Jack Odell, 87, Designer of Matchbox Cars, Is Dead
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Jack Odell, a self-trained engineer whose daughter’s mischievous habit of taking spiders to school in a matchbox prompted him to make her a tiny steamroller as a substitute — an invention that led to Matchbox Toys, maker of 3 billion Lilliputian vehicles in 12,000 models — died on July 7 in London. He was 87.
His son-in-law Josh Walsh, who announced the death, said Mr. Odell had had Parkinson’s disease.
The steamroller, made of brass and painted shiny red and green, satisfied Mr. Odell’s daughter, Anne, and so impressed her friends that Mr. Odell raced to meet their demand. It seemed a dandy toy: just right for a child’s hand but hard to swallow, no batteries, violence-free, quiet and costing just pennies to make.
By the next year, 1953, the steamroller and vehicles like it were rolling off a production line in a small factory that Mr. Odell and a pair of partners had set up in a former London pub, The Rifleman. After the steamroller came a Land Rover, a London bus, a bulldozer and a fire engine. In 1954, the 19th vehicle in the series was rolled out: a dainty MG TD roadster, the first Matchbox car. The toys quickly spread to the United States where they typically sold for 49 cents.
They were finely wrought things. Mr. Odell designed one machine to spray-paint tiny silver headlights on the models and another to mold interiors. All the dashboard dials were in precisely the right place. Some cars had more than 100 die-cast parts, including windshield wipers and ceiling hooks.
By 1962, he told The New York Times in an interview, Matchbox was knocking out a million toy automobiles a week, more than the number of real ones made by all the world’s major automakers combined.
“We produce more Rolls-Royces in a single day than the Rolls-Royce company has made in its entire history,” he said.
John William Odell was born into a poor family on March 19, 1920, in north London. He was expelled from school at 13, and later said he could not remember the reason.
“Let’s just say I was a bloody rebel,” he was quoted as saying by The Daily Telegraph, a London newspaper. He took a succession of jobs, including driving a van and selling real estate. Hired as a movie projectionist, he was fired after he put the film in backward. During World War II, he served with the Royal Army in Africa and Italy, working as a mechanic.
After the war, he found work at a small die-casting firm, sweeping the floors. Deeming the engineering work there mediocre, he figured he could do better, his son-in-law said, and decided to open his own shop.
His mother, however, refused to let him do so in her house, so he joined two war veterans at their shop. They were Leslie Smith and Rodney Smith (unrelated). They had named their company Lesney Products by combining the first syllable of Leslie’s first name and the last one of Rodney’s.
Mr. Odell and Leslie Smith soon found themselves running the shop after Rodney Smith, seeing no future in it, left. They initially made small products for cars like door handles and dashboards. Their first toy was a toy gun.
Mr. Odell made his historic steamroller in 1952. It had to fit into a matchbox because of a school rule barring any bigger toy. (Spiders fit quite nicely.)
Vehicles kept coming, in both number and kind. A milestone came in 1953 when Mr. Odell designed a model of the coronation coach of Queen Elizabeth II. More than a million were sold.
Mr. Odell visited automakers throughout the world to copy their new designs. The automakers appreciated the free publicity the ubiquitous little vehicles represented. What many consider Mr. Odell’s triumph, his 1956 collection of turn-of-the-century classics, involved deep historical research.
At its peak in the late 1960s, when it released its Superfast line of toy autos to compete with Mattel Incorporated’s Hot Wheels cars, Lesney operated more than a dozen factories. In 1982, it fell into receivership and was sold to Universal Toys. It was later picked up by Tyco Toys, which was acquired by Mattel in 1997.
Mr. Odell is survived by his wife, the former Patricia Hilsdon, two daughters, three stepdaughters and a brother.
His passion for detail was suggested by an oft-told story of how he had swooped down on a young engineer working on a tiny Ford Model T to say that the driver’s seat, a centimeter wide at most, was not padded enough to be realistic.
“In my obituary,” Mr. Odell said in 1969 as quoted by The Daily Telegraph, “I want it said I was a damn good engineer.”