Designer Posts

From Sketch to Blister Card: How Prototypes Shape a Matchbox Model

Rob Romash

Rob Romash, former Matchbox modeler, has a large collection of preproduction models.

We recently met Rob Romash, who has worked in the design department for several companies including Mattel, and got to talking about the design process. For over 20 years (with various companies), Romash has been part of the team that makes the 3D prototypes of toys. He did just that for most every Matchbox car of the early 2000s.

matchbox prototype police car

Some of the many steps towards the creation of a diecast car.

So we asked him how a diecast car goes from an idea to finished model on the pegs. How a bill becomes a law, so to speak.

It all starts with sketches, of course (as photos if the model is based on literal interpretation of a real car). Steve Moye was the lead designer during Romash’s tenure, and they collaborated on countless models. Once those are refined and agreed upon, the Master Modelmaker (Romash’s official title at Mattel)  figure out how big the vehicle will be.

The exact scale of a model car is up to several factors. Some companies like Wiking, make all their cars to a specific scale, such as their 1/87 models. A more common approach, like Hot Wheels and Matchbox take, is to make all the vehicles similar in overall size. Even though collectors refer to their main offerings as “1/64 scale” very few models from these will actually be exactly 1/64. Many will be larger or smaller. So a VW Beetle might be about as big as a Mack truck. As the model nears a certain size, available wheel options are often the factor that will decide if a model needs to go up or down a bit in scale.

At Matchbox, the process began with a “Butterboard” model carved from soft yellow foam. At this stage, the overall shape is represented minus any detail. In addition to wheel size, the vechicle must also fit existing packaging parameters.

matchbox prototype police car butterboard

This is the “Butterboard” size study, carved from soft foam for the 2001 Matchbox Police Car.

In some cases, the design of a real car must be tweaked proportionally to fit these requirements. “Selective compression” involves removing or reducing portions of a design in such a way that most people won’t notice. Romash’s collection includes a pair of Volkswagen Bulli (a modern VW bus concept) carvings that show an accurately scaled model that was too big, and a slightly compressed one that fit Matchbox paramaters. This scaling has to be done just right so as not to offend the licensing department at Volkswagen.

matchbox prototype vw buiil

The longer version of the VW Bulli concept is more accurate, but the final design had to be compressed lengthwise a bit to fit packaging requirements.

 

matchbox prototype police car detail

Here’s a second “Butterboard” model, more detailed, painted gray, and with detail notes written on it. This is an unusual step, and not a lot of prototypes like this exist.

Traditionally, the first design study would be carved out of wood. When Romash was in the Mattel Mt. Laurel modelshop the preferred material for master patterns was an Acetate that had the properties for very detailed carving and the ability to revise the model without noticing. At times some models were modified on the fly during the sculpt process.  “It comes in giant monoliths like 2001: A Space Odyssey,” ( I had a great impression routine of the waking monkey from  the film when a block came in !) he said. “It’s simple. You just start carving away everything that doesn’t look like a car, and you’re done.”

matchbox prototype police car acetate

This is a pattern made from a mold based on the original carving. This would be cleaned up a bit, and in some cases additional details might be fabricated from other materials and glued on, but it’s essentially a single piece from which all future molds would be made.

For most small models, the prototype was usually carved at double size (so about 1/32 scale) to include more detail. Then a pantograph machine was used to make a smaller version (here’s a neat video that shows a pantagraph in action at Matchbox in the early ’60s. It’s the big machine at the 0:59 mark.) For most models, there may be a double sized buck in existence, but not for any of his.

Romash always did his carvings closer to the final, smaller size, allowing for a tiny bit of shrinkage from carving to first test mold . “If you give me a bunch of photos and a block of material, I can carve just about anything.” Romash also eschewed precise measuring tools, prefering to naturally eyeball the carving instead. His results speak for themselves. “I also created my own custom scribing and sculpting tools from carbide blanks to suit my style of building—a lot of 3M carbide sandpaper also came into play.”

“Moye’s sketches had a look and a feel,” according to Romash.  That’s what I went with, at least for the non-licensed models he designed, which was the larger part of the collection per year.”

