Matchbox Formula 1 grid walk, Part 1: 1950s-1970s

It’s 22 years since Matchbox last had a Formula 1 racing car in the range. The year was 1998 and the MB246 ‘Formula 1’ casting – which had begun life as the Williams-Renault FW14B just four years earlier – was in its final year in the basic lineup. Matchbox had even had its name on a real F1 car at one point, but with the disappearance for ’99 of the Formula 1, 40 years of Matchbox F1 history came to an end.

I began writing this article with the intention of covering Matchbox’s Formula 1 history, based on cars in my collection. The more I dug into the topic, the more there was to say, so I’m splitting the story into two parts. This is Part 1 and will cover the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Along the way I’ll include a few F1 models from other brands too, just for fun. I can’t pretend to know everything so if you spot any errors, please leave a comment!

(Matchbox F1 on eBay)

Grand prix racing was a part of Matchbox almost from the very start. The Maserati 4CLT joined the range in 1958, five years after Lesney issued its first Matchbox toys. In real life the 4CLT was already old news. It first raced in 1948, two years before the drivers’ World Championship began, and was itself an update to a pre-war design. Nevertheless, the Lesney version (#52a) hung around until 1965, by which time it had changed from red to yellow and sported larger, two-piece wheels.

A recreation appeared in 1994 in the third series of Matchbox Originals and later also as a Christmas ornament. The lovely Originals model is pictured here together with a true 1:64 race car model of the period, a Kyosho Alfa Romeo Tipo 159 Alfetta like the one Juan Manuel Fangio drove to the 1951 world championship.

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The 4CLT had been joined in the range in 1962 by the #19c Aston Martin DBR5. This was another strange choice because the real car had raced only briefly, unsuccessfully, in 1960, after which time Aston withdrew from F1. Having sponsored Red Bull Racing since 2016, Aston is due to return as a manufacturer next year after a 61-year hiatus when the Racing Point team is rebranded.

The Aston model is a beauty and lasted till ‘64. Mine, pictured below, has a modern replacement driver, the original miniature Maurice Trintignant having been lost to the mists of time.

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Also new in ’62 was the ‘F1 Ferrari’, which represented Phil Hill’s 1961 championship winning ‘Sharknose’ Tipo 156. Finally we had an up-to-date, grand prix-winning car in the lineup, although the ‘73’ on the side refers to its number in the 1-75 range, not a real race number. Such was the pace of change in F1 in the 1960s however that by the time it was dropped at the end of ’68, its look was decidedly old hat. Pictured alongside my battered example for comparison is the lovely, Mark Jones-designed Hot Wheels Ferrari 156 that was made in various versions from 2001-09.

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Two more realistic designs appeared in the mid-60s, the #19d Lotus and #52b B.R.M. The Lotus, which is listed as being based on the Lotus 33 but could also pass for the narrower-tyred 25, was introduced in 1965. The timing was great – Jim Clark went on to win his second drivers’ world championship in a Lotus that year.

The BRM joined the range in 1966 and hung around until 1969. I’m pretty sure it’s based on the P261 that raced in 1964-65. The standard issue was blue, as here, but there’s a red one in a gift set – neither looks anything like the works cars’ dark green with an orange nose band.

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Pictured below are two custom Lotus builds that I picked up on eBay a few years ago. They represent the 25s of Clark and Trevor Taylor at the 1963 French Grand Prix.

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Surprisingly, the Lotus lived on into the first year of the Superfast era, 1970. Mine is missing its #3 decals from the sides. It’s pictured with a Tomica Limited Honda F-1, which is painted as the ill-fated RA302 from 1968.

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What I regard as Matchbox’s next true F1 car wouldn’t appear for more than a decade. To fill the gap, we’ll take a look at two generic, F1-style machines – and make a quick detour into Superkings.

The first new Matchbox F1 car of the Superfast era was the appropriately named Formula 1 (No.34) in 1:55 scale, which ran from 1971-75. This unlicensed design of dubious proportions isn’t my favourite, managing to look like nothing in particular and – as with many early Superfast models – being prone to bent axle disease, resulting in some interesting camber angles.

