Construction scale models have fervent collectors both in and out of construction
| June 06, 2014 |
o into a contractor’s office and you’re more than likely to see at least one. Sometimes it’s tucked into a corner of the bookshelf or a desk. Other times, a collection of them will take up a wall or even an entire office.
Yet, as much as manufacturers like to give them away and contractors prize them, there are those who claim the world of construction models is an unseen one.
“Models are a niche market almost hidden from the main equipment market,” says Chuck Sword, with DHS Diecast Collectables, a construction model dealer in Berea, Ohio. Adds Roy Ferguson, a model dealer in Manchester, Iowa: “A lot of people don’t know we exist.”
However unnoticed by some, it’s a busy world, populated by OEMs, model makers, model dealers and avid collectors.
Is there a typical construction scale model collector?
Not really, beyond the fact that most agree they are definitely skewed male.
“A big percentage of collectors are either employed directly in or are in some way connected to the heavy equipment industry,” says Darin Stratton, president 3000Toys.com. “Almost all machine operators want a model of the machines they spend their days operating. There’s also a fair amount of cross over from model railroaders, and those who collect trucking and agriculture models. And although some will begin collecting in their teens, the most serious collectors are in their 30s or older with more discretionary income.”
“We have a big family and when my wife and I have guests over, a lot of them appreciate the old toys. The bar in our family room has more bulldozers than booze.”
— Larry Kotkowski
Collectors will usually focus on collecting a certain scale or type of equipment, such as cranes and trucks or earthmoving. “Every collection is different, depending on what the collector is interested in,” says Brandon Lewis with Buffalo Road Imports. “There are still a few out there who try to get everything.”
Adds Stratton: “Serious collectors thrive on information. They like to know about upcoming model releases and offer their opinions on what models should be produced. There are also a number of websites and YouTube channels produced by collectors and enthusiasts to discuss and review new models. Some of the collectors will post videos of a model being ‘unboxed’ for the first time. Social media allows collectors an opportunity to offer praise and criticism on various models, which can yield valuable feedback.”
There are even construction model reviewers. Ian Webb, who operates the review site, cranesetc.co.uk, was prompted to start reviewing models because it was “difficult to find out about a model without buying first,” he writes. Webb now rates models on their packaging, details, features, quality and price. And he says his website traffic shows interest in models is “not as male dominated as once suspected. In some countries, the interest is equally split between men and women.”
The story behind the collection
If there’s a collector, there’s a story, says Lewis.
Dave Geis in Seward, Nebraska, is one such collector. By day, he runs Geis Steel Tech, which works on pharmaceutical and industrial equipment, but construction equipment has been a fascination since childhood. His interest in construction memorabilia is so strong he’s devoted 2,000 square feet of his business to housing his collection, available for viewing by appointment. By his estimate, he has about 1,500 construction models and toys. “If you can’t afford to have the real thing,” he says, “you can have the model.”
“If you can’t afford to have the real thing,” he says, “you can have the model.”
— Dave Geis
Geis says his collection includes every Doepke model made in the 40s and 50s, and the entire collection of Buddy L models, both companies that are no longer in business. “I probably have models from 200 different manufacturers,” he says. When asked to pick a favorite, he replies “no way. I’d go down the aisle, and say this is my favorite, and then see another one 2 feet further.”
Geis has gathered his collection from a variety of places, including online sites, dealers and other collectors, but one of his main sources has been estate auctions. “There are auctioneers, such as Cornwell Auctioneers in Nebraska, that specialize in construction and farm toys,” he says.
Larry Kotkowski’s story also has a childhood beginning. Raised in his father’s quarry business, he remembers one toy in particular he didn’t get “that I wanted … bad,” he relates now. As an adult, the president of Lakeside Sand and Gravel, Mantua, Ohio, spotted that Tonka dragline at a flea market. Buying it, according to Kotkowski, “opened the flood gates.”
To his own estimation, Kotkowski has around 800 models, “but I haven’t really counted them.” His collection includes Doepke and Reuhl units, a Cedarapids Pitmaster crushing plant and a Lorain shovel. “I was raised running a shovel, so I have thing for shovels and draglines,” he says. He doesn’t have to go far when he wants to look over his collection: his family room and basement are chockfull of models. “We have a big family and when my wife and I have guests over, a lot of them appreciate the old toys. The bar in our family room has more bulldozers than booze.”
Leon Thompson’s model habit started during a Christmas shutdown of his sitework business. “I was bored,” he relates, “so my wife told me to check out what was on eBay.” He bought 40 models that day, and now has a 3,000-square-foot building housing more than 60 one-of-a-kind large scale models. When we talked in early April, he’d just taken delivery of a 1:3 Freightliner with a truck crane. “I’m pushing the capacity of my building with that model, but I just keep tightening things up,” he says with a laugh. He asks each custom model maker for details on making the model, comments that are put on cards that go with each model on display.
