Fire Engines by Reader’s Digest

Mike Pigott returns to the subject of fire engines with a look at this unusual range that was given as a premium with subscriptions to Reader’s Digest books.The long-running and popular monthly magazine Reader’s Digest contains a selection of condensed articles on a wide range of subjects, and for many years was one of the best-selling magazines in the world. Reader’s Digest also publishes books; probably the best known of these are Condensed Books, which are hardcover volumes containing four abridged novels. There are also sets of encyclopaedia and large reference books.

To encourage sales of the books, Reader’s Digest often sends premiums with book orders. While these are frequently things such as pens or coffee mugs, they can occasionally be diecast models. Sets of two or four models were given as the ‘free mystery gift’ with large reference books, while individual models from a series were included with each condensed book or encyclopaedia volume. There were various types of model vehicles given away, including vintage cars, classic cars, classic trams, trains, delivery vans and vintage planes. And, as we’re about to see, fire engines!

The fire engine series consisted of eight different models of classic American fire trucks. They were only issued in the USA, and were produced in 2000. Like most of the Reader’s Digest models, they were made by Chinese budget company High Speed. As with many models from this manufacturer, quality and accuracy was somewhat lacking. However, what made the series collectable was the extremely unusual models included; they were all-new castings and not copies of other brands, as was the case with Summer Toys. Some of them were fire engines from incredibly obscure companies… where else are you going to find a Knox-Martin or a Task Master?

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Classic Fire Engines by Yat Ming Road Signature

Mike Pigott looks at this recent range of 1/43 classic fire engines made by Yat Ming of Hong Kong.

Dennis Light 4Yat Ming is a Hong Kong based manufacturer of diecast toys that dates from 1970, created to take advantage of the diecast boom inspired by Hot Wheels. Yat Ming models were largely cheap and cheerful knock-offs of Matchbox and Hot Wheels products aimed mostly at the American market, and were often sold under the ‘Road Tough’ brand.

In 1997 Yat Ming entered the collectibles market, producing a line of budget 1/43 scale American cars. These were quite sparsely detailed, but were good value and featured a number of vehicles not modelled elsewhere. Later a range of highly detailed 1/18 cars were introduced under the ‘Road Signature’ marque, and were again aimed at the USA market, where that scale is extremely popular. This was followed by a series of 1/24 scale fire engines, which were again well detailed, good value and featured a number of moving parts.

In 2006, a line of 1/43 scale vintage fire engines was launched, initially featuring pre-war American vehicles, although British and German ones were later produced. The range was extremely well-made, with great attention to detail, and mostly featured fire engines that had never been modelled before. Another plus point was the price; at around £14 each, these were less than half the cost of similar models by Matchbox, Corgi or Conrad. Yat Ming had clearly researched the real vehicles carefully, as the models were very accurate right down to the coach-lining. Of the models produced, they mainly dated from the 1920s and ‘30s, with seven American items, three British, and a German wartime truck.

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Summer Toys Fire Engines

Mike Pigott takes a look at a fairly unoriginal range of diecast miniature fire engines made by budget manufacturer Summer.

Aerial Ladder Fire Truck

During the 1970s, a number of far-Eastern toy companies entered the diecast market to compete with the extremely popular Matchbox and Hot Wheels ranges. Some of the best known of these were Universal Toys, Zylmex, Playart, Yat Ming, Tintoys and Welly. While some of these companies made reasonably competent models, others were of extremely dubious quality and finish. Some were notorious for copying the leading manufacturers, and churned out inferior copies of toys produced by the likes of Matchbox, Corgi, Dinky and Tomica.

One Hong Kong-based company that was notorious for shoddy quality and ripping-off other manufacturers was Summer Toys. Summer was a low-end toy manufacturer that first appeared in the mid-1970s, when ‘Made In Hong Hong’ was still a byword for cheap, poor-quality toys. The Summer name was not marked on the toys or the packaging, although they could be identified by a trademark on the bottom of the blister cards and on the base of the models. The logo appears to be a leaping horse in front of three trees. The bases are also marked with the initials ‘SM’ which stands for Summer Metal Products Manufacturing Ltd.

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Athearn Ford Trucks

Mike Pigott looks at this high quality but short-lived range of 1/50 scale Ford trucks made by Athearn of the USA.

Ford C Box Van and Fire Truck

The American company of Athearn was a leader in the model railroad field since the late 1940s, specialising in HO scale. In 2004, the company entered the diecast truck market, producing a high quality range of Ford trucks and fire engines in 1/50 scale. Unfortunately, Athearn dropped out of the market within a few years, after just six castings had been produced.

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Code Red by Matchbox

Mike Pigott looks at a licensed range from Matchbox, based on a fire-fighting themed TV show that was aimed at the American market.


Code Red packaging

Over the years there have been very few character models in the Matchbox range. Unlike Corgi and Dinky, both of which had great success with TV and movie inspired character models, Lesney was very reluctant to pay royalty fees. It wasn’t until the late 1970s, when the company was desperate to increase sales in the USA that licensed toys were introduced, including lines based on Disney and Popeye characters. In 1982, Matchbox released a range of eight models based on a new television show centred on a team of Los Angeles fire-fighters called Code Red. A line of TV-related fire engines would seem to be a winning combination, but unfortunately, this was not the case; the TV series was short lived, and the models were poor. Matchbox put very little effort into making the models authentic, just using existing castings that were slightly modified or recoloured.

