The Toys That Built America (2021) s01e03 Episode Script

Toy Car Wars

More than 10 billion vehicles sold.
More than General Motors, Ford, Toyota, and Volkswagen combined.
There are thousands upon thousands of us who were truly influenced by these toys.
Matchbox cars, Hot Wheels cars.
They get in your brain, they stick with it.
As car culture sweeps America in the 1950s, a metal worker in England creates a brand new industry.
They found a niche market that was void.
There was nobody in that market.
But when a US rival emerges- Hey, kid.
What ya got there? He owns Mattel, and his grandson is playing with somebody else's toy.
You can't seriously be proposing to take on Matchbox.
The innovations come fast and furious.
Matchbox did not see Hot Wheels coming.
Hot Wheels was always pushing the impossible, and I'm not sure if Matchbox did that.
The toy car race is on.
Our toy car will beat the real car before it even rolls off the assembly line.
We could go bankrupt.
So, you just wanna go down without a fight? I think I would say that Mattel out-childed them.
And it's a fight for millions.
There are generations whose lives were transformed by these little cars.
It sparked the imagination in ways that it's really hard to quantify.
Two years after the Allied victory in World War II, nearly three million British soldiers are still looking for work.
European cities and manufacturing capitals are in ruins, devastated by bombing.
The scope of destruction is really stunning.
World War II brought about general prosperity for the United States, but didn't do so for the United Kingdom, our principal ally.
Britain, after the war, was functionally bankrupt.
Even so, Navy buddies Leslie and Rodney Smith have just gone all in to start a die-casting business.
Die-casting is when you take molten metal or liquid metal and you actually force it into a die or a mold to create a finished product.
They combined their first names, Leslie and Rodney, to become Lesney Products and made industrial components.
Car door handles, windshield wipers, nuts and bolts.
It wasn't making them very rich, that's for sure.
But a third partner named Jack Odell is about to send them down a new path.
He's a curious cat.
He grew up rather poor in a rougher part of London.
And in fact, he said that he got kicked outta school at age 13, but he goes on to hold down a number of small, odd jobs as a teenager.
When he gets outta the Army, he gets a job doing die-cast.
And he likes it, but he wants to go out on his own.
So, he buys some of the tooling equipment and he needs a place to go.
Jack Odell had special skills as a designer and a die-caster that rapidly got enlisted by Lesney Products.
Come on, give me a challenge, huh? Something beside windshield wipers.
Jack Odell will soon launch a revolutionary toy line worth over $100 million that will produce more than five million cars per week and sell more than three billion in 130 countries.
But toward the end of 1947, Lesney is about to hit a rough patch.
One of the lulls in the die-casting business typically happened in November and December each year, as companies drew down their inventories of parts.
So, other die-casting companies had gotten into toys for the holiday buying season.
To keep money coming in, Lesney agrees to manufacture parts for a toy cap gun.
They didn't have the initiative to pursue making that toy themselves.
They were just doing the metal die-casting as a commission from another firm.
The Space Outlaw ray gun hit shelves in time for Christmas.
It's a modest hit, but Jack Odell sees more potential.
The following Christmas, Odell decides to make his own toy.
It's unlike anything on the market, yet familiar to millions of British children.
There were a lotta road rollers around London repairing the damage done from World War II, so it was a recognizable vehicle.
His steamroller is innovative in its small size, but far from a breakout hit.
Lesney Products scrapes by over the next four years, releasing one new die-cast toy every Christmas.
They decided, "Let's do more construction stuff "'cause that's what the kids are seeing.
" Most of the early toys were not necessarily successful, so Rodney Smith left the company in the early-'50s.
With one partner gone, Odell is desperate for a hit toy in the winter of 1953.
And he finds inspiration in the most newsworthy event of the times: the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
Odell's painstakingly detailed royal State Coach is his biggest model yet at four-and-a-half inches long, with eight horses and four riders.
There was no toy gun.
