced in the same huge quantities as figures from the follow-up films. Movie legend states that most studios expected Star Wars to be a huge flop, so Kenner and Palitoy were understandably cautious about flooding the market with stock. George Lucas, on the other hand, was condident and made millions from the merchandising rights.
However, despite this success, in the early 1980s General Mills’ passion for acquiring more and more companies proved to be its undoing. In 1981 Palitoy, Denys Fisher, Chad Valley and the recently acquired Airfix were all based at the Coalville factory and redundancies soon followed. The death knell for Palitoy sounded in 1984 though when General Mills stopped all European production and the company switched from manufacturing to marketing/distributing for two years until its closure in 1986. More than 60 years of the Leicester company was brought to an end but the name will live on for much longer.