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.
The 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!
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)