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Bespoke fine-scale miniature cars are the ultimate expression of automotive passion. These hand-built models are so detailed that they are often indistinguishable from the real thing. Seth Rowden meets Oliver Strebel-Ritter, the owner of World Collector and an expert in scratch-built models, to talk about private commissions
Oliver is well known in the fine-scale model industry. Having worked for most of the major auction houses, he has sold some of the most expensive models in the world, and now specialises in handling bespoke commissions for those lucky enough to engage his services.
“Some I will not name, for privacy reasons,” he says, after I probe a little too deeply for the name of one of his model makers. He is tight-lipped, explaining that discretion (for his model makers as well his private buyers) is extremely important. As our conversation develops, I guess at the names of some of his clients from anecdotes and details that spilled out in conversation; I couldn’t say with certainty, but I could guess. And I suspect that the main reason for not revealing his network of model makers is the years he has invested in building these trusted relationships. Besides, would you reveal the name of the goose that lays the golden egg?
And golden eggs they are. In fact, model cars were so expensive, even when they first started being produced, that only the wealthy could afford to buy them. This rare photograph from the 1930s depicts a group of school children playing with 1:8 scale Jouets de Paris model cars. Oliver says, “They were the equivalent of spending £1,000 on a toy today. You had to be rich to afford these, or to even have toys in the 1930s. To have a photograph like this, with everyone with their land-speed record cars and their Alfa cars is just amazing. This was the top end of the social class.”
So what are real model cars? “A proper model is something that, at the very least, is hand-built from a kit, or scratch-built.” Conversation inevitably turns to one of the most famous model makers, Michele Conti. Oliver knew the Conti family well, and commissioned many models from Michele and his son, Maurizio. Oliver says, “Conti models always had little imperfections, but they were just beautiful for it because you knew they just ran their hands over the car and built it. They wouldn’t measure it, they were sculptors.”
Oliver remembers when Maurizio would finish a model for one of his clients, and he would be waiting to receive it and see it for the first time. “I would just sit there and I would get so emotionally involved with these models because they were just . . . beautiful.” Such was Conti’s appeal that, when he was alive, Oliver would sell his models to buyers before they had even been finished.
How much did he sell them for? “I have sold Conti’s for £20,000. There are other model makers who get a lot more for their models. One of the best sales I ever did was £43,000 for a Bugatti. That was amazing, because it didn’t even have an engine.”
Speaking of engines, some model makers have focused solely on perfecting every little detail on a tiny, tiny engine. Oliver explains how these were originally made as fully working model petrol engines but because of the problem of cleaning them after use, most of them are now electric. But they work, and you can even take them apart and strip them down. “I’ll show you some,” Oliver says.
“This one is a very rare 1:8 scale model of a 1924 Tulip Wood Hispano Suiza Torpedo and is one of only twenty-five examples in the world. The level of detail is superb and the model has a fully working engine, steering and suspension, and comes with opening engine cowling and an opening passenger door. The model maker has used solid wood and copper for the main body, as well as leather, carpet, chrome work, copper work, real wood veneers, rubber, steel and aluminium components. This is a faithful replica of the original full-size car Andre Dubonnet commissioned in 1924.”
“This is a one-off, scratch built 1:8 scale model of a 1958 Tdf Ferrari Le Mans 250 LWB, made by Maurizio Conti. It’s a replica of the car that raced in the 1958 Le Mans. It comes with an opening engine bay and hinged bonnet, hinged doors and fully detailed interior faithfully replicated from wood, steel, aluminium, leather and carpet. The main copper body was hammered by hand, silver soldered and rubbed down — and then it was sent off to Ferrari to have two authentic coats of Ferrari red applied. The tyres are pressed from special moulds and the chrome work spokes on the wheels are individually hand soldered.”
“Here we have a stunning 1:8 scratch built model of a Ferrari 333 showing an extraordinary level of detail. The aluminium chassis is finished with faux Kevlar, set into the frame. The body of the car is made from acrylic and has true scale thickness of only 1mm—reflecting the lightweight aspect of the original car. The tyres are made from GOM synthetic material, which is lathe machined to perfection. To faithfully recreate the look and feel of the original car, the majority of the smaller parts have been made from brass and pewter, with certain sections of the suspension set up made from cast silver.
The front and rear body sections can be removed, allowing a full view of the interior which includes the cockpit, engine bay and nose section. Even the wheels can be removed, allowing a close view of the suspension, steering and brake set up. This model is so detailed that it has over 5,000 individual components.”
I ask Oliver about the different types of model makers. The difference between Conti and Gouel, for example? “They are all slightly different, but all of these model makers build with their heart.”
When a client approaches Oliver for a bespoke commission, the main question that is always asked and discussed is the level of detail the client requires. Oliver has the ability to clearly explain the process of making a scratch built model and he works with his client’s budget to advise them on where to spend their money when commissioning a bespoke piece. Depending on what they are looking for, he will pair them with a model maker who can build their dream car, and he handles the whole process for them from start to finish.
Oliver sums up the end result: “Can they look at a photograph of a model and think, ‘is that real or is that a model?’ That is the secret.”