Last year I made a serious error of judgement in choosing my 12-year-old son’s Christmas present. What could be more perfect, I thought, than a Lego model kit of the crazy, 155mph Caterham Seven 620R sports car, comprising 773 tricky-to-assemble components, measuring a 28cm long, featuring a detailed engine bay – and supplied with tiny axle stands for pit-lane tyre changes? It cost a not inconsiderable £136.25, but it seemed like money well spent because the chances of him ever being able to put it together would surely be minimal and, once he’d lost interest, I could then take over.
Imagine my dismay, therefore, when the big moment came and he opened the box, checked the contents, scanned the instructions and spent the next four hours silently adding one piece to another until the car was completed – without so much as a single request for my clearly not-so-invaluable assistance. It was certainly a lesson learnt – so much so that this year I have acquired the latest work of automotive genius from the Lego catalogue, wrapped it and written out the gift tag – addressed in large letters to myself.
The £119.99 “toy” in question is the 1,471-piece Creator Expert kit that, all being well, will morph into a 34cm-long 1967 Ford Mustang Fastback, complete with working steering, dark-blue bodywork, racing stripes, bonnet scoop and five-spoke wheels. It can also be customised with additional muscle-car components, including a supercharger, rear spoiler, beefy exhaust pipes and a nitrous-oxide tank in the boot. Under the bonnet there’s a big block 390 ci V8 engine, the doors are fully opening and the roof lifts off to reveal a detailed interior, complete with radio and stick shift.
Finding this “Lego for grown-ups” subsequently led me to discover that there appears to have been an explosion in the availability of “toy” cars that are aimed squarely at the mature and cost anything but pocket money prices. As a schoolboy, one of my best (and wealthiest) friends had a remote-controlled racing car that had been built by a professional at vast expense. It had a “glow plug” engine that ran on proper petrol and needed a separate, electric motor to spin it into action – at which point it would buzz like a thousand demented hornets and attract disapproving looks from innocent passers-by out for a quiet stroll. The ritual of getting it going seemed to last forever and involve much rummaging in a wooden tool box that always accompanied the car, which, once finally running, could achieve the seemingly remarkable top speed of around 40mph – although usually for a very short period of time before something broke or fell off, or it exceeded the feeble reach of the controller’s radio waves.
Switch on, select Channel One, push joystick forward to Christmas 2019 – and, for $800, you can buy the XO-1 from Texas-based radio-controlled-car maker Traxxas that will sprint from standstill to 100mph in 4.9 seconds and carry on accelerating to a scarcely believable 100mph-plus (with no loud noises). Dubbed “the fastest RC car in the world”, the one-seventh scale XO-1 has aerodynamically designed “downforce” bodywork to keep it on the ground, an aluminium chassis, adjustable suspension and steering and “Traxxas Stability Management” to stop its phenomenal potential performance overcoming the skill of a hapless user.
Another firm currently taking the high-performance radio-controlled-car world by storm is Arrma (pronounced “armour”), which majors in making RCs that are both searingly fast and difficult to destroy. The low-riding, £600 Infraction truck is currently one of its most popular offerings and is capable of 80mph as delivered, or more than 100mph with the addition of a few tuning parts.
“The whole radio-controlled-car scene has exploded in the past five years because of the huge improvements in technology,” says Chris Armitage, an RC enthusiast who works for Modelsport, the UK’s largest distributor of radio-controlled models. “The game-changer was the arrival of light but very powerful brushless motors and rechargeable battery packs, which give instant torque, phenomenal speeds and reliable running. Petrol-powered glow-plug motors seem like dinosaur technology now, and the fact that you can buy a car that just needs the addition of batteries, instead of having to be built from a kit, really appeals to the instant gratification many people seek today.”
But, says Armitage, there is still a market among serious racing enthusiasts for kit-built radio-controlled models. Popular makes include Mugen, which offers cars like the “nitro”-engined MBX8 at $1,100. Another brand, Schumacher, recently launched the 70mph-plus Mi7, with others being Germany’s Shepherd and Hong Kong’s Serpent, which has just introduced a one-eighth‑scale electric competition car called the SRX8-GTE at around £500.
Those of a certain age will also be pleased to learn that Tamiya, one of the original radio-controlled kit-car makers, is still going strong, with vintage offerings including its Buggy Champ from 1979 (£300, plus £100 for battery and controller), a £579 Toyota pick-up and a £339 re-release of its 1970s VW Beetle-based Scorcher dune buggy. There’s a £599 Mercedes-Benz tipper truck too.
The ultimate in indoor model-car racing, meanwhile, is offered by Michigan-based Slot Mods, which specialises in making bespoke slot-car tracks from scratch – at a starting price of $50,000 for a 6ft x 12ft entry-level setup and rising to more than $300,000. A far cry from the clip‑together black plastic sections associated with the usual slot-car racing track, all parts of every circuit are crafted by hand in a process that takes up to eight months. Crash barriers are forged from aluminium, humans are 3D-printed and moulded on site, every tree begins as a real Japanese sedum flower and the grandstands and landscapes are astonishingly rich in detail.
The firm was established 11 years ago by David Beattie, who, after his previous work as a graphic artist dried-up following the 2008 downturn, thought a market might exist among moneyed “gentlemen” for high-end slot-car setups. “I saw that people such as Rod Stewart and Elton John were crazy about model railways, so I thought similarly wealthy people might like to buy a great slot-car system too,” he says. Beattie’s hunch proved right, and his satisfied client list now includes Brian Setzer of Stray Cats, Indianapolis car-racing legend Bobby Rahal and Zak Brown, the CEO of McLaren Racing.
For those happy to own a model car simply to look at rather than to watch moving, meanwhile, Oliver Strebel Ritter is the man to go to. A former auction-house automobilia specialist, he established World Collector 15 years ago with the aim of finding, selling and brokering the world’s finest hand-built models by legends in the field such as Michele & Maurizio Conti, Alberto de Oliveira and Mike Coombe. These remarkable creations – often worth tens of thousands – are almost invariably made from the very same types of metal, wood, glass and leather used on the cars they emulate, all meticulously fashioned into perfect miniaturisations of real components. Some even have engines that will actually run.
But for many the toy car that has matured into the quintessential collector’s piece is the Alfa Romeo P2 that was built in large numbers during the 1920s and ’30s. Measuring 54cm in length, these superb-quality metal cars were made by the French toy firm CIJ and featured clockwork motors and realistic details such as filler caps, starting handles, working steering and balloon tyres. Now highly prized by automobilia fans, they are a particular favourite of Simon Khachadourian of the Pullman Gallery in London’s St James’s. “Even in its day, the P2 model was recognised as being a superb toy and, as a result, continued to be manufactured well into the 1930s, more than a decade after the Alfa Romeo racing car it was based on had become obsolete.
“They were made in large numbers, but – because they were originally intended for children – many were also trashed, either by their first owners or as a result of being left in barns and outhouses after they had outlived their purpose. They were finished in a number of different colours, each representing different countries – and the colours, in turn, were available in different hues. Among the rarest are those in very dark blue and those in yellow. In good, original condition with key and box, either one of those is now worth around £35,000. I have one client who owns 26.”
Well now – I wonder what he wants for Christmas?