Ten Model Car Brands With Unusual Histories, by Ron Ruelle of hobbyDB…

I tend to talk to the hobbyDB folks on a fairly frequent basis. It is always interesting to see what they are doing, and I actually enjoyed visiting their home office in Boulder, Colorado, last weekend. I got to know many of the folks behind this massive database project, and learned that – as I suspected – they are some truly passionate nerds when it comes to diecast and other collectables.

When you are attempting to compile all the diecast models ever made into one database, you start becoming familiar with many brands that have come and gone. Last weekend, Christian from hobbyDB and I visited an antique store, where I learned about all kinds of diecast brands, like the beautiful Lone Star models.

Nonetheless, I thought it would be a cool idea to have the folks at hobbyDB share some of these lesser known brands, and since I like to give them some space on the blog every month, why not share a little about each?

So many thanks to Ron for this first part in what will surely be a series here on Lamley. Be sure to click on the links to see the brands at hobbyDB, and even purchase a model or two if you are so inclined. I call dibs on the Fresh Cherries.

(Thanks Ron.)

Ten Model Car Brands With Unusual Histories
by Ron Ruelle

Anyone who’s collected model cars for any amount of time has become acquainted with the major diecast brands as well as some of the small-market, niche-oriented companies. There are a lot of older brands that have gone by the wayside, or have been bought and sold so many times you aren’t sure who they are anymore. Here are a few diecast oddities to add to your collection.

We’re planning on compiling these brands every few weeks, so if you have suggestions, let us know!

Jet Wheels was a company that made realistically proportioned 1:65 scale models with working suspension and opening hoods or other features. The earliest cars from the late 1960s were in fact made by AMT, (they called the series “Pups”) who then sold the business and the molds to Mego. The original range of 8 American street cars was augmented by a series of Formula 1 cars as well as some garage and track accessories. Some of these were later released under the Tuffy and Super Speedy names, but they eventually faded into history..

Kenner’s foray into 1:64 scale diecast only lasted a few years in the late 1970s, but they made some interesting cars. Some of them were souped-up models of production cars, while others were far-out fantasy rides. What tied them all together was the rear bumpers, which stuck out and angled upward so you could read the license plate. Each of these cars represented a different state, so the plates were kind of a big deal. The packaging also had a neat feature, a transferable “title” that was to filled out by the kid who bought it and then filled out again if it was traded or sold. Clean copies without writing on the back are somewhat rare these days.

This range of toys included a variety of construction equipment such as dump trucks, loaders, and tractors, not all of the Mack brand vehicles. This was one of several brands available from Zee Toys in the late 1970s. Detail is surprisingly vague, as they appear to be direct, unauthorized knockoffs of Matchbox cars from a few years earlier. With different wheels and the wording removed from the base, they just seem a bit “cheaper” than the originals.

Here’s another brand from Zee Toys, one that tried a little harder than Mini Macks. Detail is again pretty basic, especially the interiors, but at least they were trying by creating their own original molds. And they even made a model of the George Barris SuperVan, so that has to count for something, right?

This was a brand of inexpensive, crudely detailed cars perfect for letting your kids play with in the sandbox. In a strange twist, instead of these cars being based on another well-known brand, the molds served as the basis for a revival of another popular brand. In the early 1980s, as Dinky was headed for bankruptcy, Kidco rebadged some of these cars under the Dinky name, a sad step down in quality. Despite the crude detail, Tough Wheels managed to score a few licensed properties such as M*A*S*H vehicles.

Then there were the Burnin’ Key Cars, a subset of Tough Wheels. These came with a very cool feature: a spring-wound motor that was activated by a slightly out of scale key. As with the Tough Wheels brand, they managed to finagle licensing deals with some popular TV shows, including Magnum P.I. and Knight Rider. For several years, the Burnin’ Wheels name lived on as a Matchbox brand and then again as part of Maisto. Each change of ownership brought vastly improved designs and packaging.

You may not recognize the name, but if you’re of a certain age, you should know their cars… Doepke started off as a family company in 1946 making mostly military vehicles. The owner’s mother suggested they make some more peaceful toys, so they created some very large scale kits, about 1:12 scale, of a Jaguar XK120 and an MG TD… The bodies are made of thick diecast metal, while other parts were white metal, plastic or stamped steel. Both cars featured working steering and suspension. The MG was branded as the “MT” so they may not have had the rights to produce that particular model. While only available for a few years, these kits were huge sellers at the time.

