View-Master / Matchbox Grand Prix Game

Mike Pigott looks at a rare game that combines a board, a View-Master viewer and reels and four Matchbox Superfast cars.

Viewmaster Game BoardDuring the 1970s GAF, the manufacturer of View-Master, entered the toy market with a range of games incorporating 3D viewers and reels. One of these was a race game that had the novel idea of using Matchbox cars as playing pieces. What makes this product of interest is the fact that some of the cars included were exclusive to the set and were not available separately, resulting in them being among the rarest Matchbox models of all time.

VIEW-MASTER

Although widely regarded as a toy today, the View-Master was actually created as a high quality slide viewer for all ages.  It was invented in the 1930s by William Gruber, an organ-maker from Portland, Oregon.  His intention was to create a new version of the Stereoscope, popular in the 1890s.  The View-Master was superior, however, because instead of cards with a single 3D scene, it used interchangeable reels with 14 slides on them, producing seven 3D views.  Gruber made a deal with Sawyer’s, a local company that produced picture postcards, and the View-Master was born.  It made its debut at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, where it became an instant hit.  The original purpose of the View-Master was as a souvenir.  People could buy a viewer, and then collect reels at places they visited.  Reels were sold at various tourist attractions, souvenir shops and also photography stores.  At 35 cents, they were much better value than postcards, as they contained seven scenes, and what’s more, they were in realistic, full-colour 3D.

As Sawyer’s was based in Oregon, most of the early reels were of attractions in the western USA, such as the Grand Canyon, the Hoover Dam and Yellowstone National Park.  But as the system grew in popularity, other regions were covered as well.  William Gruber had intended for the viewer to be used for scientific purposes, too.  There were three botanical books produced, on wildflowers, mushrooms and cacti that had several View-Master reels accompanying them, in lieu of illustrations, as the 3D reels provided a much more realistic picture of the plant, with depth.  During WWII, View-Masters were used by the US military for enemy plane recognition.vm adView-Masters continued to grow in popularity in the post-war years, and a new style of viewer was introduced, with the reels inserted in a slot on the top, rather than having a hinged back.  During the 3D craze of the 1950’s, View-Master produced a range of cameras that enabled people to produce their own stereo reels, and even a projector that could show the slides in real 3D.  Also around this time, Sawyers acquired the rights to many movie, TV and comic book properties, and began producing a large range of character reels. A new facility was set up in Belgium in 1953 to cater for the European market; most of the products available in the UK were made there.

 

In the 1960s, View-Master was acquired by the GAF company, a New York based manufacturer of photographic film.  Although all sorts of reels continued to be made, there was a heavy emphasis on cartoons and children’s interests, and by the 1980s View-Masters were generally regarded as toys.  Around this time, View-Master was taken over by Tyco Toys, who later merged with Mattel.  Unfortunately, Mattel saw View-Master as a juvenile product, and incorporated it into its pre-school subsidiary, Fisher-Price Toys.

THE GAMEViewmaster Game BoxThis was one of three board games incorporating View-Masters, but the only one that included model cars.  It was packaged in a very large box, which opened to reveal possibly the biggest playing surface of any board game, being nearly one metre by two metres.  It was probably made to for kids to play on the floor, rather than on a table.  The layout of the racing track on the board is fairly realistic.  However, the whole board is actually hand drawn in a cartoony style, and coloured in that slightly psychedelic way that was popular in the early ‘70s.  Despite this, there is a lot of attention to detail (you can’t fault the artist’s effort), with not only the pits and the grandstand showing, but also the car park, ambulances, a camera crew and even bits of European villages in the corners outside the racetrack perimeter.

