Les Smirle talks about building and collecting model cars, especially NASCAR models and other racecars. He talks about the history of model cars, the various materials they are made from, and the types of cars popular among modelers, from hand-built European cars to Dinky Toys.
I started my site in about 1990 and my original thought was to feature NASCAR models. It’s like an online model show. I specialized in NASCAR so that seemed the way to go. It’s worked out pretty well. I’m still adding new people to the site. I try to update it monthly. I’ve got well over 200 different modelers represented now, and there’s probably 2,000 models on there. It’s global. I get a lot of interest from Europe, some from Asia and Japan, a lot from Australia, and of course the bulk of it is North America.
I’ve been interested in model cars as long as I can remember. My mother was a war bride and my dad was a Canadian soldier, so I was born in England and relatives would send us gifts. I was sent these little Dinky Toys. Unfortunately, by the time I got my driver’s license, I had lost interest and they all just disappeared. I got back into it and started picking up a few diecasts when I was in university. At the time, I was most interested in sports cars and antique cars.
Collectors Weekly: What made you decide to actually start modeling the cars yourself?
Smirle: I like working with my hands. With collecting, it’s nice to have the model, but once you’ve located it and spent the money, you’re pretty well done. With model building, you can express some of your own interests and put your own unique touches on it. When I was first collecting diecast, an awful lot of them were old cars and I would strip and repaint them to match the actual colors of the cars I saw on the road. I now have probably between 800 and 1,000 cars, built and unbuilt.
I’ve been building NASCAR for about 15 years because I really enjoy it, particularly from the 1990s when it was still growing and doing really well. I really enjoyed the color schemes. I worked as a paint chemist before I retired, so I enjoyed working with the paint and the graphics on the models. I found that NASCAR cars, which are basically just great, big motorized billboards, are great for that.
In the last couple years, the kit manufacturers have pretty well given up on NASCAR because the licensing fees are too much. The main manufacturer, Revell, just announced they wouldn’t be doing any NASCARs anymore. So you have to start buying very expensive parts in the aftermarket if you want to build them. It irritated me enough that I’ve started to move into building models of vintage racecars, like cars that ran on short tracks in California, Michigan, and Ontario; cars that were owned by local guys.
Every one of them is unique, so I find a lot more building challenge in those than in the NASCAR. You know when you finish it’s likely that you’ve got one of the few models that was ever built.
I buy parts from small cottage-industry makers to make the models more unique. You’ve got your mass kit manufacturers like Revell, AMT, and Tamiya, but you’ve also got a whole submarket of cottage industries that build additional parts that you can use to modify the models. I use a lot of those in my building, and when I can’t find them, I make my own parts.
The racecars I model are mostly what they call Saturday night specials, cars that would’ve raced on local tracks. I was building NASCAR for a long time, but I’ve gotten away from that. I still do a few, but I like to focus on ‘60s and ‘70s vintage, mostly cars that would run on a small track in a small town by some guy who might own a garage or be sponsored by a local restaurant or something like that. They’re not cars you’d see in the national racing scene. They’d be training for local championships on their own tracks.
I also do my own graphics. Some guy will send me old Polaroids of his granddad’s car that he raced in the ‘50s, and I’ll put together the graphics so he can build a model. I use the Polaroid as a template for making graphics in CorelDRAW. It’s a lot of work. I’m working on a couple right now, in fact.
I exclusively make my own graphics for the cars I build and I get a good response. Most people buy the decals, and a lot of people just buy the prebuilt models. I’m often surprised to find later that somebody in one of the companies may have done a run of models like mine a few years ago for someone, so sometimes they’re not as unique as I thought they were. But I’m the only one who’s actually built a model of one, so sometimes it comes down to that.
Collectors Weekly: What’s the story with NASCAR?
