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Pioneering model cars

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Just about every child has had the great pleasure of losing themselves playing with model cars. Whether it was racing remote-controlled electric vehicles, assembling an Airfix model, or just forgetting the world around you playing with a matchbox toy at a young age, miniature automobiles have never really gone out of style. Of course, adults horse around with model cars too. The most expensive examples go to collectors at unbelievable prices. In fact, the most expensive model car in the world is worth several times more than the real thing.

But what has led to the huge variety of model cars? Let’s take a quick tour through the history of diminutive automobiles.

Early examples

Toys and models have been around since Neolithic times. Model horses (which we could call the model car’s direct ancestors) have been found dating back tens of thousands of years. The model automobile was hot on the heels of the first car. The use of the car was pioneered in the late 19th Century, and it wasn’t long before models were being made of them. In around 1901, the Dowst Brothers released one of the first die-cast toy cars.

Hornby – a hugely popular maker of model railways in the early 20th Century – released one of the most beloved sets of early model cars. Their ‘modeled miniatures’ released in 1933 to go alongside their train sets were a huge success. They were renamed and rereleased in 1934 as ‘Dinky’ toys. They were still modeled in the 1:48 scale of Hornby’s rail models. These were not just popular with train enthusiasts, but with car crazed children. The age of the model car had begun in earnest.

The rise of Matchbox

In the 1950s, a new kind of model car dominated the market: the Matchbox. Legend has it that one of the Matchbox car inventors, Jack Odell, was inspired by a rule at his daughter’s school that forbade any toy that would not fit inside a matchbox. In 1952, he scaled-down one of his ‘road roller’ toy cars and packaged it – handily – in just such a box. The Matchbox car was born. It was a massive success in both the UK and the United States, with around 100 million models sold every single year. Matchbox still exists, but they are not quite the cultural touchstone that they once were. Still, they are the archetypal die-cast model car.

Scalextric

Love it or hate it, Scalextric races are addictive. Bertram ‘Fred’ Francis invented the electric track racing game in 1957 and was subsequently bought and marketed by Hornby. The track works by sending a DC current down a metal strip. When a car’s ‘foot’ connects with the strip, it draws power into a tiny brushless motor – and away you go. As they became more popular, Scalextric tracks and cars became ever more complex and customizable. Power controllers were developed that rewarded skillful and sensitive driving. These days, Scalextric enthusiasts battle it out in highly competitive leagues around the world.


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