Friday, August 9, 2013

The History of Maisto Diecast Cars



Anybody who collects diecast cars is aware of the Maisto brand. They have a wide range of cars in a broad range of scales, in all price points and in widely varying designs – from incredibly accurate to caricatured cartoon style cars. Until recently I didn’t know a lot about Maistos background, in comparison the Hot Wheels and Matchbox brands trade widely on their heritage. All I knew about Maisto was that they bought BBurago after they went broke, and that no matter what scale you wanted, Maisto had a car in it.


The first time I knowingly bought a Maisto made car, it was a 3-inch or 1:64 scale Trabant, in lurid lime green. Contrast this with some of their lowrider bling caricatured cars which I would never buy. How does one company cover such a wide range? This article attempts to look at the history of the Maisto Company. I will devote a future article to Maistos three inch castings. 





Early company history

In 1967 The Ngan family in Hong Kong started MC Toys, an abbreviation of May Cheong Toy Company, they made a range of diecast toy cars aimed at the overseas export market. Made in Hong Kong, these early cars were obviously aimed at the Matchbox toy car buyer, being roughly 1:64 or three inch in size and replicating cars in the Matchbox range. Although many cars were direct copies of Matchbox castings, even at this stage MC Toys produced cars that Matchbox, Corgi and Hot Wheels did not.

A strong aspect of the MC Toys range was European cars. Sales in European markets and requests by European distributors were most likely the reason that in the 70's models of European cars started to appear. MC Toys did produce some cars never made by Matchbox or Hot Wheels, such as some obscure French, Italian and German models and even Trabant’s.

Some of these early cars were direct copies of Matchbox cars with changes made probably only to ease manufacture, but all were well made, with good quality paint and competent interiors. The major flaws of these early cars were wheel issues - with inaccurate and toy like wheels. This was not unheard of from Corgi or Matchbox either. At incredibly competitive prices and bright compelling colour schemes, these new eastern made cars were popular but not ‘collectible’ in the same vein that Matchbox et al were sought after. Even today, early Maisto MC Toys branded cars can be bought very cheaply.

After several years the range started to grow, and the same castings began to be seen under other manufacturers names (mainly European diecast manufacturers), but with different colours. The cars were moving from toylike to collector quality. In the late 1980’s the cars became very high quality and very accurate. It was obvious that MC Toys were paying licenses to reproduce accurate models, and this was in contrast to other mass production diecast companies based in Hong Kong who made more toy-like cars.


This strategy is almost certainly what led to the growing awareness of Maisto as a brand that produced accurate high quality cars. Apart from making cars for European and North American resellers to market under their own name, MC Toys also began producing promotional models for car makers and also for sports teams and general consumer companies.

Around this same late 1980’s period, MC Toys also focussed on expanding its depth of product. Its own range of 1:64 cars were made in a variety of ranges with evocative names – MC Mini Racers, Maisto Turbo Treads, Maisto Motor Works, Maisto Road and Track Miniatures. The cars made in Thailand for MC Toys were made by the Master Toy Company and were also known as MT Toys or May Tat Toys. There are no doubt many other ‘brands’ that Maisto has marketed diecast under that I am not aware of, and these may include specific brands for non-english speaking European markets.

These 1:64 scale cars ranged from accurate Matchbox style cars, to caricatured Hot Wheels cars and more cartoon like garish fantasy cars. They also produced cars in mass quantity emergency vehicle, military and construction sets for companies like Toys R Us, Kmart and Target using those company’s home brand names such as Real Toy. They also make Tonka small-scale vehicles for Hasbro, and many Maisto castings appear in Tonka sets with Tonka stickers and Maisto baseplate. Some Tonka castings are exclusive to Tonka, although made by Maisto.
Tie-ins enable Maisto to expand its base. Movies,sports teams and even magazines have been used.

This business plan of providing mass quantity volume of a wide catalogue of castings to other companies obviously provided stability and a guaranteed revenue stream and allowed MC Toys to grow and expand its range of castings and market share. The scale of cars offered in these sets ranges widely, with many diecast and plastic cars appearing in scales probably designed simply to fit a specific box size.

Zylmex branded cars from the mid 80's
Maisto 'Fresh Metal' 2011

At some point in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s MC Toys began to produce low cost, reasonable quality, fairly accurate 1:24 and 1:18 scale cars using the name Maisto. These cars were similar quality to Solido and Bburago, and priced accordingly. They started to eat away at the European diecast manufacturers sales with their low price points, and each new model issued by Maisto improved in quality and accuracy.