Smirle: NASCAR itself has really grown, and become very mainstream. Their basic objective is to become like the NFL, and in the process of doing that, they’ve really homogenized the sport. The cars are all identical. The drivers are all corporate friendly and bland. They’re not the kind of characters that were out there 25 years ago. A lot of people, especially people who have been longtime fans of NASCAR, are finding that it’s not the same as it was and there’s definitely a way to find something that reminds them more of what NASCAR used to be like.
“Every car has typically 30 to 100 hours in it, depending on the level of complexity.”
NASCAR still is very successful in that people who aren’t that oriented towards cars will sit and watch their drivers because the drivers are the focus rather than the car itself. But they’re extremely aggressive in protecting their brand.
For years the model companies could make an agreement with NASCAR to do so-and-so’s car and put the decals on the car and sell the model kit. Apparently now they’ve started asking for licensing fees that would essentially double the price of a kit, and frankly, the NASCAR collector is very resistant to paying a lot of money for a kit when they can probably go out and buy the prebuilt diecast for the same money. NASCAR makes more money selling diecast than they’d ever make off the kits, so they’re trying to do everything they can to help sell diecast. It has disillusioned me. It’s good business, but it’s not good public relations.
Collectors Weekly: Do you think people are losing interest in the vintage diecasts?
Smirle: No. I think the grassroots-type racecars and other forms of model collecting are still pretty strong. It’s affected by the current economy, of course, but I think the NASCAR crowd is probably more sensitive to that economy. It is more of a blue-collar collector than will be collecting Formula 1 or sports cars. That’s my impression, anyway.
People who model cars for races tend to model based on the cars, not so much the drivers. That’s particularly true in North America, but you get someone like Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is a good ol’ boy who grew up right in the Midwest, and everybody’s going to root for him. People don’t build Chevrolet NASCARs, they build Dale Earnhardt NASCARs, whereas in Formula 1, they build Ferrari Formula 1 cars, not Michael Schumacher Formula 1 cars.With NASCAR, the loyalty to the driver is far stronger than the loyalty to individual brands of cars.
NASCAR doesn’t make model cars; they license it to other people. Revell was a major manufacturer of NASCAR kits. Tamiya in Japan, Fujimi, Hasegawa do Formula 1 and sports cars. They’re high quality and fairly pricey. AMT is another major manufacturer, but the heyday of their new product development was back in the 1960s and ‘70s and they’re still recycling those old dies and repackaging them in different ways to sell them. That’s not a bad thing because everybody loves building cars from that era.
It’s hard to find a model of a new Monte Carlo or a new Ford Taurus on street version, for example. They just don’t exist. Nobody’s interested in building them, but everybody wants to build a Ford Fairlane from 1965 or a Chevelle from 1968. Even kids that are in their 20s would rather build them than the current cars. The only other thing is maybe the kind of cars you see in movies like The Fast and the Furious – the low riders and Japanese high-performance sedans. A lot of guys are starting to build them now.
Collectors Weekly: Do a lot of collectors model cars?
Smirle: There’s overlap. As a model car builder, I’m also a collector in that I collect them after I build them. They go on a shelf, and they’re there for display. I buy a lot of 1/43rd diecast models that are already built just because I like those types of cars, like pre-World War II cars. There are probably more builders who collect than there are collectors who build because you can collect even if you’re not good with your hands or artistically inclined or if you don’t have the time. You can still get a nice collection of Ferraris without having to spend an awful lot of time if you like to have them on your shelf.
Typically, a guy who starts collecting model cars is collecting them because he likes the cars they represent. A lot of times, he hasn’t got the patience or time to actually build kits. Some guys ultimately get into it when they can’t find what they want. On the other side of the coin, if you’re lucky enough to have the time and the patience to build, it’s a very easy transition to go and buy model cars if you see one you like. You don’t have to learn something new. All you have to do is have the money. It’s probably fair to say that the collectors likely have more disposable income than the builders.
The actual diecast collectible model cars hobby really didn’t get started until the 1950s and ‘60s in Europe. There’s a lot of the current diecast cars being made now. If you’re collecting old model cars from back in the ‘40s or ‘50s, you’re collecting cars that were originally intended as toys like Dinky Toys or TootsieToys. Back then, there wasn’t a market where a car was built to be bought and put on a shelf, at least not in North America. That was pretty rare.
