Model car

Model car
For the term referring to delineation of (non-model) car ranges, see car model.
This Norev model car is a good miniature representation of a real Renault 4CV and would have been sold as a children's toy.

A model car or toy car is a miniature representation of an automobile. Other miniature motor vehicles, such as trucks, buses, or even ATVs, etc. are often included in the general category of model cars. Because many were originally sold as playthings, there is no precise difference between a model car and a toy car, yet the collector hobby became popular in the 1960s and precision detailed miniatures made specifically for adults are an increasing part of the market (Gibson 1970, p. 9; Johnson 1998, p. 5).



Miniature models of automobiles first appeared as slush cast plaster or iron toys made in the early decades of the 1900s. Tin and pressed steel cars, trucks, and military vehicles followed in the 1930s and 1940s. Casting vehicles in various alloys, usually zinc (called zamac or mazac), also started during these decades and came on strong particularly after World War II.

A diecast 1:10 scale Doepke Toys Jaguar XK120 from 1955. One of two car models the company made, this model is 17.5 in (440 mm) long. (in The Children's Museum of Indianapolis)

Post war, the zinc alloy vehicles became ever more popular in Europe in particular. While diecast metal cars were seen in America they were often simple, while plastics also surged and became prominent. Tin and pressed steel came to Japan, rather late, during the 1950s and 1960s, and that country quickly moved into diecast by the 1970s. Today, China, and other countries of Southeast Asia are the main producers of diecast metal European, American, and Japanese companies.

Fabricating the 'real' thing

Many model cars were not intended either as toys or for collecting. As early as the 1930s and perhaps earlier, the manufacturers of real automobiles would design and construct scale and full-sized models to plan new products or promote the company. Sometimes styling or concept models were made out of wood or clay (see Ford Motor Company 1953). Models could also be precise replicas crafted out of the same materials as the real vehicle. Around 1930, Hudson made twelve precisely crafted 1/4 scale replicas of its 1932 vehicles for promotion at the 1932 New York Auto Show (see Hudson display models). About the same time, Studebaker made a wooden model of a cabriolet over twice the size of the real car! The vehicle was large enough to hold a whole band that played mostly for photo shoots as the car could not be easily moved around (Quinn 2004). As time went by some companies even made their own models or toys attracting the next generation to their products. Citroen of France, for example, made its own metal toys as early as the 1930s (Force 1991, p. 105).

What sizes?

The scales of toy and model cars vary according to historical precedent as well as market demand. Many in house models were made full size, or at very large scales like 1:5, 1:8, or 1:10. At the opposite end of the scale, many European pre-war cars and trucks were subservient to railroad layouts, making 1:87 (a little over an inch) or 1:43 (about 4 inches long) common scales. Others made vehicles in variations around 1:40 to 1:50 scales. Some companies went smaller to appeal to the hands of smaller children (about 1:60 scale or about 3 inches), which improved profit margins in packaging more items per carton, and generally increasing profit per vehicle sold. Later, popular scales went larger. In the states, 1:25 (6 to 7 inches) became the staple size for plastic promotional models, while European manufacturers went to 1:24 or 1:18 (about 9 inches long). The larger 1:12 scale was occasionally seen and more rarely, 1:10 or 1:8.

Materials and Markets

Toys in the United States almost always were simpler castings of zinc alloy (zamac), pressed steel or plastic (castings of only 7 parts — a car body, 4 plastic wheels and two axles) - while complex zamac models in Europe often had precision detail with more working features. This provides instruction on different regions of the world and their varied cultures, markets, and economies.

Europe quickly developed niche marketing after World War II. The greater availability of labor there generally allowed the development of relatively complex toys to serve different markets in different countries. In the United States, thinner labor would not allow complex toys with opening doors, hoods, and complete interiors with all detail, so they were often single castings with few parts. Sophistication in America did come in the form of promotional modeling for automotive dealerships which preceded the appearance of automotive kits for assembly.

European heritage of die casting

Die cast model cars in a variety of scale, L to R: 1:64 Matchbox Chevrolet Tahoe, 1:43 1953 Maisto Ford F-100, 1:25 Revell Monogram 1999 Ford Mustang Cobra, 1:18 Bburago 1987 Ferrari F40.

Among more collectible vehicles after World War II and during the 1950s, smaller scales, like 1:43, and 1:64 generally became popular first. Since the 1980s, many factory assembled scale model cars made of diecast metal have become more and more adult collectible oriented and less and less toy-like. Besides the smaller scales, these models are manufactured in various scales like 1:12, 1:18, and 1:24.

