Mantua. Tyco Industries. Tyco R/C. Tyco Toys.
However you knew them, Tyco played a part in the lives of billions of children around the world by dominating the toy industry from the 1940s until the 1990s. Their reach spanned from model trains to slot cars, radio control toys, lego-style sticks, action figures, and TV.
In this series ‘The History of Tyco’, I will explore their humble family roots, groundbreaking innovations, legal battles, and the series of events that led to their eventual downfall, shedding light on what happened to Tyco RC and Tyco Toys, one of the largest toy manufacturers in the world who seemed to just disappear overnight.
Note: Tyco Toys is not related to Tyco International.
Early History of Tyco as Mantua Metal
John N Tyler was born in 1902 in England where he spent most of his childhood, and grew a strong passion for model trains. At the age of 23 he emigrated to the United States to work as an electrician, where he became friends with James P Thomas who was a trained tool and die maker. They would partner in 1926 to form the Mantua Toy and Metal Products company.
James’ engineering skill, which enabled him to create small yet high-performing electric motors, led to the company’s first ever product – model boats. However, in 1932, John was introduced to the HO scale train concept by a British friend who told him of this new product that was going gangbusters across the sea in the UK, and would likely do the same in the US, prompting the company to immediately shift its focus to HO scale trains. For a more detailed account of the company’s early history, refer to the following link.
Mantua’s foresight to embrace the HO scale (Half ‘O’ Size) craze in the United States at an early stage, coupled with their innovation in remarkably compact yet powerful motors, catapulted this small New Jersey company to the forefront of the toy industry and established it as a leader in the scale toy market.
Tyler was quick to recognize the advantages of the smaller HO scale, which not only made production more cost-effective but also enabled customers to enjoy a similar level of detail as the larger ‘O’ scale at a lower cost. (test)
In addition, the compact size of HO scale allowed for more interesting track designs in smaller spaces, providing room for buildings and accessories that could also be sold alongside the trains. It was a win-win for everyone involved.
It should be said that all the design and production was handled by James Thomas, while John Tyler focused solely on the business, marketing, and financials. Yet this wouldn’t last for long – World War II would begin in Europe, and soon Mantua would be co-opted to produce precision measuring and mapping equipment for the Army.
Several years later, once the war was won, they’d return to toy production.
The company would continue to grow in the 1940s, and in 1947 it would become wholly owned by John Tyler and family with James Thomas leaving to pursue other opportunities. While it officially remained Mantua, it began to be known unofficially as Tyler’s Company, or TYCO for short.
It was during this decade that then Marketing Director Milt Grey convinced John Tyler that it was time to really distinguish themselves in the market with a product that would appeal to an even wider audience: ready-to-run HO train sets that were already assembled. Ready-to-run had been on the market for years from other companies, but not in the HO scale that Mantua specialized in.
Milt would further introduce Tyler to the idea that model train hobbyists may not be the only market, and that a ready-made product in the HO size would also appeal to a more traditional clientele – children!
But what about their traditional product line?
Much like the Hobby Grade R/C scene in the 90s which was dominated by kit models such as Tamiya before being completely revolutionized by pre-built Traxxas cars in the 2000s, the appeal of the model train scene in the 1940s-1950s was very much about the enjoyment of building your own. Assembling, painting, decorating, fitting the mechanical components.
Anyone that’s built a Tamiya R/C or similar model would agree, the satisfaction from the build is immensely rewarding, calming, and relaxing. Most of the time!
Tyler wanted to retain this while still exploring new opportunities – and so the decision was made that Mantua would continue offering HO Scale Train Kits, as they’d successfully done since the beginning, but a new company would also be created.
The new company would be called… TYCO! Finally the name was officially adopted after people had known the company as Tyco (Tyler’s company) for many years. It would focus on more consumer oriented pre-made trains, train sets, buildings, and other ready to go items.
Tyco was about to do a Traxxas, and turn the whole market upside down overnight.
It was a serious gamble – entire new production lines would need to be established for assembling all these models as efficiently as possible to a standard that would be accepted by the modelling community, while the existing production line making the kits would need to be altered to also feed parts into in-house assembly and painting. It was quite literally a doubling of capacity.
Ready-made for the Big Time
It paid off – Tyco’s ready-made train sets were a smash hit. No longer restricted to the confines of a hobby shop, these pre-made products could be sold world-wide, just as discount department stores (precursors to ‘big box’ stores) were becoming more popular in the post-war period. And regular toy stores loved them too, as the smaller boxes allowed them to keep more stock on hand – Tyco’s product would be preferred!
It didn’t take long for the competition to see Tyco’s success and do the same. For a time this small New Jersey company threatened to upend the comfortable market that industry leaders Lionel Corporation and American Flyer had established. But John wouldn’t lie down without a fight.
Price wars between the companies would see many other operations go out of business, yet Mantua only grew stronger, and become a household name renowned for quality products, “Precision made by Mantua in the U.S.A” – Precision Made, a phrase that would be carried on Tyco and Taiyo products from the 60s well into the 90s.
Most importantly for Tyco, competition between the companies would drive innovation in the design and manufacture of their toys. With greater detail and realism came better techniques, and a more skilled employee base. It was a necessary period of growth that would prepare Tyco for their next strategic move.
