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TOYS WILL BE TOYS

England, 1952: Elizabeth II is crowned queen. Thousands jam hospitals as a deadly winter smog settles over London. Metal worker Jack Odell fashions a tiny brass steamroller for show-and-tell day at his daughter's school.

The toy's realistic details are especially striking because of the scale: The steamroller fits inside a matchbox. The reaction of everyone who sees it changes toy-car history. Odell and his partners in a small die-casting shop north of London soon begin producing Matchbox miniature trucks and cars. The metal models, a bit larger than the original and with rolling wheels, sell for the equivalent of 18 cents.

In a day when American toys all seem to beep, flash or roar on their own, kid-powered Matchbox models become a worldwide phenomenon. A generation wears out countless carpets and trouser knees propelling Matchbox firetrucks to imaginary blazes and Matchbox cars through imaginary races.

There was simply nothing to compare with Matchbox cars. Until 1968. That's when the fiendishly clever Americans invented Hot Wheels.

The difference, like the cars, was small but significant: Hot Wheels rolled farther, faster. They also came with racing stripes and zoomy decals, plus slick tracks with twisting ramps that made racing on carpet seem like crawling through sand.

Matchbox cars might have reached the end of the road but took a sharp turn instead.

The models were modified to sit on wider, faster-rolling wheels. Sales stayed so strong that Matchbox opened an American plant. The brand was eventually sold to toy giant Tyco. Then, in 1997, Matchbox took the strangest detour of all. It was sold to Mattel, makers of Hot Wheels.

"It was like GM acquiring Ford, or Coke acquiring Pepsi," says Dave Bryla, vice president of Mattel's Matchbox division. "Some people wondered if that was going to be the end of Matchbox. But it wasn't."

Not nearly. Matchbox has rolled into its 50th anniversary as one of the world's top-selling toys, second only to its rival-turned-stablemate Hot Wheels among die-cast models.

Like many other relics of the Baby Boom, old Matchbox toys have become sought-after collector's items.

Out of the box

More than 3-billion Matchbox cars and trucks have been manufactured. At an average length of 3 inches, that's enough to circle the globe six times.

There have been 12,000 different Matchbox models representing cars and trucks from around the world. The No. 1 seller: the Model A Ford.

Matchbox cars have been sold in more than 130 countries. In Europe and Australia, they're still packaged in a box; here, they come bubble-wrapped like other miniature cars.

The current line includes 75 different vehicles, a third of which are new for 2002. Most of the rest are repainted versions of older models _ just like the full-size car industry.

Matchbox figures that 80 percent of its business comes from boys age 2 to 6, another 10 percent from ages 6 to 12 and the rest from adult collectors, nearly all of whom were Matchbox kids. Hot Wheels appeal to a slightly older kid crowd.

And make no mistake, these are boy toys. "It's not some weird gender conspiracy," says Matchbox vice president Dave Bryla. "Believe me, we'd love to sell them to girls. We've thought of all sorts of ways, but it doesn't work. Girls play with dolls. Boys play with cars. That's just the way it is."

What's the difference between Matchbox and Hot Wheels?

Hot Wheels "are cars you'd never see on the street," says Bryla. "They're a boy's fantasy of a hot rod. They're about speed, power, performance and attitude. Matchbox is all about heroic power. The vast majority are about heroes and the cars they drive: fire trucks, police cars. Kids see them on the street and go: wow!"

Ageless appeal

Many of the kids who played with the original Matchbox toys are now middle-aged men playing with the same toys. At 55, Rich Burt, curator of Everett Marshall's Matchbox Road Museum in Newfield, N.J., is one of them.

"People say I never grew up," Burt says. "No, and I don't plan on it either."

Burt spends his days surrounded by 27,000 Matchbox models. He has 4,000 more at home, as well as "a very understanding wife." Burt says he fell in love with Matchbox models because "they had a lot of play value" that other models didn't.

"I remember playing with bulldozers in the dirt, making roads and all that," he says. "I played with the dump trucks. You really used your imagination."

He doesn't regret being a bit old for the Hot Wheels craze.

"Matchbox cars looked like real cars," he says. "Matchbox trucks looked real, too. A real mail truck, a real front-end loader. You knew what those were. With Hot Wheels, you got some weird thing with a dragon's head on it and wheels underneath. You didn't know what that was."

The first Matchbox truck was about 2 inches long. The same model eventually grew to about 2} inches, Burt says. There was no uniform size among Matchbox models. "A cement mixer was bigger than a sports car," Burt says.

Although they're called 1/64 scale models, today's Matchbox models are all about 3 inches long. Police cars, ambulances and motorcycles are all the same size _ and they're all made in China.

Traditionally, it was detail that separated Matchbox models from other miniature cars. Matchbox models often had more moving parts, but cost considerations have eliminated nearly all but the wheels on the standard models today.

Among other changes in the Matchbox line: fewer cars, more commercial and emergency vehicles, more name-brand tie-ins like Coca-Cola delivery trucks.

Although they're part of the same company, Matchbox says its cars are produced separately from Hot Wheels and remain more realistic. Burt says that apart from flame decals and racing stripes, the distinction isn't as strong as it used to be. "You can see the Hot Wheels influence creeping in," he says. "For us purists, that's not good."

Clean out the garage

The record auction price for a classic Matchbox car is $10,000, says Burt. "But that's really not a good barometer," he says. It was an oddball model, an early crane truck miscolored at the factory. Only a dozen were produced before the mistake was corrected. That's the sort of goof that makes coins, stamps and other collectibles valuable.

A more representative top value for a rare Matchbox is the $6,600 someone recently paid for a Chevrolet taxicab model. That one had gray wheels instead of the usual black. Only an expert would spot such a detail, much less realize that it added collectible value.

One of the most important value-enhancing details is easy enough to spot: the original box. "Of course, most people just threw them away _ which is what I did," says Burt. "Some people don't care, but others insist on having the box."

Does this have you wondering if your old toy box full of Matchbox models might turn out to be hidden treasure? Probably not, says Burt. "Everybody has that box," he says. "The odds of finding something really rare in there are small, and it's probably banged up anyway. You might as well let your kids play with them and have a good time."

But, just in case, here are some of the Matchbox vehicles most likely to help put those kids through college if you happen to find them parked among the dust bunnies:

+ No. 27 first version Low Loader, produced 1956-59

+ No. 15 second version Prime Mover, 1959-64

+ No. 11 first version Tanker, 1955-58

+ No. 75-2 second version Ferrari, 1965-69

+ No. 13-4 fourth version BP wrecker, 1965-69

Standard Matchbox cars are still cheap, under (or about) $1. Matchbox markets higher-priced specialty models (the Cars of Elvis, for example), as well as a line of planned-to-be collectibles called, appropriately, Matchbox Collectibles. They're mostly new models of vintage cars with more moving parts (opening doors and trunks, for example) than regular Matchbox cars. They cost $5 to $20.

If you buy a bunch of Matchbox cars strictly for the investment potential, you might as well not unwrap them. "It's a personal call," says Burt. "But if you want to take them out and enjoy them, that's what they're made for. Have a good time."

If you prefer the sort of Matchbox cars you remember from your childhood, they're not hard to find. There are plenty for sale on the Internet, at swap meets and in the classifieds.

How does a beginner know which ones to choose?

"If I knew what was going to make some more valuable in the future, I'd be a millionaire," Burt says. "Just buy what you like."

And don't be too fussy. A perfect, no-nicks-or-scratches model may cost $10, but the same car with a chip or two might sell for half as much. "Buy the one with the nick," Burt says. "If you find out you're really serious, you can always buy a perfect one later and sell the first one."

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