I was at the Highway 61 booth with Tom Haverland when the guy appeared. He wore a scowl that could have melted chocolate; this phenomenon, or something like it, had apparently occurred frequently in his life. It was ten minutes after opening on the first public day.
"Ya got it all wrong", he said, pointing at a ’68 Dart’s trunk. "This here.. this was flat". Shrugging off the abrupt greeting, and hoping to see what aberration had been visited on a model that was perfect just the evening before, Haverland craned forward to see; by reflex, so did I.
Same car; same trunk; same correct dimensions. We both looked up; first at each other, then at the accuser, who was rapidly gaining color in his cheeks and becoming more agitated. Haverland calmly and kindly explained the hundreds of photos; the research; the pains taken to measure the car itself. But no logic could sway what time had so perfectly amended in the man’s memory. "I had one o’ these in ‘72", he said, "and it was flat."
With this, he sniffed, and moved on. Tom just smiled; as the man regained his rented convention-center Rascal and rounded the corner of the display, I noticed that his shirt was on backward.
Another Tom – Tom Long, sitting at the round table backing the GMP display: "We did a road show a few weeks back at a race track. Packed the big trailer, brought those new hand-built enameled displays, set everything up nicely.
"A fellow comes walking up; says he wants to buy four displays. We tell him that these are custom items, run around two thousand bucks apiece; and the guy doesn’t even flinch. In fact, he says that he’d like to put a few cars in there, and could we maybe fill the cases with a few models for him?
"We say sure, but each case fits a bunch of cars. He’s not concerned with that. In fact, he owns a few car dealerships, and he’s wondering of we can put his logo on the clock faces on top. He’d just sold his helicopter, and needed something to do in his spare time.
We put it all together for him, and he’s just smiling and writing the check. That was a good day."
The shells are piling high at the all-you-can-eat night at the local restaurant, and I’m parked elbow to elbow with the Highway 61 guys and Jim Thoren and Scott Dahlberg from Supercar Collectibles. We’re laughing like the kids we are while putting a serious dent in Chicago’s crustacean population, and someone asks Jim his most frustrating experience.
"We were doing a car back when Tom (Haverland) was at Ertl. China kept sending the thing back wrong. We’d tell them to put spoilers on, give them drawings, and they’d send back these huge things stuck to the wrong ends of the car. Plus which, we’re sending a glitch list of, like, twelve items every time, and they’re doing three fixes and sending the damned things back; maybe they’re hoping we’d miss the rest. This is going on for way too long.
"Finally, I’ve had it up to here, and I take two big pieces of tape, write ‘FRONT’ and ‘BACK’ on them, and stick them to the car. I send the car over and tell China to paint the one spoiler black.
"Couple weeks later, the car comes back. They put the spoilers where Scott and I wanted them. But they painted the whole front end of the car black. They’re a whole lot better now, but that day, I threw that thing as hard as I could."
Mike Tedesci, formerly of Maisto, at the Beanstalk display: "When I was at Maisto, I was asked to do the workup for the 1948 Chevy Fleetmaster. I called around, and finally, I find a guy with a 100-point example parked in his collection. The guy is an expert on the car, knows all there is to know about it, and he lets me do all the measuring and photography without getting in the way. He even let me drive the car a couple times.
"Anyway, we get the model made, and we send it along to GM for proofing. Now, you’ve got to understand, this model has every little detail of the real car, and every item on the model is backed up with original sales brochures and dealer literature. We’re real proud of the thing, and when it comes back with a laundry list of ‘errors’, I get a little ticked off. So I call the guy at GM who’s finding all the faults, and ask him what his problem is.
"To make a long story short, the guy at GM was comparing the model to his documentation of a 1947 car; not the ‘48. Apples and oranges, at least in the areas we were discussing. When I sent him copies of the documentation the car’s owner had given me, he backed right down. Even thanked me for adding to his library.
"Imagine that – we almost screwed around with a perfectly good model because someone wasn’t paying attention. It happens, you know."
Tedesci again, referring to the 1:18 Porsche 550 A Spyder he had a hand in while at Maisto: "I’m not a small guy (Mike is barrel-chested), and when I saw this tiny racing Porsche, I got a little scared about getting in to photograph the dashboard. This is a million-dollar car, you know?
