Model Car Kits Posts

Ten Model Car Brands With Unusual Histories

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

by Ron Ruelle

This article was originally written for lamleygroup.com, John Lambert’s comprehensive daily blog about all things diecast. We are planning to contribute similar articles in the future, so if you know of any additional model car brands with strange backstories, let us know in the comments!

Anyone who’s collected model cars for any amount of time has become acquainted with the major diecast brands as well as some of the small-market, niche-oriented companies. There are a lot of older brands that have gone by the wayside, or have been bought and sold so many times you aren’t sure who they are anymore. Here are a few diecast oddities to add to your collection.

Jet Wheels/AMT Pups

jet wheels amt pups mustang

Jet Wheels was a company that made realistically proportioned 1:65 scale models with working suspension and opening hoods or other features. The earliest cars from the late 1960s were in fact made by AMT, (they called the series “Pups”) who then sold the business and the molds to Mego. The original range of 8 American street cars was augmented by a series of Formula 1 cars as well as some garage and track accessories. Some of these were later released under the Tuffy and Super Speedy names, but they eventually faded into history..

kenner fast 111'smini macks dump truck

Fast 111’s

Kenner’s foray into 1:64 scale diecast only lasted a few years in the late 1970s, but they made some interesting cars. Some of them were souped-up models of production cars, while others were far-out fantasy rides. What tied them all together was the rear bumpers, which stuck out and angled upward so you could read the license plate. Each of these cars represented a different state, so the plates were kind of a big deal. The packaging also had a neat feature, a transferable “title” that was to filled out by the kid who bought it and then filled out again if it was traded or sold. Clean copies without writing on the back are somewhat rare these days.

Mini Macks

This range of toys included a variety of construction equipment such as dump trucks, loaders, and tractors, not all of the Mack brand vehicles. This was one of several brands available from Zee Toys in the late 1970s. Detail is surprisingly vague, as they appear to be direct, unauthorized knockoffs of Matchbox cars from a few years earlier. With different wheels and the wording removed from the base, they just seem a bit “cheaper” than the originals.

Zylmex

zylmex ford thunderbird model a

zulmex supervan barris

Here’s another brand from Zee Toys, one that tried a little harder than Mini Macks. Detail is again pretty basic, especially the interiors, but at least they were trying by creating their own original molds. And they even made a model of the George Barris SuperVan, so that has to count for something, right?

tough wheels 32 ford

Tough Wheels

This was a brand of inexpensive, crudely detailed cars perfect for letting your kids play with in the sandbox. In a strange twist, instead of these cars being based on another well-known brand, the molds served as the basis for a revival of another popular brand. In the early 1980s, as Dinky was headed for bankruptcy, Kidco rebadged some of these cars under the Dinky name, a sad step down in quality. Despite the crude detail, Tough Wheels managed to score a few licensed properties such as M*A*S*H vehicles.

Burnin’Key Cars

burnin key cars

Then there were the Burnin’ Key Cars, a subset of Tough Wheels. These came with a very cool feature: a spring-wound motor that was activated by a slightly out of scale key. As with the Tough Wheels brand, they managed to finagle licensing deals with some popular TV shows, including Magnum P.I. and Knight Rider. For several years, the Burnin’ Wheels name lived on as a Matchbox brand and then again as part of Maisto. Each change of ownership brought vastly improved designs and packaging.

Doepke

doepke jaguar

You may not recognize the name, but if you’re of a certain age, you should know their cars… Doepke started off as a family company in 1946 making military vehicles and other toys. The owner’s mother suggested they make some more peaceful toys, so they created some very large scale kits, about 1:12 scale, of a Jaguar XK120 and an MG TD… The bodies are made of thick diecast metal, while other parts were white metal, plastic or stamped steel. Both cars featured working steering and suspension. The MG was branded as the “MT” so they may not have had the rights to produce that particular model. While only available for a few years, these kits were huge sellers at the time.

Fresh Cherries

fresh cherries

Hard to say if these models were meant as a sincere tribute or something of an ironic joke. This division of Motor Max made models of Pintos, Gremlins, LeBaron wagons and such… not exactly the keys to real-life excitement. On the other hand, it’s been hard to find models of these cars if you did want them, and Fresh Cherries cars were nicely detailed with delicate luggage racks and other bits. They came in several scales including 1:24, 1:64 and 1:87, all in high quality packaging. They even did 1:16 radio controlled versions of some of these cars, and you have to admit that’s beyond awesome.

Grell

grell trabant camper

It’s understandable if you don’t recognize this brand… This German company made mostly promotional models of Trabants and Wartburgs and Moskviches that were given away not in cereal boxes, but in cases of beer! In fact, only a few of their models represented common Western European marques like Volkswagen or Jaguar. Some of their packaging evokes a strong Cold War era image, something you don’t see every day at any scale.

hallmark road rover

hallmark road rover

Hallmark Road Rovers

Wait, Hallmark? Like the card company? Yep! In the early 1970s, Hallmark introduced a series of overtly cartoony cars called Road Rovers, which looked almost like balloon creations. They were roughly the size of 1:64 scale cars, but because they are so oddly proportioned, scale is irrelevant here. The early cars were all metal and represented familiar vehicle types such as fire trucks or Volkswagen Beetles. After a decade hiatus, the brand was revived in the mid 1980s with plastic bases. The new line included reinterpretations of several of the originals plus designs that transformed objects such as vacuum cleaners or piggy banks into cars.

