Dinky Toys: A Social History

Updated: Aug 8, 2021

Picture if you will, 50s Britain. The shadow of the Second World War loomed large over a nation in recovery. Thousands were still without adequate housing, and the economy was in tatters. Even Britain's global prowess was at stake, having lost the majority of its once vast empire in the space of little more than a decade. However, in spite of this seemingly hopeless situation, they were able to cling onto one thing. They had won the War.

Now it would be myopic to proclaim that Britain had done this on their own - they simply hadn't. They didn't even emerge from the conflict in a significantly better state than many of the defeated nations. Although what's crucial, is that while Britain was in peril, Britishness was alive and kicking.

On 25th October 1951, in a flourish of jingoism, the British public re-elected Winston Churchill as Prime Minister. Regardless of the state of the nation, Britons evidently felt that it was acceptable to celebrate their own achievements. I shall argue that they did this primarily through how they educated their children which fundamentally, (as with any generation) involved toys.

First released by Meccano Ltd in 1934 and in production until 1979, Dinky Toys were diecast miniature versions of vehicles that were currently on sale. In accordance with my theory, despite the long period in production, Dinky Toys were at the height of their success during the 1950s. While later models produced during the 1960s and 70s became more elaborate, with more accurate depictions of current cars and new features such as sparkling lights and working suspension. The iterations produced during the previous decade proved to be the most popular. Notably also, the 50s Dinky Toys tended to be versions of seemingly mundane vehicles, often commercial (especially vans), and rather porridgy cars like Standard Vanguards, Morris Minors and so on...

So why were these crude representations of everyday cars and trucks at the top of every child's Christmas list?

I think its because they were British cars and trucks.

"If you were a child of the fifties and your parents had a Standard Vanguard or a Morris Minor, they were doing bloody well..."

In any social history documentary on television, we are repeatedly spun the same yarn that the 1950s was the decade when young people dressed like their parents and to a large extent acted like them. This is both a cliché and a generalisation, but in essence it is not too far from the truth. Lest we forget that the post-war generation had every reason to look up to their parents, rather than reject them. After all, they had won the War... (I know I laboured this point), but it's important! If you were a child of the fifties and your parents had a Standard Vanguard or a Morris Minor, they were doing bloody well, and as their offspring you would have done well to recognise that by taking pride in one yourself - (albeit about 48 times smaller)...

We must also remember that the British car industry itself was deemed something to be immensely proud of. To see a foreign imported car in Britain was unusual even amidst the dying embers of British Leyland in the late 1970s. We the British have been strong believers in our own car industry, regardless of what shape it was in until fairly recently. On reflection and certainly to the outsider, this level of anglo-automotive fanaticism was both irrational and confusing. We "bought British" even though we were often knowingly paying more money for a worse product and it's my belief that this once again stems from the victory of a certain war which like John Cleese as Basil Fawlty I may have mentioned earlier...

I was fortunate enough to stumble upon the magic of Dinky Toys from a very young age. A neighbour at the time had inherited quite a vast collection of the things from an elderly relative and clearly identifying me as a complete car fanatic (even then), was kind enough to gift them to me.

I am completely confident in saying that my development as a child was most definitely impacted by these battered old 1950s toy cars. If any avid collectors (of which there are many) are reading this, don't worry I never modified any or smashed them to pieces. Those who know me well are aware that I have a strange habit of taking care of things - even those objects that don't warrant it. Whilst I cannot confess to having been impacted by Dinky Toys in the manner in which a child of the 1950s was, (when there were no other distractions), I still found myself hankering after some of the oddest vehicles due to owning the Dinky versions. Having rediscovered the collection recently, I find it incredible to see the parallels between what excites me today and the contents of that dusty old box.

My favourite car amongst them was a beige AC Aceca with a brown roof and the Aceca is still my favourite car to this day. I doubt I would even have heard of it if I hadn't had the toy. It is worth mentioning that underneath every Dinky Toy is embossed the make and model of the vehicle - again showing the pride in British industry. Similarly, the boxy shape of Dinky Land Rovers - another icon born out of post-war necessity, clearly stuck with me.

I could list many more, but what I'd like you to take away from this is what an important part childhood plays in the journey to becoming a car enthusiast in adulthood. Whether it was creating Dinky Toy dioramas or watching Fast And Furious, we all as car nuts can relate to something in our personal pasts and indeed this country's past that keeps this arcane interest alive.


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