Die-cast Commercial Vehicles by Paul Brent Adams
Die-cast toys first appeared a little over a century ago. The first vehicles to be produced were cars, but commercial vehicles soon followed. A fleet of trucks, delivery vans, tankers, service vehicles, and mobile shops. Many of these carried the names and logos of real companies, making them some of the most colourful of all die-cast models. Often a single van or truck casting was produced in several versions, each carrying a different company name or livery.
Real commercial vehicles seldom receive an annual facelift the way cars do. This means that model trucks and vans do not date as rapidly as model cars, and a successful model can stay in production for long periods, with an occasional change of finish. The large, flat sides of trucks and vans giving plenty of space for colourful liveries. Some were even produced to special order for the companies concerned, as part of various promotions, hence the fact they are called promotionals. Commercial vehicle models soon became a staple of many die-cast ranges.
While vans and pick-up trucks are often the same size as a normal car, most heavy commercials are much larger. To produce models that are not too large or expensive, manufacturers often make their commercials to a smaller scale than their model cars. Several firms also produced a range of larger and more expensive models, which allowed the heavies to be closer in scale to the cars, although most were still a little smaller. Among the leading British die-cast companies there were the Dinky Supertoys, Corgi Majors, and the Matchbox Major Pack and King Size ranges. At the opposite end of the size range, several lines of small scale models were produced as model railway accessories, such as the Hornby Dublo range, intended to complement Hornby OO model railways; or the Lilliput series, made by Britains, who were best known for their extensive range of toy soldiers. In more recent years, several lines have been devoted exclusively to Big Rigs, comprising a tractor unit and semi-trailer. With these models a limited number of different tractor units can be combined with various types of trailer, to produce a fleet of different models. Open vehicles can also be given an assortment of loads, allowing for even more variety.
As collecting die-casts became an established adult hobby, models began to be produced aimed directly at collectors. With adults, size and price were less of a factor than they were with toys aimed at children. Many of these ‘adult’ models being highly detailed, delicate, and expensive. I still prefer the various toy ranges by companies such as Matchbox. They may lack a few of the refinements of the adult collectable, but they were designed to be played with, and there is an element of fun about them that is lacking in adult models. This is why most of the models in my collection are toys. Plus, they were the types of models I once played with.
Modern toys are also much more affordable than adult collectables. Although vintage toys in pristine condition can be extremely expensive, as few have survived without a few paint chips, and other signs of use. If you are prepared to accept the odd imperfection, and the lack of a box, even vintage models become more affordable – which explains why most of my older models do have a few chips and scratches, some were even part of my own childhood collection.
After discovering plastic kits in the 1970s, my die-cast toys spent a couple of decades in a box, usually under the bed, until I again began collecting die-casts in the 1990s. My collection comprises a mix of subjects, including a fair number of commercial vehicles. There are horse-drawn vehicles, a few of which survived on British roads into the 1960s; electric vehicles, used mostly for local delivery work, or inside factories and warehouses; steam power, which had been used on roads since the early nineteenth century, and lasted into the 1930s for heavy haulage; and the usual range of motor vehicles. Everything from motorcycles with a sidebox for goods and tools, to the largest lorry or tanker. There have been several ranges devoted to veteran and vintage models, and to vehicles from the early post-war years – the 1950s and 1960s. Buses and racing cars do not usually count as commercial vehicles, but these often carry advertising for various companies, products, and services, so they can be added to a collection, providing even more colour and variety. There are also a few oddballs that do not fit neatly into one of the usual categories, but these can be among the most interesting models of all. Due to the vast range of models available, most collectors specialise to some extent. Some collect only certain types of model – three-wheelers or delivery vans; a specific period, such as a favourite decade; a particular scale; or a favourite brand, such as Matchbox or Dinky. It is even possible to build a collection around a major company or product type – I tend to have a little of everything.
Apart from the real vehicles, it is also possible to see the way models have developed over the years. Early die-casts were almost always all-metal, except perhaps for rubber tyres or wheels. From the 1950s onwards plastic parts have been used – plastic allowed models to be given clear windows. Today, most models are a combination of metal and plastic. During the 1950s and 1960s companies offered models with more detail, and more working features, in their efforts to increase sales. From the 1970s toys had fewer working features as manufacturers sought to cut costs. Many of the older companies either disappeared, or changed hands, but there are always new companies appearing, keeping the fleets of die-cast commercial vehicles rolling.
Paul Brent Adams's new book Die-cast Commercial Vehicles is available for purchase now.