Sidetracked with Ed Foster

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Ed Foster

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You know you’re doing well in the ‘replica’ car business when your client list included F1’s top three teams

Whatever your views are on replicas, sometimes you just have to admire the accuracy of them. A recent visit to Amalgam was one such time.

The company was founded in Bristol in 1985, but it wasn’t until 10 years later that managing director Sandy Copeman started producing replicas of race cars. “We were primarily making architectural models when we formed the company,” he tells me in the soon-to-be new premises on the outskirts of Bristol. “We started doing models for Norman Foster, who at that time was still based in a relatively small office.

“Our business with him grew and soon we were making prototypes for Dyson and other companies like that. Then, in the mid-90s, we approached Jordan. I think that was down to the fact that we had a couple of guys working for us who were Formula 1 fanatics. I was keen as well and we just capitalised on the enthusiasm.

“We started with a copy of the Jordan 195 and then we made a reasonable number of copies of the 196. They were quite simple replicas in those days — they’re a lot more complex now.”

Word of Amalgam soon spread around the F1 paddock and by 2000 Williams and Ferrari were also on board. It’s hard to picture Ferrari letting another company build authorised replicas, isn’t it? Well, maybe I wasn’t being quite clear. Amalgam makes 1:8 scale models of cars, not full-sized copies. Pretty impressive aren’t they? So impressive in fact that various pictures of the models have been pinging around the Motor Sport e-mail system with the subject ‘real car or model?’.

The company now makes models of modern road and race cars as well as historic racers, boats and it is even looking into making a series of Spitfires, Lancasters and Lightnings.

“One of the biggest hurdles with historic F1 cars is trying to track down all the data,” Copeman admits. “We also need to really understand the history of what we’re making and we need to know a fair bit about the technical side of things. We’ve got someone called Alfred Kist who’s a full-on anorak and rivet counter so he helps us with that.”

Amazingly the modern F1 teams that use Amalgam — including Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren this year — actually send their CAD (Computer Aided Design) data as and when it is available. “We get all their data by the end of February, but what we get at that stage is the launch car,” says Copeman. “However, data is fed through when there are developments throughout the season.” There’s clearly a high level of trust, but Ferrari is so impressed with Amalgam that when you buy a new car from the Italian manufacturer there is an option on the order form to have a model made of it. As you can imagine, business has been going well.

If Amalgam can’t get CAD data it’s a case of scanning the real car — a process that takes a “full day” — and then taking 7-800 images to make sure that the “details and feel” of it are correct. This lengthy process goes some way to explaining how some of the one-off models can cost up to £30,000.

Once all the data has been collected the job is far from over. Colin Graham, who does much of the repair work at Amalgam, gave me an idea of the size of the task that faces the modelling team: “If you take the 250 Testa Rossa as an example, you need to assemble 1300 parts, and it’s only when we hire a lot of help that we can get more than 25 models out the door a month.” The 1300 parts are all laid out on a huge tray-like drawer and there’s even a full 1:8 scale chassis sitting among them. Surely you don’t see that when the model’s finished? “Well, you see parts of it and it’s got to be correct,” he points out.

“People who don’t know that much about modelling find it amazing that they’re all handmade. They tend to assume that a big machine churns them out,” he adds. Sadly for Amalgam it’s not that easy. “You have to make a mould for every single part. You make the original part in resin and then cover it in soft latex, which you use for the repetition. We get about 30 or 40 pulls out of each one and we always keep the original masters locked up in a suitcase. There really is no limit to what we can make. It just comes down to time and cost.”

It becomes clear when Graham is taking me through the interior of the Ferrari 458 model that time is something a modeller needs a lot of. The detail is absolutely astonishing. “Over there we’ve used a rubberised paint so that it feels right while the carbon here is padprinted… The carbon over there is done by decal which you float off in water, and then the stitching is a separate decal that you can bend into shape.” Just as I am about to ask how Colin’s eyes cope with the work, he says: “Working on an 1:8 scale model is a bit of a luxury — imagine working at 1:43 scale when the whole car ends up just four inches long. It’s physically very difficult.”

My time in the workshop ends with a look at the tools of the trade. Beside the scalpel — that acts as “an 11th finger” — there are tweezers and drill bits that go down to 0.3mm thick. “You only get to use those once,” says Graham. The mind boggles. Much as it did when the office saw the pictures of these models for the first time.

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