Early European Diecast

Northern Europe and the British Isles were the homes of the most successful European producers in the 1950s and 1960s in the altered railroad modeling scale of 1:43. Examples of well known companies are (or were) Corgi Toys, Dinky Toys, Matchbox, and Spot-On Models of the United Kingdom; Solido, Norev, and Majorette of France; Schuco Modell, Gama, and Siku of (West) Germany; Tekno of Denmark, and Mercury, Polistil and Mebetoys of Italy. Even non-market communist countries had some successful factories, like Kaden models and Igra of Czechoslovakia, Espewe of East Germany, and Estetyka of Poland. The Soviet Union was surprising in its production of diecast vehicles which were often more interesting than the real vehicles represented. Larger sizes in die-cast grew out of offerings of European companies like Polistil, Schuco Modell, and Martoys, which was later to become Bburago. 1:24 and 1:18 scales did not become really popular until the late 1980s when other brands like Yatming and Maisto were produced in China by either American or Asian companies. 1:87 scale plastic vehicles, related to railroad modeling or not, also continue to be popular in Europe. Despite continued European companies, today, China is now the center of diecast production.

Dinky no. 584 Berliet GAK covered truck, made from 1961-1965

Post-war these models were produced as far simpler toys in smaller scales, such as Dinky Toys (often 1:64 or 1:43), production of which began in 1934, or Matchbox cars (often approx. 1:64), and also introduced in the mid-'50s. Early die-cast toys featured no opening parts whatsoever. Affected by market forces and by improvements in production technology, companies began to improve the quality of the toys over time. The "best" improvements were often copied by the competition within 1–2 years of their appearance on the market. Examples of these would be plastic windows, interiors, separate wheel/tire assemblies, working suspensions, opening/moving parts, jeweled headlights, mask-spraying or tampo-printing, and low-friction wheel/suspension aggregates.

Trends in Toy Detail

Larger 1:24 and 1:18 scale premium models became extremely popular at toy and hobby centers during the 1990s, but are less popular circa 2010. This size is generally made with close attention to the details of the real vehicles, such as a working steering, and opening doors, trunk/boot, and hood/bonnet. Detailed interiors, instrument panels, trunks/boots with spare tires and engine compartments are common. Chassis often show intricacies of exhaust systems and suspensions. A working suspension system is often included. In smaller scales some of the details are often eliminated, so in 1:43, 1:64, or 1:87 scale cars, working steering is not common. Likewise, only the front doors and hood might open, with non-opening rear doors and trunk (There are exceptions to this, of course).

Over time, market pressures have caused further changes in the way models are designed and manufactured. In the 1960s, many European models had opening parts and working components, but today few of the smaller scale toys do. More working parts mean more production expense and Hot Wheels and Matchbox vehicles now rarely have such features. Even in larger scales, there is now a tendency to cut down on moving parts. For example, premium model maker AUTOart introduced a line of race and sports cars in 1:18 scale with no opening parts.

Die Cast Seconds

When the European companies have completely marketed their models, an interesting process takes place where newer dies are introduced and older dies are sold off to other companies, often in less developed countries. For example, some Dinky dies were sold to Auto-Pilen and used in Spain. Italian Politoys dies were used in Mexico as MacGregor and Solidos were also sold in Brazil. Italian Ediltoys were sold to Meboto and used in Turkey. Somehow some American Hot Wheels castings found their way to Argentina and were sold as Muky. Tomicas became Yatmings and Matchboxes reappeared in other forms in many places.

The quality of these reproductions varies widely. Turkish Mebotos, though using Dinky-like packaging, had horrible paint and fit quality. The Argentine Mukys were respectable with some creative vehicles features, but with flat and dull paint schemes. By contrast, however, Spanish Auto-Pilens, in most cases, were as good as the original Dinkys in quality and paint.

The Collector Market

Organized collecting of model cars developed almost as fast as the models themselves appeared on the market. Even before such companies as Corgi and Dinky were ten years old, adults were collecting them, particularly in the UK and the USA (Gibson 1970, p. 10). Often, as well, adults seek the joys of childhood, collecting what they had destroyed in youth or what their parents had thrown away (Ragan 2000, p. 6). Around the early 1990s, many began to collect and record model variations (in a manner similar to stamp or coin collecting) which led to rising values, especially for rare models (for an example, see Parker 1993). This led to an industry reaction where Matchbox (specifically with its Models of Yesteryear series, and then later, other manufacturers) fed on the desires of collectors by intentionally catering to a higher-price market segment with either more expensive models for adults, or 'limited editions' of vehicles (Stoneback 2002, p. 48). This smaller movement gradually gave rise to a huge premium market segment.

