Dinky Die Cast: A Brief History of Toys

When you think about classic model toy cars, the name Dinky probably isn’t far from your mind. But do you know the story behind this brand of high quality die cast vehicles? Well, here it is…

Meccano Ltd of Liverpool

Frank Hornby opened a factory in Binns Road in Liverpool in 1914, where his company, Meccano Ltd, made Meccano construction kits. In 1920, Hornby had also founded Hornby Trains, which specialised in model railways.

In 1933, Meccano started to create trackside accessories. At first this series was called ‘Hornby Modelled Minatures,’ but in a 1934 issue of Meccano Magazine, it was referred to as Meccano Dinky Toys. They soon dropped the word ‘Meccano’ and Dinky Toys was born.

Where did the name Dinky come from?

There are two possible stories explaining this. The first is that ‘Dinky’ is a nickname that Frank Hornby’s friend gave to his daughter. Another is that, when one of Frank’s daughter-in-laws first saw the new series, she called them ‘Dinky,’ which is a Scottish term that translates to ‘neat’.

The first vehicles

The first vehicles released by Dinky Toys came in a series of 6. They weren’t realistic representations of real makes and models, but they depicted a sports car, a sports coupe, a delivery van, a truck, a tractor and a tank.

Meant, as first, to be used as scenery for hobbyist’s model railways, they were cast from lead. Dinky also produced miniature figurines of railroad workmen, station employees and passengers.

By 1935, there 200 products in the Dinky Toys catalog – including airplanes and ships.

The cars started to adopt likenesses of real vehicles including a Vauxhall saloon, a Rolls-Royce Saloon and a Chrysler Airflow saloon. They had now moved away from lead and were being made from die cast metal – they even had tyres made of rubber!

Dinky would have open holes in the underbelly of its models, to save on materials. Some models also had the ability to attach metal drivers.


Frank Hornby, the founder of Dinky’s parent company Meccano Ltd, died in 1936.

Lots of the earlier models suffered from zinc pest, where the metal would crack and the carts would simply crumble apart. Some believe this may have been caused by the lead in the factory seeping into the metal. This means that pre-war models in great condition are even rarer.

From 1941, production in Liverpool was put on hiatus due to World War II. The factory was drafted to produce a multitude of items to aid in the war effort. Production ramped up again, though, after 1945. The first models they released following the war were military jeeps.

In 1956, Mettoy became stiff competition when it released a series of die cast metal car models under the brand new Corgi. Its cars used clear plastic to give the appearance of windows, whereas Dinky had open holes. This prompted Dinky to add more realism to many of its releases such as detailed interiors and fingertip steering.

Trucks, aircraft and tanks

From through the 40s, 50s and 60s, Meccano Ltd released the slightly altered brand Dinky Supertoys; a series of 1:48 scale trucks, tankers and livery vans – most of them had the artwork of popular brands of the day such as Mobilgas, Esso, Weetabix, Heinz, and Lyons.

As well as cars and trucks, Dinky produced several models of tanks, aircraft and battle ships through its lifespan, which helped the company to compete with the likes of Airfix, who specialised in detailed construction kits surrounding these areas of interest.

Dublo Dinky

In 1958, Meccano Ltd released Dublo Dinky. Whilst the majority of models before this year were loosely intended to be in a scale that fitted with Hornby’s O gauge railways at a scale of 1:48, Dublo Dinky used a scale of 1:76, which fitted in with the new Hornby Dublo OO Gauge, which was quickly growing in popularity.

With their high quality and realistic characteristics, the Dublo Dinky range was similar in style to the models of Matchbox and Budgie Toys. However, the line did not sell well and Dublo Dinky was put to rest.

New ownership, new models

Meccano Ltd went bust in 1964 and it was bought by Lines Bros, under Tri-ang – their toy division. Dinky models continued to be made to a 1:42 scale, and the company competed with Matchbox and Corgi.

From 1967 onwards, Dinky began producing models of vehicles from popular TV shows and films, such as Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, Joe 90, The Prisoner, The Pink Panther Show and Star Trek.

The road to the end

In 1969, giant toy company Mattel brought its Hot Wheels brand into the UK, with its bright colours and exciting new designs; instantly appealing to children. This immediately hit the sales of Dinky, Matchbox and Corgi.

Countries such as Hong Kong, which offered cheap labor on account of its lower wages, meant that British-made toy vehicles were an endangered species and, one by one, they became extinct. The factory in Binns Road in Liverpool closed down in November 1979.

In the late 1980s, the Dinky trade mark ended up in the hands of Matchbox, who had been purchased by Hong Kong’s Universal International in 1982. Matchbox began releasing models from the 50s and 60s under the ‘Dinky Collection’ – a range aimed at an adult market. The cars honoured the Dinky name in terms of their detail and realism.

Into the hands of Mattel

In 1992, Universal International sold Matchbox to Tyco Toys, which was bought by Mattel in 1997.

Mattel would occassionally re-release normal everyday Matchbox vehicles under the Dinky brand, with no loyalty to Dinky’s high quality standards. In 2000, it stopped using the Dinky name altogether.

French publishers

In 2008, Atlas Editions – a French publisher owned by DeAgostini – acquired a license from Mattel to use the Dinky name, and began a fortnightly partwork in certain European countries. Each issue featured a Dinky Toy model, complete with a certification and a leaflet on the history of the original Dinky model.

DeAgostini released another series in 2016. It was discontiued in the UK after 5 issues but the complete set is available in Italy.

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