story and photos by Brian Willoughby
Witnessing the phenomenal success of Lesney's Matchbox Series and two upstart rivals introduced by Mettoy andMattel, Mecanno decided in the late 1960s that it was time for it too to join the ranks of companies offering a line of small scale, highly detailed, diecast model cars. A few years earlier, Dinky had halfheartedly attempted to market Matchbox clones under the name Dinky Dublo. Unfortunately, the high quality models failed to gain any measurable market share and, in the end, the range was left to die a very quiet and unlamented death. Yet with several viable competitors readily eroding Dinky's once dominant position in 1:43 scale diecasts, Mecanno was eager to exploit market segments in which it was still under represented. To cash in on the profitable small scale market, Mecanno decided to re-enter the field by unveiling one of the worst product lines in its long and hitherto respected history: the Mini Dinky range of 1:65 scale models.
The Mini Dinkies were unique in several aspects. Unlike other Dinky models produced by the English branch of the company, they were not produced in the old Liverpool factory located on Binns Road; rather, to maximize profits, the majority of Mini Dinkies were manufactured in Hong Kong. Subjects selected to be modeled frequently seemed to be bizarre choices and ranged from a huge Cadillac Coupe de Ville to a diminutive M.G.B., along with several other cars that had already been modeled by other manufacturers. In spite of the sometimes questionable vehicle selections, the detail cut into the dies was outstanding and the models were very accurate depictions of the full-scale cars. Nothing less would have been expected from Dinky, yet unfortunately, one of the major differences distinguishing them from their larger siblings was their quality of construction. Mini Dinkies were, from the start, of inferior quality to their larger British (and French) made counterparts and this represented a most unexpected departure from the extremely high quality toys for which Mecanno was so long known and revered.
The first observation one makes about Mini Dinkies aside from the car depicted is their dull and lifeless paint. Mini Dinky paint quality was, at it very best, mediocre and many other less costly Hong Kong diecasts, such as Mattel's particularly well made Hot Wheels, featured vastly superior finishes. In a rather dubious accomplishment, even Mini Dinkies sprayed in metallic colors failed to show any of the "flash and style" that was so often associated with such finishes during the Swinging '60s. Irrespective of whether a metallic finish was selected, paint thickness in general varied from so excessive that it obliterated details in the casting to so thin that it was sometimes questionable whether the model passed by the spray jet at all. Additionally, aside from thickness problems, runs and bubbles were also among the more commonly encountered paint defects.
When two paint applications were required on models with, for instance, a roof of a different color than the remainder of the body, they inevitably showed over spray from poor masking. Once again, the second application of paint often produced unsightly runs that bled onto the main color which itself frequently looked as if it was not allowed to properly cure. Stoplights were hand-painted in red with results that were as equally sloppy as the rest of the models' paint work. Curiously, license plates were painted black through the use of spray guns and masking yet no number-bearing decals were applied or supplied to finish the job.
However, the most significant problem with Mini Dinkies was an age old foe of diecast toys: metal fatigue. Caused by the presence of contaminants in the zinc alloy from which diecast toys are made, the condition results in web of hairline cracks that form throughout the casting. Eventually, fatigued castings can literally crumble into thousands of pieces; nonetheless, with extremely careful handling, some models can hold together well enough to be displayed. Many of the Mini Dinky models developed fatigue within a few years after purchase while others can still be found today with no detectable signs of this much feared blight: it all depended on the purity of the alloy. Furthermore, this condition made the many operating features found on the Mini Dinkies even more apt to breaking or falling off than they were on other Mini Dinkies not suffering from fatigue. Unfortunately, and perhaps due to the rarity of this line of toys, fatigued models that are still in one solid piece inside their original packaging do not seem to sell for any less than their non-fatigued counterparts.
Unlike other small-scale diecasts, Mini Dinkies' wheels were not crimped or riveted onto an axle; rather, their tires and wheels were mounted in place purely by pressure exerted from the hub around the axle shaft. While such a wheel and axle system might have been fine for adult collectors, in the hands of rambunctious boys, the wheels had a propensity for working loose and being lost. One can only image the fate that befell such wheel-less, and therefore to their owners "worthless", Mini Dinkies and no doubt many of them were sentenced to meet up with dad's sledgehammer or vise. As if their wheel design wasn't already bad enough, yet another flaw of the Mini Dinkies' design was the unstable rubber compound used for the tires: over time, it had a tendency to crack and become very shiny, sticky and brittle.
One clever idea that actually worked was the Mini Dinkies' packaging. Each car came home from the toy store in a small "garage" that appeared much more like a miniature greenhouse. Their appearance was due to the clear plastic shell that was inserted into the garage's red plastic base which allowed the would-be owner to examine the model prior purchase. Undoubtedly, the see-through garage was perhaps used, in some rare instances, as a display case at home as well. At the front of the garage was a folding door that operated somewhat like a real garage door yet two clear plastic straps threaded through the base kept the model from accidentally falling out and moving about. Obviously, the idea was to remove the straps and involve the garage while playing with the cars yet most of them were, much like Matchbox boxes, thrown away. Not to be left out of the Mini Dinky poor-quality contest, garages that have survived are often found today with mild warpage of the red plastic base.
Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly when taking into account their low quality, loose Mini Dinkies in "played with" condition are infrequent visitors on toy show tables and most models encountered today are mint in their original packaging. Apparently, only models that served as "collectibles" rather than as toys enjoyed any kind survival rate. Furthermore, the pricing of the Mini Dinkies around the time of their introduction was sufficiently higher than the competition to persuade many would-be buyers to opt for a less costly Matchbox. Ironically, the Matchbox was a much better choice in spite of the rather lofty position in which Dinky products were (and are) placed.
Nevertheless, not everything about the Mini Dinkies was bad: as already mentioned, the castings were very detailed and well proportioned. Additionally, the models featured accurate interior moldings and full window glazing along with two different wheel types that either mimicked a smooth chrome wheel cover or a set of sporty wires complete with center knock-offs. The opening features were also nicely executed and tailgates, hoods and doors closed with minimal gaps around them and revealed well designed engines, steering wheels and seats inside. Such minute detail was impressive during the late 1960s; sadly, the myriad of other problems plaguing the Mini Dinky range typically overwhelmed collectors to the point of rarely allowing themselves to see beyond the defects.
Listing the models produced in the Mini Dinky line is difficult as many were planned yet few seemed to materialize. Some guidebooks document certain models as having been produced whereas others do not and books authored by American writers invariably cite a different group of models as having been made than what their British counterparts list. Unfortunately, Dinky catalogues of the period enthused a great deal of optimism for the Mini Dinky line and all its forthcoming efforts and for this reason, they do not present a true picture of what actually appeared on the toy shop shelves. This article has concentrated upon describing only the initial release of Mini Dinky passenger cars produced in Hong Kong; also remember that a few racing cars and a rather extensive line of miniature construction equipment were also sold under the same name.
After acquiring a few examples of Mini Dinkies, the author was disappointed in their appalling lack of quality yet noticed that none of the traditional reference works addressed the models' multitude of problems. Rather, most guidebooks offer merely a small amount of gushing praise and a list of market values. So finally, here is that supplemental information that seems necessary to complete the history of Mini Dinky. As such, allow this piece to serve only as an introduction: if you find, despite all their sins, that you cannot resist assembling a comprehensive collection of them, many sources are available for reference. It is, however, doubtful, that any one else will tell just how shoddy these products were.
Tags: Tales of Toy Cars