Die-cast toys are created using a popular industrial production method. Molten metal is forced into mold cavities, which are then turned into die castings. Most castings use non-ferrous metals like lead, pewter, copper, magnesium, zinc, aluminum, and tin. The method is prized for its accuracy and quality, specifically with regard to small parts. Though it is known for numerous applications, die-casting is famous for its contribution to the collectible model and toy markets.
Because of its incredible accuracy, die-casting is able to produce model toys that maintain dimensional consistency. That is, they are highly-detailed, much smaller scale replicas of the original vehicles, often a car, truck, train, plane, or motor cycle. Models are typically made from one of the aforementioned metals along with rubber, plastic, and sometimes glass.
Die-cast models first became popular in the early 20th century. Companies like Dinky Toys (UK) and Tootsies Toys (US) produced simple miniatures of popular vehicles types like the van and the bus. Many of these toys were made with cheap alloys that would crack after only a few years, which is why die-cast models made before the Second World War are hard to find. The problem was addressed with the introduction of a new, purer alloy called Zamak (mostly Zinc).
When the war ended, a British manufacturing company named Lesney began distributing die-cast toys on a large scale. One of their first lines of miniature vehicles became an instant hit. They called the set Matchbox and sold them in different series. For example, the Matchbox 1-75 line had 75 different vehicles in the series. The point was to try to collect them all. They were called “matchbox cars” because they were sold in small boxes that resembled matchboxes.
The Matchbox line of cars and vehicles was largely responsible for the popularity of die-cast toys and collectibles during the 1950s. Though they were a worldwide hit, most die-cast companies were located in either the U.K. or the U.S. By the end of the Fifties, die-cast companies were competing in a crowded marketplace.
The popularity of the die-cast miniatures showed no signs of waning through the 1960s. In fact, a new line of model vehicles from toy maker Mattel challenged Matchbox as the world’s top die-cast toys. They were called Hot Wheels and they were a sleeker, more stylish alternative to the twenty-year-old Matchbox line.
At the same time, companies began to produce new die-cast vehicles to give away to clients as promotional items. A major shift in the target audience occurred when industry insiders reported that some adults were purchasing these models as collectibles. Many of them had played with miniature models as children and they were willing to spend considerable sums of money on replicas.
Unlike plastic model kits, most die-cast vehicles come preassembled. Their price is often based on their size or scale. For example, the typical Matchbox or Hot Wheels car is 1:64 scale and quite affordable. By comparison, a larger model like the 1:12 scale is not intended for children. Often about 14 or 15 inches long, their level of detail is unparalleled in the die-cast model market. This typically means real glass in the windows, rubber in the tires, and an incredibly realistic interior. Let us take a moment to review our favorite American models.
Since die-cast toys reached the height of their popularity during the 1950s, many of the most famous models are based on classic cars from the Fifties.
Elvis Presley’s 1955 Cadillac Fleetwood Pink
Few vehicles have had as much of an influence on music history as the 1955 Pink Cadillac owned by the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Not only did Elvis sing about the car in his own songs, but legendary vocalists like Aretha Franklin and Bruce Springsteen have taken a turn. The car was famously painted pink (Cadillac did not offer the car in that color) and was given from Elvis to his mother Gladys as a gift shortly before she died. It is the only one of Elvis’s many cars on permanent display at his former home, Graceland.
When it comes to die-cast models, the Franklin Mint released a gorgeous replica with steerable wheels, rubber tires, and a detailed interior and engine compartment. The model is 1:24 scale and is comes with a miniature guitar. It can be found online for around one hundred dollars.
1957 Chevy Corvette Convertible
In addition to being one of the most eye-catching automobiles of the decade, the ’57 Chevrolet Corvette was also one of the fastest cars on the road. It was the premier sports car of its day with two-seats, a four-speed transmission, and an enormous 283 cubic inch fuel-injected engine. The Corvette was available in both hardtop and folding soft top versions. Most surprising of all, perhaps, was the incredible influence the model had considering its scarcity. Fewer than 6400 until were manufactured. The car remains one of the most sought after die-cast models on the market.
1959 Chevy Impala
With its gull-wing rear-fender, tear drop tail lights, white-wall tires, and distinctive tailfins, few cars say 1950s America like the ’59 Chevy Impala. Not only was it Chevrolet’s most expensive model, but it was also the bestselling automobile in the U.S. It is no wonder then that Impala is one of the most popular die-cast models in history. The 1:18 scale version is easy enough to find online and only costs thirty or forty dollar. The larger and more detailed 1:12 scale model, on the other hand, is much pricier and harder to find.