A solitary glass of whisky in hand, knee-deep in children’s toys and with his wife away in hospital giving birth. . . it was not exactly how John Day had intended to celebrate Christmas Day 1957. The cocktail party he had planned to host was cancelled, and instead he contented himself with nothing more exciting than returning the vast collection of toys adorning the sitting-room floor to the nursery.
It was this, however, which eventually led John Day not only to pioneering work in the manufacture of 1:43 scale model cars, but also to becoming a prominent sponsor in the Grand Prix world of the mid-1970s. He explains: “I came across a Dinky model of a Cunningham belonging’ to my eldest son and thought it was so awful that, apart from the colour scheme, it could have been a Ferrari or a Vanwall. With nothing else to do on Christmas night, I set about modifying it, putting a few extra details here and there, and spent some time filing off the roughest parts of the casting. After carefully repainting it, the model began to look more like a Cunningham.”
As a result of this minor success. Day’s interest in model cars and motor racing grew quickly. After reading an article by Christian Moity in the French magazine, L’Automobile and corresponding with the well-known journalist, Day and Moity struck up a friendship and began swapping models with each other.
“At that time French Solido models weren’t available in Britain, so Christian sent me several examples through the post, in exchange for British models I had collected,” says John. “Solido were among the best model manufacturers in the 1960s, but I wasn’t entirely satisfied with their quality, and modified several where I thought improvements could be made.” For Day, this was nothing more than an absorbing hobby, but when in 1969 the international company for which he worked as sales director was taken over by a large conglomerate, he set up business on his own account. “I had limited funds, and realising that it was futile trying to compete with companies like Corgi and Solido, I decided to make 1:43 scale model cars in kit form,” says John. “However, having chosen to work in white metal, it didn’t take long to discover that most centrifugal casting techniques employed in the industry in those days were utterly hopeless. Most casters could produce something that was flat, but were incapable of working in 3D.
By redesigning and refining existing techniques, Day was able to supply castings for his kits, which were more detailed than virtually anything that had been seen in the industry previously. By April 1970 he was ready to launch his first two models: the 1914 French Grand Prix-winning Mercedes and the 1954 4.9-litre Ferrari Le Mans winner.
Day’s old friend Christian Moity was so impressed by the new models that he devoted two colour pages in L’Automobile to the first two cars alone. “On reflection, the Mercedes was a mistake because it comprised a multiplicity of parts and was far too complex: it put people off making it, but the Ferrari which was much simpler was an instant success,” says John.
As a result of Moity’s complimentary article and another one in the now defunct Model Cars magazine, a great deal of interest was being shown in John Day Model Cars in both France and Britain. “Retailers in Le Mans ordered large stocks in anticipation of the 1970 24 Hours and, after burning a lot of midnight oil and chartering a light aircraft, we managed to transport the kits to the circuit just four hours before the start of the race,” says John. “It was a gamble that paid off, because we were able to invest the profits in new models.”
A number of people from around the world began to approach Day. “They wanted us to make models for them, and, on average, we made five new ones per month. In time we manufactured virtually all the Le Mans and Indianapolis winners and the most notable Grand Prix cars as well,” he says.
During the four or five years from launch date, John Day’s life had been transformed, and all because of a Dinky Cunningham he found in his son’s toy collection. “We were making money and enjoying the fruits of a successful business to the full,” he says with a smile, “and by 1974, we were suddenly involved in the world of real racing cars. Alain de Cadenet telephoned me to ask if I would be interested in sponsoring his Lola, which he had entered for Le Mans. I agreed almost immediately, attended the race, which was fun, and after returning to England produced a model of Alain’s car.”
Two years later, by which time Day was employing 26 people, his company took further steps into sponsorship. He read an article in a motoring magazine and learned that the Ensign team needed money to run Chris Amon, but that venture turned sour after Day had a disagreement with Ensign boss, Maurice Nunn, which in essence typified the behind-the-scenes wrangling in Grand Prix racing, and that was that.
But not all was lost, because on a trip to the US Grand Prix at Long Beach in 1976 John Day struck up a conversation with Max Mosley, who was then involved with running the March GP concern with Robin Herd. This was the stroke of luck that Day was looking for because it was this conversation which led to the name of John Day Models being attached in large letters to the nose-cone of Hans-Joachim Stuck’s March.
“The deal was struck between Max and I in mid-air over the Atlantic,” explains John. “There was no formal agreement. He explained to me that he had commitments to other sponsors for the German and Austrian Grand Prix, but that when a free nose-cone became available, my name would go on it. When Peterson damaged his nose-cone during practice for the Dutch Grand Prix, March used a spare one with my name on it, and on that occasion, it was at no cost to myself.”
It is important to remember that commercial sponsorship was still relatively new in Formula One in the mid-1970s, and anyone who was in a position to pay for space on the broad nose-cones that were in vogue 20 years ago — but alas, no longer — the exposure on television and in magazines and newspaper was immense.
“The sponsorship deal with March put us right on top,” says John. “My association with Robin Herd and Max Mosley was one of the most congenial I’ve ever known, and I have nothing but praise for what they did for me. I know that Max has come in for a great deal of flak in recent years, but more often than not, it has been fired by people who just don’t know the real Mosley.
“The guy is not only the best man for the job he is doing now because he’s a genuine enthusiast, but also because he is as straight as a die. I never felt I needed a written contract when dealing with Max, because when he promised to do something, he did it and never once needed reminding. And in every respect, Robin was exactly the same: an absolute delight to be with. I remember that he asked me to produce some models of his March Formula Two cars that were to be presented to visiting journalists, and naturally I was only too glad to help. Regrettably, I can’t say that about many of the ‘hotshots’ I met in Formula One at that time.”