The Slot Car Era
In 1957, one of Tyco’s key competitors, Lionel, introduced the first ever slot cars, called “Model Motoring” toys that operating using similar technology to their model trains, adapted for a wide plastic twin-lane track. This was the natural progression that Tyco needed, and in the early 1960s they would introduce their own ‘Electric Race Car’ sets.
Soon enough the market was filled with competitors and the HO slot car scene became dominated by one model – the Aurora AFX ThunderJet 500. Nothing came close. That was until a young engineer named Pat Dennis came along.
Pat was at the Chicago International Hobby Show to handover a new prototype design. Running an unusually fast, highly customised Mabuchi motor with a unique gearing set, it was revolutionary.
And as fate would have it, Pat’s contact was a no show, and soon he would find himself chatting to the new Vice President of Tyco Hong Kong, Richard Cheng. While admitting he wasn’t all that impressed with Tyco’s current range, Pat would place his prototype on Tyco’s demonstration track. In his own words, “their reaction was predictable”.
Within days, he was working for Tyco, and the result would be Tyco Pro. For the first time, the ThunderJet 500 had a true challenger, and Tyco would become one of the greatest brands in slot car history.
Tyco Industries is Born
By 1967, John N Tyler would have been 65 years old and looking to take a back seat in the company. It was decided that Mantua and Tyco would be consolidated into a new company to be known as Tyco Industries, Inc. John Tyler’s son, Norman Tyler (now 38) would become President, while John stayed on as Chairman of the Board.
While one might expect this story to be one of continued family ownership and growth, however sadly it was not meant to be. In 1970, barely three years after Norman took control, Tyco Industries was sold to Consolidated Foods (Sara Lee) for an undisclosed sum.
A few years later, on the 10th November 1972, founder and former CEO John N. Tyler passed away.
It might be speculated that John’s deteriorating health led to the family consolidating the company, while Norman worked to broker it’s sale, however I’ve not found anything to confirm this.
Let Them Eat Cake!
It does not take a business genius to foresee what would happen next.
With the purchase of Tyco Industries by Consolidated Foods (a subsidiary of Sara Lee), one of the top executives of Consolidated was assigned leadership of the small ex-family company.
With the hands-on Tyler family gone, in its place was corporate management of a foods empire – the employees of the business no doubt felt deflated, Tyco management contemplated their futures, and sales dropped quickly. While there is mention of Norman staying on as President for a time, it is not known for how long and to what affect, and whether it was under his watch that the company floundered – perhaps as a result of his fathers death.
Thankfully the leadership at Sara Lee/Consolidated were strong enough to swallow their pride, and set out to find a management team with experience in the toy industry. And that’s when a small miracle occurred that would set in motion everything we know about Tyco Toys until today.
They soon landed upon Richard E Grey. That surname may sound familiar; Richard was the son of Milt Grey, the Head of Marketing in the 1940s who had guided John N Tyler in the crucial decision to focus upon more consumer oriented pre-built models. Richard was given the role of President of Tyco Industries, backed by Harry Pearce as Chief Financial Officer.
They knew each other well, coming from Arthur Anderson & Co. where Grey had worked as a representative for manufacturers of Tyco’s products. He understood the toy business and Tyco’s origin like nobody else. Both Grey and Pearce would return profitability to the company very quickly.
Slot Car Boom!
During the 1960s – 1970s, ten years before full function RC cars would come onto the scene, slot cars were one of the most popular hobbies in the United States, and across the world.
Now the Tyco Pro was launched, they’d be able to compete with the market leader, and the timing couldn’t have been any better. With the market in full swing, Tyco would be propelled from a modestly successful electric train manufacturer to being at the heart of a cultural phenomenon that would set them up financially for a generation.
One of the key innovations that kept Tyco at the forefront and a favorite amongst fans was their products ability to be easily modified and upgraded by users. This allowed hobbyists to customize their cars with different motors, tires, lights, and bodies, improving performance on the track, and increasing realism.
Tyco’s focus on small components, replacement parts, hop-ups (upgrades), and track-side accessories including buildings and track pieces, along with hundreds of different slot car vehicles saw them become a respected player in the industry.
Despite diversifying its product range, Tyco did not neglect its model trains business. In fact, by the 1960s, model train sets had become a popular hobby in many households, enjoyed not just as a bonding activity for fathers and sons, but also as a family pastime.
In the late 70s, as the slot car boom began to cool off, and model trains began to lag, Tyco would focus on increasing the excitement around their products by introducing new chassis such as the Curve Hugger HP2, and glow-in-the-dark track sets branded Nite-Glow. Their train sets would become more heavily themed, with artistry and packaging that would immediately grab the attention of buyers.
It is a strategy that proved wildly successful, and one they would leveridge heavily upon throughout the next decade.
What happened to Mantua?
In 1977 the Tyler family purchased back rights to the original line of Mantua products from Sara Lee, and re-established the Mantua company.
Mantua would continue in the hobby industry as a family business unrelated to Tyco, producing model trains for another 20+ years under the leadership of Norman Tyler and family, until October 31st 2001 when it finally closed down. But that wasn’t the end of its story.
The Mantua manufacturing machinery and designs would continue to be produced, first by The Model Power Company, which itself went through various purchases, before the equipment and designs were finally acquired in 2018 by none other than… Lionel. John N Tyler’s original competitor back in the 1940s which still survives to this day.