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They may be small, but their appeal is huge

When Sarah Odell announced that she needed to bring a matchbox-sized toy into school, her father took it as a personal challenge.

A few days later, Sarah marched into the classroom, proudly bearing a miniature model steamroller, tucked into a matchbox. This steamroller, crafted by Jack Odell, an engineer for a toy firm, was to spawn an icon recognised across the globe. The Matchbox range of meticulously reproduced miniature cars, vans and buses has developed a cult following since its debut in a 1952 classroom. In its heyday in 1969, 14 factories, with 6,500 employees, produced 5.5 million cars a week.

Now, a new exhibition, at Hackney museum in east London, is celebrating the history of the toys. The exhibition, which opened this week, includes an illustrated mock-up of the Matchbox factory floor, interviews with the factory workers, and a range of cars.

Claire Adler, the museum education manager, believes that the toys pale in comparison with the high-tech gadgets of today's playground. But, she insists, much of their appeal lies in the prosaic.

"They are not aspirational," she says. "There is an immediate understanding of the vehicles' purposes. Children use that understanding to develop games."

Often the toy cars reflect contemporary trends. For example, in the late 1960s a flashy "hot wheels" line was introduced. During the Vietnam war, demand increased for tanks and military cars.

Limited edition models regularly fetch between pound;100 and pound;150 at auction, substantially more than their original 1s 6d selling price. Leslie Smith, 86, one of the founders of the brand, says: "They have tremendous value now. There is no doubt I could have been a lot richer if I had only kept some of them myself."

But Mr Smith and his partners have little reason to complain. In 1982, they sold Matchbox Toys to a Hong Kong-based company for pound;16.5 million. It was later bought by Mattel, the US company that makes Barbie dolls.

But, for seven-year-old Becky Anderson, who visited the exhibition with Northwold primary school, in Hackney, it is size, rather than price, that matters. "They're tiny," she murmured, awestruck. "My teddy-bear is about a hundred times that size.

"In the olden days, parents were cruel and mean, so children didn't have very many toys. These cars would have been very special."

Matchbox Memories will run until August 28.

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