Perfection in miniature
Meeting a man who sells cars you can put on a shelf – the finest hand-built models
Considering I forgot to turn up for our first appointment, Oliver Strebel-Ritter is full of bonhomie when we arrange Take Two. Though we’re looking at a dozen cars we’re not in a workshop, or at a racetrack; we’re bending over a dining table to inspect some of the finest automobile models you can buy.
Having worked in all the motoring auction houses, plus our nearby Lots Road, Oliver now focuses on automobilia, especially models, under the label World Collector. And we’re a long way from Dinky here. His own collection boasts some 4500 scratch-builts and hand-builts, but he has the extra benefit of enjoying the very finest examples as he marries them up with new owners. Wealthy owners: at this level we’re starting at hundreds and heading toward the price of a 1:1 Porsche.
Michele Conti is one of the great names in the field and, though the master and his son Maurizio are no more, the family trade continues. Oliver reckons he’s handled 70 Contis, which in 1/8th scale can feature beaten copper bodies, cast pewter brightwork, and fingernail instrument dials with pin-like pointers – and with £30,000 price tags they switch owners as rarely (and discreetly) as real classics.
Oliver lists some of the masters his clients are after – Gerald Wingrove, Sean McKenna, Alastair Brookman, Patrice de Conto, David Hayward, Jacques Catti. In this field names are everything: the word ‘hand-built’ can equally mean a Conti or a kit carefully assembled and super-detailed. Oliver points to a very fine 1/12 Honda RA272. Handmade? “A Tamiya kit,” says Oliver, “but beautifully built with extra detail by Roger Knight. And they don’t make it any more, so it has rarity value too. That’s £500.” He mentions the biggest advantage of a large manufacturer – tyres. A major firm can invest in moulds for soft rubber tyres with correct tread; a scratch builder has to hand-carve a pattern, and the compound can cause problems over time. “Look at these,” Oliver says of a resin and pewter 1/8th supercharged Bentley by Blueprint. There’s a white age bloom on the tyres. “We can fix that but some show Norah Batty syndrome – sagging over time. That’s hard to deal with.” Luckily the Birkin blower is otherwise sound, compete with delicate corded steering wheel and leather straps.
You might expect bigger models to impress most, but I’m captivated by a 1/43rd Porsche 356A built by Bossica. This tiny handful boasts opening panels revealing a detailed engine, real leather seats and even window winders like nail parings. Beside it, same scale, is a Ferrari 156-85 with working steering and suspension that are screwed together. With 2500 parts and three weeks just to build the engine, I though £1500 seemed more than fair.
Beyond time, skill and eyesight, modellers face an extra problem: scaling down materials. Photo-etching brass produces hair-thin details, but it takes skill to make a 1/43rd bonnet that wouldn’t scale up to an inch thick. Carbon fibre is a challenge – Oliver shows some tiny woven panels along with a penny-sized vented brake disc, samples from an aspiring modeller. And for seats the finest pigskin is shaved to tissue thickness. Which can make models super-fragile – Oliver treats his 356 with all the care of a Sevres vase. Paint thickness too: it takes a specialist to get a fine finish on the paper-thin louvres of the Carlo Brianza 288GTO in front of us. “Brianza is one of the names that is shooting up,” Oliver says. “This is heading for £2000. And I like the work of Marshall Buck, who’s not well known but does beautiful things in 1/64 up to 1/8th, all one-offs. They might reach £5000 for a bespoke order, but you can buy hand-built 1/43rds for £70 and up. That’s ‘kerbside’ of course – no engine, and nothing opens.”
But the market is changing, he reckons. Buying a classic car together with its hand-built model counterpart was once common, but seems to be dwindling. And while European buyers want resin, Brits want white metal. It must be all those Corgis.
Finally I inspect what tempted me here – a 1/8th Mercedes Simplex engine on a stand. The concealed electric motor isn’t connected, so Oliver twiddles the starting handle with a delicate forefinger; pushrods push, rockers rock, timing gears turn. The copper tube is actually copper tube, wires run from the magneto, minuscule nuts hold it together. You can have the car to go with it, too; on a stand you can shift gears using the working clutch; on the floor it will reach 15mph. Seats are stuffed with horsehair, hoods fold, timber is sliver-thin. These German SAPOR models, says Oliver, “are as close to real as you can get”. With the right photographer you could be fooled. (Perspective is all. If you want to see some astonishing examples, look up Michael Paul Smith on the net – 1950s cars-on-street scenes you would bet hard cash were real.)