Hard to say if these models were meant as a sincere tribute or something of an ironic joke. This division of Motor Max made models of Pintos, Gremlins, LeBaron wagons and such… not exactly the keys to real-life excitement. On the other hand, it’s been hard to find models of these cars if you did want them, and Fresh Cherries cars were nicely detailed with delicate luggage racks and other bits. They came in several scales including 1:24, 1:64 and 1:87, all in high quality packaging. They even did 1:16 radio controlled versions of some of these cars, and you have to admit that’s beyond awesome.

It’s understandable if you don’t recognize this brand… This Eastern European company made mostly promotional models of Trabants and Wartburgs and Moskviches that were given away not in cereal boxes, but in cases of beer! In fact, only a few of their models represented common Western European marques like Volkswagen or Jaguar. Some of their packaging evokes a strong Cold War era image, something you don’t see every day at any scale.

Wait, Hallmark? Like the card company? Yep! In the early 1970s, Hallmark introduced a series of overtly cartoony cars called Road Rovers, which looked almost like balloon creations. They were roughly the size of 1:64 scale cars, but because they are so oddly proportioned, scale is irrelevant here. The early cars were all metal and represented familiar vehicle types such as fire trucks or Volkswagen Beetles. After a decade hiatus, the brand was revived in the mid 1980s with plastic bases. The new line included reinterpretations of several of the originals plus designs that transformed objects such as vacuum cleaners or piggy banks into cars.

Ron Ruelle is Social Media Guru for hobbyDB.com, a database and marketplace for anything and everything collectible. He is trying to rebuild his collection of Hallmark Road Rovers that were left in the sandbox when his family moved cross country.

18 Replies to “Ten Model Car Brands With Unusual Histories, by Ron Ruelle of hobbyDB…”

  1. Doepke DID NOT make mostly military equipment. That fact is false, it was one bottom dump truck painted olive drab green (a Euclid, I think) that was later repainted to a forest green. What they mostly made was construction equipment and fire apparatus, like a Unit crane, Heil scaper, American LaFrance 700 Series fire apparatus (pumper, ladder, searchlight truck), and a Barber Greene bucket loader (offered both as tracked and wheeled! Heck, they even offered a fully functional cement mixer, which could in fact make cement.

  2. I enjoyed the article. I was aware of 6 brands from my collecting history but do not collect them. Three brands were new to me. However, I actively collected Fresh Cherries and love the series. They were great model choices that represented common road vehicles from my childhood and early adult life – a rather mundane middle class Midwestern US life back in the '70's and early '80s'. Who can forget the Dodge K Cars – reported to have saved Chrysler from bankruptcy in the early '80's. Ever hear of Lee Iacoca? I am not saying much about the real cars, just that they were on the road and real cars most families drove at the time. I enjoyed the series immensely. While other brands made models of more fanciful, hot, expensive, and unattainable type automobiles – Fresh Cherries was more about what was reality. I don't get the name though.

  3. Great article. As an auto historian and car geek those fresh cherries are great. I went all in for those. You have to appreciate the creation of the orphan cars such as the mustang 2, Mercury bobcat, AMC pace et al. I am waiting for green lights Pontiac Aztec.

  4. Great article, thank you. There were three Kenner Models which were retooled to be part of Matchbox basic line. The MB131 Jeep CJ 4×4 (from Gravel Grinder), MB132 Mustang GT (from King Cobra) and MB133 Sand Racer (from Dirt Digger). The histroy behind die cast brands is really interesting.

  5. I was in college during the early to mid 1980's. It was hard to miss the K-cars. One guy I knew had a 1981 Plymouth Reliant, and he used to brag about it having a V6 Hemi. All you could do was just laugh and feel bad for him.

    Also, remember the TV show “Night Heat”? The detectives in the show cruised the streets in K-Cars during the entire series. The first episode featured a high speed car chase (seriously) with the cops and the villans both driving K's.

  6. Universal Toys, which owned Kidco, bought Dinky, Fast 111's and Matchbox as well. Not only did they use the three Fast 111s you mentioned, they also used the Chevy Blazer from the Kidco Tough Wheels line.

  7. I'm looking forward to this series. I hope Ron mentions Road Champs, Playart, and Tonka T-N-T Racers. And Midgetoy.

    Oh, and don't forget Mini Marx. They seemed to compete with Tootsietoy and Midgetoy, but in its final years Marx added baseplates and interiors with drivers inside.

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