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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Jurassic Park III by Hasbro

Mike Pigott returns to Jurassic Park, as he looks at the models made by Hasbro to tie in with the third film in the series, Jurassic Park III.

Capture TransportThe third instalment in the Jurassic Park franchise was Jurassic Park III, released in 2001, this time directed by Joe Johnston and based on an original screenplay. It involved the return of Dr Alan Grant (Sam Neill), who is engaged by wealthy couple Paul and Amanda Kirby (William H. Macy and Tea Leone) to give them a personal aerial tour to see the dinosaurs of Isla Sorna. Unfortunately, Grant is duped; the Kirbys are not rich tourists and intend to land on the island to search for their teenage son who was lost there after a paragliding mishap. The plane is wrecked, and Grant has to lead the party through the dinosaur-overrun island. Although they find the boy, several of the party are killed by a particularly nasty sail-backed predator called Spinosaurus.

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Siku Super Classic Fire Engines

Mike Pigott examines the 1/50 scale ‘Super Classic’ fire engines made by German company Siku.

Mercedes Zetros

The Siku range from Germany has traditionally been made to a uniform scale of 1/55. The miniature cars and large truck models have always been in this scale, although many of the trucks and other vehicles in the Matchbox-sized Super Series were to ‘fit the box’ scale. Siku has consistently made very high-quality diecast products, which are probably closer to being toys than fine-scale models. The oddball scale of 1/55 and the abundance of moving parts meant that Siku not really compatible with fine scale models, and tend to be aimed at the juvenile market.

However, in recent years, Siku has begun manufacturing models in more standardised scales. There have been a range of tractors and agricultural vehicles in 1/32 scale, plus trucks, tractors and construction equipment in 1/50 and 1/87 scales.

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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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Matchbox Swiss Collection

Swiss Packaging

Over the years, Matchbox has produced a number of exclusive models for regional markets. The earliest example of this dated back to the mid-1960s, when a petrol tanker was produced in a blue and white Aral livery specifically for the German market. Since then, a number of 1-75 models were produced in country-specific liveries for foreign markets, and in some instances these were even exclusive castings.


In 1989 the Matchbox distributor in Switzerland, a company called Joker AG, commissioned Matchbox to produce a number of models in Swiss liveries. There were 13 items from the 1-75 range, plus others from the Convoy, Superkings and Skybusters lines.

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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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Hot Wheels Steering Rigs

Mike Pigott takes a look at a cool range of articulated trucks produced by Hot Wheels in the early 1980’s.

Steering Rigs with steering wheel
Steering rigs were steered by turning an oversized translucent wheel plugged into the rear

Trucks were beginning to play a large part in the Hot Wheels Line in the late 1970’s.  Trucks, especially big, shiny American rigs, were starting to become really trendy, due in no small part to the CB radio craze and films such as ‘Convoy’ and ‘Smokey and the Bandit’.

This popularity was reflected in the number of toy and model trucks produced around this time.  In the 1980 Hot Wheels line-up, eight of the seventeen new releases were trucks and commercial vehicles.  Of course, in the regular series, trucks had to fit the normal blister packs, so they had to be short wheelbase models such as cement mixers, tippers and so on.  But it was the big semi-trailers that were really popular, so in 1981 they introduced a new range called ‘Steering Rigs’.

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Matchbox Big M-X

Mike Pigott looks at this innovative, action-packed range from the 1970’s that was based on the popular Super Kings model trucks.

 BM 5& driver

     In the early 1970’s, Lesney was feeling the threat from the popularity of Hot Wheels, and needed to expand their product ranges, to take on the competition from not just Mattel, but other multi-national toy manufacturers such Kenner and Ideal.  To this end they began diversifying and making more than just diecast vehicles…including games, dolls, construction kits and plastic motorized vehicles.  One of these novelty ranges was the action-oriented line of Big M-X construction vehicles, which were based on the large-size Super Kings castings, but with added features and accessories.

Introduced in 1972, there were six models in the range, all of which had been modified with ‘drive points’ which operated the moving parts when powered by the separate ‘Power Activator’.  The plastic accessory dioramas also had drive points that could be driven by the activator.

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Grace Brothers Aussie Centenary Models

Here’s a feature about rare examples of original Australian promotional models, as made for the Sydney-based department store Grace Brothers. 

One of the most famous retailers in New South Wales, Australia, during the 20th Century was the department store chain of Grace Brothers. The first store was established by English immigrants Albert and Joseph Grace in 1885. Their business proved a success, and by 1906 they were able to open a massive five-story building in central Sydney. Grace Brothers was one of the first retailers to open a chain of suburban outlets, starting in 1933. Throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s they continued opening branches in the suburbs of Sydney, and in regional towns in New South Wales. In 1983, the company was taken over by Melbourne-based department store Myer. They continued trading under the Grace Bros name until 2004 when, sadly, the venerable name was phased out in favour of Myer branding. Continue reading “Grace Brothers Aussie Centenary Models”

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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