Rarer colours came in the awesome G-4 Team Matchbox Superfast Champions gift set but the Formula 1 in the basic range was issued initially in pink and then, for 1972, in yellow with a blue label. That version is shown here with a more accurate rendering of a period F1 car – a Matra MS80 like the one Jackie Stewart drove to the championship in 1969. I believe it was issued in a mid-80s set of promo cars for Elf fuel.

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It was also sold with the Superkings K-7 Racing Car Transporter.

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There was a reason for the Formula 1’s switch to yellow. For the 1972 race season, Lesney had done a deal with John Surtees to sponsor his Team Surtees Formula 2 cars. They were painted yellow with a blue arrow running over the top; as noted above, the artwork was reproduced with varying accuracy on both the Formula 1 and soon-to-launched No.24 Team Matchbox.

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As championed in this spread from a 1973 catalogue, the partnership enjoyed some success. Mike Hailwood, a former motorcycle racer like 1964 F1 champion Surtees, won the European F2 title in 1972 and Jochen Mass was runner-up in 1973. Matchbox also appeared on Surtees TS16 F1 cars in 1974-75, as depicted in a 1:32 Matchbox/AMT plastic kit (PK-305) that was still being sold in 1990. Frustratingly the later Superkings TS16 model (1977-81, K-44/K-73 – also pictured) carried the TS19’s Chesterfield colours. Matchbox also made the fabulous K-41 Brabham F1 at this time, so the young, Matchbox-loving race fan could enjoy both booze and cigarettes!

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Matchbox set out to add a more realistic single-seat racing car to the Superfast range – even though it was never described as a Formula 1 machine – with the arrival in 1973 of the No.24 Team Matchbox. I spoke to well-known UK Matchbox collector and dealer Danny James about this model as he had discussed it with John Surtees at the Goodwood Revival a few years ago, prompted by some Matchbox Team Surtees memorabilia that Danny had found.

Surtees said that Matchbox made changes to the 1:54-scale Team Matchbox casting during development to make it look more like the real Surtees car. If you search up pictures of preproduction prototypes (I don’t own one, unfortunately), you can see that the front air scoop was deleted for production and the rear-wing design changed, with strakes added. The picture below from the 1973 catalogue shows a prototype with the scoop already gone but the original rear wing still in place.

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Danny asked Surtees why the partnership with Matchbox didn’t last longer and he said that in those days of self-funded race teams, it was a case of, “no money, no race that weekend….and Corgi wrote bigger cheques”. Corgi, of course, produced some nice 1:36 F1 toy cars at the time, including a Surtees TS9 and TS9B. My thanks to Danny for the info – you can find him on eBay, seller name blinga1.

I was fortunate to interview John Surtees myself a couple of times, before his death in 2017 at the age of 83. He had a tremendous memory for detail and went out of his way to help, even following up in a letter to me with more information. A lovely man.

Let’s get back to the toys. The initial Team Matchbox release was in Team Surtees yellow with a blue label, as shown in the catalogue picture above. These early yellow cars and orange versions are now extremely expensive. Far more plentiful and cheap to buy is the common deep red metallic car with a blue label. Mine is pictured below alongside a Kyosho Lotus 72E to give a more realistic flavour of the 1973 Formula 1 look.

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Other rarer versions are to be found in the Racing and View Master gift sets. There’s also a red with a yellow-and-white label, as in my TP-09 Twin Pack, below.

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The Team Matchbox endured until 1977 in the basic range, 1978 in the Twin Pack. We’d have to wait until 1984 for another F1 car – and you’ll have to wait to hear about it until Part 2 of this article, when I’ll bring the story up to date. Until next time!

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Graham Heeps

2 thoughts on “Matchbox Formula 1 grid walk, Part 1: 1950s-1970s

  1. That Lotus was my favourite Matchbox car as a kid. Jim Clark was my hero. I remember seeing reports of his death on the BBC News, even though I was only 6 years old. The Major Pack Racing Transporter was a great companion piece for it to travel in to the cardboard Racing Circuit Lesney also produced at the time.

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