One of the first companies that did that was a company in Italy called Rio. They started building models of Italian cars in the early 1960s that were designed strictly for collecting, not to be played with. They put out about 100 different models, mostly European cars from the ‘20s and ‘30s, even back into the early 1900s.
Right now most of the companies that make collectible antique cars are still in Europe or Japan. It’s not very big in North America. There’s nobody I know of here that actually makes and sells vintage models. The interest just isn’t there. Franklin Mint does a few in 1/24th scale, but they tend to sell them in Europe more than North America. If I want to get a model of a really nice pre-World War II Franklin Mint, usually it’s one that was designed for the European market.
Collectors Weekly: Can you tell us about the scales and the different sizes?
Smirle: The most popular scale for model builders is 1/25th scale where 1 inch is about two feet. All the North American kit manufacturers like AMT and Revell, Monogram back a few years and Jo-Han, all the other major models were made in 1/25th scale. That gives you a nice model to sit on your desk, just big enough to work with, maybe 8 or 9 inches long.
In terms of diecast, the most popular scale is 1/43rd, which is a scale roughly that the old Dinky Toys and Corgi toys and TootsieToys were when they first started making them back in the ‘30s. That’s an oddball scale. One of the things these cars are designed for is to go with model train layouts. The 1/43rd scale is still very popular. Again, you get a nice model that’s maybe 3 1/2 inches long. It’s really nice on a shelf and can still carry a lot of detail.
Of course, you’ve got things like your Hot Wheels, which are about 1/87th scale. Then you’ve got the large-scale collectibles around 1/18th scale, which are really big. I find they’re too big. You can only have a few of them. Surprisingly enough, there’s no relationship between size and price.
Collectors Weekly: So the price just has to do with the manufacturer?
Smirle: And the type of manufacturer. There are small companies in Europe that hand-build cars, and there’ll be a run of maybe only 150 cars done. They’ll sell those for anywhere from $100 to $250. On the other side of the coin, you’ve got mass-produced cars, probably designed in Europe but mass-produced in China, like Ixo and Minichamps. You can probably buy them for anywhere from $25 to $50 and the detail is almost as good as the more expensive ones. In a way, you’re paying a bit for the exclusiveness of the more expensive ones. They tend to be more nicely packaged and that kind of stuff.
Collectors Weekly: What are the most sought-after models?
Smirle: Probably Dinky Toys from the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. They’re very collectible and command big bucks, but again, there aren’t a lot of them around. There was a time when rare model car kits produced in the 1960s were very sought-after and commanded big bucks, but the companies that owned the original dies still had some in their warehouses and they polished them off and started putting them out again. If you wanted a model of a 1965 Chevrolet 20 years ago, you had to go find a kit that was 25 years old and pay $100 dollars for it.
Now the companies have basically reissued a lot of these models, so you can buy the kit for $20. The only reason you’d want to buy the original was to have it in the original packaging. If you’re a builder, you don’t care about that. You just want to build that model or use it for some other project.
In terms of collectibles, some hand-built European cars are extremely desirable. There are some Franklin Mints that are quite collectible and command a few hundred dollars, vintage cars. I’ve got one here that’s a Rolls Royce with a wooden body. It’s a model of the original car, and I searched long and hard to find it. But the most sought-after are the Dinky Toys and the Corgi toys, I believe, and in North America, TootsieToys, which were making really nice models back in the ‘30s.
In the plastic kits, it’s mostly original-issue kits from the late 1950s and early ‘60s where the dies may have been modified for something else, so they can’t reissue them. They’ll still command a nice dollar.
There’s also what they call promotionals. Back in the ‘60s in particular, a lot of these plastic model companies started making 1/25th scale models for General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, and American Motors. When you bought a car at the dealership, they gave you one, or you could buy one from them as a souvenir. Then the plastic company who made them would take them disassembled, and put them in a box, and sell them with a kit, and that’s how they first started.