That coronation coach was extremely intricate.
Leslie Smith actually had his doubts that that model could be scaled down that small and get the detail.
But the craft master that Jack Odell was, he got the thing down and it turned out being their first million-selling toy.
But Odell knows the coach is a novelty.
To keep growing, he needs an idea that will last.
Meanwhile 5,000 miles away, unlike the destruction in Europe after World War II, for veterans back at home, the United States offers opportunity.
When the soldiers come back from war, the GI Bill is transformative.
It is designed to essentially give these returning soldiers something to come home to, money to go to college, and support to buy a home.
Nowhere in America does that optimism thrive more than sunny Southern California, where the husband-and-wife team who run Mattel are cashing in.
Elliot and Ruth Handler were the original dynamic duo of the toy industry, no question about it.
Elliot's role was the artistic one, and Elliott's big thing was playability.
What is the play value of this toy? And Ruth was more than just someone who did the books and the accounting for that business, even in the early days.
By 1953, the young company has just one novelty hit, called the Uke-A-Doodle.
But he didn't come up with that great idea, that toy that would sort of live on.
Elliot Handler is desperate to dream up Mattel's next bestseller to keep his company going.
And he finds inspiration while stuck in traffic.
The car companies made some not-so-exciting cars in the late-1940s.
So, in the 1950s, some great cars started to finally come out and the world was just getting really excited about the future of cars and what they look like.
People had more money.
They were buying cars.
All of the cars had rocket-looking, airplane-looking, there were tail fins, there were nose cones.
America was all geared up for the automotive industry.
Vehicles made a statement when you looked at them and they really said something about the owner.
They said something about the person that purchased that car.
There were so many different styles to choose from that it could reflect a person's personality.
Handler has an idea to tap into this new car culture for the toy market.
He spends weeks on his design, which he calls the Dream Car.
The Dream Car that Elliot drew was a very futuristic-looking car.
It had a bubble top on it that looked like a gunner part of a B-52.
Everything is space age.
Mattel will eventually be worth almost $8 billion, have the best-selling toy of all time, Hot Wheels, and the most iconic doll on the planet.
But six years before Barbie, Elliot's struggling company can't afford a costly flop.
And his car design is just a pipe dream.
Overseas, Jack Odell is still trying to follow up his coronation coach success, but he needs a new hook.
What's this? Anne, what's the idea, hmm? There's a restriction at his daughter's school.
Kids are not allowed to bring toys to school unless they can fit inside a matchbox.
A light bulb goes off in Jack's head.
What if he takes the first toy that he ever made, the road roller steamroller, and made it small enough to fit inside that matchbox? Now, the race to bring toy cars to the market and lay claim to what will become a multi-billion dollar industry is on.
Elliot Handler has put Mattel's limited resources behind his bold new toy idea.
Hoping to cash in on the 1950s car culture boom, he's built what he calls the Dream Car.
It was kind of a cross between a fighter jet with a car.
It had bulges at certain places, it was plastic and metal, and it was a good size.
It was probably 9 to 10 inches long, and it came in a few colors.
The Dream Car is a very futuristic-looking car.
This car looks like it's something out of 1960 and it's 1953.
Elliot thought that it would sell so well.
But it's a flop because of some crucial missteps.
It was a good-looking car, but it was expensive.
It sold for a $1.
98, which doesn't sound like much now, but back then, it's an awful lotta money for somebody to pay for one toy car.
It's almost $20 today.
And that's not it's only flaw.
The Dream Car was very much a toy.
It was plastic, it was simple.
Sure, it was well-designed.
But if you just looked at it, it's not screaming car.
It's screaming toy.
It didn't really have a playability factor, the ability for kids to really play with it.
There was no track, no accessories.
It didn't roll that well, and I think that's why it was a failure.
But Elliot doesn't give up.
Elliot came up with another car called the XP 1960.
Smaller version, less parts.
And that one also really didn't do that well.
