Month: May 2014

Little Cars Make It Big (The Abbreviated History of Model Cars, Part 4)

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The arrival in 1968 of Mattel’s enormously popular Hot Wheels line was nothing short of a revolution in the world of model cars. Overnight, diecast car manufacturers hoping to compete in the mass market turned away from strict authenticity and toward the Hot Wheels template of fanciful, exaggerated designs and flashy paint. Some, like Matchbox and Corgi, were able to adapt and survive. Others, such as venerable Dinky, were not so lucky, folding in the 1970s.

It was left to Europe’s established diecast companies such as Solido and Rio to contend for the business of the world’s adult model car collectors. That market was narrow, confined largely to European customers, but in 1968 America would be introduced to the world of high-quality 1:43 scale models almost by accident. Mail-order businessman Dave Sinclair returned from a buying trip to Europe with a decorative ashtray topped by a miniature Rolls-Royce. His customers loved it, but most inquiries wondered whether other models were available without the ashtray base! Recognizing an unmet demand, Sinclair began to import a wide variety of Italian, French and German models for his new venture, Sinclair Mini-Autos. Through this company, Sinclair created the American diecast-collecting hobby almost singlehandedly.

To meet newfound demand in the U.S., European companies began to offer diecast cars in larger scales preferred by American customers who had perhaps grown up building plastic car kits in 1:24 scale (the standard among kit companies such as AMT and Revell.) Schuco and several other manufacturers had offered large-scale Formula 1 cars since the late 1960s, and by the mid-70s 1:24-scale diecast was gaining a toehold in the market. However, the real coup in large-scale diecast cars was taking root in Italy.

When Mattel bought out his family’s company, Mebetoys, in 1969, Mario Besana set to work establishing a new diecast business to capture a share of the 1:24-scale market. This company, Martoys, would achieve quick success with a line of European cars between 1974 and 1976, but confusion with better-known German toy company Marx forced the upstart Italian to change its name. Adding his initial to the name of the town where his company was located, Burago Di Molgora, Besana relaunched Martoys as Bburago in 1977. The following year, Bburago released its first model cars in 1:18 scale, which Besana felt would best reflect his company’s commitment to building the most detailed product available.

This move to 1:18 scale was successful beyond all expectations, as collectors around the world embraced Bburago’s lineup of vintage Alfas, Bugattis and Ferraris in this large, vibrant scale. They were particularly beloved in the United States, where coincidentally Road and Track magazine had just begun semi-regular publication of its “Cars in Scale” series that exposed an even larger swath of American enthusiasts to Europe’s great diecast cars than even Dave Sinclair had done a decade before. By the middle of the 1980s, Bburago’s models were a hot commodity, generating sufficient interest to become a staple of that bible of yuppie culture, the Sharper Image catalog. At decade’s end, rivals to Bburago’s dominance in the 1:18-scale market would begin to appear, ranging in detail from Maisto’s near-toy level of authenticity to the highly precise offerings of Exoto.

Today, 1:18 and 1:43 scale models continue to be the international standard for premium diecast model cars, with each tracing its roots back for more than a century to the early tinplate toymakers of Nuremberg. As the automobile itself has matured, so too have the tastes of model car collectors, as reflected in the ever-increasing level of detail afforded by advanced model-making techniques such as laser etching of components and resin casting. It is our privilege at Carriage House Models to play our small role in the furthering of this time-honored tradition of collecting fine scale model cars.

The Boom, and the Birth of the Model Car Collector (The Abbreviated History of Model Cars, Part 3)

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As improbable as it may sound to modern enthusiasts, the concept of a “car collector” is a relatively recent development, dating back only to the economic boom that followed World War II. In the same way, model car collecting was born in the a postwar economy; the earliest known retail shop that specialized in miniature cars was founded in England in 1952. This growing craze for model cars was fueled by an expanding number of diecast manufacturers who supplied the market with an ever-increasing number of models. Britain’s Dinky and France’s Solido resumed production with a renewed focus on improving the detail of their models, and even veteran company Marklin rose from the ashes of a devastated Germany to apply their expertise in modelling to the now-standard diecast medium.

The first significant new diecast car company to arrive after the war was Lesney. Founded in 1947 as a general diecasting company by Englishmen John Odell and Leslie Smith, Lesney moved into toy production in 1949. However, success was elusive until 1953, when Odell and Smith hit upon the idea to issue well-made but inexpensive diecast replicas of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation coach. These were a blockbuster hit, and their success granted Lesney the financial freedom to expand its offerings to include model construction vehicles and road cars in a small scale, each packaged in a unique replica matchbox. The success of these Matchbox models surpassed even that of the coronation coach, establishing Lesney as a major player in the diecast model business.

Also based in England, the Mettoy Company was founded in 1934, but didn’t start making diecast model cars until 1956, concentrating on popular British automobiles of the day like the Ford Consul and Austin Cambridge. Their brand name, Corgi, would soon become synonymous with highly detailed toy-level model cars when a broader variety of vehicles were added to the line, most notably a series of cars inspired by popular movies and television shows, such as the Batmobile and James Bond’s Aston Martin.

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At the dawn of the 1960s, a nascent Italian model car industry arose to challenge the dominance of the English and the French. These early Italian diecasters included RIO and Dugu, who focused mainly on detailed models of vintage Italian cars to compete directly for adult customers with Matchbox’s popular Models of Yesteryear line. They also included Mebetoys, a quality toy car company founded by the Besana diecasting family to compete head-on with Corgi and Solido.