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Tomica Eco-Toys

Mike Pigott looks at this amazing range of model vehicles from Japanese company Tomica, which features working lights but no batteries.

Ecotoy lights-2 

Model cars with working lights are nothing new. In the 1960s and ‘70s Dinky, Corgi and Spot-On all produced models with working lights that were powered by small batteries. Around 1990, Matchbox introduced its LaserTronic range, which were 1-75 castings fitted with small LED lights on the roof that flashed when the cars were pushed down on their suspension. Majorette’s Sonic Flashers were similar, and had a variety of different effects, including warning lights, headlights and taillights, and all sorts of sound effects. Later, Hot Wheels’ Rumblers range had flashing lights and sound bites such as engine noises or music that played when the cars were rolled along. Probably the most refined model cars with lighting were Aoshima’s DISM range, which were highly detailed 1/43 models with working head- and taillights activated by small switches on the base.

However, all these models were powered by batteries. Examples produced after about 1990 required small ‘button’ batteries, as normally used in watches. In all but the DISM models, the batteries were non-removable, meaning that after the batteries had worn out, the lights no longer worked. The other main problem was that after batteries have expired, they can leak and become corrosive.

In 2012, Tomica of Japan came up with a way to produce model cars with working lights and avoid batteries altogether. These models were fitted with a gear inside one of the wheels, which powered a dynamo connected to a pair of small LED bulbs.

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Vintage Fire Engines by Conrad


  Mike Pigott looks at this high quality range of vintage fire engines from a famous German manufacturer.


Although best known for producing model trucks and construction vehicles, the German firm of Conrad has also made a large number of diecast fire engines.

Conrad is a spin-off brand from the venerable Gescha company, a famous German toy manufacturer that dates back to the 1920s. Initially specializing in tinplate toys, the company branched out into diecast toys in the late 1960s. The diecast range was sold under the ‘Conrad’ brand, named after the family which owned the business. The Conrad line proved so successful that the tinplate toys were dropped and the Gescha name was phased out.

The high quality of Conrad’s products led to several motor manufacturers commissioning promotional models from them, including Volkswagen, Mercedes and Audi. This led to orders from truck and construction equipment manufacturers also placing orders for replicas of their full-size vehicles. Conrad soon got a reputation as the ‘go-to’ company for promotional and souvenir models, and this ended up becoming the major part of its business. Many Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) commissioned scale models of their vehicles to give to potential buyers; these were mostly German companies, but could also be from other countries, notably Sweden and the USA.

Although most of Conrad’s models were trucks and plant equipment, there were also cars, tractors, buses and fire engines produced. Again, these were mostly items requested by the real vehicle manufacturers. Rosenbauer of Austria and Emergency-One of the USA were two companies which commissioned a number of models from Conrad, based on the latest examples of the real vehicles.

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Mattel – Mebetoys Trucks

Mike Pigott looks at this rare and little-known range of futuristic trucks made by Mattel’s Italian subsidiary, Mebetoys.

The Mebetoys company was set up in 1959 by the Besana brothers in a small town near Milan. Initially they manufactured toy guns and miniature household appliances, but in 1966 they began producing diecast model cars. The model cars were in 1/43, and were quite good quality, competing in the market with similar items from Mercury and Politoys (later Polistil). By 1969 there were around 40 models in the range, mostly Italian sports and saloon cars, but with some international cars in the line too.

In 1969 Mebetoys was acquired by major American toy company Mattel, probably as a way of getting a foot into the European Common Market. The Mebetoys company was renamed Mattel SpA, although in Europe the products were still sold under the Mebetoys brand until 1980. As could be expected, Mattel made changes to the Mebetoys line. The cars were fitted with plastic wheels and low-friction axles, and were painted in bright metallic colours, while American style hot rods and custom cars were introduced. There was even a range of 1/43 plastic track and accessories to race the models on. The American Hot Wheels line was sold in Italy in Mebetoys packaging. They were issued in cardboard picture boxes, similar to Matchbox toys.

The Besana brothers left the company and a few years later set up Martoys, later re-named Bburago, to produce budget-priced diecast cars in 1/43 and 1/25 scales.

Mattel began importing the new-look Mebetoys cars to the USA, where they were sold as Hot Wheels Gran Toros. Although well regarded by collectors, the Gran Toros line did not sell well in the USA, and when the diecast toy market slumped in 1972, the range was dropped. Mebetoys continued to be manufactured in Italy, but the quality dropped as models were produced with plastic bases and cheap speedwheels. Later, a range of sparsely detailed 1/25 vehicles was added.


In the 1979 Mebetoys catalogue, a new range of diecast model trucks were announced, although the illustrations were ‘artist impressions’, so the trucks were clearly only at the prototype stage. There were six vehicles in the range, three rigid trucks and three articulated semi-trailers.

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Trux CMP Lorries

Mike Pigott looks at this small range of diecast military lorries by Australian manufacturer Trux.

With the threat of war looming 1937, Britain found itself with a dire shortage of military multi-purpose trucks. The British government approached Canada to design and produce a line of light infantry trucks, as Canada had a modern and under-used auto manufacturing industry. The result was the Canadian Military Pattern (CMP) lorry, which was designed by Ford of Canada. Most of he vehicles were manufactured by the Canadian divisions of Ford and General Motors. When war broke out, Canada went into full production of CMP lorries, and over 500,000 of them were shipped to allied armies in battle zones around the world. Thousands more were built or assembled in other Commonwealth countries including Britain and Australia.

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