A year later, they did the Dart.
That had really cool colors, but all of those did not last that long.
We just aren't moving enough units.
We need to focus on something else.
Like what? Like the new doll I've been talking about.
I told you, little girls don't want an adult doll.
And I told you, the car has reached the end of the road.
Ruth Handler was one of the first female leaders of a large publicly-traded company.
She was tough.
The '50s and the '60s was not a time for the wife to be the boss in any relationship.
But you go to Mattel, and Ruth Handler, she was the boss.
While Elliot's dream of designing a best-selling car is parked, Jack Odell is moving full speed ahead.
The guys at Lesney think Odell is really onto something.
What if they were to make little die-cast cars that are as intricately detailed as that coronation carriage or the steamroller? It is part of a tradition in the United Kingdom going back to miniature toy soldiers.
There was a lot of interest in intricacy and creating miniatures that were like the real thing.
After six months of painstaking production, Lesney Products releases a line of four miniature vehicles unlike any ever made.
They were quite unique because they were so small.
They fit in a matchbox, hence their name.
The tractor, cement mixer, dump truck, and road roller make their debut in time for the 1953 holiday season.
But they're not a hit right away.
The first construction vehicles were not very fully detailed.
At the time, they were still not putting interiors or windows in anything, so it was a hollow casting.
Matchbox finally took off in 1954 when they came out with the number-five model in the line, the London bus.
Everybody in Great Britain knew what a London bus was, and then sales took off from there.
It is this success that inspires Odell to expand the Matchbox line and begin designing cars.
You have this exact replica of these cars.
I mean, it was awesome.
And they were tiny, they're easy to carry around.
Matchbox cars were affordable.
Each car was 39 cents.
It was so easy to make your kids happy and buy them one.
Matchbox became a sensation.
They are selling millions and millions of cars.
They found a niche market that was void.
There was nobody in that market.
The Matchbox cars are the cars you see on the road.
Kids just wanted to play with 'em.
They were plentiful, they were inexpensive, so you always had more than one.
By 1955, Lesney Products scales up production, but Jack Odell keeps tight control on quality, making sure Matchbox lives up to his high standards.
Jack Odell did not have an office.
He would walk around the floor of the factory, talk to the people that were doing the work, and see how they liked it, how things were working.
Jack Odell took a lot of his work very personally.
He knew what made a car special.
It wasn't just the outline of a car.
The grills looked perfect.
The placement of the speedometer and the tachometer inside the vehicle, where most kids wouldn't even bother to look, that was important to Jack Odell.
These looked like the cars that Mom and Dad drove, and that's what really made Matchbox cars extra special.
Once Matchbox finally took off in Great Britain, they decided, "We should test other markets.
" Leslie, I'm thinking maybe we should broaden our horizons a bit across the pond.
America? Well, there's no reason why American children won't fall in love with Matchbox too, and the US market is enormous.
Aren't you worried the quality will suffer if we ramp up? No, not one bit.
And when Matchbox launches in the US, it's the jumpstart Elliot Handler needs to ignite one of the biggest business rivalries of the century.
Nearly 10 years before Of a different sort, Matchbox cars make their way to US shores.
They're importing something like 70 million cars and the kids are loving it.
And it's not just the British cars now, because now they're also producing American-made cars.
Can you give us a couple minutes? Thanks.
- What's this? - Our latest sales figures.
You hit your target buddy.
You're a millionaire by the age of 40.
With a few days to spare, huh? By 1962, Matchbox pumps out one million toy cars a week, more than all the real cars the world's big automakers make in a year.
And now, not only are they a hit in Britain, now they are getting imported.
Kids, dads, everybody loved the Matchbox cars.
They're affordable.
They're 39 cents each from 1961 to 1966.
The drawing office of a car-producing firm.
Ever since the company started, more than 250 million Matchbox models have come off the assembly line.
The models are perfect in detail for the most critical collector, yet fun for the children.