Also included is a red model ‘G’ View-Master and four reels showing motor racing scenes.  The pictures on the reels were not taken especially for this game.  They used images culled from a pair of earlier three reel sets, ‘Automobile Racing’ and ‘Racing Driver’. The cars pictured were of an older type, probably from the early ‘60s.  There were also the four Matchbox vehicles, four coloured flags on suction cup bases, and a dice.Viewmaster Game BoardThe aim of the game was to be first ‘driver’ to complete five laps around the board.  But it was not that simple, as the View-Master was incorporated into the game, too.  The four reels had to be stacked face down in the centre of the board.  Then, if you landed on a space that had a car drawn on it, you had to pick up a reel, stick it in the viewer, and click the lever the number of times shown on your roll of the dice. (Whew!)  The scene would should either a car in an advantage or handicap situation.  For example, an advantage may be ‘good cornering’, allowing the player to move ahead two places, while a handicap might be ‘flat tyre’, and the player might have to move back a few squares, or miss a turn.  A description of all the pictures and the relevant bonus or penalty was listed on the inside box lid.  As each car completes a lap, the coloured flag is placed on the corresponding number in the team pits, and the winner is the first to finish five laps. There are a few hazards, particularly when the track narrows to two lanes and cars aren’t allowed to occupy the same space.  Obviously, it’s the View-Master and the Matchbox cars that give the game its novelty value, but to be honest, the game would work just as well with normal playing pieces, and the 3D reels are a bit awkward to play with; a second dice would actually be more convenient.  But then there’d be no point in GAF making it if it didn’t contain a View-Master.

THE CARSViewmaster Game CarsOnly one casting was used, but in four different colours.  This was the Formula 1 racer, ‘Team Matchbox’, first released in 1973.  Each of the four colours supposedly represented a racing team, as indicated on the pit areas on the board.  Red was Ferrari; blue was Matra; green was Lotus; and yellow was Brabham.  The cars looked nothing like the marques they were meant to be; I suspect Team Matchbox was actually based on a Surtees that was sponsored by Lesney in the early ‘70s.  The colours of the cars were also absolutely nothing like the colours of the real racers, especially the ‘Lotus’, which was in metallic lime rather than the correct British racing green.

Imported Photos 00151
Although illustrated on the box in yellow, Team Matchbox was only sold singly in metallic red.

The metallic red car was the standard issue and is the only one of the four that is quite common.  The green version was also generally available, although only in gift sets; the G-4 ‘Team Matchbox’ set and later the G-14 ‘Grand Prix’ set, and is harder to find.  However, the yellow and metallic blue ones were produced exclusively for this game, and were not available anywhere else.  As the game is rare in good condition, it makes these models even rarer.  The yellow and blue cars are listed in many collector guides as being among the top twenty rarest Matchbox Superfast models.  What makes things slightly confusing is the fact that Team Matchbox appeared in yellow in the 1973 catalogue, and was always shown as yellow in the box illustration, but was only issued individually in red.  Later on, it was available in the Two-Packs range in either metallic red or orange, but with ‘No. 44’ labels.

The View-Master Grand Prix game is very difficult to find in good condition today.  Obviously, the yellow and blue cars are very sought after, and many have been acquired by Matchbox collectors who aren’t interested in the rest of the game.  But most were probably taken out of the box by kids and played with.  The top of the box is made of very light cardboard, and is pretty fragile.  The box bottom is fairly sturdy, and the playing board is somewhere between the two.  However, the reels are often found damaged; View-Master reels are fairly delicate photographic images, and need to be handled carefully and stored in their packets.  The nature of this sort of game is going to involve the reels being handled a lot, and they were not enclosed in proper sleeves, but clipped into the card insert in the box.

What also makes this game desirable is the fact that it was only distributed in Europe.  Although GAF were a New York based company, this item was made by their Belgian subsidiary, and not sold in North America at all.

Ironically, both Matchbox and View-Master were later acquired by Tyco Toys, and then by Mattel; and I suspect that collectors would agree that neither has fared well under the current ownership, where they have both been marketed towards the pre-school sector.  However, this game combines an interesting mix of two types of collectibles.

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Diecast Collector magazine.

Text and model photos (C) Michael Pigott 2019.

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