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A model car for $25,000? It’s not just a toy, it’s art

Published December 21, 2012

Can a scale model of a car be an art object?

Perhaps, if art can be defined as something so beautiful and ingenious only poetry can do it justice. Standing before a scale model of the 1924 T35 Bugatti in Collector Studio, a friend of mine quotes Gerard Manley Hopkins: “Glory be to God for all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.” It’s fitting. If there ever were a poet among car designers, it was Bugatti.

Collector Studio, currently at 136 Yorkville Ave. but due to move to 72 Scollard St. in a few months, has been devoted to “fine automotive memorabilia” since it was founded by avid car enthusiast Morry Barmak in 1991.

There are many treasures on offer here — a poster signed by Juan Fangio, arguably the greatest race car driver of all time, for example. But it’s the scale models that intrigue me. Marshall McLuhan pointing out that anything much bigger or much smaller than normal almost automatically becomes an art object — an object of contemplation.

If so, Collector Studio is the equivalent of an art gallery and not just because of car-related paintings for sale. The models are numerous. Some are the products of large companies, some the products of one man cottage industries; some are mass produced, some are customized and “bespoke.” All are impressive trophies in an age when hobby shops and models kits are fading from view.

The models certainly reward contemplation. For $25,000, for example, you can purchase the model of a Mercedes 300 SL stripped down to its chassis. Painted black, the bare chassis is an elegant structure, like a polished metallic web, that gives a viewer a renewed appreciation of this benchmark car.

Smaller models on display invite you to pick one up in your hand and turn it over to examine the workings of the engine, the suspension, and so on — something obviously not possible on a real car.

The realism is startling. A striking example is a model of a 1983 “Rothmans” Porsche 956 racing car, spattered with what might be authentic dirt and grime. The process is called “weathering” — paint judiciously applied to look like the car has just completed a race.

Some buyers are interested in models of cars they actually own. “Other people collect anything that literally strikes their fancy,” comments the studio’s Jeff Stedman. “Sometimes it’s a combination of esthetics and the whole history of the car, or the car’s designer.” Most likely to own their own originals are purchasers of the 1/8 scale Ferrari models — the fervour of these Ferrari owners for anything connected with their cars knows no bounds.

In ages past, the wealthy would fill their homes with paintings and sculptures. These days, the technically minded rich are just as likely to give pride of place — the living room, say — to a beautifully wrought car model.

The true car devotee doesn’t stop there. Sometimes it’s not the house, but the garage that gets the royal treatment. Car collectors have been known to spend more than $1,000,000 to create a “man cave,” a stunning showroom for the fruits of their collecting. Some of these “me spaces” are so luxurious they are dubbed “Garage Mahals.” And they usually include high-end models.

My poetry-quoting friend calls me over to admire another model, a “scratch built” replica of the 1930 Bentley 4.5 L Blower, a fifth of the size of the real thing. (“Scratch built” means that all parts were made by hand, uniquely for the model. In this case, there were 7,300 such metal parts.) The Bentley, over three feet long and priced at $55,000, is housed in a custom-made display case.

This gleaming beauty is the most conspicuous model in the studio. In size and complexity, it is reminiscent of perhaps the greatest car model ever built, Louis Chenot’s 1932 Duesenberg. Actually Chenot’s Duesenberg is not so much a model of a car as a miniature car — the motor works, the lights work. It just happens to be one sixth the size of the real thing.

Chenot, a retired mechanical engineer from Carl Junction, Mo., started building models of cars and airplanes when he was five years old, according to an article he wrote in the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club Newsletter of Indiana.

When he heard that some people were building models that ran under their own power, it was like a revelation. Why he chose the Duesenberg as the fulfilment of this revelation is uncertain, but it probably had to do with the publication of a 1951 book entitled Duesenberg, the Mightiest American Motor Car, by J.L. Elbert. Years of research followed his introduction to that book.

The actual creation of this miniature Duesenberg had to wait until Chenot’s retirement, about 10 years ago, but then there was no stopping him. You can see Chenot on YouTube starting up the first run of his miniature Duesenberg Straight 8 engine, on March 15, 2010. He has a friendly and unassuming air on this historic occasion, which lasts for a minute or two, and takes place in what looks like his workshop.

“It’s getting hot very quickly,” he says of the engine. “It obviously has no coolant in it. It will be the next thing I have to do, but there we go.” As he applied the finishing touches to his car in the following months, he attracted the attention of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! The car model, Ripley’s informed readers, “has more than 6,000 parts, including an operational engine!”

Collector Studio contacted Chenot after the car was finally completed, to discuss a possible sale.

“Nice, nice man,” Stedman recalls. “I talked to him on the phone for some length.” But the Duesenberg didn’t come to Toronto. Chenot wanted more for the model than Collector Studio could practically pay.

The impossible price seems to prove that Chenot’s Duesenberg belongs to the realm of art rather than commerce. But let us pose the question in a different way: What highly ingenious work would you rather see displayed in your local art museum, Chenot’s Duesenberg, or Cloaca, a recent invention by a Belgian “Conceptualist,” which turns food into something resembling human excrement? Which is the worthier a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins?

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