One of those children is Elliot Handler's own grandson.
In the years since Handler's Dream Car failure, Mattel has taken off, thanks to a doll called Barbie.
But her success is driven by Ruth Handler.
I'm sure his buddies were going, "Hey, what are you gonna come up with?" And I think that Elliot had to come up with something to get somewhere close to what she had done with Barbie.
Hey, kid.
What ya got there? He owns Mattel, and his grandson is playing with somebody else's toy.
And he's thinking to himself, "What's going on?" "How dare our grandson be thrilled with a toy "that Mattel doesn't make.
" Elliot didn't like that.
And to the extent that something triggered Elliot's competitive urge, that triggered it.
Elliot knew from that standpoint when seeing that that he could make a better toy car than the one his grandson was playing with.
Is that as fast as it goes? Gotta remember, he always had this passion and he had to let it go for a while, but it wasn't gone.
This ignited a brand new spark.
He had lots of opportunity to just throw in the towel, but that tenacity that he had really served Elliot Handler well, and he never let go of his own dream.
But you can't seriously be proposing that we take on Matchbox.
- I am.
- They own the market.
They created the market.
The craftsmanship of those cars is impeccable.
How could we possibly improve on it? Jack Ryan, a trained rocket scientist and Mattel's chief engineer, is tapped to create a miniature toy car for Mattel.
Jack Ryan said, "You know we can do it, "but you really don't wanna get into that business.
"Matchbox is such a leader.
"It would cost a lotta money to tool up "to make this kind of a product.
"Let's not get into it.
"Don't waste your time.
" Don't tell me we can't design a car that performs better than that, that is more fun than that.
And Elliot said, "No, we're gonna get into it.
"Come back to me with a great product.
" Okay.
But can he improve on Matchbox's revolutionary million-dollar design? Co-founder of Mattel (Elliot Handler) had given up on toy cars.
But in 1966 he's taking one last shot.
So, engineers went out and bought some Matchbox cars and took 'em apart.
As soon as they started rolling these competitor cars around, a lot of 'em had a straight metal axle.
And sure, they would roll, but you had to have your hand on it the whole time if you wanted it to roll very far.
The engineers need a way to make it more like the flexible axle of a real car.
Mattel had thousands of yards of leftover violin wire from one of their toy violins.
They took that wire and started bending it and allowed the car to make turns and be much faster.
And Jack changed the material of the wheel to delrin, which was a new plastic at that time, which gave it less friction and more suspension and, in the end, more speed.
Meanwhile, Jack Odell stays hyper-focused on the tiny details of each Matchbox creation.
An Aston-Martin DBR.
You got the wheels wrong here.
They're too small.
Right, they need to be higher than the frame.
Matchbox brought authenticity, and there was a very strong market for that.
Lesney's making these incredible toys.
They're killing it in the market.
They're selling well.
People really, really love them.
They want more.
They're not even thinking about competition brewing all the way in California.
After months of development, Jack Ryan and the engineering team rig up a track to test their new design.
This car is a regular Matchbox.
This is also a Matchbox car, but we've done some of our own modifications on it.
Three Two One.
Woo! And then they knew they had an amazing product from that day on.
But a big challenge is getting it to market.
What if we hire a real car designer from the auto industry: Chrysler, Ford, GM? Harry Bradley was a real car designer.
A lot of his designs were on tour at car shows all over the country.
As they're developing this car, Bradley's working on sketches, trying to determine what the look of this thing will be, and he's just having a very hard time with it.
Harry, we didn't hire you just to make toy cars look better.
I want 'em to look like the sexiest car driving down Sunset Strip.
Elliot's drawn to an emerging 1960s car trend.
Guys were customizing cars and hot-rodding cars.
If you're in Southern California, you're gonna see hot-rods.
Elliot Handler's idea was to bring the California custom culture to kids all over the world.
That is what I want.
Elliot realizes that the look of this hot-rodded El Camino is critical to what they're trying to do here.
