Economy of Scale

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Marshall Buck excels at recreating classic car designs from scratch – exactly the same, only smaller. And as one of the world’s premier automotive model makers, his work can change hands for more than the price of a real-sized family hatchback…

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A small part of Marshall Buck’s car collection sits glinting in the sunlight: rare vehicles including an Aston Martin DBR-1/3, a Chrysler Imperial Speedster and a Ford GT-40. Yet Buck is no millionaire collector. Indeed, each of these cars, side by side, would sit comfortably on his workbench. If he needed to garage any of them, shoeboxes might do.

Buck first got into model making as a kid – a love of die-cast Dinky and Matchbox toys leading to the assembly of Airfix and similar kits. ‘I was very small – about seven I guess – and seduced by the box art,’ the New York-based craftsman recalls. ‘Then you’d open up the box and realise that the sum of the parts would look nothing like the picture. It would lack detail.’

Detail is what Buck is all about – obsessive, intricate, extremely fine detail. And it was this that would, by the time he was into his 20s, lead him into more model collector circles, selling some of his builds to supplement the money he was spending on his hobby. But when one of his customers suggested he make models full time, and would bank roll him to get going, Buck jumped at the chance to ditch his TV production job (‘didn’t like the people, didn’t like the work’) and embrace the small time. 

Through his CMA Models – that’s Creative Miniature Associates – Buck now makes kits of a kind that Airfix fans can only dream of, as well as limited hand built runs of certain models – from 1:43 to 1:8 scale, but specialising in 1:24 scale models (roughly six or seven inches long) and 1:12 ones (14-16”). But it is in scratch-building other custom models on commission where his artistry really shines. These latter works can cost anywhere between $30,000 and $100,000 – considerably more than many a full-sized car – and might require some $6,000 spent in materials alone.

‘There’s no question that some people just don’t get it,’ Buck laughs. ‘There’s a small group of people that model like this and a small group too who want to buy them. For others the perception is that there’s something inherently childish about it all. Certainly nobody needs what I do – it’s part of that luxury world in which people just like to surround themselves with beautiful things. I love cars and there are plenty I couldn’t afford – so models are a way of looking at them, and being around them, without footing the bill. But it goes deeper – there is something about a finely detailed small-scale model that people just gravitate towards and are fascinated by. A sociologist or psychologist would have a field day working out why.’

‘I am blessed with really good motor skills. And you need a great eye for the really fine detail too,’ says Buck. ‘I look at things and can see what others often can’t.’ Indeed, on occasion he is hired to independently critique car restorations – that’s cars on a 1:1 scale. ‘That work doesn’t always make me a popular man – you can end up costing people another $50,000. And my wife says that what makes me a great model maker makes me extremely hard to live with sometimes. I like things to be in a certain order…’

Much like the process Buck goes through on taking on a scratch-built custom job. These, invariably, are commissioned by owners of the actual, full-size car being modelled. And since Buck tends to specialise in those from the 1930s to 1970s, they tend to be classic, extremely valuable cars – ‘the cars that belong to an era before aesthetics started to come second place to aerodynamics, when car designers started to be less ready to take a chance,’ he notes. ‘I’ve had requests to model the occasional Toyota, but, you know, some things I just wouldn’t do…’

Preliminary blueprints and research work – typically drawing less on the internet as his own archive of old motoring books, clippings and photos – is followed by three to five days spent with the actual car, crawling over, under and around it, making sketches, taking measurements and shooting thousands of images. After more drawing, the cutting of the panels finally begins – Buck typically starts with the bodywork before moving on to the ever more detailed components, the chrome plating, photo etching, providing the artwork to allow a subcontractor to make up the decals, or to custom mix the paint. He sits at his workbench with tools more typically used in jewellery-making, or designed for surgical procedures, with his 20 types of tweezers, array of tiny hand files and – since his eyesight isn’t what it used to be – his magnifier glasses.

‘You have to visualise the many parts and the interplay between them, and sometimes that means changing the order of assembly. Sometimes you have to complete certain parts of the car before others just so it all fits together. You’re always making adjustments along the way,’ says Buck. ‘Inevitably you have to make concessions to scale too. It may not be possible to get a hinge to look exactly as it does on the full–scale car, for example, at least not if you want a working hinge. 

‘You certainly get to see and learn a lot about the way a vehicle is made. By the time you’re done you know more than you really want to know. In fact, it’s much like building a real car,’ Buck adds. ‘It’s certainly more challenging than doing a restoration on a full-sized car. At least then you have the car there and can buy a lot of the components off the shelf. Pretty much every part has to be made from scratch.’

The result, however, is a model in which the overall effect at scale is utterly convincing – which is what Buck aims for. He rejects, for example, requests to make the leather upholstery of a model car in actual leather. ‘Of course you’re always mindful of just the level of detail you need. The larger the scale, the more detailed and the more finely finished the model needs to be – what you can see in 1:24 you won’t see in something smaller. What you need in an ‘everything opening’ model you don’t need in a ‘curbside’ one,’ he says. ‘But using real leather would be stupid. It sounds like it enhances the detail but actually it doesn’t work at scale. There are plenty of ways to trim a seat in ‘leather’ with the right casting and sprays that gives a more correct finished look.’ 

Yet gone, it may seem, are the days when small boys would save their pennies in order to build an Alfa Romeo or an Aston Martin. It might appear that, just as model making achieves its zenith in accomplishment, demand has begun to come unstuck. 

‘Kids are just glued to their damned smartphones all the time now,’ laments Buck. ‘We’re going to have a generation of such poor manual skills they won’t be able to put a nail in a wall. The desire to make something tangible like a model just isn’t there now, which is why so many modelling shops are closing and some kit makers are seeing production fall off a cliff. It’s a great shame. We certainly won’t see the volumes there were when I was a kid back in the 1960s. Modelling will go on. But I think what we’re doing is a dying art.’

cmamodels.com

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Words Josh Sims
Photographs Joss McKinley