The term die-cast toy here refers to any toy or collectible model produced by using the die casting method of putting molten lead or zinc alloy in a mold to produce a particular shape. Such toys are made of metal, with plastic, rubber, glass, or other machined metal parts. Wholly plastic toys are made by a similar process of injection moulding, but the two methods are distinct because of the properties of the materials.
The metal used in die-casting is either a lead alloy (used early on), or more commonly, Zamak (called Mazak in the UK), an alloy of zinc with small quantities of aluminium and copper. Lead or iron are impurities that must be carefully avoided in Zamac, as they give rise to a deterioration of the metal most commonly called zinc pest. The terms white metal or pot metal are also used when applied to alloys based more on lead or iron. The most common die-cast vehicles are scale models of automobiles, aircraft, military vehicles, construction equipment, and trains, although almost anything can be produced by this method, like Monopoly game pieces, furniture handles, or metal garden sprinklers.
Diecast (or die cast, or die-cast) toys were first produced early in the 20th century by manufacturers such as Meccano (Dinky Toys) in the United Kingdom, Dowst Brothers (TootsieToys) in the United States and Fonderie de précision de Nanterre (Solido) in France. The first models on the market were basic, consisting of a small vehicle body with no interior. In the early days, as mentioned, it was common for impurities in the alloy to result in zinc pest, and the casting would distort, crack, or crumble. As a result, diecast toys made before World War II are difficult to find in good condition. The later high-purity Zamak alloy avoided this problem.
Lesney began making diecast toys in 1947. Their popular Matchbox 1-75 series was so named because there were always 75 different vehicles in the line, each packaged in a small box designed to look like those used for matches. These toys became so popular that the "Matchbox" became widely used as a generic term for any diecast toy car, regardless of manufacturer.
The popularity of diecast toys developed through the 1950s as their detail and quality increased. More companies entered the field, including successful brands like Corgi brand, produced by Mettoy, Italian Mercury, Danish Tekno, or German Schuco and Gama Toys. Corgi Toys appeared in 1956 and pioneered the use of interiors and windows in their models.
In 1968, Hot Wheels were introduced in the United States by Mattel to address the complaint that they had no line of toys for boys to balance their line of Barbie dolls for girls. Because they looked fast and were fast (they were equipped with a low-friction wheels/axles), Hot Wheels quickly became the most popular diecast cars in the toy market, becoming one of the world's top sellers, challenging the popularity of Matchbox.
Since 2009, the Diecast Hall of Fame inducts designers, industry executives and others that have made major contributions to the industry.
Although advertising had been used by Meccano (Dinky Toys) since 1934, during the 1960s new companies began to use diecast vehicles exclusively as promotional items. The idea that children play a large role in a family's purchasing decisions was key. There is also the fact that children grown up to buy products that they were exposed to when young. Matchbox vehicles mildly advertised a variety of mainly British products like Singer sewing machines, Tetley tea, Pickford's movers, or Coca-Cola. As time passed, companies such as McDonald's, Sears Roebuck, Kodak and Texaco commissioned toymakers to produce promotional models featuring their names and logos or licensed their use. One early example was an American Airlines London bus produced by Matchbox, an idea some other airlines quickly copied.
Beginning in the mid 1970s, trucks and other commercial vehicles grew greatly in popularity. Matchbox started the trend when they re-launched their Models of Yesteryear range. They made a score of different versions of their Y-12 Ford Model T van, along with other trucks in colorful liveries such as Coca-Cola, Colman's Mustard, and Cerebos Salt. They also made promotional versions for Smith's Crisps (potato chips) and Harrods department store. Some models were made exclusively for certain markets and immediately became quite expensive elsewhere: Arnott's Biscuits (Australia) and Sunlight Seife (soap, Germany) are examples.
Corgi copied this idea when they expanded the Corgi Classics line in the mid-1980s, producing more than 50 versions of a 1920s era Thornycroft van. Corgi also produced hundreds of versions of their 1/64 scale Routemaster bus in the 1980s and 1990s. Multitudes of versions were made to be sold exclusively in the stores advertised on the bus flanks. Harrods, Selfridges, Gamley's, Hamley's, Army & Navy, Underwood's, and Beatties were among the British stores employing this idea. A South African chain called Dion was one of the few overseas firms to follow suit. Many collectors took pleasure in the variety, but some disparaged the development as "collecting paint" as the castings were identical; only the decorations were different. In any event, it was a great cost saving measure as companies put less money into expensive casting tooling. So, by the 1980s a new trend had solidified as many diecast vehicles were now being purchased by adults as collectibles, and not just as toys for children.