Today, Mosley is equally complimentary about John Day and the role he fulfilled in Formula One. “He made nice models and we all liked having him around,” says Max. “He used to travel with us to all the Grand Prix and proved to be a nice bloke. If John said that his sponsorship money would be on the table on Monday morning, it was there Monday morning. In fact, he was the sort of person we really needed in Formula One. And the same applies today, too. Nick Wirth can no longer compete with his Simtek team because of sponsors not coming up with the money.”
Max Mosley has never been a collector of model cars because, as he says: “Once you start, there’s a danger of not knowing when to stop.” But he admits to having kept John Day kits of the Peterson and Brambilla March Grand Prix cars.
Day, who continues to enjoy a packet of cigarettes a day, also dispels the widely held view that ‘proper’ Grand Prix racing ended when Colin Chapman painted his cars in Gold Leaf colours for 1968. He says: “Chapman merely found a means of paying his way. In 1968, motor racing was going nowhere, and without sponsorship it was in danger of dying altogether. We all bemoan the loss of national colours on the cars but, to sound an optimistic note, when they were covered in various decals they came alive. They were also more difficult to replicate in model form.
“The other important part of the equation was that it provided an opportunity for people like me to promote our businesses, and I never discovered a more effective form of advertising,” he adds. John Day also speaks disparagingly of the belief that when the business community brought money into motor sport, the honour went out of it, firmly asserting his view that the GP circus was populated by people of integrity at all levels.
There are those, however, who stand out in his mind as being head and shoulders above the rest. “Hans Stuck, Ronnie Peterson and Jackie Stewart were really great guys in motor racing, and although their personalities were very different, they all had one thing in common: they were all gentlemen,” he reflects. “Ronnie was pure magic whether he was in the car or out of it. Intelligent and perspicacious, he was a great listener and it made no difference to him whether a small child, a spotty teenage fan or the chairman of a multi-national company was talking to him, he gave freely of his time and genuinely valued their opinions, even if they were at variance with his.
He was the greatest, and I view the model we made of his March as one of the best we produced.
“I realised early on that the aim of a good model-maker must be to capture the spirit of the subject he’s modelling. The vast majority of racing car collectors have only viewed the original subject from photographs or by watching them pass at 100plus mph: it is what they imagine they see that you must capture, which is why you will always be criticised by the ‘rivet counters’. Dimensions of the model must sometimes be distorted and, by and large, it is better to work from photographs than engineering drawings.
“A good example of this occurred when we produced some ready-built Marches. We worked from factory drawings, but by the time we were sponsoring the cars, with most of the engineering for the die-casting already completed, the airbox behind the driver’s head had been changed and our model didn’t exactly correspond with the then current car.”
Of Hans Stuck, John Day also speaks with great affection. “I bumped into him about seven years ago at practice for the 1000km sports car race at Silverstone, when he was driving the works Porsche, and he hadn’t changed a bit. I could scarcely believe that his enthusiasm for driving, which was never anything less than daunting, remained as strong as ever. Neither Hans nor Ronnie had a bad word to say about anyone. Neither were interested in money, fame or any of the other ‘BS’ that surrounds F1. They were both there to race cars, and happily, Hans is still there, doing what he loves.” Interestingly Hans Stuck, who collects model racing cars, has a number of John Day kits among his many motor racing treasures.
Day reflects that he particularly enjoyed making 1:43 replicas of March GP cars because of the co-operation he received from everyone at the March factory. During this period, when production was at ‘full bore’, Day also forged ahead with models of Jackie Stewart’s championship-winning Tyrrell and Graham Hill’s Gold Leaf-liveried Lotus 49B. “The Lotus was a particularly good example of white metal art. We replicated the regular ‘winged’ car, the ‘double-aerofoil’ Lotus and the Monaco ‘ducktail’ car,” he says. “My son, Crispin, who was the cause of all my model-making, presented Graham with a set of models. He was genuinely pleased to receive them and, in his usual jovial way. thanked us for having gone to so much trouble.”
For the next few years, John Day was leading the life of a very successful businessman, who had spotted a gap in a market and filled it. On his own admission, he loved flying to the various Grand Prix around the world, and was intoxicated by the buzz of it all.
And then in 1980, John Day Model Cars crashed, unbelievably, with mounting debts that couldn’t be paid. It was the same old story: his customers wouldn’t pay him, so… Day confesses that he expanded his business around the world too quickly, and by the time things had got out of control, it was too late. Having made some 600 different models, Day’s kits suddenly became even more collectable, and today are highly prized by model enthusiasts.
The responsibility of failure bore heavily on his shoulders. “The people I employed were suddenly out of a job through no fault of theirs,” says John. “Our master model maker, Richard Stokes for example, had left a secure job at Purdy the gunmakers to join me, and it greatly distressed me to let him go.”
This experience left Day with a bitter taste in his mouth, and he turned his back on motor racing. “When we were going through difficulties there were, as is only to be expected, many unpleasant things said about me and my company which naturally caused a lot of heartache, but time passes, and on reflection, one can only hope that it was a certain amount of jealousy that caused remarks to be made,” says John.
Having walked away from model cars and into the world of public relations, John Day has had time to reflect on the past: “One has to keep a sense of perspective,” he says. “It’s many years since I’ve thought about model cars, and in that time, I haven’t taken much interest in the market. However, in the last couple of years, I have decided to re-enter the business. During the past 10 years, 1:43-scale models have proliferated, and it’s precisely for this reason that I am approaching the business from an entirely new angle.”
It remains to be seen whether Day’s new venture, specialising in pewter sculptures of famous motor racing scenes, will be followed by other manufacturers, and whether the new models will become as collectable as the John Day originals. But one thing is for sure: not one word of this story could have been written if it hadn’t have been for that Dinky Cunningham John Day found in his son’s toy collection on Christmas Day. 1957.