The collectors' market also led to licensing aspects not known until the 1980s. In the 1950s and 1960s, models were produced spontaneously without licensing agreements, and real auto manufacturers saw it as free advertising (Clor 1990). That era is long gone. Now, typically, companies that make die-cast model cars have licensing arrangements with real car manufacturers to make replicas of their products, whether they be concepts, cars in current production, or models no longer produced. Companies whose logos are printed onto the models also enter similar licensing agreements. Licenses are expensive, which enhances the position of mass producers of model cars, while smaller companies have been marginalized and forced out of business (Clor 1990). For example, when Ferrari entered into an exclusive agreement with Mattel 'Hot Wheels' to produce their cars, companies like Solido and Bburago felt the crunch, and Bburago went out of business (before the name was reacquired by Maisto).

Manufacturers focusing on premium models, whether in white metal or zamac, include Brooklin Models, Western Models, Franklin Mint, and the Danbury Mint, the latter two focusing specifically on the "collector market."

Promotional models

A promotional model or Promo, of a 1966 Chevrolet pickup by AMT. This 1:25 scale model would be given away by Chevrolet dealers to prospective customers or their children.

Banthrico started producing diecast promotional model car banks in the late '40s for the banking industry. These coin-banks were available as a gift to people that started a new account and had a slot in the bottom to put their spare change. Usually the bank's name and address was painted on the roof of the car. Banthrico models were also painted in authentic Big Three colors and used as "paint chips" so dealers could gauge the upcoming colors on real models. These primitive promotionals included Buicks, Cadillacs, Lincolns, Packards, DeSotos, Chryslers, Dodges, Ramblers and, of course, the more common Chevrolets and Fords. Today these cars are sought after, and in mint condition can garner several hundred dollars.

Promo Beginnings

About the same time, two other companies, PMC and Ideal Models (later to become Jo-Han) were introducing promotional models made from plastic to the public. Similar to metal model producer Banthrico, PMC also made many in the form of banks. Many Chevrolet bank models had the inscription on the bottom "To help save for a rainy day, or to buy a new Chevrolet" The almost mandated scale for these cars was 1:25th, however a few Chevrolets and Plymouths were produced in a larger 1:20th scale. Another company was SMP which was later absorbed by AMT.

AMT, began producing assembled 1/25 friction and coaster models in the early fifties. These were mostly promotional models manufactured for automobile dealers. Youngsters would be given the scale models to play with while the parents and the salesman haggled. Collecting and trading these "promos" soon became a popular hobby.

During the 1950s and 1960s, interest in the hobby peaked, AMT, Jo-Han, and, Model Products Corporation or MPC, were the primary promotional manufacturers.

Promo Details

These plastic models were intricately detailed, with body scripts, trim, and emblems, as well as dashboard details, exact duplicates of the real thing, in 1/25 scale. Typically, each automaker would license their cars to one model company. For example, Jo-Han produced Cadillac models and most of the Chrysler products, while AMT did the Chevrolet, Buick, Pontiac, and the Ford produced cars. American Motors Corporation shared promotional duties between Jo-Han and AMT depending on the year. Often these companies seemed to interchange models offered. For example, Jo-Han produced the 1972 Ford Torino, and MPC did full-size Chevrolets in the early and mid-1970s. While Jo-Han did Chrysler early on, MPC took on the pentastar in the mid-1970s. 1969 and 1970 Chevy Impala kits were made by both MPC and AMT, as were some Camaros.

Typically, the promos had fewer parts and details than the kits. For example, while kits often had opening hoods, separate engines and suspension parts, the promos were molded as coaster models with the hood as an integral part of the body and no engine. Bodies were often sprayed in the actual paint colors of the manufacturers. Chassis were one piece of plastic with lower engine, exhaust, and suspension details molded in with metal axles fit through holes in the plastic. There was no operating suspension parts. AMT was well-known for molding sales specifications into the chassis. The promo 1962 Ford Galaxie, for example had 13 different facts molded on the chassis from the very factual "Vacation volume trunk - 28 cu. ft" to the more fantastic "Enduring elegance with the power to please".