Despite their popularity, many diecast manufacturers went belly-up in the 1980s. Meccano (Dinky), Matchbox and Corgi all went bankrupt within a three-year span which essentially reflected the economic climate in the UK at that time. It had become virtually impossible to manufacture in England and compete on the world market. (Mattel had also long since shifted most of their production from the USA to the Far East.) Matchbox was purchased by a Hong Kong conglomerate named Universal Holdings which moved production from England to Macau. Later (1997), Mattel bought Matchbox, essentially making Hot Wheels and the Matchbox 1-75 line sister brands. The two brands continue to sell under their own separate names.
Meanwhile, Corgi had been acquired by Mattel which moved the office from Swansea, Wales to Leicester, England and moved manufacturing to China. A new company called Oxford Diecast acquired the former Corgi factory in Swansea and commenced manufacture for themselves and Corgi. Matchbox also bought the Dinky Toys name, long after the Liverpool factory was closed. Manufacturing resumed in China. In a series of subsequent shifts, a group of Corgi executives bought back the Corgi Classics line from Mattel and portions of the Matchbox line were sold to an Australian company named Tyco (no relation to the Tyco line of HO scale trains, originally made by Mantua Metalworking in New Jersey, USA).
Effectively from the ashes of Matchbox's bankruptcy arose Lledo, a company created by former Matchbox partner Jack Odell. Odell believed that British collectibles for British collectors could still be profitably produced in England. Lledo took over part of the Matchbox factory in Enfield and introduced their "Models of Days Gone" line of diecast vehicles in 1983. The first series of Days Gone models included re-makes of some of the most popular and respected first and second-generation Matchbox Models of Yesteryear. Lledo models were very popular collectibles in the 1980s, leading to a period of diversification (incl. the Vanguards line of classic post-war British vehicles), but by the 1990s they were eclipsed by other brands and by 2002 Lledo went broke. Parts of their line were purchased by Corgi which moved production to China.
Oxford Diecast developed a range of promotional stylised vehicles and maintained its manufacturing base in Swansea until 2000 when it relocated its production to a plant it owned in China. As such it was the last large scale producer of diecast models to manufacture in the UK, although it choose to own and build its own Chinese factory rather than outsource production entirely.
In the 1970s, Japanese toymaker Popy (owned by the larger Bandai) created a line of die-cast toys based on the popular Super Robot anime series of the period. The line was named Chogokin, meaning "Super Alloy", that futuristic metal robot Mazinger Z was said to be made of. The weighty toys were meant to give kids a sense of heftiness of robots in the cartoons. In a similar manner, Popy's other line was Jumbo Machinder (known in the West as Shogun Warriors) whose metal make-up gave children the idea that their toys were made of the same stuff as the "real" robots. The line proved popular, with some figures imported to the west. In the late nineties, Bandai created the Soul of Chogokin line of adult collector figures featuring metal parts, as a callback to the original Chogokin toys, and then the smaller but similar Super Robot Chogokin line.
1/76 scale buses became very popular in Britain in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with competing lines from Corgi (the Original Omnibus Company) and Gilbow Holdings (Exclusive First Editions, or EFE) fighting for the market. The 1/76 scale fits in with British 'OO' scale model trains.
By the 1990s, 1:18 scale diecast cars became very popular in the United States, but the popularity of that scale waned approaching the millennium. By 1990 also, NASCAR stock car racing enjoyed increasing popularity in the USA, and a large number of racing-related NASCAR diecast cars and trucks, painted in the colors of the racing teams, appeared from various manufacturers. Racing Champions was a leading brand, but there were many others.
Diecast aircraft and military models also became popular. While Dinky had made aircraft decades earlier, new companies entered the field in the 1980s and 1990s. One producer was Dyna-Flytes, which went bankrupt in the 1990s, but their market share was quickly taken up by their competitors, including Schabak, GeminiJets, Herpa, and Dragon Wings.
In 2005 Oxford Diecast entered the scale accurate market with range of vehicles in popular British railway scales of 1:76 and 1:148. This and a radically enhanced product in its 1:43 scale range meant the company rapidly grew sales and UK market share, becoming the dominant player within 5 years. Licensing agreements with BBC TV for the Top Gear programme and UK Haulier Eddie Stobart followed as they expanded into licensed product.
Die-cast toys and models come in various scales, the most popular ones being:
Items such as toy restaurants and filling stations are sometimes sold separately from the cars, to be used as playsets. Toy raceways are also sold for use with die-cast cars, which have become more complicated in recent years, usually involving loops and complicated curves. Also produced are carry cases made specifically for children to be able to travel with their cars.