Meet the founder of the UK Inventors Dinner: I.D.I.O.T. Award winner John Reynolds

John Reynolds, I.D.I.O.T. Award, UK Inventors Dinner

John, your name often comes up in conversations about Matchbox. That’s not the beginning of your career, but I’d like to start there. When did you join? And what were some of the product highlights for you?
I joined them in 1972 and stayed for 15 years. Initially, I was employed as Design Manager to work on the company’s plan to diversify into new areas of the industry. I’d highlight the Live-N-Learn preschool line from that time where I was privileged to work with a small group of very talented people creating a successful Preschool line in a diecast environment which was not at all easy. Those that are still around are friends of mine to this day. We were coming up with stuff like this – I printed it out for you… This is The Shufflies Farm, and this is the Play Boot. The Activity Bear was also a big hit.

John Reynolds, I.D.I.O.T. Award, UK Inventors Dinner

Oh, these look BRILLIANT!
As well as preschool I was given plastic model kits. Now could you be more diametrically opposed?

And as a designer, how do you contribute to kits?
When I arrived, they’d already started doing the aircraft kits. They had lots of small moulding machines, so they decided to have two frames in the box, each one a different colour – meaning different-coloured parts… Which is really not a great idea for planes since a Red Arrows Gnat is red! But it worked really well on military kits.

Because you could include extra pieces? For added value?
Yes, alongside the vehicle you had little scale figures, or a bent lamppost, say… Just some little bits and pieces. That way, when a kid made a tank in a desert setting or whatever, it might have a soldier and some palm trees and other stuff so that they had a whole scenario. Another set may have had a street scene or whatever. So it was the model, plus a little environment for the same money as an Airfix kit. And the two colours were appropriate and worked well there.

That’s absolutely terrific. And did that work? Did that shift some units?
Oh, yes. But then kits themselves went off a cliff! Nothing do with me, I should add. Ha! The whole kit area went down because kids… World War 2… The product theme just wasn’t of interest anymore. That was difficult because Matchbox had invested a phenomenal amount of money in it. It’s a shame because – as Tom Kremer once said to me – a plastic kit teaches a child how to read a drawing, follow instructions, learn about history and model-making skills… Could be handy for assembling Ikea kitchen units in later life!

John Reynolds, I.D.I.O.T. Award, UK Inventors Dinner

Ha! You’re not wrong. And are there any toys that you recall seeing, John, that made you think ‘wow!’?
The one that comes to mind is the first time I saw Mattel’s Hot Wheels track system. Because it was absolutely new! Up to that point, when kids played with small toy cars, they’d use whatever was to hand. You might roll a car down some books or a piece of wood, but Hot Wheels with extruded track and Superfast wheels turned it into a category. When I joined Matchbox, that had just happened – and it had severely affected the Matchbox business. I don’t know who came up with the idea at Mattel, but it shows the power of creative thinking!

Anyway, in 1980, I was made R&D director with overall responsibility for all products, including diecast. I left in 1987 to become an independent designer… For five years, I worked on lines for Matchbox, Galoob and Playmates. I worked alongside Dixon Manning in the UK and Richard Levy in the US. and jointly developed products with Richard Maddocks who also did a lot of the original development for Furby.

Oh wow! And it’s worth saying that Richard Levy often contributes to Mojo… Ordinarily, I’d link to an article at this point – but he’s all over the site. Ha! What came after your independent stint, John?
I was offered the role of Director of R&D for Spears Games whose main brand was, of course, Scrabble. After a couple of years, that too was acquired by Mattel. I think it’s fair to say that Mattel had a problem managing us from the US, so I started an independent company offering all R&D services. Mattel was my main client. We supplied Scrabble, UNO and all their other game lines with product design, innovation and packaging for about five years until my retirement. I was in the industry for over 40 years.

Amazing. Let’s talk about that, then… How did you actually get into toys and games?
I fell into it the day I finished school at Wimbledon Tech. I’d had enough of it; I wanted out. I wanted to go to art school. Unfortunately, my uncle already WAS an artist, and he didn’t impress my father… So that was the last thing I was going to be allowed to do! Ha! Instead, my mother insisted I take a job that would include part-time college… So I ended up going back to Wimbledon Tech to study engineering. I also joined the then-world’s-largest toy company – Lines Bros., or Tri-ang Toys. It was a short bus ride from where I lived near Wimbledon.

John Reynolds, I.D.I.O.T. Award, UK Inventors Dinner

And in terms of how big the world’s largest toy company was, can you give us a picture of that?
Oh, they were huge. Massive! Lines Bros. employed over 2,000 people on that site alone. And it’s hard for a lot of people to imagine this now, but it wasn’t just a job. It was my whole life for five or six years because it had everything… They used to have a big hall with a band playing every week; they had a football pitch; they had a social club with a secretary… So it wasn’t just a work life – it was your whole social life. My best friend met his wife there! She was the Managing Director’s secretary. They’re still married.

And Lines Bros. owned quite a lot of big brands, didn’t they? What kind of toys did they put out?
They made Pedigree prams, pushchairs, rocking horses, pedal cars, go-karts and dolls. Sindy was theirs; Dinky was theirs and Hornby and Scalectrix…Frog plastic kits . There was a large range of metal and wooden vehicles. They also took over Meccano, … They even owned Hamleys! Later, I went back into their R&D department as a toy designer and worked alongside Peter Manning of Dixon Manning. He became a friend. It was then I decided this was what I wanted to do as a career.