Designer Notes: Unreleased Heller Porsche 911R

Lincoln Futura Philippe de Lespinay

Philippe de Lespinay started with Heller, the French model kit company in the 1960s as a designer and project engineer. He also also worked for Cox, who are now known for their remote control and gas powered vehicles, but also created many kits over the years. More recently, he was the curator of the Los Angeles Slot Car Museum. And he’s on the hobbyDB Advisory Board, so yeah, he’s our kind of guy.

hobbyDB will be regularly sharing his insights on particular models he has worked on including production kits, never-produced projects, and his own custom builds. We hope you enjoy the journey through his career as well.

Read more about his history in the toy and model business here.

Heller Porsche 911R

This car also not make it into production, unfortunately. The 911R was at the time, THE car to have if you wanted to win the GT class

heller porsche 911R kit

Notice how the views from the ends show the cross section of the hood and the rear glass at certain measurements. In a way, it’s a miracle that a 3-dimensional model could be created from drawings without any assistance from a computer!

heller porsche 911R kit heller porsche 911R kit

Designer Notes: Heller Ferrari 512M

Philippe de Lespinay Heller CoxPhilippe de Lespinay started with Heller, the French model kit company in the 1960s as a designer and project engineer. He also also worked for Cox, who are now known for their remote control and gas powered vehicles, but also created many kits over the years. More recently, he was the curator of the Los Angeles Slot Car Museum. And he’s on the hobbyDB Advisory Board, so yeah, he’s our kind of guy.

hobbyDB will be regularly sharing his insights on particular models he has worked on including production kits, never-produced projects, and his own custom builds. We hope you enjoy the journey through his career as well.

Read more about his history in the toy and model business here.

Heller Ferrari 512

heller_ferrari_512M_3view_300_800p

1970 was a big year for me as I moved to the United States and brought my finished models as a business card to find job opportunities.

Heller Ferrari 512M

The Heller models, that were by then distributed by AMT in an exchange deal with the French company, were appreciated by the Model Car Science magazine’s editors and they ended on the front page of the February 1971 issue.

mcs_cover_1970_2

This was another Ferrari kit drawn from pictures, the 512M of 1970. The actual kit turned out quite well.

heller_ferrari_512M_3view_300_800p

Designer Notes: Heller Lotus 49B

Lincoln Futura Philippe de Lespinay

Philippe de Lespinay started with Heller, the French model kit company in the 1960s as a designer and project engineer. He also also worked for Cox, who are now known for their remote control and gas powered vehicles, but also created many kits over the years. More recently, he was the curator of the Los Angeles Slot Car Museum. And he’s on the hobbyDB Advisory Board, so yeah, he’s our kind of guy.

hobbyDB will be regularly sharing his insights on particular models he has worked on including production kits, never-produced projects, and his own custom builds. We hope you enjoy the journey through his career as well.

Read more about his history in the toy and model business here.

Heller Lotus 49B 

Heller Lotus 49B Cosworth

In 1969, I decided to make four kits of Formula One cars, but only three were produced. Unfortunately and for reasons I do not know, the tooling for Matra MS80 was never built.

Heller Lotus 49B Cosworth

The Lotus 49B is one of the most iconic and recognizable models in the series. It could be built in various configurations with or without aerodynamic wings.

Heller Lotus 49B Cosworth

Heller Lotus 49B Cosworth

Designer Notes: Heller Brabham Ford BT26

Lincoln Futura Philippe de Lespinay

Philippe de Lespinay started with Heller, the French model kit company in the 1960s as a designer and project engineer. He also also worked for Cox, who are now known for their remote control and gas powered vehicles, but also created many kits over the years. More recently, he was the curator of the Los Angeles Slot Car Museum. And he’s on the hobbyDB Advisory Board, so yeah, he’s our kind of guy.

hobbyDB will be regularly sharing his insights on particular models he has worked on including production kits, never-produced projects, and his own custom builds. We hope you enjoy the journey through his career as well.

Read more about his history in the toy and model business here.

Heller Brabham Ford BT26

In 1969, I decided to make four kits of Formula One cars, but only three were produced. Unfortunately and for reasons I do not know, the tooling for Matra MS80 was never built. But the basic 3-view and parts-distribution drawings did survive in my files.(We’ll cover that kit in a future entry)

heller brabham ford bt26

This was the Brabham BT26 car driven by Jacques Bernard “Jacky” Ickx, the first to use the Ford Cosworth DFV engine. I drew the engine only once for the Lotus 49 model, as the tooling was a separate mold for all three models. (We’ll cover the Lotus 49 in a future post.)

I painted this for the 1970 catalog in less than 1 hour, because time was of the essence. It is done with China ink and water.

heller brabham ford bt26

Philippe de Lespinay McLaren M7A Heller

Brabham BT26

Jack Brabham races a BT26 in 1968.