And given that the builder visits every client to explain the use and maintenance of these miniature wonders, it’s little surprise that Oliver sold a SAPOR SSK for £25 grand…
Not his biggest sale, though; that was an elephant. Full-sized and petrol-driven, it could carry eight kids. Now there’s something to spice up the school run.
Compare and contrast
Why ‘newer’ doesn’t always mean ‘better’…
Jumping into the everyday Jaguar XF after a weekend in the Mk2, I was struck by a number of things – not least that the volt-hungry modern car had yet again flattened its battery after only four days static. That’s the fourth time the AA has had to fire me up since the car was new. And worse, I’m told it’s a bad idea to charge it myself – the electronics are easily spooked, and even Mr AA had trouble finding a safe way of doing it. Then, as I crunched over London’s potholes, I began to consider how much progress we really have made in the 50 years that separate the two vehicles.
There’s no arguing about electrical luxuries, tyre grip, or safety. Surrounded by airbags and crumple zones I’m much better off in the XF, and maximum lateral g is far higher. Longevity too – I won’t expect to see rust in this car’s lifetime. But switching back reminded me it’s so fat; I can post the Mk2 down a country lane past oncoming vehicles with confidence; on the same stretch an ordinary 5-series and I are dragging our door mirrors through the hedges to pass. And yet the cockpit is truly cramped; it’s like sitting in a kayak, a function of safety engineering but hardly relaxing compared to the airy Sixties saloon.
The XF has terrible blind spots all round; in comparison the Mk2 is like lounging in a conservatory. Yes, I want tough A-pillars, but when they plus door mirror are thick enough to hide a woman and pram it’s a problem. My IAM training tells me in traffic to stop so I can see the wheels of the car in front: that was 6ft in my old 5-series; it’s about 15ft in the XF, an all-encompassing blind patch that makes car park kerbs a threat. It’s partly style – deep windows look dated – and partly for strength, and partly the hunt for mpg: less heavy glass to drag around. Of course this applies to all current car design, and we have adapted to cope; it’s something that has crept up on us, only apparent when you compare directly.
Inside, the chrome and silver instruments are at times hard to read; white on black never. I can reach all the old Jag’s controls; on the new one there are three switches by my knee that I can’t even see.
And the worst trade-off involves all that lateral g. The XF is famed for its ride, but it’s effectively negated by the cartwheel crashing of the hugely grippy 40-profile tyres now standard on so many cars. (I’ve swapped to smaller rims and ‘generous’ 45-profile sidewalls, with some improvement.) While the XF’s primary ride can be ethereal on smooth surfaces, the old car’s 70-profiles happily gulp the everyday stuff. Most drivers use a fraction of the available grip. Is it worth the ride – and fuel – penalty?
I’ve promised the office not to whine about the turbo lag, poor mpg, diesel filter that clogs every eight days and seats that don’t recline, so I won’t. I’ll reflect instead on the handsome interior, amazing audio quality, subtle climate control, electric luxuries, fine sound insulation, minimal maintenance, bumpers that shrug off biffs, sophisticated security…
We enjoy some huge advances since a Mk2 was hot property – but progress doesn’t mean that everything gets better.
Spare a thought for the poor commuter stuck in the daily queue. Somebody did…
Returning to London from a race prep shop recently, I came in under the A4 flyover heading for Chiswick roundabout. As I sat at the lights overshadowed by those concrete pylons that keep going knock-kneed, closing the flyover for traffic-throttling periods, I recalled something my erstwhile colleague Mike Cotton told me when he arrived at the office after his daily commuter grind from Berkshire. Inching past the same columns in a bleary morning queue he was cheered to see the words of a message painted up in large letters on successive pylons by a happy graffiti artist. The first said “Good!”, the second said “Morning!” and the third said “Lemmings!”
How we’d blow the budget this month
Lola Mk4 V8
Lola’s first Formula 1 car, and driven through the 1962 season by John Surtees. Fitted with the Climax V8 the team belatedly acquired.
A regular at Goodwood, with an FTD to boot
Tom Hartley Jr
Porsche 356 Carrera 2
This little flyer turned the word Porsche from a man into a marque and will never go out of style. This Carrera shows only 52k, and has had the full works on engine and body.
Old Racing Car Co
Ferrari 250 GT Europa
Entered by Ecurie Francorchamps in many events, this rare Europa was driven by Olivier Gendebien. He liked it so much he bought it! Well known and ready for action.