They're gonna use established car designs, but the look they're gonna go for is this custom look that is distinct from production cars.
Handler approves several of Bradley's new designs, including one he considers his surefire golden ticket.
Ruthie, you are gonna love it.
Let's see what you got.
What is that? I've never even seen a sports car like that.
It's the new Corvette Stingray.
Chevy are doing a total redesign next year, top to bottom.
How do you know? Harry saw the blueprints.
Harry Bradley still had friends at General Motors.
The rumor has it that he got the plans for the 1968 Corvette before the '68 Corvette was at the car dealers.
And if we get this to market soon, our toy car will beat the real car before it even rolls off the assembly line.
Now, whether that's true or not, we really don't know.
But the timing of the release with the '68 Corvette, they're pretty close.
Handler names his new toy Hot Wheels after the hot-rodded car driven by his designer, Harry Bradley.
Bradley designs most of the first production run, which they call the Sweet 16.
The Sweet 16 was a collection of 16 cars that were customized American cars, plus a handful of one-off hot-rod type cars and, in that way, distinct from Matchbox.
Each of these cars had cool names.
That was part of the allure also of Hot Wheels, and that was different than the way Matchbox had operated.
They had fire trucks.
They had police cars.
The cars just weren't exciting as what you would see the cool teenager down the street driving.
It was a new way to play.
They sold track and carrying cases and they sold service stations where you could repair your Hot Wheels.
They were wild and outlandish.
Hot Wheels is slated to debut at the biggest toy convention in the world, Toy Fair in New York City.
Toy Fair was an event involving the manufacturers of toys and the people who bought toys as representatives of department stores.
But just as Mattel gets ready for its big launch- I'm resigning.
What? Designing toys is fun, but I design real cars.
That's That's just who I am.
With the 1968 Toy Fair looming, Elliot Handler must carry on without the genius behind his designs.
The debut at Toy Fair for Hot Wheels was all-critical.
If they couldn't interest the buyers, it was dead in the water.
Elliot Handler is about to take the biggest risk of his career: going up against industry titan Matchbox with Mattel's new Hot Wheels line of die-cast cars and accessories.
The first big hurdle is the 1968 annual Toy Fair.
Toy Fair was three to four weeks long and every single toy buyer in the country went to Toy Fair.
This is where they wrote their orders.
That was the place to make it or break it.
But Handler makes a bold move to steal an advantage.
As the event approaches, he jumps the gun on his competitors by inviting Kmart's head buyer, Ken Sanger, to LA for a sneak preview.
What kinda car is this? That's a Deora.
It's a concept car.
How does it perform? We'll take 50.
Thousand? Million.
By the end of the Toy Fair, retailers from around the country put in orders for Hot Wheels.
They actually feared they didn't have the ability to make this many cars and quickly had to switch production to Hong Kong to get that factory to work besides the American factories.
Marketing wants your approval on the in-store packaging.
It's not fun.
Matchbox came in a cardboard box and you weren't even guaranteed what color the car would be inside because the box would actually have to be opened.
I want the kids to see the cool car they're gonna get.
Hot Wheels is sold with this rad flame off the top of it.
It looks fun, it looks different, it's bright, it looks exciting.
Those were things that Elliot wanted to see happen.
On May 18th, 1968, the Sweet 16 make their debut in stores around the country.
This is the huge moment for Elliot Handler.
His first Dream Car was a flop, and now this is his chance to have everything he wanted.
I can't imagine the angst and nervousness this guy must be going through.
Mattel sells more than 16 million cars in the first year.
They went from a fear that this thing is not gonna sell to a fear that, "We do not have the capacity "to meet the demand for this product.
" They really had to scramble to try to respond to the market's fever for Hot Wheels.
And there's only room for one at the top.
Matchbox had to really scramble.
Sales went way down.
They weren't prepared for this new competitor to be so overwhelming, not just share the market, but dominate the market in a single year.