Brilliant! And Peter Manning and John Dixon went on, of course, to create Air Hogs… I spoke with Ben Varadi about those guys winning the I.D.I.O.T. Award. People can read that here. I’m curious about that time in the industry, though, John… If you were given a go-kart to work on, say, would that be it? Would you become the go-to-go-kart guy? And only do go-karts for a few years?
Oh, no, no, no. You worked on anything that was thrown at you! I didn’t design any Dinky, although I was trained across all disciplines; I learned how pressed steel, diecast and injection moulds worked, how to make them. Anyway, When I was about 25, I had reason to come away from toys and start my own design, tooling and manufacturing company – DJ Reynolds Limited after my full name, Dudley John Reynolds.

Oh, that’s right! I forgot your first name’s Dudley! I have an uncle called Dudley; I love that man so I’ve always liked the name. Is DJ Reynolds Limited still going?
It’s still trading, but not in my name and I have no financial interest in it. At that time, I did work for ITT KB and Morphy Richards. So they were mainly electrical products. For example, we did metal pressings for ITT KB’s first colour TV…

But this was not really what you wanted to be doing?
No, not at all. After that, I went to work for an industrial design company in London but preferred the toy industry and then spent three years at Eldon Toys. Eldon was a major US toy company based down the road from Mattel in Los Angeles. I looked after their European R&D and manufacturing interests. Major bands there would have been Billy Blast Off and Poweride ride-ons – but you would have to be over 70 and American for that to mean anything to you!

John Reynolds, I.D.I.O.T. Award, UK Inventors Dinner

Billy Blast Off I’ve heard of… A squat little fella in a space suit. Did it do something clever with the battery?
Exactly right! Yes, it was a line of figures and vehicles. So he was like a four-inch figure with a battery, and a spindle that came out of his rear and he walked. When you sat him in one of his space vehicles or whatever, he made it work; he was the power source. I didn’t design any of those products, but it was a big seller. Also, the Poweride car was a pretty big hit. That was the first battery operated sit-and-ride for kids. I was heavily involved in producing it in Europe… Other companies have done ride-ons since, but back in the late 1960s it was original – and a hit.

And that brings us back to Matchbox… Amazing. What a career! But it doesn’t end there, John, because you were also one of the founders of the Inventors Dinner at London Toy Fair. How did that come about?
When I joined Matchbox, we were trying to be more in contact with the inventor community as part of our plan to diversify. And to be honest, having a large in-house R&D department made that relationship difficult at times. So if we could meet inventors informally, it would make communications much easier. Inventors could make contact with future clients and learn of their needs – and companies would be much more aware of the creative resources available out there… Plus it could be fun!

And remind me: roughly when was this, John?
This would be around 1985. Up until that time, Richard Maddocks was the pre-school designer of the Live-n-Learn line at Matchbox.

That’s the range you showed me earlier? The boot and the farm and Activity Bear?
Right. Richard became an independent inventor in 1985, and we talked about how innovation should be recognised as the lifeblood of the toy industry. We then set about forming an annual industry event to celebrate innovation and let all the players meet informally.

John Reynolds, I.D.I.O.T. Award, UK Inventors Dinner

Who else was involved in that?
We spoke with Wyn Wyman of Granta to get the inventor point of view and Roger Ford of Hasbro to get another manufacturer’s input. From there it gathered speed… The first event was small. We held it in the Admiral’s quarters on HMS Belfast. That was organised by Richard, Wyn and me. It had a maximum capacity of 30 people – and it was instantly oversubscribed!

It also set the precedent that the location was important. The following year was London Zoo… Known as the ‘Zoo doo’. That was followed by The London Transport Museum and The London Dungeon. After that, I don’t remember the venues… But, to this day, the location is still important – and thankfully the event is still going strong.

At some point, Chris Taylor introduced the I.D.I.O.T. Award into proceedings… We interviewed Chris last year; I’ll link to that here. You’re a recipient of that award yourself. How did you feel receiving it?
I was very pleased, of course! And I’m also very pleased that the event took off and is still going. The event being at London Toy Fair has given design and innovation its correct status in the industry. The relationship between internal and external creative people has always been a bit difficult… But hopefully the event has made that a lot easier to the benefit of all.

I don’t think anyone could doubt it! I’m curious… What would you like to be remembered for, John?
For always doing the best R&D job I could for a product – whether it was me doing it or the team I had at the time. A very difficult job – but I can’t imagine having done anything else.

Well, let me say… This has been absolutely terrific! I’m hugely grateful to you for doing it; you’ve really made me laugh and you’ve really made me think. Final question: What’s keeping you busy today?
Well, I still love art so I’m trying to get back into doing a bit of sculpture. I’ve got to get back into it… I won’t go into too much detail because it might not happen, but I’m thinking about blending sculpture and painting in a new way – which may not work!

But you can have fun finding out! Brilliant. And you said, didn’t you, that you wanted to be an artist when you were a boy?
Yes, that’s right.

Well, I love that your path is taking you back to that now. Who knows: you might find that the last 70 years have just been a colossal, amazing distraction!

John Reynolds, I.D.I.O.T. Award, UK Inventors Dinner

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