Like so many of us, James Cowen likes scale-model cars. The difference, however, is that when he couldn’t find a particular model — he wanted a model of a car he owned and none existed — he started his own model-making company.
“I have another company,” Cowen explained, “consulting with non-profits, which couldn’t be any further way from the model business.”
In his other job, Cowen helps primarily faith-based non-profits, such as rescue missions and food banks, with their operations. But with those non-profits doing most of their fund-raising in the lead up to the December holidays, they don’t need Cowen’s help with that part of their programs, so he found himself in an annual and transitory fourth-quarter “forced retirement.”
Not only a model collector but a motorsports fan, Cowen was visiting a client in Los Angeles and took a detour to go to Laguna Seca to see Mario Andretti reunited with the Lotus 79. While there, he met Raffi Minasian, former design director for Franklin Mint, which along with Danbury Mint was a major player in the high-end die-cast automotive scale model hobby in the few decades of the previous century and into the early years of this one.
And thus the launch in 2007 of Diecasm, an online model car store which supports non-profits with each model sold. This in line with Cowen’s consulting work. In 2010, Cowen launched model-producer Automodello, which specializes in 1:24-scale models.
Cowen explained that while Automodello has done cars in other scales (such as Lotus and Gurney racers in 1:12), it specializes in 1:24 scale largely because of Minasian’s experience with 1:25 scale at Franklin Mint and also because collectors of 1:18 and 1:43 scales already are well served by other manufacturers.
As it turns out, 1:24 scale models are popular with those of a certain age who grew up assembling glue-together plastic models in 1:24 or 1:25 scale. Franklin Mint and Danbury Mint cultivated collectors, each with monthly launches of new models.
The scale also has become a popular scale with European collectors, Cowen said, noting that an initial run of the 1930s-era Mercedes-Benz 770K Grosser was so well-received by European buyers that Automodello did a second run.
Among surprisingly successful models have been the Lincoln Continental Mark III and the 1966 Ford Galaxie, Cowen said.
“The Mark III had never been done,” he explained, “never made as a (dealer offered) promo (model) nor as a model kit, but you have collectors with the real cars who want models.”
Again, demand was so great, not only from owners of the real car but from the car’s role in The French Connection, the company had to do a second run.
“The one that was most surprising, even to our dealers, was the ’66 Ford Galaxie 7-liter hardtop, which was available in promo and kit,” Cowen said. “The main feature was the 7-liter but there was no engine detail in the resin model. Why would anyone what to buy this?”
The cars were done in black, but when Cowen learned that the Galaxie was the car in which Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance founder Bill Warner learned to drive, he did a special one-off in silver for him as a gift.
Cowen and Minasian, who teaches industrial design at the California College of Art in San Francisco, have particularly fondness for the art deco era and Automodello was the first to do the Phantom Corsair in a scale larger than 1:43. That led to a new niche for the company.
“We looked around and came up with two cars we wanted to do,” he said. “the Mormon Meteor and Sam Mann’s Dusenberg Graber (the 1930 Duesenberg Model J with Graber convertible coachwork).
Mann and Meteor owner Harry Yeagey agreed to allow their cars to be photographed and reproduced in scale. Automodello also has done a scale models of Mann’s 1937 Delahaye 135 MS. by Figoni et Falashi and his Pebble Beach-winning 1937 Delage D8-120 S Aerodynamic by Pourtout, and has done Packard and Duesenberg projects in cooperation with the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum.
Automodello typically does two to five cars a year, with typical production runs of 250 to 400 units of each.
“Once you get above 450, the mold deteriorates dramatically and the economics don’t work,” Cowen said.
Each car is photographed – 400 to 600 images are needed – many of the pictures with “measuring sticks” displaying 2 x 2-inch squares so Minasian has a basis for creating the computer-aided design drawings from which a prototype model is created for preliminary evaluation.
Details and colors are added in subsequent rounds of prototyping. The resin-casting process produces cars with synthetic Urethane bodies, plated components and stamped metal or stainless-steel parts for fine details. Cowen said one advantage of resin parts is how they “capture the details and fine textures that cast medal often will lose in the finishing process.”
A far cry from the 5-figure high end of the scale-model hobby, prices for Automodello models, each assembled from several hundred individual pieces, range from around $250 to $465. There’s also a special membership club (see the Automodello website for details) that offers special pricing and even input into which models the company should produce.
With the coronavirus pandemic, 2020 has not been a typical year for Automodello, slowing both sales and production. However, Cowen noted, the 1:24 scale is experiencing growth among collectors in Europe and Australia and New Zealand.
“Our belief is the continued rave reviews Automodello gets from the European magazines such as Classic & Sports Car and Octane, have contributed to this growth plus the free worldwide shipping on 1:24.” he said.
“It will be interesting to see what happens around the holidays,” Cowen said.
Although it was supposed to roll out before the holidays, Cowen said the company’s next model, the 1987-92 Cadillac Allante, isn’t likely to arrive until this winter. The model will come in two editions, with two removable tops, and in three colors.
“We’re thinking that it will be similar to the Mark III,” Cowen said. “It was never done as a promo, never done as a kit, only as a 1:64 scale.”