Marketing Approaches

Commercial versions of the promos were also marketed and sold in retail stores like Zayre's and Murphy's in 1973. Differences from dealer promos were lack of manufacturing paint schemes and often the addition of a friction motor located on the front axle, noticeable by the studded white vinyl gear that protruded around the axle (and through the oil pan !)

Some model companies sold unassembled versions of the promo cars, which were typically simpler and easier to assemble than the annual kits (with engine and customizing parts available in the full blown kits left out). Although, they were sold out by the time they hit the market, due to their lower price. They were often molded in color (instead of the traditional white) and easily assembled without glue (thus no glue or paint was required).

When assembled they were almost identical to much more elite promotional models. What usually gives them away is that they were mostly molded in a brighter non metallic color and also they came with thin line white wall tires instead of the earlier (correct) wide white walls on pre-1962 models. Today these often command higher prices, especially AMT's "Craftsman" series of the early and mid sixties.

After being owned for a time by Seville Enterprises, Okey Spaulding purchased once-defunct Jo-Han, which produced a few of its original Jo-Han models in limited quantities. These include the 1963 Chrysler Turbine Car, 1959 Rambler station wagon, and some of its original 1950s Oldsmobiles and Plymouths.

Model kits

A Pocher model of a Mercedes-Benz SSK. This 1:8 scale model was built from a construction kit with over 2500 parts in a variety of materials.

Scale miniatures of real production vehicles, designed as kits for children or the enthusiast to construct, can be made of plastic, die-cast metal, resin, and even wood. The best kits have incredible levels of detail, even in parts unseen when the finished model is on display. Major manufacturers are AMT, MPC, Revell, Monogram, and Tamiya but many smaller plastics companies, like Aurora, Pyro, IMC, and Premier have come and gone.


The model car "kit" hobby began in the post World War II era with Ace and Berkeley wooden model cars. Revell pioneered the plastic model car in the late 1940s with their Maxwell kit, which was basically an unassembled version of a pull toy. Derek Brand, from England, pioneered the first real plastic kit, a 1932 Ford Roadster for Revell. He was also known for developing a line of 1/32 scale model car kits in England for the Gowland brothers. These kits were later introduced by Revell in the U.S. as the "Highway Pioneers" Series of kits (Plastic Model Cars webpage; Model Kit History 2006).

On the heels of the promotional model business, Aluminum Model Toys or AMT introduced model car kits in 1957. Jo-Han, Revell and Monogram also started producing model car kits about this same time. Most of these were known as "annual" kits, and were the unassembled kit version of the promotional models or 'promos' representing the new cars that were introduced at the beginning of each model year. By the mid-1960s, plastic model kits had become more plentiful and varied, with increased level of detail. Typically, the kits often had opening hoods, separate engines and detailed suspension parts.


The mid-1960s is generally considered the "golden age" of plastic model car kits. Many specialty modelers and customizers, famous for their wild creations, were hired by model companies to sponsor and create new kit designs. George Barris, Darryl Starbird, and the Alexander Brothers worked for AMT. Tom Daniel design vehicles for Monogram and Mattel. Dean Jeffries was employed by MPC. Bill Campbell created hippie monster designs for Hawk. Ed Roth, famous for his 'Rat Fink' was hired by Revell about 1962. Many of these customizers created real cars and had to have specialists convert their creations into model kit form. Jim Keeler, a model kit designer for Revell, brought the world highly detailed model cars in the early sixties and is credited with bringing Ed Roth's famous hot rods and customs to the model car marketplace. He also designed Revell's Custom Car Parts which allowed kit builders to add engines, custom wheels and other custom features to existing models. Keeler later went on to Aurora Plastics and innovated the Prehistoric Scenes, which were highly detailed models of prehistoric dinosaurs. Many of Keelers kit designs are still being sold in the 21st century.

In addition to building them stock, most annual kits offered "3 in 1" versions which allowed the builder to assemble the car in stock, custom, or racing form. MPC joined the kit/promo business in 1965, and among their first annual kits/promos, was the full-size Dodge Monaco, which was released with a gold metallic plastic body and is a valuable collector's item today.

Modeling decline and revival

Interest in model car kits began to wane in the mid-1970s as a result of builders growing older and moving on to other pursuits. A revival of sorts was seen in the late 1980s, as Monogram introduced a series of replicas of NASCAR race cars, as did AMT with a kit of the 1966 Chevrolet Nova, which American modelers had been requesting for years. New model specific magazines sprang up, such as Scale Auto Enthusiast, (now simply Scale Auto) and Model Cars Magazine. These magazines spread the word, helped advertisers, and brought modelers together from all across the country.