In the ‘60s, they made every year of Ford and every year of Chevrolet. They always changed them every year because the cars were different. A lot of those dies either disappeared or were modified for the following year, so those are very sought-after plastic kits. They haven’t been reissued because they don’t have the dies to reissue them.
Muscle cars are also popular with modelers. You tend to think of North American cars, like a Ford Falcon or a Chevrolet Malibu with a great, big engine in it. There’s a lot of nostalgia with those, so people like to build them.
Collectors Weekly: What different materials are the cars made of?
Smirle: The kits we buy are mostly just molded in styrene plastic like most model kits, but there’s often some cast metal parts. You can buy bodies or special wheels or other special engines that aren’t in the kits, and they’re typically made from a two-part polyurethane resin that the guys mix up and pour into a mold.
Collectors Weekly: When you model a car, do you keep it or do you trade or sell it?
Smirle: Personally, I’ve probably only sold maybe five or six cars in all the years I’ve been collecting. If somebody sees one he really likes, sometimes I’ll build a duplicate. There are a lot of guys who do build for other people and sell them, and lots of builders who aren’t collectors at heart, so they might end up selling it or giving it to a friend.
There are professional builders, but not very many. It’s not the kind of thing you can make a living out of. You can make a living selling parts. I know a couple guys whose main income comes from casting resin or metal parts and selling them to guys like myself. I sell decals that I make myself and it’s just a little bit of extra money that I get. It’s hard to make a living in this unless you’re running a hobby shop or something like that. I don’t think the market’s big enough. There aren’t that many model builders. Even the companies like Monogram or Revell or AMT don’t make much money. They’re always being bought and sold by people hoping to make something of them.
I think modeling cars became a recognized hobby just after World War II. That’s when the kits you’d see in a store started to appear. There were probably guys who were building their own things just for self-interest, carving them out of wood because there was nothing available, but I think the first actual model car kits came out just after World War II.
Before that, you’d have to take a Dinky Toy or a Corgi toy or something like that and modify it yourself. In fact, I’ve got one here that I bought off eBay. It’s an old TootsieToy Graham sedan from about 1935, and somebody cut the roof open.
The first kits were actually models of antique cars. One of the first was a 1923 Maxwell. Jack Benny drove a Maxwell on his radio show, so they made a model of it in 1/32nd scale. Up until 1955, the main type of model was antique cars. There’d be old cars like Model T Fords and Oldsmobiles from the turn of the century. They were very popular.
Then when GM and Ford started selling these promotional models in the mid-‘50s, they really caught on. That’s when teenage boys really got into building models, probably starting about 1955 to 1960. It was really big, and a lot of those teenage boys are still building today as adults.
Collectors Weekly: When did racecars come into the picture?
Smirle: Right from the first time there were model car kits. One of the first racecar kits was an old Indy car done just after the war. From that time on, usually every manufacturer had two or three racecars in their lineup. In 1982, Monogram introduced the modern NASCAR cars, and that really made NASCAR modeling take off.
It’s not just cars. There are people who specialize in collecting or building tractors, fire trucks, and buses. For those guys, there’s not much out there, so they could do a lot of building of their own parts. There are a few basic fire engine kits, for example, so they’ll take them, and then if they want to make something that looks a bit different, they have to make up their own body panels or their own equipment to put on it.
These guys don’t tend to crank out any more than one or two models a year, but they put a lot of work into them. A friend of mine is doing a bus, and he can get the engine and the wheels and the frame from a truck kit, but he’s got to do a lot of the body and all the seats himself.
There’s not as much interest in buses, because they aren’t a big part of North American society. In England where everybody uses the buses, there’s a huge bus collecting fraternity. It’s as big as NASCAR ever was over here. You pick up an English model car magazine and there’d be pages and pages of articles on buses. You can almost build a model of every bus that ever ran a route in England, just like you can almost build every racecar that ever raced in NASCAR.
