When Matchbox (and others) went DTM racing

This story begins with one car, the Alfa Romeo 155 V6 TI. This badass touring car from the mid-1990s is one of my all-time favourites. I’m a sucker for an Alfa, having owned a couple. I also knew a guy who built and raced his own 155. But most importantly of all, I saw the 155s race on the Norisring street circuit in Nuremberg, in June 1996.

Here are some grainy pictures I took that day: Hans Stuck’s Team Rosberg Opel Calibra being wheeled to the grid; a view from the Nazi-era stone grandstands; and Dario Franchitti’s wrecked D2 Mercedes-AMG C-Class after the race. Smartphones have made photography so much easier…

DTM_Norisring_Calibra_Stuck_ticketDTM_Norisring_Grid_ticketDTM_Norisring_C-Class_Franchitti_ticketDTM is the German Touring Car Championship (Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft, later semi-anglicized to Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters). These days the regulations have some commonality with the GT500 class of Super GT in Japan, but the series is not in the rude health it once was and just Audi and BMW remain as competing manufacturers. At various points however, it’s been one of the great touring car championships, with huge popular appeal and passionate crowds.

The mid-90s formula of 2.5-litre, Class 1 touring cars was one of those times. Fire-breathing racers from Alfa Romeo (155), Opel (Calibra) and Mercedes-Benz AMG (C-Class) looked and sounded spectacular. At the Norisring in ’96, I was blown away, but like many watching, I had no idea that the writing was already on the wall for what had by then morphed into the International Touring Car Championship (ITC). With the cost of competing on the rise and the FIA taking a slice of championship revenues, the series folded at the end of that season. DTM was reborn in simpler, cheaper, German-centric form in 2000.

As you’d expect for a colourful, diverse grid of racing cars, the DTM/ITC contenders from that era have been reproduced in miniature many times. I have a few 155 V6 TIs in the 1:43 scale that’s a mainstay of motorsport models. Giancarlo Fisichella’s TV Spielfilm car appears as an Onyx model in the pic below and is visible at the back of the line in the Norisring grid shot above. But this is the Lamley Blog, so we’ll focus on some 1:64-ish offerings – and in particular on the Matchbox trio of 155, C-Class and Calibra.

Alfa_155_143

The first of the Matchbox DTM/ITC models emerged in 1996. The Alfa came along in ’97, but I’ll start with that one as in my opinion (no surprise) it’s the best of the three, as well as being the only one that was released in a realistic DTM deco. If you’ve read my Instagram posts (look for @diecast215) you’ll know that I love an authentic race scheme.

As casting MB296, the 155 hit the basic range in 1997 in a works Alfa Corse red scheme, representing the #8 car raced to the DTM title by Nicola Larini in 1993. It was also part of the 1-75 Gold Challenge that year. Later ‘basic’ issues were a white reverse works scheme in 1998 and another red one, as part of a Coca-Cola five-pack in 1999.

(Matchbox Alfa Romeo 155 on ebay)

MB_Alfa_155s

The best 155 is a Premiere model on rubber tyres that was issued as part of the Inaugural Collection in 1997, paired with an unpainted ‘first shot’. Both of these are fantastic. The painted red car has extra tampos compared with the basic issue and represents the #7 of Alessandro Nannini, so you can have your own factory team!

MB_Alfa_Premiere

I love this casting so much that when I visited former Matchbox Ambassador and prepro collector extraordinaire, Chuck Wiersma, I asked him to dig out all his 155s to show the various stages of the development process. With Chuck’s permission, here’s a pic. Follow him on Instagram @cwiersma63.

MB_Alfa_prepros

Before we move on, let’s take a look at some other 1:64 DTM 155s. The obvious comparison would be the lovely Kyoshos, which unfortunately I don’t have, but the old Micro Champs (Minichamps 1:64) models are very nice. They represent the 1993 cars, which were a little less flamboyant in appearance. I also have a couple of Track Stars Collectables models that came in promotional tins and a 1:72 Kyosho in orange, which I assume is a gashapon (Japanese vending machine toy).

Alfa_diversity

Back to Matchbox. The first of the three DTM/ITC models to appear was the MB288 AMG Mercedes C-Class, based on the W202 generation. As David Tilley noted in his recent Matchbox Monday post, the packaging never stated that this car was an AMG racer, even if the base did, instead sporting the name ‘Mercedes GTC’.

Incidentally, this wasn’t Matchbox’s first DTM Mercedes. There’s a Superkings K-115 Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16 that represents a car raced without success in the 1988 DTM by Thomas von Loewis of Menar. Check out my Instagram post from December 17, 2016 for pics.

Again, it won’t take long to complete your C-Class collection. In the basic range there was a single tampo design used in 1996-97, in three different base colours: silver, blue and yellow. There’s a wheel variation on the blue, if you like that sort of thing. There’s a Gold Challenge of this car, too, and once more, the best version is a Premiere issue – this time a 1998 World Class model in a fictitious Team Matchbox livery. I have it somewhere but couldn’t find it to photograph, sorry!

