A beginner's guide to white metal and hand-built models

28 November 2011
imports_CCGB_white-metal-guide-1_87480.jpg A beginner's guide to white metal and hand-built models
Diecast Collector magazine’s resident expert, Richard Carlson, tells us a little more about white metal and hand-built models. Read on to find out what else he suggests as well as the history and development of this area of collecting. ...
A beginner's guide to white metal and hand-built models Images

White metal and hand-built models –a guide

Diecast Collector magazine’s resident expert, Richard Carlson, tells us a little more about this area of collecting.

History and development
Hand-built models, usually in white metal, a heavy lead alloy, or resin (favoured more for production in Europe than the UK) were born when enthusiastic collectors could not find replicas of the cars they wanted from the mass-producer manufacturers of the time. And so, they set about making their own from scratch. Friends and fellow collectors persuaded them to make a few more for them, and one thing led to another. From these unashamedly amateur beginnings, a whole new avenue in the field of model car collecting was opened up for the rest of us.

The first white metal models I know of were made in the 1950s by a firm called Graphic Designers, who made at least two kits around 1/24 scale in the 1950s. The subjects were the Rolls Royce Silver Ghost and the 1904 Darracq that had achieved fame in the film ‘Genevieve’.

The next step was taken in 1963/64 by the late Brian Jewell with his small 'Marc Europa' range, comprising a Ferrari GTO and Porsche 904 in 1/43 scale. These were available in kit or built form. I believe that there was also a Ford GT in 1/32 scale.

The first serious attempt at marketing a much wider range of collectable white metal replicas was made by John Day who, starting in 1967/68 with four kits and two builts, went on to develop a huge range. They were mainly kits, and mainly of competition cars. These were joined shortly afterwards by Mike and Sue Richardson’s 'Mikansue' kits of road cars, which developed into a smaller series.

1974 was something of a landmark year. In the UK, Western Models was started by long-time enthusiasts Mike Stephens, Ken Wooton and Brian Garfield-Jones, who produced the best models available at the time, starting with a Mercedes-Benz 540K, Lagonda LG45 Rapide, Bentley 3½ litre and Jaguar XK120, available mostly as built models. Meanwhile, in Canada a British ex-pat engineer, John Hall, started Brooklin Models with a Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow and Tucker Torpedo, available only in built-up form, at a very reasonable price.

By 1980, having developed a range of eight or nine models that were enjoying commercial success, John returned to the UK and set up a small factory in Bath, taking also the brave step of selling his products exclusively through the trade rather than selling them direct as most of the others were doing. From these beginnings, the Brooklin range has widened immensely, and its continued success means that it is now by far the biggest producer of built white metal replicas in the world, though John retired several years ago, leaving the company in the capable hands of current MD, Nigel Parker, and his team.

These were the pioneers who opened up the new market and, over the years, many others have come and gone. Well-known names like Somerville Models (set up in 1978 by ex-Meccano man Doug McHard and his wife Roly), Pathfinder (started by retired headmaster Jeff Sharrock and his wife Sue in 1986) and Top Marques (Max Kernick’s company, which started in 1984 and made models of exquisite quality, even by today’s standards, albeit at a price), have stood the test of time  and are still avidly sought-after today.

More recently, Mike Rogers set up J & M Classics in 2000, and has developed a fine range of top-quality models of Alvis, Daimler, Healey and Jowett cars, which are still going strong. There are many other names of note, of course. Some are still with us like Durham Classics of Canada. Set up in 1979 by Julian and Margaret Stewart, it still produces fine quality built models of American cars and light commercials. Provence Moulage from France, originally a major manufacturer of resin kits with an incredible range, mainly of competition vehicles, is now owned by Norev and continues to make built models of modern road cars.

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Other names, like Minimarque 43, originally run by Richard Briggs until his death a few years ago, survive under new ownership, but others naturally cease altogether on the retirement of their owners, like Milestone Miniatures from Cornwall, or even pioneer Western Models. However, Western’s American car range has been taken over and developed by American enthusiast Dave ‘Buz’ Kirkel and his Route 66 operation.

Of course, technology has developed rapidly over the years. Competition, both within the hand-built field and from the mass-producers in the wider industry, has meant that the models have improved out of all recognition when compared to most of the early products, and no doubt this will continue as new techniques continue to come along.

PICTURED ABOVE The 1936 Sedan special issue in black from Brooklin's Buick Collection.
PICTURED TOP RIGHT British Heritage Models' Somerville Hillman Minx.

What to look for
New collectors often ask me what they should collect and my answer is always the same: collect what you like for its intrinsic interest, nostalgia or quality. Try not to be tempted by something you wouldn’t otherwise bother with just because the seller tells you it will be a good investment. The chances are that if you like something now, should you come to sell it on at any time, someone else will like it for the same reasons as you. Having said that, there are a couple of factors you might like to take into account.

1) Quality
It’s pretty obvious that an accurate and well-made model will give more pleasure, and will hold its value better than one that doesn’t look right, is badly finished or where something falls off every time it is touched. However, it’s surprising how many of the latter have been on the market over the years, and there’s plenty still around today. It is best to actually see the model, or at least some accurate photos, before you buy it. This is where magazine reviews are invaluable. But, of course, there’s no real substitute for going in person to a specialist shop or collectors’ fair.

2) Limited production
Our market, like all others, is governed by the laws of Supply and Demand, and it stands to reason that if a model is made only in a - realistically limited - specific quantity, it has more chance of holding its desirability and value than one made in unlimited numbers. In this market we’re looking at production in the low hundreds at the most to qualify here.

I hope this brief introduction has persuaded you that hand-built models are worth a look and are worth the hefty price premium over volume-produced replicas. By and large, they are still made and sold by enthusiasts just like you and me. And, of course, Diecast Collector reviews the most notable new releases fully every month!

This feature was first published online on the Diecast Collector on 28th November. To see which issues of Diecast Collector are available to buy online, click here.