Plastimarx: Marx’s Mexican subsidiary

Last Updated on February 5, 2023 by Dave Farquhar

Plastimarx is a frequently misunderstood 20th century toymaker. It was part of Louis Marx’s post-WWII expansion into foreign markets, specifically Mexico. But how and when it came about and ended are all a bit unclear. Let’s try to clear it up.

Plastimarx’s slogan translated to “They are beautiful, they are durable, they are Plastimarx toys.” It  was perhaps the last piece of Louis Marx’s toy empire to fall, surviving until 1991.

Artefactors Plasticos S.A.

Plastimarx train
This Plastimarx caboose was made from postwar Hafner tooling. Louis Marx bought the tooling and shipped it to Mexico to keep it out of the hands of any potential competitors. The lithography is similar to Hafner, just changing the brand name and the colors.

Manuel Diaz Barreiro founded a toy plant in Mexico City under the name Artefactos Plasticos S.A. (which roughly translates to “Plastic Artifacts Inc.”) in 1948 and soon had 50 employees. He met Louis Marx in 1949, a meeting that proved pivotal.

Marx purchased 56% of the company to gain controlling interest in 1952. It used the name Juguetes Marx (Marx Toys) until 1957, when it adopted the name Plastimarx.

The subsidiary produced toys for Marx for sale in Mexico. As the name suggests, Plastimarx made a lot of plastic toys, including toy soldiers and action figures. But not everything the company made was plastic. Plastimarx made metal toys too, sometimes with lithography tailored to the Mexican market, and sometimes just with the logo and packaging changed.

In 1957, Plastimarx started selling trains. Tooling was expensive to duplicate, so the first Plastimarx trains came from tooling for trains Marx no longer wanted to produce in the United States. Plastimarx used the former Hafner train tooling, and after Marx’s 999 diecast engine ran its course, it saw a second life in Mexico as a plastic engine.

But Plastimarx didn’t just make Mexican versions of Marx toys. It had an arrangement Fisher-Price to produce and distribute Fisher-Price toys in Mexico as well. This relationship predated the ill-fated tie-up of Marx and Fisher-Price under Quaker Oats’ ownership in the United States.

Plastimarx’s separation from Marx

I frequently read statements that when Louis Marx sold his company to Quaker Oats in 1972, the Plastimarx subsidiary wasn’t part of the deal and it became a separate company. It did indeed become a separate company, but the sequence of events is complicated and Quaker Oats did control Plastimarx for a time.

Plastimarx was making toys for Fisher-Price before either company came under Quaker ownership. That pre-existing relationship may have been one reason Quaker was interested in Marx, but that’s purely speculation on my part. Quaker bought Fisher-Price in 1969, when Herman Fisher retired. And the connection between Plastimarx and Fisher-Price continued even after 1972. If anything, it seems to have strengthened.

Fisher-Price took control of Plastimarx in 1972. It would only make sense that Plastimarx was indeed part of the 1972 deal, and not a separate deal. Quaker also put Fisher-Price management in charge of Marx in the United States.

For the most part, the Marx acquisition was a disaster for Quaker Oats. So by 1976, Quaker divested most of its Marx properties. Marx joined a UK conglomerate, Dunbee-Combex-Marx, which had purchased Marx’s UK subsidiary in 1967. Dunbee-Combex-Marx went bankrupt in 1980 and was completely out of business by 1982.

It’s the 1976 deal involving Marx that didn’t include the Plastimarx subsidiary. Quaker kept Plastimarx a while longer, and that played a part in why Plastimarx stayed in business beyond 1982.

Plastimarx after 1976

Plastimarx soldiered on, manufacturing and selling Marx and Fisher-Price toys in Mexico. For a time it appears it thrived, opening a new plant in Morelia, an industrial city in central Mexico, in 1980. After Dunbee-Combex-Marx went bankrupt, Plastimarx even acquired some of the Marx molds for additional plastic figures and put them back into production.

Even though Plastimarx specialized in the Mexican market, some of its figures may have been imported and sold in the United States in the 1980s by Kay-Bee toy stores, a mall store that specialized in discount toys.

The 1986 book Transnationals and the Third World: The Struggle for Culture stated on page 41 that Plastimarx was a division of Quaker Oats and controlled 10-15 percent of the Mexican toy market.

But when the Mexican economy started to struggle and Plastimarx started losing money, Quaker wanted out. In a May 10, 2017 interview, Pedro and Clara Barreiro stated Quaker Oats sold its 56% share in Plastimarx back to the Barreiro family for $1 US. They did not say when the transaction occurred, however, just that it was during a downturn in Mexico’s economy.

The end of the line

Ultimately, a poor Mexican economy in the 1990s did the company in. By some accounts, Plastimarx met its end in 1991. According to a 1996 article in the Arizona Daily Star, Diaz Barreiro left Plastimarx in 1991 to work for Revlon. It’s unclear whether Plastimarx fully went under in 1991 or reorganized and survived a few more years, but it didn’t survive the 1990s. I did find a reference to Plastimarx in a 1996 issue of Información científica y tecnológica, which may contribute to that perception that the company survived until mid-decade, but that reference stated Plastimarx was an important toymaker at the beginning of the decade. The reference in past tense doesn’t suggest the company survived much longer than 1991.

1991 was the same year Quaker spun Fisher-Price off into a separate company, but it’s more likely the poor Mexican economy, rather than Fisher-Price’s newfound independence, caused Plastimarx’s demise. The signing of NAFTA gave Mexico’s economy a boost, and probably would have improved Plastimarx’s viability, but that didn’t come until mid-decade.

But some of the tooling lived on.

A company named Juguetes Lori, which translates to “Lori Toys” in English, reportedly still produces toys using some of the old Plastimarx molds, selling them as party favors. And the unbranded Rock Island toy train set of the 1990s traces its history to Plastimarx as well.

Why Quaker Oats got into the toy business

Why would a cereal company get into the toy business? Food companies were diversifying in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and toy companies were part of the trend. General Mills bought Marx rivals Model Products Corporation and Lionel, and Nabisco bought Aurora Plastics Corporation.

Some toy companies did better than others under their new ownership, but the trend wasn’t very successful overall. By the mid 1970s, food companies started selling off their toy assets, frequently at a loss. Nabisco sold Aurora Plastics Corporation to Monogram in 1977, taking a $26 million loss. Quaker lost $11.9 million selling off the unprofitable parts of its Marx business.

Interest from collectors today

Marx’s US toys tend to be more common than their Mexican counterparts, so they are expensive when they turn up for sale in the States. U.S.-produced 4-wheel plastic sets generally don’t get much love, but their Mexican counterparts are rare and expensive in the States.

But even on the Latin American auction site Mercadolibre, vintage Plastimarx toys command high prices. It seems Latin American adults prize the Marx toys of their youth at least as much as they do here. Maybe more.

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