Vintage model car

Admit it. Many, if not most of us started out building plastic model cars. Or I should say customizing plastic model kits. And most of us started doing this because we weren’t old enough to own or modify real cars yet.

Perhaps I’m projecting, because I am of the age to have been at the right time and the right place to have fully participated in the model car craze from its inception. Yeah, I was into it big-time. In fact, somehow I saved a lot of those models I built back in the ’50s and ’60s. I’m not sure how. But I have a vague recollection of carefully wrapping each one, and storing them in large boxes, that my dear mother saved–somewhere–along with all those little magazines and early Hot Rods that I still have.

It was building these models that not only taught me how to creatively modify production cars and trucks–not to mention plan and hand-fabricate various drag machines–but also the fundamentals of painting, detailing, construction (cutting and fitting), and most of all patience to get it right. Beyond that, as the otherwise unidentifiable mini-creation above exuberantly exemplifies, you could let your creative ideas run wild with these things, even on a kid’s weekly allowance.

Another thing I have to admit is that I’m still doing it. Or, at least I have been over these

Vintage model car
We started with the little 1/32 (or so) Highway Pioneers models to mix-n-match, cut and modify. This is a severely shortened Center Door T, using wheels and hairpins from the Jalopy kit. It’s about 3 inches long.

many years past. When I enlarged my garage 30 years ago, I included a model room which remains well-stocked, with several projects in various stages on the work table. I’ve even finished a few. But the real projects in the rest of the garage take way more time and precedence. And here I thought retirement was supposed to give you more time for fun hobbies.

OK. This isn’t about my model cars. I could certainly devote space to that if any of you are interested. But do you remember back in the first column in this series, I mentioned that there are things in my archives that I have totally forgotten about? Well, that’s what this is. Over the years I’ve done plenty of coverage of models cars. But this predates anything I photographed. These are the models I read about, and was inspired by, in those little

Vintage model car
The 1/25 AMT “3 in 1” kits introduced in ’58 really got the model car craze going. They came in hardtop or convertible versions of most U.S. cars, such as this ’58 Ford. The lakes pipes and spotlights were part of the extra “customizing” parts, but this one is built “box stock” other than the frenetic freehand paint job.

magazines. So I was happily surprised to come across this stash of 8×10 black and white prints in one of my file folders. I’m not sure who photographed them, or where. It’s my guess that most were photographed at the large model car contests that were part of the indoor car shows that were held on the L.A. Fairgrounds during the first two Winternationals Drags in ’60-’61. I was there, and was mesmerized as much by the models as by the real show and go cars. One model I’ll never forget was a 1/25 black Model A pickup with a quick-change rear, which was cut away to show tiny brass gears inside. But without further ado, check out what else I found in this forgotten stash.

I think the ’57 Ranchero was a Revell 1/25 kit, which had to be assembled from several pieces, but included more detail, such as engines with working hoods. This one has been chopped, shortened, and painted to resemble the 1:1 Tiago custom. The AMT kits, like this also-abbreviated ’60 Ford Starliner, had 1-piece bodies and a chassis pan (no engine) that screwed in place.

Vintage model carA diorama got you extra points at a contest, and angle hair? Sure! Other than wheels, tires, and the injected Olds V8 from AMT’s ’40 sedan, this reproduction of Roth’s new “Excaliber” was mostly hand-crafted and nicely done.

Competition models of all kinds were popular, and neither of these two was based on a particular kit, but rather made from “parts box” pieces, later known as “kit bashing.” The Modified on the left appears to use the engine, driveline, and modified body from the Green Hornet T, the nose and front wheels from the Indy Racer, and a cage made from coat hanger. I forget the name they gave the early model of the Cook-Bedwell dragster, but its 6-carb Hemi was a popular swap piece, here used twice with a sprint car body.

Vintage model car

Obviously inspired by Mickey Thompson’s Challenger, this 1/25 model appears to be handmade from soldered brass tubing, balsa, and small wire. The slicks would denote this bodiless version is for the dragstrip (a la Ivo’s “Showboat”).

How’s this for two totally different takes on ’60s pickups? It’s my guess the much-abbreviated ’59-’60 El Camino is bright Insignia orange with hand-painted stripes and turned into a drag machine with (probably) the engine and chassis from the Green Hornet. The much-chopped ’58-’60 Ford, however, has been turned turned into a trailer-towing (note hitch) full custom with a deftly grafted rear from a ’58 Lincoln Continental.

Oh the things we could do with X-acto knives and razor saws. Plus the only “filler”available at the time was Plastic Balsa, which took lots of sanding and priming to get smooth. This young creative customizer has sliced and mated the front half of a Chrysler 300 with the split-fin rear of a ’59 Pontiac, then severely whacked the top for a semi-Landau effect, and molded coves behind the front wheels.

Now this is more like the models I was building when I was 13-14, because along with the Vintage model carmodel car model car/Ed Roth/monster shirt thing came this huge new surf craze, in which I was very involved and dedicated. I can’t tell you how many of those little balsa surf boards I built (plus hand-made woodies), but we also built real foam-and-‘glass boards and cajoled our older friends to cart us to the beach in their cool surf rods. But again, another story for another day. This jaunty mini surf rod was built from one of AMT’s first double kits, which included a chopped ’27 T coupe, which this builder turned into a pickup with a shortened bed. Cutting doors open was cool, and corduroy substituted for tuck-n-roll, while tarps and tops were made from Naugahyde.

Finally, of the photos I found, I think this is the best model. You’ve probably noticed that the paint and construction detail on most of the models shown isn’t what you might expect from more recent modeling. That’s because most of the builders were kids (teens), Vintage model carmodeling tools and accessories were very limited, and many of these examples were brush-painted because small low-pressure Pactra and Testors spray cans for models weren’t introduced until about 1960. This builder turned an AMT ’32 5-window coupe into a 3-window, channeled the body, bobbed and molded the fenders, and added a nose from some GP car and a blower for the Chrysler Hemi. This is pre-’62 because white tuck-n-roll (corduroy), chrome-reversed wheels, and medium whitewalls were still “in.” And judging from the B&W photo, I’d guess the glossy paint is deftly sprayed Testors candy emerald green over a silver base. Nice.

Without going into much detail, I’ll close by saying my modeling diminished around ’64-’65 because (a) I got a real car to work on, and (b) “custom” model building rapidly morphed into slot car racing (not my thing). Then came college for several years. And when I found myself suddenly at the fledgling Street Rodder magazine in the early ’70s, I was delighted to find that street roadsters and coupes were back, but chagrined that plastic scale versions weren’t. So one of the first articles I did (Mar. ’74) was called “Build a Model of your Rod,” showing several built examples from my and friend Wally Smith’s collections, plus a short how-to on building a model of a real ’29 HiBoy. I followed this with a 2-parter (Apr.-May ’75) on building a 1/25 Graffiti Coupe. And finally started the “Modeler’s Corner” column in Feb. ’78, introducing Tim Boyd as a “contributor,” then quickly turning it over to him to shepherd for many years. Once again, another story. But I’d like to think that I had a little something to do with bringing scale modeling back into the rod and custom mix, among a few other things.

Bonus Photos: