Economy of Scale
Words Josh Sims
Photographs Joss McKinley
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…
A rare Ferrari 375 MM Rossellini sits glinting in the sunlight, its graceful lines swooping back over its wire-rimmed wheels and beyond the air intake, dipping at the door only to rise again at this beast’s haunches. Alongside this extremely rare vehicle is an Aston Martin DBR-1/3, a Chrysler Imperial Speedster and a Ford GT-40. Yet Marshall Buck is no billionaire car collector. 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, with a love of die-cast Dinky and Matchbox toys leading to the assembly of Airfix and similar kits. ‘I was very young – 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 in 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 bankroll 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 roughly seven-inch-long 1:24 scale models and 16-inch-long 1:12 ones. 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 well 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 no one 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.’
‘There’s something about a finely detailed model that people just gravitate towards…’
Perhaps it stems from the desire to understand, even to have power over, an object – to be able to comprehend both the parts and the whole at one glance, in ways in which the full-sized version is less amenable. Or perhaps it is that miniaturisation allows us to grasp the otherwise ungraspable. But Buck recalls himself decades back always being drawn to the shrunken vignettes staged in Tiffany’s windows, and how, he noticed, they always drew the attention of more passers-by than any other display; and how whenever Eugene Kupjack – considered a master of the miniature – had a show of his tiny doll’s house rooms, the queues would stretch around the block. Buck’s cars provoke the same kind of contradictory impulses: amazement at the realistic, true-to-full-scale detail confounded by the immediate understanding that the model is merely a representation, replete with artifice.
‘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. 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…’
Buck likes to spend some three to five days with the actual car, crawling over, under and around it, making sketches, taking measurements and shooting thousands of images. Preliminary blueprints and research work is also done – typically drawing less on the internet than on his own archive of old motoring books, clippings and photos. Finally, the cutting of the panels begins – Buck usually 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 often 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 magnifying 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,’ he adds, in a comment reminiscent of a scene from The Flight of the Phoenix(1965), a fi lm in which a group of men crash-land in the desert and resolve to use the remaining parts of the plane to build an aircraft of their own – and discover only towards the end of the process that the man who suggested this escape plan doesn’t actually design aircraft, as they believed, but model aircraft.
‘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 offthe shelf. I’d be lucky to get a stock set of anything. 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. ‘You’re always mindful of just the level of detail you need,’ he says. ‘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. 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 to give a more correct finished look.’ Similarly, to get the desired effects, most of the models are made from advanced, more malleable plastics. (Buck will often use a stack of one cent pieces glued together to add weight to his plastic and resin kit-based custom builds.)
‘I love cars, so models are a way of being around them without footing the bill’
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 that 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 why 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 1950s. Modelling will go on. But I think what we’re doing is a dying art.’