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.
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 for 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).
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. Some companies went smaller to appeal to the hands of smaller children (about 1:60 scale or about 3 inches), while improving profit margins in packaging more items per carton. 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).
Materials and Markets
Collectors of model cars often travel all over the world to visit trade shows and find new examples for their collections. 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. Take a look at modern model cars on the Corgi collectibles site and find out how to collect model cars on the Collectors Weekly site.