No one can let history pass without being tempted to reflect on it or re-create it. Motoring history is relatively short compared to man’s, but it has had the most profound effect upon the human race and will continue to do so for many years. We are all more or less directly involved or affected by the motor vehicle. Love it or hate it, one can not escape it, and the majority of today’s motorists can reminisce endlessly about it.
When recently the Motor car celebrated its centenary, it seemed to coincide with a real awakening in the public consciousness of just what this period had spawned, not only by way of progress, but also of the history of its creation and development. This awareness, coming at a time when an interest in the acquisition of vintage and historic cars was already well-established, spread rapidly to encompass the whole of the motoring related environment. With the apellation ‘antique’ now properly conferred upon some of the earliest machines and artefacts, it now covers every aspect of the glory and tradition of motoring’s past. Collectors the world over are discovering what treasures lie hidden, and clamour to obtain whatever part of it appeals most to them.
As one has spent a life surrounded by, and involved with, old motors and their related sorts, especially the sporting variety, it comes as no surprise that what has been my own hobby and pastime is shared by an ever-growing body of highly-motivated and acquisitive enthusiasts. One needs only look back to childhood and there see such seeds of interest germinated. In the toy collector, for instance, who starts perhaps by replacing those long-lost items that were “put out for the dustman, Dr. Barnado’s” or merely “given away”. Lucky is the person making additions to those carefully “put up in the attic” in their original boxes. Toy collecting is a vast field in itself, but to my mind, the most interesting toys are the larger tinplate or diecast sports cars from the 1920s to the 1950s. Without a doubt the classic of all is the wonderful tinplate clockwork-powered model of the legendary P2 Alfa Romeo. Introduced in 1924 after its win in the French Grand Prix and manufactured, with few detail changes, over a 10-year period by ‘Compagnie Industrielle de Jouet’ it was produced in some quantity, in a variety of colours, representative of the European racing nations. However its real charm lay in the design and execution, with detachable spoked wheels, friction dampers, leather straps over a heavily-louvred bonnet, rack and pinion steering, and opening racing-filler caps. All were beautifully re-created in miniature. It cannot help but take pride of place in any collection.
Other makers too produced some true gems: the Italian firm ‘Domo’, made a remote-controlled car, modelled on the Maserati 8CTF of 1938. A labour-intensive and complex device, it incorporated two mains-electric motors (one powering the steering) driven via a combined transformer, which sported steering wheel and forward/reverse controls. Very heavy in die-cast aluminium and steel, it featured a most realistic driver puppet wearing blue racing overalls, leather kid gloves and china head and feet. Expensive even then, made in limited numbers pre and postwar, it is now very rare. It was also made available with a diesel aero-model engine.
These type of engines had already been in use for ‘Pylon’ racing, which was a popular pastime during this period. Many of the cars were either scratch-built or self-assembled from kits. One of the best, and indeed the rarest, being a fine die-cast alloy, diy affair by another Italian firm, mostly renowned for its model aircraft, named ‘Aeropiccola’. In 1954 Maserati brought out its now famous 250F Grand Prix machine, and following hard on the heels of its successes came the scale-model version, which must have been very short-lived, as only a handful seem to exist today. When fettled with a good model engineer’s enhancement, it represents one of the finest examples of its type.
Not to be outdone, Ferrari itself marketed a similarly large-scale model of its ‘500’ Grand Prix contender. Die-cast in alloy, ingeniously arranged to allow the upper half of the body to be removed, revealing a bottle of liqueur. Whilst the senior members of the family were sampling this delight, Junior could then install a large rubber band across the space vacated by the bottle, hook it up to the neat differential and, with the aid of small starting handle, crank it up and unleash it across the room at a fair speed, ankle-high, to crash into the skirting-board! These modes were distributed in the form of gifts to those personnel closely involved with the racing team, VIPs, and top dealers etc. I have never yet found one with the bottle, let alone its content intact!
In similar vein, Alfa Romeo’s racing department produced a fine large die-cast replica of the 158 Alfetta, to give to their team members and valued prestigious customers.
When it comes to racing cars, the Italians are in a class apart. Their climate, life-style and natural flamboyance are personified in the dashing style and designs of the golden age of motor racing.
Toy and model makers were quick off the mark, capitalising on race-winning success to create this world in miniature, aimed at the youth of yesterday: they now find their place amongst today’s boys in long trousers, those who, perhaps, never grew up!
There is a wealth of original material sources, and there has never been a better time to be collecting, now that so much information is available on such a wide selection, be it through specialist dealers, autojumbles or auction houses. To me, the true essence of collecting is that of contemporary pieces: all the better for showing a little age, imbued with a patina that reflects something animated from their past history, which is mostly lacking in retrospective pieces. There is something for absolutely everyone to be found in this sphere: the art of advertising, the craft of the sculptor, especially in many wonderful mascots, the skill of the designer and technician. Add to this the amazing range of garage and forecourt dispensing equipment and accessories, bright and decorative photographic memories which poignantly convey a bygone era. All of these combine to bring the right feel and atmosphere back into being: they complement the motor car in its authentic background, or perhaps, exist merely as things of beauty in their own right.
If you are not already amongst the ranks of the fast-growing army of automobilia appreciators, now is the time to make a New Year’s resolution: join in and seek out your own piece of Motoring’s rich heritage!