Who out there doesn’t have a car model or two (or 40) on a shelf? Today’s specialist makers can offer a miniature of any car, no matter how rare – forget the GTO, you’ll have no trouble finding a Matra Djet or a Brough Superior in one scale or another.
Diecast and resin models have advanced hugely in accuracy, while with 3D printing and photo etching it’s now possible to produce multiple examples with superb detail. CMC, Amalgam and Exoto all offer impressively accurate racing and road cars in several scales from a few hundred to over £13,000, more if you want one hand-weathered to look as if it has spent 24 hours pounding round Le Mans.
Yet there’s a higher level that fascinates – the one-off large-scale hand-built masterpiece.
Since before there was any clever technology to help, people have been making miniature cars and in early years this would mean hand beating thin brass body panels and carving wooden patterns to cast engine parts and even rubber tyres. These one-offs by famous names become prized collector items and good investments – if you can bear to stop opening the bonnet and wiggling the steering wheel.
A pre-eminent name pre-war was Rex Hays, whose hand-carved wooden bodies in 1:20 or 1:10 scale on carefully fabricated chassis are on display in the National Motor Museum. Today’s standards may have overtaken his work but for the time it was impressive.
A name to get bidding fingers twitching is Michele Conti who from the 1960s assembled beautiful models, at first with wooden bodies and then with aluminium formed over scale wooden bucks – a process he knew well as he worked at Pininfarina on full-sized cars. Equipped with opening doors and bonnets tied with leather straps, detailed dashboards and real leather seats, these works of art could take him an entire year and sometimes included a tiny tool roll with minuscule pieces. Often commissioned by the owner of the real car, these signed one-offs will always receive top bids – a buyer paid £7500 for a 1:10 Conti Ferrari 330 GTC at RM Sotheby’s, and that was a few years back.
Although Michele died in 1996 his son Maurizio has continued the tradition.
“These are treasures which people hold onto”
Another master was Gerald Wingrove, who went to extraordinary lengths for realism. For example, modelling the Tulipwood Hispano- Suiza, he constructed a 1:15 body of hundreds of pearwood slivers fixed with thousands of brass pins thinner than actual pins. And for the 1938 Alfa 2.9 Le Mans coupé he measured up the full-sized car, carved wooden body patterns and then beat paper-thin brass over those, before insetting gossamer-thin wires into the wood to replicate the original frame, finally removing that spidery framework and attaching body panels to it. Inside the delicate skin you’ll find utterly faithful mechanical elements down to every pump, pipe and bracket. Although he died in 2019, his website is still there to goggle at.
But don’t expect to see many for sale: Toby Wilson of Bonhams says, “These cars are all with collectors and only come up when a collection is broken up. They are real treasures which people hold onto. It’s not model making, it’s model engineering.”
Particularly sought-after are the creations of Anthony Dennis. “They’re even more spectacular,” continues Toby, “because of the fully working suspension and steering and amazing detail. And while Conti was quite prolific and Wingrove sometimes made two or three examples, Dennis made just eight different one-offs.”
These foot-long gems are astonishing – over 4000 parts, functioning gear and throttle linkage, wood-rimmed steering wheel; the steering even turns at the correct ratio. In 2017 Bonhams sold one for £21,250.
Toby adds that another fine model maker was Nigel Dawes the Jaguar collector. “Trained as a silversmith, he never sold any of his works but we have a collection of his models coming up for sale at Goodwood Revival.”
Alistair Brookman was another to painstakingly include every tiny part under removable panels. Less well-known, his 1:12 Ferraris are arguably undervalued. Some 15 years ago in the States I met the very intense Andy Mathews, whose exquisite 1:12 Formula 1 jewels contain thousands of parts and sold then for around £10,000, but I’ve not spotted one for sale since.
Back in the real world, ‘kerbside’ models, without opening panels or chassis are more affordable. Javan Smith’s detailed 1:8-scale limited-edition Ferraris sell for a few thousand and you may find a 1:8-scale Lola T70 or Austin- Healey by John Shinton in a similar bracket.
As I describe these precious, costly delights, I wonder if one or two of our readers possess a Wingrove or a Conti?
Anthony Dennis 250F
Exceptional product of 4500 man hours,
Superb 1:15 model of Weinberger Bugatti Royale, full engine and chassis detail taken from real car. Opening panels with working door latches and leather clad trunk.
Michele Conti Ferrari
Commissioned by the owner of the real car, this 330 GTC boasts all opening panels with detailed engine and cockpit, including real wood veneer and complete headlining.
One-off Austin-Healey 100 by John Shinton, 1:8 scale, resin body with metal parts including alternative angle windscreen. 460mm long.
Javan Smith Sharknose
Pre-owned 1:8 limited-edition Ferrari 156 of Wolfgang von Trips by Javan Smith. Alloy and pewter details, 500mm long in Perspex case.