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How about an outrageous project?
Mark S. Gustavson

You know, there are some opportunities that static builders should exploit if our segment of the hobby is going to continue to grow, gain the respect of auto enthusiasts everywhere, and to continue to attract the attention of the general public. In a recent issue of Road & Track, well-known slot car enthusiast Robert Schleicher presented a one-page piece on the current state of slot car racing. Yeah, I know, we're talking here about slot car racing and many of us have a reflexive, nearly-DNA level, negative reaction to slot cars.  That article makes it clear that the days of the goof-ball "thingie" racing (which bore little resemblance to an automobile in either appearance or performance) are gone in favor of a strong emphasis upon scale realism. The most able practitioners of that hobby have been cheered on by manufacturers who have been quick to respond. In addition to the several foreign manufacturers, Monogram has jumped into the game with exquisite 1/32 scale slot cars among which are Cobra Daytona and Corvette Super Sport cars – from just a few feet away, it's hard to distinguish them from the work of the best "out-of-the-box"static model builders. The Monogram slot cars feature full-on exterior detail and remarkably "deep" interiors that almost require that someone prove to you that a very tiny DC motors is hiding in there, somewhere.

What might the strong resurgence in slot racing -- realistic slot racing -- mean for the static builders? Maybe a lot, or maybe nothing at all. But if we're thoughtful about the state of our static modeling, we might consider that it is time to stretch the boundaries of what we do. To expand the boundaries of our corner of the scale vehicle modeling hobby might require that we enthusiastically embrace the "risky" step of thinking outside our comfortable box. If we can move beyond our historic antipathy toward slot cars (we have inherited the model equivalent of "genetic memory" that holds that slot car racing caused great injury not only to our corner of the hobby but also nearly bankrupted several kit manufacturers due to the meteroic collapse of slot car racing in the late Sixties), the slot racing hobby could provide some needed challenges to us that we could exploit to our collective benefit. 

Most model builders can construct, these days, a reasonably realistic scale vehicle. The wide availability and use of auto lacquer and urethane paint finishes, Bare Metal Foil, aftermarket machined and photo-etched parts, scale upholstery materials and textured paints, exquisite decals and photo-reduced items, and the like, certainly assist even the moderately-talented builder to produce excellent models. And, we've all seen what high -effort builders can do on a static level (one excellent example is Andy Kellock's Mopar which is featured elsewhere in this newsletter). 

This is all fine and good, but I want talk here about another kind -- another level -- of scale vehicle construction. However brilliantly engineered and finished, few "static" models presently feature those operational features that now can be built due to the materials and technologies available today. The "disconnect" between what could be done, and what is being done, should be creating a kind of creative tension in the hobby if we can stand back, a bit, and take a broader view of our part of the hobby. Here's the issue: said bluntly, our models just sit there, doing little that scale miniature automobiles could do. Some adventurous builders install working lights (a feature that has not met with universal approval). Other operational features are more common and well-developed: for instance, years ago, Jairus Watson and Ken Hamilton were building working latches and hood releases, torsion bar trunk hinge assemblies, rotating fan belt and pulley assemblies, and the like (Ken even once slipped a very small DC motor into the engine block of a bucket "T" model!). More recently, Bill Geary has been working on folding convertible tops and roll up windows.  But as aggressive as those recent efforts are, risk-taking hyper-detailing and working parts was pioneered, in major part, about forty years ago. Starting in 1962, Augie Hiscano was building working drum brake set ups in 1962, Jerry Svitek installed a working -- if unrefined -- drive train (electric motor hidden in the engine block feeding a drive shaft that spun the rear wheels), and Dave Shuklis led the way by fashioning folding convertible top mechanisms and roll up windows. While the general level of "craftspersonship" today could not have been imagined even a decade ago (for instance, the best machinists today are producing parts of a technical sophistication that would virtually pass for the "real thing"), other aspects of scale vehicle technology haven't materially progressed at all. Acknowledging the superb work that is being done in some quarters, most contemporary operational and related features are just improvements on the work of those pioneers -- the surprising thing is that there has been so little technical development in the last forty years.

With all of this in mind, I'm going to propose a new hybrid kind of scale vehicle construction. Though not every hobbyist – and maybe not even a significant number of builders -- might be interested in this next step, I think it's essential to the health of our hobby to design and build a "halo" project that might elevate the general level of building and craftsmanship on the theory that a rising tide floats all boats. Once built, the planted assumption that some things can't be built would evaporate.

Here's the challenge: What about combining the best of our style of static building with a sophisticated take on model car locomotion? Using the newly-issued Monogram slot cars as inspiration, what about striking out on fresh territory and building a truly realistic scale model vehicle that would stand its ground in a top-flight contest, and be able to move around on a slot track, or be guided by radio around a scale track (not an outdoor dirt track) without the discipline of a slot?  Imagine an authentic Chaparral, Corvette Super Sport, '32 Ford street rod, or Starbird's Predicta moving realistically around a sophisticated layout complete with a realistic setting -- perhaps depicting Laguna Seca, a rod run, or a car show? Clearly, we're talking here about striking out on genuinely new territory.

