Corgi Die-Cast Cars and Models

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Corgi Cars

Corgi Die-Cast Model Cars

Corgi Model Cars

 1957 -
5 star
Lets be honest - most visitors to this site will have, at one time or other, owned or at least played with a Corgi car. What set them apart was the fantastic degree of accuracy that won them places on display shelves and executives' desks, while retaining designed-in strength to combat juvenile tantrums. After all, Alec Issigonis never had to anticipate his Minis being flung at a wall in rage, when he pored over the initial designs of the car.

The first Corgi toys appeared in Britain in 1956, the Ford Consul, Austin Cambridge, Morris Cowley, Riley Pathfinder and Vauxhall Velox caused a minor sensation when they went into the toyshops, since they included close-fitting windows in their specification, giving them a realism that had been lacking in previous playthings.

In 1957 a simple improvement like this helped to make Corgi's name in the toy trade, but even they could hardly have foreseen the degree of design detail that they were to bring to toy cars, or the fact that their parent company, Mettoy Limited, would be awarded the Queen's Award to Industry in 1966 and 1967 for Corgi's efforts!

It became the norm that paintwork, racing numbers and streamlined mirrors would be faithfully reproduced, and if the full sized production version had spoilers, then the Corgi was likewise adorned. Even the dashboard details were moulded in, and could be seen through the curved side-windows and screen. Many examples from the 1960's featured engine cover hinges allowing the bonet to slew backwards to show-off the engine. If there were cooling ducts on the original, the Corgi would feature them too.

Any racing car reproductions would feature tyres and wheels that maintained the competition image, and some even had movable suspension - all this in a die-cast model that would have an overall length of just 3 inches. Given their level of detail, Corgi cars were soon considered more than a simple play-thing for children. Corgi collecting soon became a pastime for many. But just as car companies would use the same parts bin to cobble togther their different models, so too were Corgi forced to use the same parts in an effort to keep the cost down.

This was always most noticeable with the wheels. Cooper-Maserati's would share their wheels with Porsches, although the Cooper wheels would be painted gold while the Porsche wheels would be painted silver. This standardization was as important to a model company as it is in the full-size article. In fact the design details of wheels took a fair amount of research, bearing in mind they would have to serve several models once they had been designed and a die-cast mould made up.

John Steed in the Bentley, and Diana Rigg in the Elan

Clever marketing ideas also meant that individual models could be used in several applications in gift packs, racing kits, and differing settings - their identities being concealed with different paint jobs. The now highly collectable Corgi Classic 1927 3-litre Bentley appeared alone in its classic pack, again as the automotive setting for a World of Wooster kit with Jeeves at the wheel and Bertie standing beside the car complete with plus-fours, fair-isle jersey, monocle, and devil-may-care expression; and again in an (even more collectable) two-car set based on The Avengers television serial with John Steed in the Bentley and Diana Rigg standing beside an Elan.

The Lotus Elan was a complex model in itself which featured slide-up windows and removable detailed back-bone chassis that you could almost imagine having been put together by a tiny Colin Chapman, the Elan also appearing in several different guises. Apart from their attention to exterior detail, Corgi built on their already stellar reputation by incorporating workable gimmicks such as opening bonnets with detailed cast engines inside, windscreen wipers that operate as the model was pushed along, retractable lights for American models, opening boots and rear windows, fold-down rear seats in the Hillman Imps, jewelled headlamps, prism mirrors, and a list of other intriguing kiddy-catching, adult-baiting "extras" that came as standard equipment on the various models.

Corgi James Bond Aston Martin
The model car that started it all (at least for the editor of Unique Cars and Parts)...

The Bond Aston Martin

Corgi hit the model jackpot with the James Bond Aston Martin with its press-button mechanism for ramming overriders, machine guns, rear bullet-proof shield, and a passenger ejector seat. The model was released when the 007 fever was at its height and even though Mettoy had over-produced the model, they never imagined the fantastic demand there would be, and in the months before Christmas 1965, toyshops were besieged by as many parents as children until this one model gained a world-wide reputation rivalled only by Bond himself!

And it was this very model that was given to a young boy then living in the Melbourne bayside suburb of Beaumaris that would be the catalyst for the development of the Unique Cars and Parts web site, some 35 years later.

After the success of the Bond Aston Martin, Corgi played along with the popularity of films and television shows. Using the 3-litre Bentley (a true classic model, with intricate details even on the chassis undersides including a copper exhaust ) in the Wooster and Avenger kits was a popular move, but the Batmobile almost become a rival to the Bond Aston. With the Masked Marvel at the wheel and Boy Wonder beside him, the finned black Batmobile had a chain-slashing blade that sprang out of the nose, a three-barrelled launcher that fired plastic rockets supplied in a pack of 12 by the makers; and a plastic, simulated flame that flickered out the jet in the tail as the model is pushed along.

Tolerances To Hundredths Of A Thousandth Of An Inch

But these models, aimed cleverly for children, did not detract from the fact that though these particular models were shrouded in commercialism based on the "box", their construction was still extremely complicated. Where possible, drawings and photographs of a prototype car would be obtained well in advance of the proposed announcement date, since it could take from 9 to 15 months from receipt of the original drawings to the finished model. Upwards of 55 drawings were needed during the design phase, and dimensions were often so small that although the drawings were produced five times the size of the finished product, the thickness of a fine pencil was too great. Tolerances were frequently down to hundredths of a thousandth of an inch, and in such a small scale any tiny error could be critical.

