Wall Street History
Jack Odell...and the Case of the Lost Toys
[WSH returns Aug. 3]
Jack Odell died the other day, July 7, at the age of 87. Now you
might be thinking, who was Jack Odell? Only the brains behind
one of the great products of our time, Matchbox toys, that’s who.
Now your editor has a little personal history with these toy cars,
trucks and tractors. I was born in Plainfield, NJ, 1958, and for
the first seven years of my life, through first grade, lived in a
modest little house on a quiet street. Our family then moved to
Summit, NJ, in the summer of ’65, which proved to be good
timing because the Plainfield riots hit two years later but I
Back in those pre-1967 innocent times, though, I was allowed to
walk down to Sam’s newspaper stand where I would pick up
some baseball and rock ‘n’ roll cards. Sam’s also had Matchbox
cars, which were my brother’s big thing, he being six years older
and a car fanatic.
I was a pretty smart kid then, much brighter than I am today, and
was really into rock music and the British Invasion since my
Aunt Rose had bought us G.E. transistor radios. That thing was
glued to my ear, 24/7, and tuned to the famous WABC-AM,
which has absolutely nothing to do with Matchbox cars, I’ll
Anyway, my brother had quite a collection of the toys, but one
time when he was away at camp, I was playing with them and,
according to legend, sold some of the cars to my brother’s
friends. Well, actually, they say I was just giving them away,
being a philanthropic sort even then.
Mom found out and was furious, so she took out her nail polish
and put my brother’s initials on all of his remaining cars. Harry
then came home from camp and was at first mad at me, thinking
I had drawn all over them. Of course you all should know me
well enough by now; I would never do that to a collectible.
Eventually, Harry took it out on Mom. I think we had liver that
evening as punishment, it being a Catholic thing as well in those
If you’re familiar with how valuable Matchbox cars became over
the years, you’re probably thinking, no wonder the Trumbore
boys had to work as hard as they did later on. They couldn’t
afford to retire early! Some of the cars have seen their value
soar from an initial purchase price of 50 cents back in the 60s
to hundreds of dollars today, if you have one of the rarer ones
in top condition. But in our case, it was like taking a Picasso or
Renoir and scribbling “HT” right in the middle.
Alas, otherwise my brother and I had a great childhood, thanks to
our parents providing a loving home, but geezuz .we just wish
we had those cars in pristine condition today. [Harry is also still
upset to this day he can’t find his Pete Rose rookie card, while I
managed to retain most of mine.]
As for Jack Odell, his is a classic story. Born to a working-class
family in East London in 1920, Jack was expelled from school at
age 13 and worked menial jobs for Simms Motor Units. Until
the outbreak of the war, he also did small stuff such as operating
a cinema projector. In other words, Jack Odell seemed to be
But the war proved to be the salvation for many in Britain. Jack
joined the Royal Army Service Corps, and later the Royal
Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. He learned a trade,
mechanic, and served for five years in North Africa and Italy,
where he achieved the rank of sergeant and found himself in
charge of maintenance of transport, including tanks.
When he was on leave, Jack Odell worked on Primus stoves and
by the end of the war he had saved about $500, at which time he
joined up with two fellow ex-servicemen, Leslie and Rodney
Smith (not related) who had earlier formed Lesney Products.
Odell had wanted his own die-casting business, but when he
couldn’t find a manufacturing facility, he found the Smiths
in a bombed-out London pub called The Rifleman.
The trio set out to make die castings for the electrical and car
industries, but in their downtime they thought about getting into
toys. Odell came up with a miniature steamroller for his
daughter and her show-and-tell at school and by the next year,
1953, Lesney had a production line for the little model. Coupled
with a model state coach with a team of horses, and the
subsequent coronation of Queen Elizabeth II upon the death of
King George VI, Lesney, with the miniature horse-drawn golden
coach had an instant hit. More than a million were sold for the
equivalent of 40 cents.
Lesney then decided to branch out and package little cars, trucks
and buses in the matchbox format and the rest is history. Odell,
as the engineer, monitored the car industry and updated his
models frequently to include details on everything from Land
Rovers, to Jaguars, to London buses.
Lesney was still doing a bang-up business in manufacturing
castings to industry, but by the time it went public in 1960 it was
producing one million toy cars a week. Soon, the company was
employing 6,000 and creating one million a day. “We produce
more Rolls-Royces in a single day than the Rolls-Royce
company has made in its entire history,” Odell told the New
York Times in 1962.
75 percent of Lesney’s production went overseas, mostly Japan
and the U.S., but by the 1970s, it was facing stiff competition
from other brands such as Corgi and Mattel’s Hot Wheels. By
1982, Lesney declared bankruptcy, was acquired by Hong
Kong’s Universal Toys, and then the Matchbox brand was
picked up by Mattel in 1997; but Jack Odell was long gone,
having kept much of his wealth despite the company’s issues.
As for the Smiths, Rodney emigrated to Australia early on in the
business, while Leslie was the marketing brains behind
Matchbox as Jack Odell focused on design.
In reading Leslie’s obituary from the London Times, Leslie
having died in May, 2005, it’s said he was a leader in labor
relations, which were among the best in the country.
“Faced with the fact that women made the best toymakers, but
had to get their children to and from school, he organized a
convoy of double-decker buses to enable every worker to pick up
And so we remember Matchbox toys and their designer, Jack
Odell. But maybe my brother and I should track down his old
friends to see if we can make a trade, like one of my multiple
Mickey Mantle cards for a 1968 Mercedes Benz.
Sources: London Times; Stephen Miller / Wall Street Journal;
Douglas Martin / New York Times; Harry Trumbore
Wall Street History returns in two weeks.