You’ll notice the bodies on most of the prototypes are a single piece with solid windows and no consideration given to the chassis yet. Once the test casting is approved, it is sent to the factory overseas. As that point, additional designers will carefully remove the windows from the mold, and create a separate molds for those. Same for things like the grill or other details that will not be included with the main casting. Opening doors, hoods, and tailgates also must be taken into consideration here.

matchbox prototype police car resin

Here’s the first “Test Casting” of the design. Notice how everything including windows is a single piece.

Additional chassis details, as well as logos, trademarks, and other information are added as well. Depending on the brand, scale, and budget, the chassis may have a lot or very little detail In some cases, the engine, tailpipes, and other undercarriage details are kind of generic. As long as they line up where they’re supposed to for the design, it’s good enough. Also, at this time, the bits for attaching the axles to the chassis are figured out.

“Interiors are usually the least detailed part of most cars,” Romash said. “Unless it’s a convertible. I didn’t do a lot of interiors, but when I had the chance, it was fun!”

matchbox prototype taxi

In some cases, a painted prototype might be used for promotional purposes, such as the Taxi on this poster featuring the new releases.

The next step is to create a Silicone mold for samples. Then a “First Shot,” wihch is a resin casting of the pattern model. These usually have some flashing and other imperfections, so they are sorted and smoothed out. At this time, the designer’s color schemes were implemented, and sometimes a prototype of a paint master was done. After the paint is agreed upon then more resin castings are done for sales or Toy fairs and other marketing materials. It may also be hand painted to give an even better idea of the final product. (Glenn Hubing, a good friend of Romash, was one of the painters for thise models. We hope to feature him in an article soon as well!)

matchbox prototype police car final

And here it is, the production version of the 2001 Matchbox Police Car.

Once all of that is worked out, final mold is made, usually with 10 of the same body (a “Ten-up” as it’s called in the industry). and production begins.

It’s all simple, really…

  • Sketch
  • Color rendering
  • 2:1 model (Romash skipped this step, saving weeks per project)
  • 1:1 model
  • Silocone mold
  • Resin test casting
  • Paint study
  • (Then the body is sent to the production facility)
  • Separate components
  • Technical drawings
  • Test mold
  • First white metal shot
  • Refinement
  • New multi-car molds
  • Production

Much of this process has been disappearing over the past few years, however. As 3D printers become more precise, companies are first perfecting designs on screen and then having the printer spit out a more or less perfect replica. While it may be more precise, not to mention cost and time-efficient, a lot of the romance of the design process is lost.

In fact, Hot Wheels debuted the new VW Rockster as a “prototype” of sorts, assembling a limited edition of actual 3-d printed models on cards to sell. (If you produce replicas of a prototype for market, doesn’t that make it a production model?) It’s too early to see if the replica/prototype (Replitype? Reprotoica? Reprototype?) will catch on.

“When I was at Mattel, the model came first always, as the human hand can do things you can’t do on the screen. It’s also why pretty much every major car company today still relies on full size clay models for their final shapes before turning it into 3D data,” he said. “The art of the human hand does come into play.”

matchbox prototype police car

With 3D printing, prototypes like the ones Romash owns (and is offering for sale) are becoming a thing of the past from most companies.

 

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You can buy some of these prototypes in Robert’s store

If you want to own the real McCoy, you’re in luck… all the models you’ve seen in the article and dozens more, as well as sketches and technical drawings are for sale on hobbyDB. “I thought it would be great to pass some of these on to collectors who will really appreciate owning a bit of diecast history,” Romash said.

Hot Wheels Blister Cards Influenced Diecast Packaging Forever

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

Otto Kuhni, one of the great American artists of the last half century, passed away recently. If his name isn’t familiar, you surely knew his work. He was the artist who created the overall look of the new Hot Wheels brand in 1968 and continued to work for Mattel on and off until just a few years ago. He did the art for the carrying cases, advertisements, lunchboxes, and most importantly, the packages those toys came in. The fiery orange-yellow-red blister cards instantly created an identity for the whole brand, and influenced diecast packaging ever since.

