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Magpie - When Diecasts are Spot On…

Magpie - When Diecasts are Spot On…

ALTHOUGH I’VE BEEN penning this column for more years than I care to remember, it only recently struck me that I’ve never looked into the products of a short-lived yet highly innovative diecast manufacturer within the British Isles.

Because of a factory fire at the Spot-on Belfast plant in 1967, this line of toy production ceased, guaranteeing this marque a collecting following in the years to come.

Scale-wise, Spot-On, which launched its range in 1959, opted for 1:42. One reason for this may have been that the opposition, namely long-serving Dinky and the Johnny-come-lately Corgi, were already in the marketplace with 1:48 scale models. Be that as it may, Spot-on vehicles were bigger so had more presence on the carpet (although, of course, it was potentially problematical mixing them with the slightly smaller rivals. However, youngsters were probably oblivious of this!).

Spot-on, though, wasn’t just another diecast manufacturer: it can truly be said that this manufacturer was broad in its thinking and strategies, and brought to the local toyshop rather more in the way of ideas and play value than most of its contemporaries. Ironically, it was that selfsame innovative streak that would also lead, in part at least, to the company’s downfall.

For innovation read colours, for starters. Not content to produce a car in just one shade, Spot-on typically rolled out anything up to 15 or 16 colours, with around eight being par for the course. Why bother tooling up for a new mould if you could breathe extra life into the existing one by changing the palette? Why indeed… This has made the range interesting to the collector who has the possibility of focussing on just one vehicle in a veritable spectrum of finishes.

Many and varied colour schemes wasn’t the whole picture, though. Those in the Spot-on boardroom clearly saw the value in gimmicks or moving parts, and so various models were built with movable features like an opening bonnet or boot, sliding sunroof or opening doors, for example. These added play value, of course, as did the incorporation of painted interior figures in some of the vehicles. One or two delightful ideas included a Royal Occasion set (with monarch); a cops and robbers set (which included figures and card shops); and a lovely Austin Prime Mover with a crate as a load, which could be opened to reveal an MGA. Pavement and roadway sections lent further realism to the whole scenario, something that other diecast producers had not really considered, and Tri-ang dutifully produced a useful range of prepainted rubber dwellings and buildings so that even more realism could be achieved. (These latter turn up at swapmeets today fairly regularly although owing to the passage of time, warping isn’t uncommon).

On the building front, Spot-on even issued a terrapin portable construction. Of course, there were petrol pump station addenda and attendants but Spot-on also cast lamp-posts too. As mentioned above, like Corgi and Dinky, Spot-on also decided to issue gift sets, which were often essentially collections of its vehicles in a bigger, compartmentalised box; the biggest, PS10, actually contained ten vehicles including a London bus. It’s very hard to track down today and one can only assume that relatively few sets were ever issued. As for the tooling, details were good and the company really took some pains over wheel styling and shut lines on bodywork, for example: it was that preoccupation with realism again.

And so to the models themselves… Well, in the main, Spot-on exemplified Britain, its jingoism being quite a prominent feature. Many were the British makes of car that it brought out: Rover, Austin, Jaguar, Ford, Rolls Royce, Sunbeam, MG and Daimler were just a handful. Yes, there were foreign interlopers: Volvo and Renault and Fiat were all modelled, although somehow these seemed not quite right when put into the presence of so many UK marques. After all, the British car industry was the envy of the world back in the 1960s. But Spot-on didn’t stop with the well-known: names like Meadows, Jensen and Goggomobil, as well as NSU and Armstrong Siddeley, also appeared.

Whilst such marques were lapped up on these shores, it was a different story overseas, particularly in the US, where such manufacturers were pretty much unknown. Moreover, unlike both Dinky and Corgi, Spot-on didn’t go down the US route and pander to that particular nation’s automobile history; and because of this, it probably lost out. I’ve commented before on this necessity to incorporate US vehicles in a given range: we didn’t see the likes of Cadillacs and Hudsons and Nash cars over here in any quantity yet to get that vital foothold in the export market, it was considered desirable to produce such models for overseas appetites.

In terms of commercial vehicles, lorries with different loads were nothing new and the Irish company featured several within its range, as well as the obligatory tanker. Models were accompanied with an information card/illustration (which are collectable in their own right) and adhesive number plates: with hindsight, very little indeed was left out of the equation. But by now we are straying into the territory and reasons relating to why the company began to struggle before its disastrous fire. Too many variations, not enough meaningful models for overseas customers and higher costs (the fact was, the average Spot-on car was more expensive than a Corgi or Dinky) rendered the Spot-on product a bit exclusive for many.

They didn’t (from memory) appear in all the local shops, which may have been another reason for their lower profile. Either way, today there are plenty around, many with original boxes (Spot-on was amongst the first to grasp the potential of the window box packaging); equally, there are scores of tired and playworn examples.

Really good examples with sound boxes are selling for hundreds of pounds, though – so we warned, if you get the bug!

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From Magpie, CMM p. 4 of May 2016, issue 326
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