In 1992 an arrangement that MC Toys had with Intex/Zee Toys where they provided cars under the Zylmex brand came to an end. Looking to market cars under their own brands, the name evolved from MC Toys to Maisto right across the range including the 1:64 scale diecast cars. 

MC Toys still operates, but it is now the parent company that owns the various brands that Maisto cars are sold under including Bburago. These corporate entities are all owned by May Cheong Toy Company. 
MC Toys baseplate on a 1986 Corvette

Maisto baseplate on the same casting

Maisto cars produced and sold under Tonka branding


Evolution from Hong Kong toy company to global diecast behemoth

The evolution to Maisto as a standalone brand for MC Toy’s diecast cars business in 1990 saw a new focus from the company. Competition with European diecast manufacturers drove Maisto to increase its quality and accuracy, while still being price competitive. Maisto began to issue catalogues of their range of cars, and expanded into new categories. They opened an office and design studio in the United States, not just to market diecast cars but to spot the trends and feed that market information back to designers in China.

The practice of making cars marketed under other brands continued, and indeed still does today. Although Maisto cars are budget priced, compared to Kyosho and Autoart, they have moved many of their products from the toy category to the model category, while still marketing heavily in the toy category. The kid who buys a 3 inch Fresh Metal will recognise the Maisto name when he sees a 1:18 Nissan GT-R. By appealing to all sectors of the diecast market from kids to collectors, Maisto ensure a steady revenue stream and a broad base to market to.

Maisto has constantly improved its quality and range and has sought to increase its market share by using five strategies:
·    buying moulds, designs, brands and goodwill from defunct Chinese or European based diecast companies (Bburago being the prime example),
·     delivering models of cars not often seen from other manufacturers, in a broad range of scales,  
·     opening a design studio in California – tapping the epicentre of contemporary diecast design and trends.
·     licensed exclusive production of ‘hot’ cars from automotive manufacturers,
·     expanding diecast product tie-ins with Hollywood franchises.

Some early Maisto castings appeared to be exact copies of Matchbox products - this tanker is VERY similar to the Matchbox Leyland tanker and is still in the Fresh Metal range today.

These five strategies enable Maisto to leverage its extensive casting catalogue into different sectors of the diecast market from the 1:18 collector of Euro exotics, to the small child with a hankering for Iron Man.

The three-inch class, approx 1:64 scale is today marketed under the ‘Fresh Metal’ name, but it is common for castings to appear across the Maisto range. Licensing deals such as those with Marvel for the Iron Man and most recently the Thor movie, sees the casting for a car appear in a new colour with new art and on a colourful blister card featuring Iron Man and iron Man graphics.

 
Same Maisto Dodge Viper used in different ranges

One area of the market it appears to have abandoned is the no-name low-end generic diecast as seen in supermarkets where a kid can buy a set of 20 diecast cars for a few dollars. The Fresh Metal range is equal to the Matchbox 1-100 range, apart from its lack of interiors and black window plastic. They are also roughly half the price of the equivalent Matchbox car. They are low cost, but not low-quality.

Where are Maisto diecast cars made?

Although they started out as one of many Hong Kong based toy companies, the answer today is China and Thailand, but primarily China in a complex in Dongguan City. Like many other toy companies operating in Hong Kong with an export focus, MC Toys took advantage of the Chinese governments declaration of a special economic zone in Guangzhou, with conditions designed to attract companies with a focus on export to relocate to this zone. MC Toys, along with many other Hong Kong based toy companies in the late 1980’s built new factories in Dongguan City.

MC Toys also have a factory in Thailand. It had an operation there for many years under the May Tat brand, operated by Master Toy, and in 1997, a new factory was opened in Thailand by Maisto Manufacturing and these diecast cars are now branded as Maisto. It is possible some Bburago diecast cars are manufactured there also.

Maisto is vertically integrated – it manufactures all the parts it needs for its own diecast models. For the large plastic radio control cars that it markets, it even makes its own circuit boards in a special circuit board factory.


The Maisto company also has a design headquarters in Fontana California, which is the place that a lot of the marketing ideas and graphic designs come from. Not all the new car designs come from the California studios, some cars are still designed in China. Maisto also own Bburago, and new Bburago brand cars are designed in China, not California. Some comments on the Maisto blog indicate that sometimes boxes arriving in California from China contain new product the California designers had no idea about until it arrived!