Hot Wheels Otto Kuhni lunchboxPrior to his designs, diecast packaging was generally plain and not terribly interesting (although there were terrific exceptions). Most diecast cars were sold in boxes, such as Corgi, Dinky, and of course, the company whose name comes from those boxes, Matchbox. A few cars were offered in blister cards, however. Here are some early designs as well as later cool blister cards where companies realized that toy cars are fun, and they should be packaged that way too. Much credit has to go to Otto’s ideas.

This Dinky Alfa Romeo really looks pretty amazing on its rather basic package. The layout is simple, and colors are very limited due to printing technology at the time. Even the effort required just to change the name and model number was something of a pain in those days. One odd touch is that the car is mounted so high on the card, something you don’t see today.

Husky, an early attempt at 1/64 models by Corgi, also featured simple, not terribly colorful blister cards. This fire engine is unique in that someone got a little creative and added the silhouette of the cherry picker as if it were rising from the vehicle itself. But most featured identical base art to keep costs low. Another neat thing… if you see this era of Husky card, there is often a hole punched in the circle where the price is located, like on the fire engine. Presumably, that happened when a store wanted to charge a different price.

hot wheels blister cardBut then along came Hot Wheels! Brightly colored, dynamic graphics, a custom cut shape, and even a bonus in the blister in the form of the collectors button. (Note the off-center hole punch, arranged to allow the asymmetrically weighted card to hang level.) Not only were the free wheeling cars revolutionary, but the Hot Wheels blister cards themselves created a stir with consumers – and with other toy companies.

matchbox superfast blister cardCompetitors responded quickly. Matchbox began retooling their cars as the SuperFast series, with similar speedy wheels and wilder designs on their new cars. The packaging moved to blister cards, though the art was not quite as exciting as what Mattel was offering. Hedging their bets, Matchbox still included the traditional box inside the blister as a bonus. In fact, many of their cars were still available right in the box, same as always, as if the company saw this new fangled packaging as a fad. The combination of old versus new wheels, and different packaging options has created a colossal number of variants for collectors.

johnny lightning blister cardJohnny Lightning was a new startup from Topper Toys in 1969. Thematically, they represented the closest competition to Hot Wheels, with cars ranging from crazy fantasy designs to mild customs, all built for speed. The packaging had a chaotic, exciting design to match. Curiously enough, they had to make a design modification early on… the “BEATS THEM ALL” tagline ran into a legal challenge, as it could not be proven that JL cars could indeed do that. It was modified to “BEAT THEM ALL” to imply possibility, not fact.

johnny lightning jet power blister cardA later line of JL cars, the Jet Power series, featured their own bespoke card design, with a very energetic illustration of one of the cars in action. Sadly, these new cars underperformed the promise of the packaging and were a flop. More sadly, Topper ended the entire Johnny Lightning line (and just about everything else) after only three years due to company wide financial difficulties.

corgi rockets blister cardCorgi tried to compete in the high speed 1/64 market with their Rockets series. Note the two hole configuration on the card, requiring double pegs to hang the car from. The folks who stocked the stores couldn’t have been happy about that. Cool graphics, fast cars, but no match for the Hot Wheels marketing behemoth, at least in that scale. Corgi remains a major force in diecast, but wisely decided to focus more on their main market of 1/43 and larger cars.

tomy tomica blister cardTomy (Tomica) had a lot of fun with their packaging as well. Their Pocket Cars series was printed on a card that looked like denim, complete with stitching and buttons. Such designs really stood out from the pack and looked impressive together on the pegs at the stores. Many of their later series like the Series 60 also had playful graphics.

woolworth peelers zee toys pacesettersMinor brands like the Woolworth’s /Woolco Peelers cars saw the benefit of an exciting package, even if the vehicles themselves were a notch below in quality from the big brands. Or consider what Zee Toys was doing with this Pacesetters blister, mounting the car in a position to go along with the lines of the graphics.

It’s hard to say where modern diecast packaging would be today without the influence of Otto Kuhni’s designs for Hot Wheels, but it’s safe to guess playtime would be little less exciting (also read Otto’s Diecast Hall of Fame Obituary). If you have a favorite diecast blister design, let us know about it in the comments!

Meet Collector, Scratch Builder, Fabricator Jack Reynolds

jack reynoldsWhen you see the models of Jack Reynolds, you might not know what to think at first. Is he a collector? Well, kind of. But he collects mostly his own models. Is he a model manufacturer? Yes, but he doesn’t sell his models, so not in the traditional sense of the word.

jack reynolds mc laren

Something about McLaren orange that just looks perved on a CanAm racer.