MB_Mercs

For comparison, here’s a 1:64 DTM C-Class from Micro Champs. It’s Joerg van Ommen’s Tabac car from 1995, which I assume is the year on which the Matchbox is modeled. The proportions are quite different, as you can see. Lurking in the background are two later DTM C-Classes: a Mika Häkkinen Norev from around 2006 and a Minichamps in 1:43 scale, representing two-time champion Gary Paffett’s 2008 Stern machine.

 

Hakkinen_Paffett_Van_OmmenThe final member of our trio is the MB301 Opel Calibra. It had the longest life, but not by much. First seen in the basic range in 1997 in orange, it too was a Gold Challenge Car and, like the Alfa, appeared in a 1999 Coca-Cola five-pack, this time in white. It was also one of several castings to get the white (football/soccer) World Cup deco in 1998, featuring in the basic range (yellow interior/rear wing), an Action Pack (blue) or five-pack (red). The final issue was also sport-themed, this time in yellow in a five-pack for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

MB_Calibras

The best version however is the one that never was. The Calibra reached the preproduction stage in an authentic Team Opel livery/‘first shot’ combo for a 1997 Inaugural Collection issue that never made production. Another great collector, Rob Zurburg (Instagram: @robmatchbox117), showed me his rare prepro when I visited him a couple of years back. With Rob’s permission, here it is – the poor smartphone picture quality is on me:

MB_Calibra_prepro

What a great model that would have been! The authentic deco on the painted model shows that the Calibra casting’s proportions were pretty good. Here it is alongside another Micro Champs model, this time of Keke Rosberg’s 1995 presentation car.

Calibra_comparison

I don’t know for sure why the three Matchbox DTM cars didn’t endure but two obvious factors likely contributed to the decision to drop them. The first is that these cars disappeared from racetracks at the end of 1996 – only the Mercedes was on sale while it was still racing. The manufacturers involved may not have been too excited about continuing to license newly obsolete race cars, even if Matchbox had been keen for them to do so. But Matchbox changed hands in 1997, passing from Tyco to Mattel. With the change of ownership came a major overhaul of the basic range for ’98. These Euro-centric castings may no longer have been flavor of the month.

Twenty-five years later, it’s great to see renewed interest in European touring cars from 1:64 diecast companies. The Mercedes 190E 2.5-16 Evo II – a direct predecessor of the C-Class in DTM – is one of the best Hot Wheels castings around. At a higher price point, Inno64 has a nice Evo II as well, and there’s a great Tarmac Works BMW E30 M3 casting that has been released in early-90s DTM paint schemes. Kyosho has made a handful of CLK DTMs and BMW dealers have sold EAC-made BMW M4 DTMs in several different liveries. Happy hunting!

DTM_final

Graham Heeps

7 thoughts on “When Matchbox (and others) went DTM racing

  1. Funny you mention the BMW Dealer models–I think as far as anyone’s concerned, those also feature probably the only 1:6x appearances of other modern BMW cars like the M4 GTS (and now I must remind other commenters that there are still ZERO reps of its competitor, the Porsche Cayman GT4, in 1:6x). And the DTM cars are pretty much the only examples of the modern Class One cars that shared regs as Super GT (which has seen slightly more prolific representation in 1:6x thanks to Tomica and Bugzees64). It’s amazing how much we’re missing thanks to licensing complications and the smaller profit margins at this scale, considering one can find most every era and chassis of DTM (or any other class of auto racing) in 1:43 and 1:18.

    1. Formula E seems to be doing a decent job with the recent Hot Wheels and upcoming Majorette set. But generally, I agree totally, we’re under-served in authentic 1:64 race cars – or affordable ones, at least!

  2. I could be wrong but I’m sure I read somewhere that the tooling for the Alfa was damaged, causing Matchbox to withdraw the model. I seem to remember it caused them some embarrassment at the time as it was slated for a promotional issue. Or was that another model? As for the Calibra, I remember thinking that Mattel had missed an opportunity by sending the first World Cup liveried models to the US where football/soccer meant diddly squat. Examples didn’t get to Europe until after the tournament had finished, so was last week’s news, Result – poor sales in both places. So much for their marketing expertise

    1. That’s interesting to hear about the Alfa tooling, thanks! As for the World Cup, agreed, ’94 would have made sense, when the tournament was held in the US, but not for the ’98 edition in France…

    2. Thanks for the info on the Alfa tooling! Agreed, World Cup models in the US might have made sense in ’94, when it hosted the tournament, but not for France ’98…
      [apologies if this appears twice, WordPress doing odd stuff]

Leave a Reply to Graham Heeps Cancel reply