"The floor is as thin as tin foil, really lightweight stuff, and I’m thinking that if I lean on it, I’m going to poke a foot right through. So I lean on a brace, and wedge myself in, just to get the shot of the dash. It wasn’t easy.
"Finally, I’m done with the photos, and I ask if there’s anywhere I can get a schematic of the car, maybe a couple of drawings to refer to. The guy in the shop (this took place at Brumos Porsche in Florida) points me to the rear of the parts area. There, all the way in the back, is this little German sitting at this beat up old wooden desk. I forget his name, but he was one of the original factory mechanics who came over when the cars were sent here in the ‘fifties.
"He opens up the desk drawers, and out come these piles of originals – first generation factory drawings – of every bit of the car, all covered in hand-written notes. This guy knows every blessed rivet and bolt, every wire. He’s got the names and numbers of every part. We go through them – these things are all but priceless – and when I have what I need, he hands me the folder and says ‘Take these with you and copy them’. I gesture to the shop’s front office and say that I’ll need a little time, and he says "No. Take them back home with you, copy what you want, and send them back when you’re through.’
"So I did; I took them, copied them, and sent them back. It’s been a while. I should have asked him to leave me that desk in his will."
"Jim" is helping at the resin caster’s display because he has used their product for years to make models of cars that emerge from designs plastered to the walls inside his head. As we speak, his large hands are busy shaping dozens of items from slot car bodies to miniature tree stumps.
"I don’t work here", he says, "I’m really a potter. I just love this company, and I’ve used their products to make these." He waves his hand over an enormous model, incredibly detailed, that has been wrought from resin and paint, sweat and sudden ideas.
"I hate you diecast people. At least, I did. I thought you were the end of models, until I went over to the GMP booth and talked to those guys. They said that they’re doing more of those early dragsters. They’re even doing a model of my friend’s car. I saw him race and win on the night before I shipped out for ‘Nam, and now they’re doing a model of his car, the one he won with. It had two engines."
I am embarrassed at my lack of knowing either the racer friend’s name or the name of the winning car; Jim, if he notices, doesn’t hold it against me.
"Anyway, Tom Long came back over here, and saw what I built, and he offered me a job, right on the spot. I wanted to show him my masterpiece, but I was ashamed."
I stood in the shadow of this man who had gone to places I could never dream treading, and wondered what could bring shame to a face such as his. I ask to see the masterpiece. After a moment, Jim nods, waves me down along the countertop, and reaches under the table, extracting a box from beneath the black fabric curtain.
"They swore it’d be safe. I paid a lot of insurance, but it won’t help this…" and now Jim is opening the box and pulling aside yellow rubber sheeting to reveal the smashed frame and skewed workings of what had been a completely hand built rail dragster, a huge model that would have caused gasps in the dozens of people who have filed by. I gasp, but for different reasons. Between hand cast rubber slicks, the body and roll bar have been impacted in half. Cruel breaks are everywhere; headers lie like the discarded legs of some great fallen spider among the wreckage. Hours upon hours lie in pieces at the bottom of the cardboard, and this man is folded in on himself as he sees the damage anew.
"I don’t know if I can fix it", he says, and I know he’s not talking about the nuts and bolts. I know the sound of a breaking heart. Suddenly, I can’t look Jim in the eye.
The factory rep was tweaked, and gestured toward the outfit that cornered downstream on the same aisle as his massive new display. He took off his black rimmed specs and cleaned them in a practiced gesture. His voice got low, and just a little hissy. "They’ll never survive unless they go mass (retail marketing). How many Studebakers can you sell?"
I looked back over my shoulder at the crowd gathered around that outfit’s area. Hey, I’m just a dopey writer, but I think that the guy with the glasses was way off.
Bruce Foster, at the GMP booth; I’m walking up with my little suit-and-tie road show of camera, tabletop tripod, and remote shutter trigger. I ask Bruce if he minds if I take a couple of shots.
He never lets me down. As he has done for the past years running, Bruce combs his hair, strikes a pose, and smiles.