Jack is a Scratch Builder … well, that’s not even the perfect explanation of how he makes his model cars. Let’s let him explain. “I sometimes use other sources for a few parts,” he said. “That’s why I refer to the cars as ‘scratch built fabrications.’” For the last 20 years or so, Jack has built large scale cars with some amazingly intricate detail out of sheet metal, wire, resin, and anything else he can get his hands on. When we say large scale, we mean it… 1/6 to 1/8 are his favorite scales.

D Type Jaguar

D Type Jaguar

Just about every bit you see in his cars is hand built, and one of a kind. “Sometimes a part with a compound curve is just beyond my ability or I don’t have the right tool,” he said. “Early on, I used other sources for tires and wheels, but they were usually a compromise. For example, in order to make an accurate 1/8 scale Halibrand wheel with a 3 tread Firestone it is necessary to create it with resin.” Most of his cars are assembled by screws, so they can be disassembled for further work or detail.

jack reynolds maserati

The handmade sheet metal on this Maserati captures the look of a purpose built, slightly used race car.

In other words, it’s not really cheating. But just the same, he’d rather spend a lot of effort on a piece if it creates the best detail. “It”s all about complexity when it comes to time involved. Four wire wheels may take longer than a complete but simple body. Sometimes I get frustrated that I need 4 wheels,” he laughed. “Lately I’ve been building parts with no plans for a complete car. I enjoy this exercise as there is little or no duplication. Often when enough parts exist a car will materialize. Much less hurry this way.” (If he sounds like someone with time on his hands, he’s been retired since 2004.)

jack reynoldsHis first project was a 1/6 scale McLaren racer that met with a tragic end when it careened off his shelf. “To date the #33 Bowes Seal Fast Indy roadster is one of my most complex models,” he said. You can see it above as well as many more on his website.

jack reynolds wheels

Jack’s obsession with scratchbuilt detail extends to the wheels he builds for most of his cars.

Since he doesn’t sell his creations, he never makes the same model twice. “I enjoy the challenge of creating something new such as the spoke layout of different makes of wire wheels. When I was about 12 years old I carefully studied a wire wheel in Road&Track magazine and still use that as a basic layout. Making more than one model of a car is just labor.” As far as other hobbies, he has a significant collection of racing memorabilia. “I worked for a racing publication and was also a racing video photographer for 7 years during the mid sixties and early seventies,” he said. “I’ve attended the 1000 km of the Nurburgring, the Grand Prix of Monaco, the Indy 500, and numerous other motorsport events.”

 So, basically, he’s our kind of people. Check out his models on hobbyDB!

jack reynolds dino

This Ferarri 246 Dino model can be seen at the top of the article, just to give you a sense of the scale of Jack’s models.

Diving Deep Into Corvette Mako Shark Models

Over the past two years, we’ve contributed articles to Die CastX magazine for publication on their website and in their quarterly print edition. We hope you enjoy this fish story about the Corvette Mako Shark concept diecast model.


Motormax Chevrolet C2 Mako Shark

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

If you hear the name “Corvette,” what undersea creature immediately jumps to mind? Stingray, right? That name has been used on and off for over half a century on versions of the American sports car legend. The name first showed up on a 1959 race car, the “XP87 Stingray.” Like many one-off racers, it featured futuristic styling, but no one considered that was a clue to an upcoming production car.

But this is a story of another creature, the Mako Shark. In 1961, Chevrolet was considering designs to replace the original generation of Corvette. Many of the sharp, angular lines from the XP87 were carried forward for a new concept called the XP-755, a/k/a, the Mako Shark.

Motormax Chevy Corvette Mako SharkBill Mitchell, the new chief stylist at GM, had a thing for sharks, indicated by the giant stuffed Mako mounted on his office wall. Inspiration for the new car was not limited to the name… the front of the car featured a sharply pointed nose with a severe overbite. The sides had exposed exhaust pipes resembling gills. And the profile of the wraparound windshield could be interpreted as a dorsal fin. Furthering the look, dark blue body paint faded into a silvery white belly. It’s surprising there was no attempt to make tail fins to complete the effect. Equal parts ridiculous and awesome, the basic shape of the Mako Shark predicted the C2 ’Vette, produced from 1963-67.

