When I was about five I was given my first Dinky Toy model car, and for the next seven or so years I became a great enthusiast for them, saving precious pocket money to buy second hand ones from a local back street junk shop. Relatives later bought me new ones, all shiny in a yellow box, and I ran them relentlessly around my sand-pit in the summer and along the corridors of our house in Upper Woodcote Village in Surrey. Not being sufficiently prescient to treat them carefully and retain their boxes, my collection acquired paint chips, knocks, breakages, tyre-loss, repainting jobs and even major surgery. Yet Dinky toys are now highly collectable and, as usual, condition is everything.
In fact, during the firm’s heyday making die cast toys (c1936-1971), they also made military vehicles, ships and aeroplanes, not to mention lineside figures and infrastructure items for the tinplate railways the firm, Meccano Ltd., manufactured. I propose to say something about the aircraft and military vehicles on a later occasion.
Meccano Ltd. was established in 1908 by Liverpudlian entrepreneur Frank Hornby MP (1863-1936) to make metal construction sets, a ripe subject for yet another article in this series, if ever there was one. The company moved into making O gauge clockwork tinplate model railway trains in 1920, later improving realism and adding an electrified variant which failed to survive the war. Other tinplate models followed, including cars, mainly in kits. Then in 1933, the company began to make die cast trackside items for their model railways in a lead/zinc alloy (known in the trade as ‘muck metal’), and this material was, from 1934, used to make simple model motor cars under the name of Meccano Dinky Toys, the word Meccano being dropped the following year. The word dinky is Scottish dialect meaning ‘neat’ or ‘attractive’ with an implication of small-ness, and at that period was not unknown, even south of the border, as a pet name for family members.
The first six models (series 22) were cast in just lead and were only very loosely based on actual prototypes, but the next series, 23 were closer to reality (eg. MG Midget) but the first models issued, only loosely resembled vehicles one might identifiably encounter on the road. Strangely, too, they were only available retail in packs of six, for most individual models were only boxed and sold separately from as recently as 1952. The last set of six was the immediately post war No. 40 (of which I had a Standard Vanguard, now between £5 and £120 depending on colour and condition) and No. 101, the Sunbeam Alpine (£150-280 today with box), was the first car individually boxed.
It was only with series 30 (1935) that accurate likenesses of real prototypes were made, and from this I recall having, as a child, a Chrysler Airflow (a real Art-Deco car if ever there was one), a Daimler, a Vauxhall and a Rolls. At the time, my father drove a pre-war gangstermobile called a Packhard Super Eight and it took me aged eight ages to track down a fairly well-loved secondhand Dinky example of this pre-war classic, and I was appalled to have to shell out 3/8d for it, too! Mind you, a pristine example would be estimated at £100-130 today, but mine would probably be lucky to make £45, had it survived.
These early models had the undersides cast with apertures (to save on materials), and the wheels with their rubber tyres – sometimes fashionably white, but in either case could be detached and easily lost – were pressed onto smooth hubs and the axles ended in a flat pinch. Headlights were either cast with the separately attached radiator grille (which itself could become detached) or slotted individually into the front wings of more streamlined cars (which could get detached or broken off).
Commercial vehicles also appeared bearing the liveries of well-known companies or the logos of famous products and the 1938 introduced models were made to 1941 when war work took precedence at the factory, but were revived in 1946 and made until 1948. The post war run saw the introduction of black tin-plate undersides, raised field hubs and rivet-ended, slightly thicker axles. A few models had been designed to take a miniature figure or two before the war, but this was dropped after the conflict, and the relevant hole in the seat omitted.
Post war Dinky Supertoys were also introduced, mainly earth moving vehicles and other large plant, which command equally impressive prices boxed, but most end up fairly well loved if only because they were relatively interactive. Themed models from TV and cinema were also introduced; we had a good Lady Penelope’s six-wheeled Rolls (with the lady herself within and Parker at the wheel) in box (the design of which changed twice 1967-1971) at Bamfords almost a decade ago now, and estimated it at £70—100 but were gratified to see it make well over £200 – and there seem to be a good few around still.
Direct competition was offered from 1956 by Mattel’s Corgi toys which had clear plastic windows and other refinements, which duly raised the standard of the Dinky product too; as ever a bit of competition was positive, but further competition mainly from the US plus numerous take-overs, eventually forced closure in 1979, although the name itself has been revived occasionally since.
There were Dinky factories in France, Spain and in several countries across the world making different models post war and these, when found in the UK, can command a premium.
Despite the desperate state of my own childhood toys, condition remains paramount, although with some of the models, especially those made in the immediate pre-war era, they can self-destruct with zinc pest, in which impure metallic ingredients in the alloy react at a molecular level with other elements of the metal to cause crystalisation flaws, crumbling and cracking. A well-played-with example of a car, chipped, no box, will still be affordable at £20-30 (sometimes less) and in general sales you can pick them up in groups for less than £50 in that sort of state. Very early ones, especially the van with advertising on (of which there were three shape variants pre-war) which never had a box as an individual toy, can command prices up over £2000. Ultimately, though, a rare example, boxed in concours condition will always make the best money.