This time in Die Cast News we're going to take a look back at the original toy that turned so many of us on to a lifelong obsession with toy cars: Matchbox Turns 50 in 2002! In honor of this milestone, a year-Long celebration is planned. The anniversary is the 50th, the official color is Burgundy, and the party is already starting!

It all began for Matchbox, currently a brand of Mattel, Inc., in 1952 when Jack Odell created a tiny, brass Road Roller and put it in a matchbox-sized container so his daughter could take it to school.

From that humble origin, Matchbox vehicles have inspired the imaginations of kids around the world, while securing a dedicated collector following and a nostalgic place in people's hearts.

Through the years, Matchbox has survived competition, toy industry consolidation, and changing consumer tastes, yet they've remained one of the most recognizable brands in the world.

On the eve of the brand's 50th birthday, Matchbox, is busy planning a year-long celebration marked by an array of commemorative vehicles that will appeal to collectors of all ages -- from the "Matchbox Across America" collection of 50 state cars to the "ultimate" Matchbox Collectible crafted in gold and other precious metals. A mobile birthday party will bring the celebration coast-to-coast, culminating with a grand finale in New York City at the International Matchbox Toy Show: A Celebration of the First 50 Years, August 24 and 25, 2002.

Since the creation of the first Matchbox vehicle in 1952, the popularity of Matchbox cars has spread across generations. Today, much like 50 years ago, Matchbox cars are miniature versions of the vehicles kids see their heroes drive every day. They're vehicles like fire trucks, police cars and 4x4 pick-up trucks that inspire kids to create endless role-play and rescue scenarios. Kids love Matchbox cars because they're fun to play with. Parents like them because they're safe toys that inspire their child's imagination at a very affordable price. And collectors cherish them for their realism, collectibility and value appreciation.

"Matchbox cars were my favorite toys growing up - and they're still among my favorites today," says children's lifestyle expert Chris Byrne, "What has always made them magical and allowed them to endure for half a century is that they exist in two distinct ways for kids. On the one hand, they're fun collectibles, and kids always love that. And as toys, they inspire creative, imaginative play. The ability for so many generations to share Matchbox Cars, yet for each child to have a unique experience of playing with them relevant to his or her life, is what makes a true and enduring classic."

The birthday kickoff begins in January 2002 with the release of a new product line called "Matchbox Across America." The line will feature a special collection of 50 cars, one car for each of the 50 United States. Each vehicle will be indicative of its state (for example, the vehicle for South Carolina will be a golf cart) and will have fun decoration commemorating a key state feature or fact. In addition, each state vehicle will be sold with a miniature replica of the state's license plate. The state vehicles will be introduced nationally on a rolling basis throughout the year, available at leading toy retailers for about $1.50 each. Six of the state vehicles will be featured in a spring Happy Meals promotion at McDonald's restaurants.

For the adult collector of Matchbox vehicles and toys, and we know who we are, Matchbox Collectibles will celebrate the brand's 50th anniversary by creating the "ultimate" Matchbox collectible. This one-of-a-kind model of the Seagrave "Meanstick" fire engine will be crafted in gold and platinum with special features, such as a working ladder and lights made of precious gems. The vehicle will be sold at auction to the highest bidder, with profits going to charity. The value of the "ultimate" model is expected to top $10,000. After which, the lucky winner will have to decide if he wants to open it, or leave it in the package.

Matchbox Collectibles will also introduce two reproductions of the Ultimate Matchbox Vehicle in 2002 for approximately $8.00. Burgundy-colored "Anniversary" replicas will be widely available, but a very special 5000-piece limited-edition version in rich gold paint will be randomly assorted and distributed to major retailers as well, creating a "treasure hunt" for the elusive "gold" version.

In addition, the Matchbox Collectibles line will include a complete 50th anniversary collection of vehicles representing the best of Matchbox design and detail. The collection will include miniature (approx. 1:64 scale), traditional (approx. 1:43 scale) and large-scale (approx. 1:18 scale) vehicles, each painted a classic burgundy color and decorated with a Matchbox 50th Anniversary commemorative seal. Vehicles in the collection will range in price from about $4.00 for the smallest scale to $25.00 for the large-scale pieces.

To celebrate the Matchbox birthday with kids and adult collectors around the United States, the brand will host a Matchbox Across America mobile tour that will make stops in retail store parking lots in more than 20 cities. The tour will begin in April and run through August. Each tour stop will feature an extensive play area, "rescue test drive challenge" track, product demonstrations and displays for kids and adults and birthday treats for everyone.

The celebration will culminate on Saturday, August 24, and Sunday, August 25 in New York City with the largest International Matchbox Toy Show ever assembled! Kids and collectors from around the world will be able to park their Matchbox cars for a weekend of bidding, swapping and dealing. An extensive play area for kids and cool prizes will add to the fun!

It's terrific to see Mattel getting behind the Matchbox brand like this. A few years ago, when Mattel bought TYCO, which at that point owned Matchbox, there was some fear that Mattel would simply phase out the Matchbox name, and incorporate what was left into their mega-successful "Hot Wheels" brand. But our fears were unfounded, as Mattel has kept the Matchbox line and has even managed to breath new life into it with an improved package design and this year's anniversary items and events. Except for a nicely-done 40th Anniversary reproduction line ten years ago, Matchbox's previous owners hadn't done much to exploit their star toy's deep-rooted nostalgic appeal.

Today, Matchbox is stronger than it's been in years, and a childhood favorite for many of us is still alive and kicking. With projects like "Matchbox Across America" and the other new items that they have up their sleeves, they'll be with us for a long time. Perhaps even another 50 years.

For more information on the mobile tour and the Toy Show, log onto the Matchbox website at www.matchbox.com.

Next time in Die Cast News, all the new stuff from Toy Fair!