Model Products Corporation was a leading brand of plastic model kits from the 1950s to 2011. It frequently went by the acronym MPC. It should not be confused with another contemporary toy company, Multiple Products Company, which was a leading maker of plastic army men from 1954 to about 1979. This company also went by MPC.
In the context of Lionel, “MPC” refers to this company, Model Products Corporation, that was also owned by General Mills in the 1970s and 1980s. General Mills merged the two company operations, hoping for synergy.
MPC was founded in 1963 by George Toteff, a former executive from AMT, another maker of plastic model kits. Model Products Corporation ended up specializing in 1/25 scale automobiles.
MPC did not produce original airplane kits of its own, but resold kits originating at Airfix under their own name.
General Mills’ ownership
In 1970, the cereal company General Mills bought Model Products Corporation, and retained the founder, George Toteff, as president. General Mills had also purchased Lionel’s train business from the venerable company, who went bankrupt in 1967 after years of struggling. Lionel reinvented itself as a holding company but licensed the name to General Mills. General Mills then put MPC management in charge of its new model train business.
By the late 1970s, MPC and Lionel were part of a General Mills division called Fundimensions. The two companies remained under that umbrella until 1985.
By the mid-1980s, it was clear that making cereal and making toys as part of the same conglomerate didn’t necessarily have a lot of synergy. So in 1985, General Mills started selling or spinning off its toy and hobby business.
Other General Mills toy acquisitions
General Mills also purchased several other toy companies during this time frame. In 1967 it bought Kenner, famous for action figures. Then in 1968 they bought Parker Brothers, famous for board games. It was under General Mills’ ownership that Parker Bros got into video game cartridges.
Buying toy companies was a trend among cereal companies for a while. Quaker Oats owned Fisher-Price and Marx in the 1970s. The companies hoped the diversity would help them. They also believed they could achieve economies of scale by merging what had been separate companies. But what they found was not all toy companies were the same, so the new management didn’t immediately adjust to the different ebbs and flows of varying toy product lines.
The cereal conglomerates accelerated the toy industry’s consolidation. The two dominant toy companies of today, Mattel and Hasbro, bought the companies who bought the cereal conglomerates’ toy businesses.
MPC and Ertl
In 1985, MPC, minus Lionel, was sold to Ertl, who had also acquired rival model company AMT in 1981. From there, Ertl and MPC were purchased by RC2 Corporation in 1999, which in turn was purchased by Tomy. In 2011, Tomy sold its plastic model interests to a company called Round Two LLC, which ended MPC as an active brand.
MPC and Lionel
As a train hobbyist, I am most interested in MPC as the company who managed to Lionel for about a decade and a half. This was not necessarily Lionel’s finest hour, but it was a tough time for that entire business model. Railroads were not having their finest hour either, so the mass appeal of train sets was mostly a thing of the past.
MPC did what they could to cut costs and if nothing else, they made the trains look more realistic. Much of the product line was based on old Lionel tooling. But MPC decorated the cars more realistically than Lionel had. Unfortunately, where Lionel used painted plastic in their prime, MPC continued Lionel’s 1960s practice of molding the cars in different colored plastics and heat stamping white lettering on them. The result was cost effective, but it looked cheap.
MPC also used DC power in the cheaper Lionel sets, and used its existing distribution channels to sell Lionel trains at retail, including discount stores. While mass market stores have occasionally carried modern era Lionel, it was much easier to find a Lionel train at a store like Kmart during the MPC era.
The MPC era had its ups and downs, but the problem was that cereal companies had little business running toy companies. So in the 1980s, General Mills started selling off its empire. As part of that liquidation, MPC and Lionel split up.
MPC went one way, going to Ertl, and Lionel became part of Kenner Parker, which General Mills spun off in 1985.
The MPC legacy with Lionel
MPC’s success running Lionel was uneven. The early Pullmor motors were a throwback to the Postwar era and worthy of the Lionel name. The needlepoint axles and trucks made of slippery, self-lubricating Delrin plastic reduced friction and made the cars much easier to pull, permitting longer trains. That’s an innovation that Lionel still uses today, and some of its modern-era competitors copied. Hobbyists of the hi-rail persuasion liked that it introduced a line of 1:48 scale O scale trains with scale proportions. But no one was enamored with the Trutrack product, which looked good but quickly stopped working. And moving production from Michigan to Mexico was an unpopular move that decreased the quality of the products and likely helped lead to General Mills’ decision to exit the train business.
Even though the MPC legacy with Lionel is far from the company’s glory days, it has a following. These are the trains Generation X saw in stores. Collectors who want something different find the MPC era has enough variety to be challenging, but the trains are affordable. And if nothing else, the MPC era produced building kits that are different from today, providing a way to make a train layout look a bit different from the typical layout you see in magazines, which tend to be dominated by Plasticville in the case of postwar-style layouts, or MTH structures in the case of modern layouts.