Motormax Chevrolet Mako SharkRelatively few scale models exist of the first Shark. Motormax made an inexpensive 1/18 version in the mid ’90s. The car comes with the clear double bubble removable top, thoughtfully held in place by the visors to minimize extra tabs and slots. Through that top, you can see the spartan interior, with deepset, but readable gauges.

Motormax Corvette Mako SharkUnder the forward-flipping hood, the most notable detail is the eight exhaust pipes that travel independently out through the fender vents, connecting at the front of the rocker panels. The trunk opens too, revealing minimal detail, accurate for a running, but not entirely functional, concept car. The hood on the real concept was altered at some point to add even more gills to the design. This and most other models show the later version.

Motormax Chevrolet Mako SharkThe exterior captures the “sharkiness” of the concept with a few flaws that might drive a purist nuts. The splash panels under the nose and tail don’t fit very well, but you won’t see that very often. What does stand out is that crazy fading paint job. The original stylists spent quite a bit of time getting the blue and white tones just right. (According to some tales, Mitchell was never convinced that the hues matched his prized trophy fish, so the stylists stole it from his wall one weekend and painted it to match the car.) The transition from one color to the other should fade at an even height from front to back, but on the Motormax model, it looks like the doors were painted separately, and the fade line is significantly higher than on the surrounding door panels. You could try to repaint it, but you’d lose the emblems and other details on the rest of the car. Best solution? Display it with the doors open, and the line isn’t as obvious. Later, more expensive models, such as the one from AUTOart and UT Models do a better job with these details.

Motormax Chevrolet Corvette Mako SharkBy 1965, only three years into the C2’s production, Chevy started working on the Mako Shark II, which sent a strong, accurate signal as the design direction of the next generation of Corvette. We’ll dive into that fish tale sometime in the near future.

Motormax Chevrolet Mako Shark

Dave Chang of KustomCity Adds Official Archive to hobbyDB

kustomcity dave changThe latest Official Archive on hobbyDB is as much about a diecast model  company as it is about a designer and customizer. Dave Chang has added KustomCity as well as his extensive history to our database, and we couldn’t be more excited!

hot wheels scrape modifiedHe’s worked for Hot Wheels and Muscle Machines over the years, creating wild graphics for a wide range of models. For Hot Wheels, he is best known for the Scrape Modified, a heavily customized 1939 Lincoln coupe, and smaller scale models like the the 2003 Redline Club Drag Bus.

kustomcity evo drag busMore recently, Dave is best known as the mastermind behind the KustomCity Evo Drag Bus series. If you aren’t familiar with these models, imagine if the Hot Wheels Drag bus were crossed with a streamlined steam locomotive. These 1/64 models were designed from the ground up, a totally original take on the modest Volkswagen Bus. The long, sleek, aggressively tapered body work suggests an fiercely fast vehicle designed to do one thing: Go very fast in a straight line.

kustomcity firewagenHowever, on closer inspection, the Evo Dragster is designed for more than that. Besides, the Bus variant, there is a pickup version that has been further tricked out for all kinds of uses. There’s a tow truck model, from the “Big Tow” series. And a fire engine (the “Firewagen”). Actually, there are several versions with built in cargo, such as motorcycles or surf boards (the “Surfwagen”). But who are we kidding here… these things are anything but utilitarian.

kustomcity surfenwagenDave has created an enormous number of different paint schemes including candy chrome hues (aptly named “Over-Chrome”), drab military schemes that defy the word “drab”, and wild murals of crazy graphics. Depsite the limited production numbers, there are even rarer “chase” versions. With their large areas of relatively flat surfaces, the Evo vehicles have been popular with other customizers as well.

david chang diecast hall of fame

Dave Chang (lower left) and the rest of the original 2009 Diecast Hall of Fame class.

Dave is also a member of the inaugural class of honorees in the Diecast Hall of Fame from 2009, which should come as no surprise. In the almost decade since that honor he hasn’t slowed his roll one bit.

kustomcity evo drag bus