For most of the ‘60s, all diecast cars enjoyed a sort of homogenous appeal to children and adult collectors alike, though a few companies such as the aforementioned RIO and Matchbox Models of Yesteryear were aimed specifically at the latter. In 1968, however, a deep and nearly permanent schism between the generations was opened when Mattel introduced its smash-hit Hot Wheels line. Intended strictly as kids’ toys with an emphasis on wild design, their success drove Matchbox and Corgi to follow suit with eccentric paint schemes and low-friction wheels and axles, mostly abandoning the adult collector market and its preference for authenticity.

And where would these adult collectors turn to get their model car fix? We’ll explore that in the final installment of our series on Monday.

Images used by permission of Vectis Auctions, Ltd. (www.vectis.co.uk)

The Rise of Diecast (The Abbreviated History of Model Cars, Part 2)

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For many model car enthusiasts in 2014, it may be hard to imagine a world where we couldn’t simply log onto our favorite website or stroll into our preferred shop to select a piece for our collection. It shouldn’t be surprising, though, that the model car industry is only about a century old as it closely mirrors the development of the full-sized automobile. As with the latter, miniature cars were a curiosity at the dawn of the twentieth century, seen by very few and owned by even fewer.

The earliest model cars were products of the great toymakers of Nuremberg, Germany, first appearing around 1905. Typically crafted from sheet metal and usually hand-painted, these beautifully made pieces from companies like Marklin and Bing were intended as toys for children of the wealthy. Though lacking in detail and authenticity (seldom, if ever, did they depict specific real-world automobiles) the DNA of the modern collectible model car can be found in these antique toys, which often featured opening doors, functional steering racks, and rubber tires. A handful of French, English, and American companies offered some competition during this era, but the artistry and experience of the Nuremberg toymakers (coupled with generous government subsidies) guaranteed that Germany would remain the center of the model car universe for a decade.

As with many other consumer products, the onset of World War I put a temporary halt to the manufacture of toy cars, and by the time the shooting had stopped, German industry lay in ruin. Former competitors from around the globe stepped in to fill the vacuum in model car production, spurred on by the emergence of the automobile as a mainstream transportation device and the resulting demand for automotive toys. This demand would be met with the introduction of efficient die casting techniques that had matured during the war, replacing the labor-intensive, low-volume method of handcrafting models from sheet metal.

ImageThe first diecast cars appeared in the United States in the mid-1920s, most notably under the Tootsietoys brand of Chicago toymakers Dowst Brothers. Though never intended to be anything other than sturdy playthings for children, an early (though crude by modern standards) emphasis was placed on authenticity; they were intended to look like Model Ts, and later, Chevrolets and Buicks.

At around the same time, two significant developments in car modelling were occurring in France. In the late ‘20s, auto magnate Andre Citroen had the inspired idea to utilize authentic miniature versions of his namesake company’s cars to capture the imagination of French children…his future customer base. These Jouets D’Andre Citroen were an instant smash hit with their intended audience (though their high lead content may have had a negative health impact on his would-be clientele.)

In 1932, the second major milestone in the French model car boom occurred when F. de Vazeilles, an accomplished industrial die-caster, turned his attention to the manufacture of toys. De Vazeilles created a line of thin-walled miniature cars with complex shapes made up of numerous separate parts. Strong, detailed, and beautifully painted, they caught on quickly with the public under their soon-to-be-famous name, Solido. De Vazeilles’ focus on detail was not to be his only contribution to the evolution of the model car industry: he also established the business practice of releasing new models annually, and was the first to feature such innovations as functional springs, opening doors, and even working interior lighting.

Meanwhile, in England,  veteran toy company Meccano was busy creating a line of authentic miniature cars to be sold as accessories for its hugely popular O-gauge model railway sets. Launched in 1933 , these O-gauge (or 1:43-scale) cars were an instant success, with demand far exceeding what was anticipated for a mere train set accessory. By 1934, the car line was given its own brand name, Dinky, and its popularity would cement 1:43-scale as the undisputed world standard for collectible model cars for the next fifty years.

The surge in model car manufacturing was, of course, interrupted by World War II, but in the economic recovery that followed a new phenomenon arose that would change the course of model car history forever: the emergence of the adult scale-model collector. We’ll pick up the story here on Friday!

Sources:

Greilsamer, Jacques and Bertrand Azema.  Catalogue of Model Cars of the World.  Lausanne: Edita S.A. 1967.

Williams, Guy R. The World of Model Cars. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1976

Images used by permission of Vectis Auctions Ltd. (www.vectis.co.uk)

Just How Did We Get Here? (The Abbreviated History of Model Cars, Part 1)

ImageI caught the model car collecting bug at a very early age in the late 1970s, an era that already had a fairly robust diecast car industry. Back then, there was substantial variety available in 1:43-scale, British stalwart Corgi had a virtual lock on the 1:36-scale market, and Italian upstart Bburago was in the midst of reshaping the hobby with a line of highly detailed (for the time) 1:18 scale models of European classics. For me, there has never been a world that didn’t include fine diecast cars.

As my enthusiasm for the hobby grew to the point that I decided to open my own diecast shop, I became increasingly curious about what came before. Within my lifetime, I’ve seen the level of detail and authenticity available in model cars improve exponentially; those big Bburagos that were state-of-the-art in 1984 now look rather quaint when placed next to current offerings from the geniuses at CMC and Truescale Miniatures. I wondered, what would thirty years of progress look like if we started with those same Bburagos and looked backwards? What about fifty years? One hundred?

Just how did we get here?

This week, we’ll take a look at the origins of the model car, from its roots in the great Nuremberg toy dynasties of the early 20th century and the advent of diecast cars in the 1920s and 1930s, to the postwar emergence of the diecast model as adult collectible and the subsequent boom in detailed 1:43 and larger scale cars throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

Our trip through time commences on Wednesday!

(Image: Malcolm Root, Meccano for the Toy Shop)