Today, many of the classic models from the golden age of modeling have been reissued. Not only does this allow modelers to build the cars they always wanted (but couldn't obtain or afford), but it tends to lower the prices of the originals. In some cases, models of cars from the 1950s and 1960s have been issued with all-new tooling, which allows for even more detailing made possible with modern kit design and manufacturing methods. These include AMT's 1966 Fairlane and 1967 Impala SS, and Monogram's 1967 Chevelle and 1965 Impala Super Sport.

Today, model car companies are still in business, fueled by a renewed interest in model car building and collecting. ERTL took over AMT and MPC which are now both under the Round 2 LLC name. Revell and Monogram have merged. Modelers today can take advantage of modern technology, which includes photoetched details, adhesive chrome foil for chrome trim, wiring for engines, and billet-aluminum parts. Many builders today can take a basic kit and detail it so it resembles a real car, in miniature.

The internet has also fueled a growing modeling community through websites, online forums and bulletin boards, and sites that host photographs, allowing the hobby to expand internationally.

Kits from Asia/Far East

Japanese model kit manufacturers – Tamiya, Fujimi and Hasegawa, among them – also stepped up their presences in the U.S. market during the 1980s and 1990s.

Powered model cars

Though most car models are static display items, individual model builders have sometimes powered their vehicles in various ways, including rubber bands, springs, inertia mechanisms, electric motors, internal combustion engines, air engines and steam engines. In order to make them less fragile, powered models are often somewhat simplified and not as detailed as the best static models. For this reason, some modelers dismiss nearly all powered miniature cars as toys; however many individual efforts and commercial products are sufficiently well-scaled and detailed that they deserve to be called models. The main types of commercially-produced powered car models include:

Uncontrolled powered models, which were developed in the 1930s and were common until the 1960s. Often guided by a rail between the wheels, or by a tether staked to the center of a circular course, most of these cars use small internal combustion glow plug engines and are known as tether cars.

Electrically powered slot cars which draw power from the track. They became extremely popular in the 1960s, but commercial slot car racing experienced a rapid decline in popularity late in the decade. By the end of the 1970s, the slot car hobby had diminished significantly, especially public tracks operating larger scale cars, and modeling in general was on the decline (HO Slot Car Racing 1999-2011). One website attributes the weakening of the past-time to both the ageing of the baby-boomers along with the fragile economics of the slot car industry and the closing of many commercial slot car tracks perhaps as toy companies offered smaller sets to be used at home (Slotblog 2007). A wide variety of electrically powered vehicles, however are available today - in various forms.

Spring-powered or "clockwork" car models, that are wound with a key or by a friction mechanism. These were common until slot cars largely replaced them in the 1960s. In fact, the first commercially successful slot cars, the Scalextric 1/32 line (originally 1:30) which debuted in 1957, were simply motorized versions of the earlier Scalex clockwork racers.

Radio-controlled cars, which can be bought assembled or built from kits. These are usually powered by electric motors or glow plug engines. Drivers can control the speed and steering of these cars remotely by a radio signal.


Clor, John M. 1990. Squeeze Play, AutoWeek, December 3, pp. 17–19.

Force, Dr. Edward. 1991. Classic Miniature Vehicles Made in France with price guide and variations list. West Chester, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing.

Ford Motor Company. 1953. Ford at Fifty. Simon & Schuster.

Gibson, Cecil. 1970. Commercial Vehicles. Troy Model Club Series. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons.

Hudson "Display Models". Viewed 2010. 1932 1/4 scale Hudsons and text on display. Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum. Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Jewell, Brian F. 1963. Model Car Collecting. Temple Press Books Ltd.

Johnson, Dana. 1998. Collector's Guide to Diecast Toys & Scale Models, Second Edition. Padukah, KY: Collector Books, a Division of Schroeder Publishing.

Model Kit History. 2006. Web forum of Scale Auto Enthusiast Magazine [1]

Parker, Bob. 1993. Hot Wheels: A Collector's Guide. Atglen, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing.

Plastic Model Cars. No date. Webpage on the Model Car Collector website [2]

Quinn, Richard. 2004. Life and Death of a Giant, Turning Wheels Almanac (a publication dedicated to Studebaker history). September.

Ragan, Mac. 2000. Diecast Cars of the 1960s. Osceola, Wisconsin: MBI Publishing.

Stoneback, Bruce and Diane. 2002. Matchbox Toys, The Collector's Guide. London: Eagle Editions, A Quantum Book.

See also

External links

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