Column: Dreaming Big with Die-Cast Cars

Photograph Courtesy Hot Wheels

I can’t remember exactly when I was given my first tiny die-cast model car, but it was back in an era when the sophistication and detail of today’s offerings would astound. Still, it was a treasure that had more meaning than any other childhood possession. Somehow its presentation by a family friend, who drove a beautiful car, seemed to signify a secret understanding and acceptance into a wonderful adult world of fine automobiles.

Even now, long past that day, the delight in owning some highly detailed miniature simulacrum of what I dreamed I might someday drive has never really diminished. In fact, it has embarrassingly increased–as the crowded display shelf in my office so obviously demonstrates. I just love model cars of all kinds. Since it’s impossible to possess all the beautiful examples we lust after, we collect our dreams in miniature.

Long before I could own a real car, several scale models of those I admired were already beginning to help shape my taste in form. I loved them not as toys, but as interim symbols of what could be, somewhere off in the anticipated distance of growing up and joining that special clan of older guys who were already building, trading and even racing the cars they lived for.

As time passed and acquisition of the real thing finally became a reality, my growing appreciation for all the beautiful and exciting automotive art that had been conceived, built and raced decades prior to my discovery and acceptance into this enthusiastic and passionate society of gear heads never diminished. As my education in this fascinating world of classic design expanded, I began searching for ever more accurate tiny replicas so they’d be available to share with those who really understood what it was that made our kinetic art such a special part of our lives.

Stance and proportion are the basis of good design, so being able to acquire the most accurate miniatures from each era has become a special pleasure–one that’s best enjoyed with others of all ages who also care about the way cars are supposed to look and why they appear the way they do.

Racing is as much about history as it is about speed and the men who compete. Having a model of a car that changed history is like owning a segment of time on which you can look back and reflect what that era was like and why it was important. I can still remember the first race I went to at Pebble Beach in 1951 and why a glistening, black, Cad-Allard thundering out of that circuit’s uphill hairpin made such a profound impression, or why Phil Hill’s gorgeous, red, Touring-bodied 2.9 Alfa Romeo sounded the way it did as it sped away through the trees. If I could, I’d have a model of every special moment I’ve known, because each created life-changing memories. In the hundreds of events I’ve covered over the years, it’s always those special combinations of men and machinery that remain etched in my memory, like watching Parnelli herd his butterscotch-liveried Mustang sideways through a field of lesser beings. Those moments need to be remembered with something more than a photo in a closed book lost somewhere on a shelf in my library.

Hot Wheels changed the whole world of collecting small die-casts. Today, if you carefully search the checkout lanes of your supermarket, you might find a special limited-edition treasure that will fill that empty space on your shelf. For years the best 1/43-scale models have been the preferred size worldwide because they permit just enough detail to satisfy the serious collector or young enthusiast who can’t devote a full room to memories. (Some people do: I must admit, I have a good friend in Switzerland who has a collection of thousands of scratch-built 1/43s that display the full grid of every Le Mans 24 Hour race since inception!)

Now, with the new highly detailed 1/64-scale replicas of some of the world’s best, from model makers such as Greenlight, you too can easily find the perfect three-dimensional talisman to slip into a child’s hand–and perhaps change a life as well.

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slowbird SuperDork
7/15/20 12:27 p.m.

I still have some of the Hot Wheels from my childhood, but I must admit that I probably now have far more that I've purchased as an adult. It's been a lifelong hobby for me. It's almost impossible for me to go to the store and not swing by the toy section to have a look.

Ihave a smattering of 1/43 scale cars as well, because like you mentioned in the article, it's extremely popular worldwide. Some cars are available only in that scale.

I also have some 1/24 scale diecast because it's the scale of choice for NASCAR, and pairs well with plastic model kits which I also love to collect (and sometimes even build!) and I've got a few 1/32 scale cars too. Most of these cars are out of my reach in 1/1 scale, but at least I can admire their miniature likenesses. Big or small, I'll collect them all. (Or go broke trying.)

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
9/27/22 2:18 p.m.

How do you limit yourself when it comes to die-cast cars? Personally, I try to stick to cars that we have owned just to limit things. It's more of a guideline than a rule. 

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