By 1969, Matchbox is in trouble.
To add insult to injury, Hot Wheels becomes a huge hit in Britain and actually won the UK Toy of the Year award.
We're gonna have to close another factory.
No, no, no, we can't do that.
We have to think of the families that depend on us.
Jack, we could go bankrupt.
What, so you just wanna go down without a fight? - Is that your plan?! - No, Jack, we learn from Hot Wheels.
We make our cars faster, flashy colors, maybe build a racetrack.
No, no, no, no, this is not our brand.
We make cars that people actually own and see in their real lives, - not these ridiculous- - Toys? Jack, we don't have a choice.
Matchbox did not see Hot Wheels coming.
And Lesney, these guys, they now had problems.
By 1970, just two years after the release of Hot Wheels' signature Sweet 16, demand for the toy cars exceeds the supply.
Sold out.
They wanna know when we can get them a new shipment.
Well, you know what you should tell them? - What? - Tell 'em to get in line.
Elliot handler finally has a bonafide hit to rival his wife Ruth's Barbie doll.
I think they were very supportive couple and I believe the way they worked together as a husband and wife, they needed to support each other.
But I will tell you this: Nobody thought Hot Wheels would become that successful as they became.
Especially the men behind rival brand Matchbox, who now make a desperate move to replicate their competition with a new line of cars called Superfast.
They were building racing sets.
They were building carrying cases.
They were trying to do all of the things that Mattel had in the marketplace.
But it was in a following mode rather than a leadership mode, and I think that hurt them.
The Superfast cars are basically emulating the Hot Wheels.
They're less realistic.
Frankly, they're mass-marketed toys.
For Jack Odell, the compromise on realism is the end of the road and he retires in 1973.
Rode that steamroller of yours quite a long way, buddy.
Over the next few years, Matchbox regains some ground, but Hot Wheels stays number one in sales.
By that time, it was kind of a little bit too late for Matchbox.
They weren't super fast.
There were still slow.
Matchbox just did not have that playability, as Mr.
Handler would say.
As the '70s start to wind on, Matchbox is in financial trouble.
Part of their difficulty is that they're making the toys in England.
The economy is so bad in Britain.
We're looking at 25% inflation, not going on in the United States.
It takes them down.
By 1981, on the brink of collapse, the company looks to the past to save the future.
Sorry to pull you off the golf course.
But the headwinds pushing against Matchbox are too strong.
I feel like I've been summoned to take charge of the Titanic 10 minutes before she sinks.
And in 1982, Lesney Products goes bankrupt.
If I were to try to coin some general explanation for how Mattel displaced the Matchbox Car as the number-one die-cast car, I think I would say that Mattel out-childed them.
And then when those children grew up, they were so struck by the experience, they started buying toys for their kids and the generation continued.
Control of the Matchbox brand passes through various hands before finally selling in 1997 to the company that still owns it today.
Mattel buys Matchbox.
Even to this day, there are people who can't get their heads around the idea that Mattel owns Matchbox.
Unless they see it in print, they'll argue with you over it.
They'll say, "No, Matchbox is made in England.
" At the beginning of this, Mattel brings it in and they start to kinda hot-rod up the Matchbox cars.
And when they do, the dollars start going away, Mattel knows right away they made a mistake.
They bring in an entirely different team to work on Matchbox only.
They go back to the core.
They go back to those vehicles that are exact replicas, and once again Matchbox is a success.
In 2018, 50 years after its debut, Hot Wheels is named the world's top selling toy, with an average of 10 Hot Wheels cars sold every second.
Hot Wheels said, "There's the wild, crazy world "of the child.
"The child's toy doesn't obey the laws of physics.
"The child's toy can drive into the future.
" Mattel has always chased the child's imagination and tried to create with that boundless energy and inspiration.
You have car designers, you have car builders.
These cars have influenced so many children to become what they've become today.
It is the toy that has built America.

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