Along with an irrational hatred of bananas, cars have been one of the few constants in my life. Its virtual building blocks if you will.
My interest in cars began, like many obsessions, at a very early age. ‘Car’ was my first word. I blame Matchbox, makers of childhood crack in the form of tiny, intricately detailed and utterly addictive diecast motors. My parents bought me one a week. I can’t blame them: when your vocabulary is limited to an insistent three letter word, your needs and wants are fairly easy to meet.
Undoubtedly I said ‘car’ a lot because it’s easier than ‘the complete works of Shakespeare mother’ but Matchbox turned this verbal laziness into a lifelong obsession. Now, many, many years later cars are pretty much my life. And I blame it on Lesney. Which, I realised at an baffling late stage in my voyage of discovery, is a thing, a company, not a bloke with a girly name.
Anyone growing up in the 70s or 80s – or earlier – will know that collecting Matchbox toys was an unavoidable part of childhood, like jumpers for goalposts and your first pair of DMs. My own car collection was my first real possession, my pride and joy.
I’m not in touch with the sub-teen youth market but I’m guessing that diecast cars are probably not as popular as they once were. Back in their heyday, from the 50s to the 80s, Matchbox et al churned out huge quantities of different models for the simple and sole purpose of skimming them along carpets. Matchbox was the main protagonist, offering well made, inevitably matchbox sized and pocket money priced models that my mum and dad hoovered up for me. Corgi and Hot Wheels tried to muscle in on the scene but if you wanted authenticity and the quality – and, crucially, maximum toys per square inch of toy box – you had to go with Lesney’s Matchbox range.
A chance encounter with a real life version of one of my Matchbox toys recently made me realise how diverse and offbeat the Matchbox range was. You might expect it to have been ram full of everyday classics, miniature copies of Dad’s Car, and to some extent it was. But amongst the Transatlantic mix of Fords and Lincolns were some rare and little-known choices, like the Saab Sonett I drove this week.
Saab never sold its wilfully quirky Sonett in Britain, yet many people of a certain age know it well from its Matchbox version. Those that don’t quite recall it describe the Sonett as Toy-Like, because it’s lodged there somewhere in their psyche. All of which goes to show how long and wide the Matchbox shadow is cast across the lives of car enthusiasts of a certain age.
Until this week I’ve never encountered a real Sonett but I’ve always had a soft spot for them. Getting the chance to drive one, I’ll admit, was a bit of a childhood wish fulfilled. And that’s all because of Lesney and his Matchboxes.
Matchbox seems to have recognised what even its customers couldn’t vocalise: that people wanted to play with exotic, unusual cars. The Sonett played to this need, as did the countless intricately detailed prototypes and show cars that formed part of the Matchbox range. Every so often I flip through a car book and discover the real version of the Matchbox car I had as a child, along the way also finding out its real name because Matchbox often chose made-up names to describe them.
Perhaps Matchbox played a more influential role in the lives of car enthusiasts than many of us acknowledge. Films, TV and family cars are obvious influences. But those miniature Matchbox models racing down hallways quite possibly influenced generations more….
I owned a lot of model cars as a boy and in many cases also owned their real life cousins. Now, many, many years later I own a garage full of cars. Not, of course, that there’s any link between the two…
If you fancy experiencing the real-world Matchbox models of your youth you can hire from us from £95 per day. Watch out for the Saab Sonett on BBC2 early in 2016.
With thanks to Peter Counsell for inspiring the original idea for this article. Follow him @CounsellPeter