Collectors Weekly: Where do you see model car collecting going? Is it growing?
Smirle: I think it’s pretty static. It’s had its ups and downs. Right now, the collecting part is bigger than the building part. That wasn’t necessarily true 25 to 30 years ago, but with the availability of low-cost, high-quality models made in China, you can build a really nice collection for a pretty reasonable price. The actual building of models is a guy thing. It’s very rare to see a woman who builds models. They’re out there, but it just doesn’t seem to appeal to them the same way. There aren’t as many guys in their 20s and early 30s that seem to be interested in building models the way they used to be, either. It’s still enough to sustain our model car club in Toronto, but our median age is close to 50, and it’s certainly going up. We don’t get many new young members coming in, or if they do, they’ll come in and try it and then find they don’t have time for it.
If you’re a model builder, you’ve got to have time. You have to be able to come home at night. When I was working, I found that I had spent two hours working on a model car from, say, 9 o’clock until 10:30 or 11 o’clock, and it was very therapeutic and relaxing. I enjoyed it. Other people find other ways to do that. Now that I’m retired, I’ve got time, but I really don’t build any more than I used to, surprisingly enough.
Collectors Weekly: Do you think modeling is going to go away because of all the new technology?
Smirle: No, I think there will always be a core of people who like to work with their hands. There have always been people who want to actually make something and they get into carpentry or model building or what have you. Right now that core is smaller because there are other things you can do. You can play video games, and it’s a time killer but it also can be satisfying. All these things can just suck away time that used to be used for building models, so you just don’t have the time you used to have to do it. You don’t take the time. Every car has typically 30 to 100 hours in it, depending on the level of complexity.
So going back to the original question: I think there will still be lots of people collecting, but there may be fewer builders. As guys my age start to disappear, I don’t know how many of the younger people are going to keep this up.
The other thing is that the cars that they’re building today are extremely efficient mechanically, far better than the cars that we built models of, but they just don’t have that same impact when you put them on a shelf because they don’t have tailfins. They don’t have great, big, wide tires. You can’t tell if it’s a Nissan or a Toyota or an Impala when it’s sitting on your shelf unless you look at it real close, so the end products don’t have that “gotcha” factor, if you will, and that could impact the hobby.
My grandson’s 12. There’s no way he identifies with a car from the ‘70s, so he’d be less interested in building a model of one, so it could be that the subject matter is not as interesting as it used to be, too. That’s even true of racecars. They all look the same. It’s all done on computers now, so if everybody’s trying to achieve the same objective and they’re not worried about anything but efficiency, you end up with all your cars being roughly the same shape.
Collectors Weekly: Do you have specific cars that you look for?
Smirle: If I’m collecting as opposed to building, I’m specializing in models of cars prior to World War II, like classic cars and antique cars, and I try to specify 1/43rd scale. When I’m building, I tend to specialize in racecars. I started out building antique cars, then I got interested in what we call replica stock cars, which are basically cars from the ‘60s and ‘70s built to be exactly like you’d drive on the street. After that, I got into NASCAR, and I built those for 15 to 20 years. Now I build mostly racecars, but I’ve broadened my scope a bit from NASCAR.
The most expensive car I’ve got is a Heco Bugatti. It’s a Bugatti, and it’s 1/43rd scale. Going the other end, I’ve got some cars that were modeled in the ‘60s of antique cars that I maybe paid $10 or $15 max each. Some of them were $3 or $4 because they’re quite readily available, but they just happened to catch my eye.
In the built model cars, I’ve got about 150 to 200 NASCAR models, and I like some more than others. Because I work for DuPont, I tended to like Jeff Gordon’s cars because he drives a car sponsored by DuPont. My favorite car in my shelf is always the one I just finished. The one I just finished now was a racecar that raced in Michigan in the late ‘60s and it’s owned by the father of a famous NASCAR driver.