The three-inch cars that are the core of the Maisto casting catalogue and sold under the ‘Fresh Metal’ range (although freely used across all of Maistos different brands and segments with different wheels bases and colourings) are designed in China. Although when they are reused in other lines, the California based designers create the art for them. With the incredible catalogue of Maisto castings, it is common for a car to be reused across several product lines in multiple colours over many years. Unlike Hot Wheels and Matchbox, the ‘Fresh Metal’ lineup seems to grow with very few castings dropped.

Maisto Fresh Metal 5 packs are assembled into theme packs just like Matchbox and Hot Wheels

Maistos range today

The scale of cars made by Maisto is vast. I am aware of cars made by Maisto in the following scales:  1:12, 1:14, 1:18, 1:24, 1:25, 1:26, 1:27, 1:31, 1:36, 1:43, 1:47, 1:55 and 1:64 scale. Sometimes it appears that Maisto will design a new range and create the branding and marketing then ensure that the car is at a scale to fit the box that the range appears in. This is a common practice in the 3-inch market, but collectors of cars in the 1: 43 or 1:24 class, become irritated when their desired car appears in an oddball scale. Many of the quite caricatured cars really defy any scale.

Matchbox and Hot Wheels collectors may come across Maisto when they see a car that they don’t quite recognize, but it looks like it could be from Matchbox. Or they may collect a particular brand of car say Porsches, and start to look beyond Matchbox, Hot Wheels, Majorette etc for accurate castings for their collection. This is how a lot of serious collectors come to Maisto. The three-inch class, approx 1:64 scale is today marketed under the ‘Fresh Metal’ name, but it is common for castings to appear across the Maisto range. The base casting will remain untouched but a baseplate, interior and paint will change so that a car can be a Fresh Metal casting, and then a blingy style car with outrageous mag wheels, then fitted with monster truck wheels for another range, or even painted yellow and used under the Tonka name. 

Collecting Maisto

Collecting Maisto cars can be a real challenge, and I imagine for completionists it would be almost impossible. With castings appearing in every market uniquely tailored for that market Maisto have made some very clever marketing decisions-but that doesn't help the collector! Over the years Maisto have readily supplied cars under other manufacturers names, under distributors names and supplied cars to specialist markets for promotional tie-ins which bypass toy stores and diecast supply chains. 

As they also market cars in every scale imaginable, that is also a collecting challenge. The California designers have invented new categories such as the Transporter and car sets, which grow every year - adding new collecting possibilities. Recently they added a new line 'Muscle Machines' with all new castings. As a primarily three inch and 1/43 collector, I find 'Fresh Metal' Maisto cars to be quite accurate castings but lacking realistic wheels and interiors. 

In Australia the basic Fresh Metal three inch range retail for one dollar, so at this price point they are aimed at children for toy use instead of the adult collector. The more detailed 'Muscle machine' casting in three inch retails for around 9 dollars. The licensed movie tie-ims are in between these price points. It often pays to keep an eye out across the different Maisto brands to see if that casting you like appears in one of their other ranges with an interior, better wheels or a nicer paint scheme. 

2009-10 'Transporter' COE

Find out more about Maisto

Information about May Cheong Toys or Maisto is fairly hard to come by, but they do have a website at: www.maisto.com with details of the current product range – which is very wide.

Maisto designers located in California started a blog which ran for several years. It was a great source of info on diecast design and production and carried prepros, resin, tests shots and lots of great photos of Maisto diecast. Its still online here: http://maisto.wordpress.com 

The Super Happy Funtime Virtual Diecast Museum has a few pages with really nice photos of Maisto castings in various colourings at: http://diecast.spiraln.com/maisto

An excellent source of info on older Maisto with a great catalogue listing is "Mini Racers, Turbo Treads, Motor Works and Road & Track Miniatures: The Many 1:64 Scale Models of Maisto"  by Brian Willoughby and Doug Breithaupt.

Note: Normally I take all the photos I use on my blog, but many on this post are from ebay auctions,  the web or Maistos blog. If you see a photo that you took used in this post, please let me know and I will make sure you are credited.




2 comments:

  1. has maisto used foreign language packaging with chinese or japanese or cyrillic on it?

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  2. Great Article! I enjoyed it. Also, Thanks for the compliment on my site! I've been debating adding the non-generic castings to the Maisto page to build a more complete Maisto model listing.

    From: The Super Happy Funtime Virtual Diecast Vehicle Museum!

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