All About Model Cars

Collecting and building model cars is a hobby that transcends age and gender. Collectors and builders range in age from octogenarians to pre-teens. The modeling of cars started as a promotional idea to help manufacturers to sell their cars. Model car scaling runs the gamut from small enough to fit in your hand to double the size of a production vehicle. A variety of materials have been used in the creation of models over time, although plastic and die-cast zinc are the materials most commonly used today. Collecting models is a huge industry today, with gatherings held on both coasts that can at times rival the biggest sci-fi conventions.

The History of Model Cars

The first models were duplicates of production vehicles and originated in Europe, soon followed by American makers. These models weren’t built as toys or for collectors, though. Models were mainly built for promotional purposes back then.

Around the Roaring Twenties, automakers began to create models of the cars they were thinking of producing. This is because making a scale model of a car allowed them to more easily visualize design elements of the vehicles, and the models were quite a bit less expensive than producing a concept car that they might or might not decide to put into production. It was around this time that a number of automakers started focusing on models for advertising use, too. French automaker Citroen was one of the first to do this, in 1923. These models were finely crafted out of a variety of materials. For instance, Studebaker used wood to make a double-size replica of a cabriolet that was put on display in front of the company headquarters.

Modeling was also a way for automakers and their suppliers to find new design talent. For instance, between 1930 and 1968, the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild Competition was run by General Motors. This model-creating competition drew hundreds of competitors every year. Winners were given scholarships to study automobile design concepts.

In 1932, the Hudson Motor Car Company produced 12 1:4 scale precision models of its 1932 vehicles for the New York Auto Show that were made out of the same materials that were used in the full-size production vehicles. It wasn’t long before automakers realized that model cars could be used to attract the next generation of buyers, since the models were small enough for kids to play with while their parents perused a dealership’s selection.

Car Modeling as a Hobby Gets its Start

Building models as a hobby began during the World War II era, when Ace and Berkeley began producing wooden scale models. The first plastic car model was the Maxwell kit from Revell. It came out in the late 1940s and was little more than an unassembled pull toy. The first true plastic model car kit was a 1932 Ford Roadster and was created by an Englishman by the name of Derek Brand. Brand was known for his 1:32 scale model kits. These became so popular that they were soon exported to the United States and distributed by Revell. However, Brand was also partly responsible for a drop in the popularity of the plastic model car kit hobby. By the mid-1960s, Brand had moved over to Aurora, where he began working on HO scale electric model cars that became every kid’s favorite toy: the Aurora A/FX slot car set. The introduction of video games continued the downfall of the popularity of model kits. Thankfully, Monogram helped fire a resurgence of the hobby in the late 1980s with their NASCAR replica series. Aluminum Metal Toys (AMT) also came out with a very popular 1966 Chevy Nova model in 1988 that helped to buoy the industry.

Scale Sizing

Model car scales run the gamut from as big as 2:1 (twice the size of the actual vehicle) down to 1:120 (one to two inches in length). Car manufacturers use the larger scales of 1:1, 1:4, 1:5, 1:10, and 3:8 to make prototypes of real vehicles, as these show much more detail than smaller scales. The scale used for toys depends on the target audience. For example, models designed for small children might be as small as 1:60, 1: 40, or 1:38. For older children, the scale may be 1:32 1:20, 1:24, or 1:25.

Scale Model Materials

Many different materials have been used to make car models. The first models were made of either brass or lead, as these are easy to work with. Some full-size models are made using the actual materials that the production vehicle will be made out of, though car-makers more often have sculpted wood and clay when making their concept models. Today’s die-cast models are usually made from zinc alloy or pressed steel. Model kits are usually mostly plastic, with some parts, like axles, being metal. There have also been rare occasions when resins have been used to make model cars.


The hobby is going strong these days, to the point where there are conventions similar in size to those for Star Trek fans. Some collectors will only buy a kit if it hasn’t been opened yet and keep it in mint, unused condition, while others will buy and assemble the kits per the instructions. Still others will buy two kits and mix and match the parts to make a customized result. Some major model car manufacturers even sell modification kits that can help people turn existing kits into something more unusual, like making a Buick Riviera kit into a Mad Max-style war machine.

Additional Resources

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