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.

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