Article Thumbnail

The Miniature Gearheads Who Are Keeping Car Modeling Alive

An afternoon at the last old-school hobby shop in L.A.

I’m surrounded by Fords from the 1940s, Chevys from the 1960s and Hurst Oldsmobiles from the 1980s. There are a few Jeep Wranglers, a couple of Peterbilt tractors and an Apache helicopter, too. Not to mention, dozens of aircrafts hanging from the ceiling, some modern, some from World War II. Oh, and a row of boats.

They are all very real, but they’re also all very, very tiny.

Smith Brothers’, the hobby shop on Reseda Boulevard in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, is home to this miniature fleet of trains, planes and automobiles, and sells many other variations of models and modeling accessories — from armor (i.e., tanks) to science fiction (i.e., pretty much any vehicle from Star Trek). The store is celebrating its 49th anniversary this year, and has been, in many ways, the backdrop of my car-freak father’s life, as the cars that he couldn’t afford to buy, he could definitely build a model replica of.

“The first model I ever did was the HMS Hood from Lindberg and it was just a blast,” explains Dave Wooten, the guy behind the counter who has been building models himself for the better part of four decades (and someone I feel like I’ve known for nearly as long given how many times I’ve tagged along with my dad to Smith Brothers’). “My friend and I built it. Then we saved our money, went back and bought the next one. Then we bought the next one and just kept building. They did a whole series of battleships back then, and they did all these World War II ships.”

Wooten, who has worked at Smith Brothers’ since he was in college in 1980s, tells me her was never particularly interested in the Navy or anything else nautical, but that he fell in love with modeling boats anyway. “I just liked the ships,” he says. “Back then, what was cool is that some of them actually came with a motor. You could put a battery in, and it would spin around in a pool if you built it just right. They had these cool cam gears where you could have it do like a figure eight. It never worked properly, but it was really neat being able to try something like that.”

As for my dad, he built his first model at the age of seven in 1968, following in the oil-paint-stained-footsteps of his older brother Jay, who frequently submitted his model cars to contests at 7-Eleven in hopes of winning a cash prize or a year’s worth of Slurpees. My grandparents both built models as well, specifically sports cars such as Ferraris, and my dad says the models my grandmother made were particularly pristine. “I go into Smitty’s sometimes if I’m kind of down, just to get that adrenaline shot of being somewhere I love. It brings a breath of fresh air to a mundane day,” he explains, using the nickname for the store he’s bestowed upon it. “It’s like going to the bakery, how could you not like it? After all, cars, trucks and motorcycles are my favorite things in the world.”

Not surprisingly, my dad’s lifelong hobby building model cars and his advanced abilities as a mechanic go hand-in-hand. “Half of doing anything is knowing what the fuck you’re looking at — the nomenclature, you know. Building model cars taught me a lot about building a real car because car models are so accurate and all the parts are named correctly,” he says. “But my favorite thing about modeling is there are no rules. A friend of mine had a brother who modeled his whole life and taught me that. The only rule is deciding how original you want it to look, how bona fide you want to make it, but I always try to get even better than that. In making it my own way, I become even crazier about their perfectionism.”

This is why my dad always stole Silly Putty from my Christmas stocking — to help him mold his custom model parts. Other materials he’s salvaged for model parts include toothpicks, hard candy and actual metal and copper scraps he fabricates by hand.

“The first time I did a modification on a model with something other than a key part from the box, I was building a motorcycle model,” he says. “I was probably 12. I decided I wanted to make the motorcycle a chopper, so I used a couple of bendable straws to create some extension. The bendy part of the straw looked just like the dust boot of the fork of a chopper, the part that holds the front wheel, so I was stoked by the accuracy.”

“I really like using the eyelets of tennis shoes for the velocity stacks for carburetors,” he continues. “They’re metal and a perfect miniature piece that just looks so proper.” He explains that he picked up the eyelet hack from one of the hobby magazines he’s always reading in the bath (e.g., Scale Auto and Model Cars Magazine). Rather than pay for subscriptions to these publications, though, my dad prefers shuffling through the discount bins at Smitty’s, where he picks up old issues for 30 cents or a buck.

Another resource, of course, is Wooten, who says his favorite part of the job is “being a know-it-all.” “I don’t mean that in a narcissistic way,” he insists. “I’ve just been doing this for so long. Someone comes in and asks me for a model, and even if I don’t have it, I can say, ‘Okay, that was made two years ago originally, and you’re going to need this or that.’ I like being able to know our inventory and the world of these models very well, without having to use Google or look stuff up.”

When I ask him what’s changed within the hobby since he began working at the shop, his answer is a mixture of everything and nothing. “The biggest change is how much the prices have gone up in recent years, which is due to changes in licensing,” he explains.