Mock-ups in wood and brass were made from the drawings, and dimensions were checked to effect any alterations in design that may have been necessary to make the model robust enough for a toy. After these adjustments, the mock-ups and drawings were passed to the tool-makers who produced the dies from which the castings would ultimately be made. Weeks of patient work were then involved since the dies had to be etched by hand. Fine detail-such as lettering, door handles and radiator grilles was necessarily very small, and was etched in reverse since the die worked on the same broad principle as a mould.

The Corgi assembly lines in the Swansea factory resembled a motor manufacturing works in miniature. Ingots of Mazak were prepared for the high-pressure die-casting machines from which emerged the body and chassis castings, doors, bonnets, and boot lids. Finished castings were "fettled" - rotated in barrels containing graded synthetic chips in an acid solution to remove any rough edges. After inspection the castings went for degreasing, followed by phosphating then painting and stoving. Fine sprays were used for colour, after which the bodies were masked and sent through another chamber to have the silver trim, duo-tone finish and other details such as grilles sprayed on.

Wheels and axles were manufactured separately and these were mated to the chassis. All model cars passed a "road test", and as each model reached the end of the assembly line it ran down a special ramp, designed so that only perfect models reached the end. Those that didn't run straight were rejected and sent back for rectification. By the mid 1960's factories at Swansea and Northampton covered over 228,000 sq.ft, and these were staffed by around 1,700 employees, most of whom were female. Exports claimed a large percentage of production, and the Corgi catalogue was translated into 22 languages to serve 150 different countries.

John Cooper
Can you pick the person admiring the Corgi Cooper-Maserati?

The Holmes Wrecker Truck

Each successive Corgi model had something new to offer avid collectors, The Holmes wrecker truck was just 4+ inches long, but it incorporated twin-boom winches that had a central selector control allowing the jibs to work either together or independently. Based on a model H Ford series tilt-cab tractive unit, the wrecker would balance itself stably while "crashed" models were winched up from, say, the floor to a table.

The engineer who designed-in this micro stability no doubt received a pat on the back. This same tilt-cab Ford unit was used in the Carrimore Car Transporter. One of the favourites in the US market was the Lincoln Continental Executive Limousine, which had a battery-powered television set for the V.I.P. passengers in the rear compartment!

Another success was the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but sales were dramatically cut after a fire in 1969 all but destroyed the operation, and rival Dinky were quick to seize the opportunity of gaining market share. By 1971 the Swansea factory was back to full production again after major repairs costing over £1.3 million. The Queen’s silver jubilee model edition released in 1977 was an instant best seller, along with other nostalgia model: Edward VII’s coronation state coach of 1901. After a rapid decline of sales, in 1983 economic analysts said that decline was inevitable; children and adults had moved on to more sophisticated toys.

Corgi reformed as Corgi Toys Ltd. in 1984, and turned its attention to regaining the British toy company’s confidence. But three years later Corgi turned to the export market for profits, soon distributing in Australia, Europe and the USA. Very soon after this point Corgi started the Collectors Club quickly gaining worldwide membership. In 1989 the company was taken over by Mattel, and production was moved to Leicester, the Mattel headquarters. Corgi then bought out its new range: Corgi Classics, selling nostalgia cars, vans and trucks from the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s; a huge success aimed at people who had been children at that time giving them the chance to return to their childhood memories, a brilliant innovation that is still running strong today. At around the same period in the US, Corgi released a new range of trucks, fire tenders and buses based on North American prototypes, but was not as successful as hoped.

What Made Corgi Successful In The 1960's, Makes Them Successful Again

In 1995, Corgi regained its independence as a new company Corgi Classics Limited and moved to new premises in Leicester. Corgi Classics were quick to work out what had made the company so successful during the 1960's, and turned to British TV for model ideas. Models such as Mr. Bean’s Mini, Inspector Morse’s Jaguar, Basil Faulty's Mini and even models based on Enid Blyton’s Noddy tales were soon under development. A variety of firms ranging from Cadbury's chocolate to Guinness beer to Eddie Stobart haulage have had Corgi scale models made of their road vehicles. In 1995 Corgi introduced a new range of 1/76th scale UK & Hong Kong bus models under the Original Omnibus Company banner, by 2007 the total number of individual model releases in this sub-range had exceeded eight hundred.

In 1999 Corgi Classics Limited was taken over by Zindart - a US collectors specialists. By 2000, as in the 1960s, Corgi was once again the UK’s top model maker. In 2002, Corgi bought the rights to the Lledo name (and many of the molds), taking over the popular Days Gone series. The Lledo Vanguards series was also acquired in the deal. Days Gone and Vanguards models were sold by Corgi under the Lledo moniker until 2004, after which the Lledo name was dropped and the models officially became part of the Corgi Classics line. In 1999, Corgi debuted the wildly popular Aviation Archive line of diecast military airplanes. Beginning with 1/72 scale, Corgi created one of the most expansive and widely collected lines of highly detailed limited edition collectable die-cast metal aircraft.

This line has been expanded in successive years to include new moulds and liveries and even new scales, such as the super-detailed 1/32 scale Aviation Archive line. Corgi followed with a new line of 1/50 scale Armored Vehicles ranging from WWII up to through the Vietnam War. In 2006, Corgi broke new ground offering hand painted, spin-cast metal figures and soldiers in the 'Forward March' series which compliments their 1/32 and 1/50 scale lines of vehicles. Corgi Classics Limited continues to this day to produce highly detailed, die-cast models of the world’s most popular vehicles, remaining still very popular amongst both children and adults. In May 2008 international models and collectables group Hornby announced the acquisition of Corgi Classics Limited for 8.3 million pounds.

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