Not many Americans probably recognise the name of Jack Odell, but they might well have played with a toy invented by him as children. Jack Odell was the inventor of the Matchbox car. Odell passed on July 7 at the age of 87.
Odell was born John William Odell on March 19, 1920 in London. Prior to World War II he had a number of different jobs. He drove a van, worked in a cinema as a projectionist, and worked as an estate agent. During World War II he served in Africa with the British Army. Following the War, Odell worked as a die casting engineer, the profession which would eventually bring him everlasting fame.
It was in 1947 that Leslie Smith and Rodney Smith (who were not related despite sharing the same last name) founded a die casting company, which they named Lesney by combining their two first names. As a die casting engineer Odell found employment with Lesney not long after it was founded. By 1948 the young die cast company moved into the toy market with a die cast model car not unlike those put out by Dinky in the United Kingdom at the time. Although entering the toy market, Lesney continued to manufacture other die cast goods as well. It would be Jack Odell's daughter who, after a fashion, would take the company further into toy production. His daughter Anne complained to him that her school would only allow the children to bring toys to school that could fit in a matchbox. Odell used his skills as a die cast engineer to then build a matchbox sized model of the Aveling Barford that Anne could take to school. It was in 1952 that Lesney released the first series of Matchbox toys. One was the Aveling Barford, while the other two were a dump truck and a cement mixer. The toy vehicles were sold in boxes that resembled actual matchboxes and so Matchbox was adopted as the line's name. Eventually other Matchbox models were introduced and the series saw unprecedented success in Britain. With the success of the Matchbox toys, Lesney concentrated on the toy market and no longer manufactured other die cast goods. And by 1956 Matchbox toys would be sold in the United States, where the line repeated its success once again.
Jack Odell would eventually take over from Rodney Smith when Smith left Britain for Australia. Leslie Smith and Jack Odell divided their duties between them. Smith would handle the marketing and day to day running of the company itself, while Odell watched over the design and manufacturing of Lesney's products. By 1968 Rodney Smith and Jack Odell would be designated OBEs (Office of the Order of the British Empire). Lesney would hit hard times with the introduction of stiff competition from American toy manufacturer Mattel with their Hot Wheels line. Despite this, the company would continue and Matchbox models have been manufactured to this day. Jack Odell retired from the company in 1973.
Jack Odell would continue in the toy business, even returning to Lesney for a time. Until he developed Parkinson's Disease, Odell remained a supporter of the toy industry and even of toy collectors.
Matchbox toys were probably the first die cast toy cars I ever played with. At any rate, I remember owning Matchbox cars before I ever owned my first Hot Wheels. My first Matchbox cars were a Ford Mustang and a Dodge Dump Truck. My brother's first Matchbox cars were a Greyhound coach and a Volkswagen Beetle. Over the years we bought more Matchbox cars, even after we discovered Hot Wheels. What made Matchbox cars so enjoyable is that they were very detailed and very durable. This was largely due to Jack Odell's perfectionism. He always made sure that every single model manufactured by Lesney was as good as it possibly could be. Jack Odell was a rarity in the toy business, perhaps any other business for that matter. He was a man who genuinely cared about the quality of his product.