To model a driver’s car, it’s got to be a car I like. If the driver’s a character, that makes it fun. The car’s got to have a personality; something unique that grabs you when you look at it. The one I just finished started out as a 1965 Chevelle, but the guy had actually taken up torch and cut the roof off then built a roll cage out of basically straight pipe. It looks really primitive and really crude, so I had a lot fun building that. The car has a unique personality, as did the driver.
Collectors Weekly: Is it common to mix two different kits together?
Smirle: Yes. You start out by building what we call “out of the box” – just put together as it comes in the kit box. Then you’ll say, “Well, I could’ve done this and that and maybe made it a bit better. If I take the part from this kit over here, I can build another totally unique model,” and you start combining parts.
You may take an engine block or a set of wheels from another kit to build a slightly different version. The next thing you know, you’re modifying it to make a Chevy into a Pontiac or to do something like that or buying parts off the Internet or from a supplier like a new hood or new wheels or something like that to modify it further.
I think people tend to progress that way. The more you model, the more likely you are to want to build something unique by combining parts from different kits. Most of that are what we call our stash of kits that we draw parts from. It’d be like somebody who owns a junkyard.
Collectors Weekly: Do the clubs serve both collectors and modelers?
Smirle: There tends to be a mix. We have a club in Toronto, and we all build models and a lot of us are collectors as well. I don’t know of any exclusive collectors’ clubs where the guys don’t build, but there are a lot of clubs. Our club is about almost 40 years old now, and there are other clubs in the States that are about the same.
We’re one of the first model car clubs that I’m aware of. There’s also IPMS, International Plastic Modelers Society. It’s probably been going for 50 years, and they cater to cars, trucks, planes, military, everything. Our club is exclusively building model cars. Every city has at least one or two clubs in it like that and typically anywhere from five to 50 members. Again, it’s 99 percent male, and probably 60 percent 50 and older.
Collectors Weekly: If someone was just starting out with modeling cars, what advice would you have for them?
Smirle: Don’t overreach until you get some basic skills developed. Don’t try to do too much the first time out. The most important thing in model cars, probably more than any other kind of modeling, is a nice, shiny paint job. Painting is important. Cleaning up the parts and gluing them together properly so it looks neat and tidy is important. Don’t try to do too much.
From a personal standpoint, you need to remember it’s a hobby. I’ve seen marriages and careers wrecked because people get so involved in the hobby they start missing days at work and start spending the mortgage money on models. It can become an obsession like anything else can, so you’ve got to keep your perspective about where it is in the scheme of life. For collecting model cars or whatever you’re doing, that’s good advice.
People need to realize you can’t own everything. You’ve got to recognize early on what you find the most interesting and most satisfying. Is it collecting antique cars? Formula 1 racecars? When I first started, every time a new model car kit came out, I’d buy it. Suddenly I realized, “I’m not going to build half of these, so why am I buying it?” You’ve got to find your particular niche and focus on that as much as you can. Otherwise, you’ll end up like all these people who have a huge collection and no house to put it in.
Collectors Weekly: Are there any good books about model cars?
Smirle: Yes. If you go to Amazon and type in car modeling, there are books specific to building NASCAR models, for example. There are books on how to do good scenery, books on detailing model cars. There are a lot of books out there. I’ve got some here that were written back in the ‘50s. You wouldn’t even bother trying the techniques that are in them today, but they’re historically interesting.
As soon as people started building models, someone was writing a book about it, and the same with model car magazines. The first magazines on building model cars came out around 1962 or ’63, and there are two or three of them out there still going strong.
Collectors Weekly: Do people make scenery?
Smirle: Yes, there are people who will take their car and put it on a street scene or something. It’s almost like model railroading except in a smaller scale. Many years ago, our club had sections of scenery we hauled down to shows and put on an 8- or 10-foot display. We’d have a park scene or a street scene with a building and cars parked around it. It was very popular, but it was difficult to haul around, so we gave up on it.
The guys who do military models are absolutely the best at doing small dioramas and scenery. But it’s not that common with car modelers.
(All images in this article courtesy Les Smirle)