Creating scale models has been a practice artists and engineers alike have engaged in for centuries. In fact, Leonardo da Vinci was famous for using models to fuel his scientific research and inventions during the Renaissance. The first scale models sold to the masses, though, were created by a British company named Frog in the late 1930s. A decade later, U.S. companies began to distribute similar models depicting famous ships and aircrafts. Soon thereafter, models of cars in popular TV shows and movies became a hot product (namely, the Batmobile, the General Lee from The Dukes of Hazzard and the Trans Am from Smokey and the Bandit).

“In the old days, this was considered advertising for the show or the car company,” Wooten explains. (The likeness of historical ships and aircrafts were also considered public domain at the time.) “But now now you have to pay Ford for a Ford model. The same for Boeing to create a model of their airplanes. In some cases, companies have even tried to collect royalties off past models.”

All of which has driven the cost of models ways up. “As a kid, we could save our lunch money for a couple days and pool it together to buy a model. They were two to five bucks back then. Now, a kid can’t do that. There’s no way,” Wooten says. “Now they start at least at $20, and some companies have their nicer models priced at $80. I can’t put those on the shelf, though, because when a customer asks me to explain why that car costs $80, I can’t.”

That’s why, in part, hobby shops like Smith Brothers’ are closing all over the country. Similarly, Wooten can tell who comes into the store to pick his brain only to then shop online. “We’re not stupid,” he says. “When we sell [remote-control] cars and airplanes, sometimes people are coming in just to see what it looks like. Then they go home and buy it online. But it’s still cheaper to buy the parts from us than to pay shipping and stuff.”

What hasn’t changed, according to Wooten though, is the passion and motivations of the enthusiasts he serves. “People aren’t coming in here to talk about politics or religion,” he explains. “Instead, it’s escapism. It’s what they like to do. And they’re spending their hard-earned money on their days off doing it.”

“Not to be an old fogy,” he continues, “but we didn’t grow up with the internet. We grew up with three channels, so we did more stuff. We were outside. We built models. We flew kites. We did [remote-control] airplanes and stuff. I don’t begrudge anybody, because if I would’ve grown up with this new stuff, I probably would’ve loved it too. But nowadays, we get a lot of fathers and grandfathers who come in and make the kid buy the model so he’s not just playing on the internet and with his Xbox. It’s not a punishment as much as it is just another option. They want them to be able to use their hands and follow instructions.”

Wooten has two sons of his own, and says that one never had any interest in modeling, while the other loved flying radio-controlled aircrafts at their local model airplane field until “he began dating girls.” Neither model as adults, and neither can work on their own cars the way Wooten does either.

Wooten, however, remains so skilled that he maintains a side business constructing models for people who want them without having to build them themselves. “For many years, I had a guy who was an artist. He did a couple paintings for the Air Force Museum. He liked to have a 3D airplane in front of him while he was painting, but he wasn’t a model builder. He would bring in a model and I would build it for him, sometimes with no paint, other times with decals and fully painted.”

Still, he only takes on a few modeling clients at a time. Otherwise, it infringes upon his ability to enjoy modeling as a hobby instead of a job — something my dad can relate to. “Modeling is my personal time, my time to be alone and creative,” my dad tells me. “Modeling clears my head so I can think straight about the other things in my life, such as my work, family, wants and dreams — not necessarily in that order.”

It also bonds him with his modeling brethren. Today, in fact, he’s made a new friend at Smith Brothers’ named Dennis. The sixtysomething has given the store a few of his model airplanes to dangle from its ceiling in the style of all the classic hobby shops. The planes are priced for sale at hundreds of dollars, and if they sell, Smith Brothers’ will issue Dennis his earnings from their consignment agreement. “I grew up with a neighbor whose dad was a Marine stationed aboard the USS Nevada when it got hit during Pearl Harbor,” Dennis tells me. “He wrote a diary, and I got to read it,” which inspired his obsession with crafting models of ships and jets from World War II.

Dennis saunters around Smith Brothers’ with equal amounts of familiarity and curiosity, like most of the shop’s visitors, aside from the parents who come in looking for a little container of paint to fix a nick on their car or hunting for the perfect supplies for their kid’s school project. Per Wooten, college students are among the most lively customers, especially during the annual competitions during which aspiring automotive engineers gather at the airfield to compete. (The store is just down the road from California State University, Northridge.)

“Colleges have this program where they have to build an airplane from scratch to carry X amount of weight and actually fly with that weight,” Wooten says. “It’s an international program, but the event has been held locally for the last couple of years. The shop becomes crazy busy with teams from Pakistan, India, Egypt, Russia, Germany, Poland and all over the U.S. Some teams bring in amazing planes, and some bring in junk. The night before the competition, their planes get inspected. After that inspection, they all come here looking for nuts, bolts and props at the last minute. We get 60 people in here at a time, all asking questions. It’s a lot of fun.”

Even better, it’s also, if still just a tiny one (but of course), a good glimpse into the future.