Before you scoff, or dismiss this as either corrosively subversive or as a fatally distracting fantasy, hear me out: I can envision a genuinely contest-ready scale vehicle miniature (as distinct from a model car) which would feature a scratch built brass frame with fully -operating suspension details: working ball joints, control arm bushings, operational U-joints and steering gear -- they're all possible right now. The frame of such a model could be designed so that a small, machined plastic plug -- perhaps centered in the front cross member, or otherwise disguised as an mechanical feature -- could be removed and the slot pivot guide slipped into place. (Perhaps this guide could also activate the steering linkage to "steer" the front tires right and left as the scale miniature vehicle moves along the track). One of the new micro-miniature DC motors could be placed inside the kit engine block and connected to a functional drive shaft with operating/machined U-joints sending the twist to a third member/rear axle set up. The two rear axles, realistically hidden within the axle housing, would attach to machined wheels with right- and left-hand knock offs. The two power leads could attach to electrically-distinct metal parts on the scale vehicle -- one lead attaching to the brass frame to which the motor could be grounded through its mounting bracket, with the other lead transversing to the engine with the wire hidden as a battery cable! And, think about this: micro-miniature digital technology could produce realistic engine sounds matched to the scale rpm of the engine – a technology already pioneered by the model railroad folks: the sound of the engine could be recorded from a 'real" car, burned on a chip then installed in the model with the throaty rasp be matched to the movement of the rear wheel setup. All this takes is enough motivation, and, of course, an adequate budget. 

No operational description for the model I propose here is inconsistent with opening doors, full under-hood detailing, a full-depth interior, a fully-articulated suspension set up, and other advanced aspects of detailing. I'm reasonably sure that this sort of project could be built with enough effort and careful planning. With many of the critical components fashioned from sheet brass (the chassis, for instance), and other parts machined from brass or aluminum for the sake of strength, no part of what I propose here is technically impossible. I have consulted with Cody Grayland about this proposal and he assures me it could be done in each detail that I have described. Other notable machinists (listed alphabetically), of course, are also easily capable of fashioning the parts for the kind of project that I'm dreaming about: Bob Asselta, Bob Breslauer, Robert Bentley, Bill Cunningham, Duane Drew, Jim Drew, Bob Dudek, Augie Hiscano, Bob Kuronow, John McGowan, Rob Mepham, Greg Nichols, Bob Seagraves, Mark Smackal, John Siriecki, Dennis Smith, and Dave Vander Wal, just to mention a few. Such a project would bridge the gulf between the two model car disciplines by creating a new species of scale miniature automobiles that would eclipse both venues.

In pursuit of this goal, I'm going to prepare an outline of such a project. If it looks plausible, I'll try to assemble a team to work with me to create the parts to construct such a model. I'll take the exclusive financial risk and personally fund this multi-disciplinary project. Since I have a major, long-term project already underway, I'll use that subject as the guinea pig (please visit the site for The Predicta Project – for more information). This might seem like an arcane subject to many (if not most), but this project is already underway, and it will have my full attention and devotion because of my confessed obsessional interest in Starbird's signature car.

I'm not advocating that anything like this effort should be universally, or even widely, mimicked. And I am not certain that such a project can be built. This project is pretty risky, not only from a financial point of view, but also because it might produce frustration among those who might attempt any aspect of it (including the team I hope to assemble). One risk to be avoided is that this project doesn't become just another collection of wild ideas and handfuls of cool parts that doesn't come together into a completed model. However, if we're lucky, this project will push back the boundaries of modeling to the point where many modelers might be encouraged to try to build additional mechanical features that would exhibit what can be done in designing, fabricating and constructing a genuine scale automotive miniature. This project will be a great adventure in which we'll attempt to push boundaries -- not as a criticism or denigration of either the static or slot racing communities which are venerable and well-respected hobby venues -- but as a simple hope that something more might be accomplished. 

The Museum is about preserving the past for the sake of those in the future who wish to know -- and honor -- those who have pioneered all that we enjoy today. But an equally important goal of our Museum is to endorse and advocate the future of our hobby. It's high time that our hobby stretches its technical boundaries a bit, – okay, maybe a lot -- and this proposed project is surely one way to do that. For our hobby to remain viable, we must have aspirational goals that directly challenge commonly-held beliefs about what can be done when building scale miniature automobiles. The thing we can't do is to be satisfied with a "business as usual" attitude. Your comments are welcomed! 

I'll report to you from time to time in this newsletter. Your comments and suggestions are welcomed. Until then, On to the future! 


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