Riding the waves of the big iron market
The model industry pivots on the large machine market, riding its cycles. When it the big market dips, so does the number of new introductions, as does the amount of disposable income for a completely discretionary model buy. “The economic downturn significantly affected us,” says Chuck Sword with dealer DHS Diecast Collectables. “The whole business is based on licensing and product development and if no one is making anything, there’s nothing to sell.”
Prior to the Great Recession, the number of models issued in a year rose with the peak buying patterns of big machinery. “There are a lot more models coming into the market than there were in the 1980s,” Lewis says. Because people can’t buy everything, they’re becoming more specialized in their collections, focusing in on a certain scale, OEM brand or equipment type. “The models have become more complex and expensive,” Lewis explains, “which also limits purchasing. Still, sometimes a collector wants to have it anyway.”
“The models have become more complex and expensive,which also limits purchasing. Still, sometimes a collector wants to have it anyway.”
— Brandon Lewis
Collectors are a passionate bunch, as evidenced by the 12-year-old forum on DHS Diecast’s website, forum.dhsdiecast.com, which Sword estimates has 15,000 to 20,000
worldwide users. “If you have a model
question, someone will answer it,” he says.
And they’ll link their answers to their
own websites and Facebook pages.
That passion was recently on display at ConExpo, Sword says. “There were several guys there just to seek out new models and report it on the forum. It’s a huge business for us to find out who’s got what. Some manufacturers have no idea what’s going on.”
Model Mania Part 2: How a construction scale model is made
onfidentiality is a key concern with OEMs, especially when scale models are released the same time as the real machines. Model makers and producers – usually based in China — sign confidentiality agreements, “and we make sure our models are the only ones being produced on a factory floor,” Volvo’s Mats Bredborg says.
Tom Ristow, vice president of scale models for model maker Norscot, describes the diecast model making process:
- Using a CAD file from the OEM, together with machine paint chips and trade dress files, Norscot creates a 1:50 resin prototype using a 3D printer.
- The prototype goes through rounds of approvals, both by Norscot and the OEM, and is then released for molds and related tooling. “The prototype review is really important, because after it, there’s the point of no return,” Ristow says. The reason: model tooling, created by the company’s production partners in China, costs $100,000 and up.
- Next, Norscot gets a “first shot” from its production partner — an unpainted model that is reviewed for fit and finish.
- After various approvals, the factory will then produce a pre-production sample, painted and decaled, and sent to the OEM for design and trade dress review.
- During mass production, individual models are pulled out for spot check inspections.
- To prevent damage en route, shipping containers usually carry only six models – sometimes two if the model is larger – to prevent damage en route.
Getting to market
Buying and selling models is a global business. “Depending on how the dollar is doing, in some years our overseas sales might be better than our domestic sales,” says Chuck Sword with dealer DHS Diecast. The company has a 12,000-square-foot warehouse at its headquarters in Berea, Ohio, devoted to construction and truck models. Like everything else, the Internet has changed the market significantly. “Models used to be hard to find,” Sword says. “Now the competition is a lot tougher.”
“They come from all walks of life. The only thing they have in common is a love of models. You’ll get rich collectors and guys who are scraping together every dollar to buy.”
— Chuck Sword
Brandon Lewis, president of construction model dealer Buffalo Road Imports, Clarence, New York also has a physical store, but “we sell models anyway we can get them out there,” he says, including websites and events, such as his own International Model Construction and Truck Show, slated for this June. “Everyone who comes is serious,” Lewis says, estimating that he gets a few hundred attendees, including collectors, other dealers and custom model makers. “Some custom model builders only come to our show,” Lewis says.
DHS Diecast also has an open house, enticing around 700 people with free hot dogs, diorama and model contests, and displays of full-size historical equipment. To hear Sword tell it, it takes on the nature of a swap meet, especially when it comes to stories. “People will come up to me and say “I bought my first model from you 15 years ago,” he recounts.
In 2013, one DHS Diecast open house attendee brought a fully operational 1:16 Manitowoc model; another — an 8-year-old boy – showed off a Roadtec Shuttle Buggy he’d made out of cardboard. “They come from all walks of life,” Sword says. “The only thing they have in common is a love of models. You’ll get rich collectors and guys who are scraping together every dollar to buy.”
Both Lewis and Sword also manufacture models. Lewis specializes in event pieces and vintage equipment, while Sword manufactures what used to be hard-to-find 1:50 scale over-the-road trucks, including Mack, Kenworth and Freightliner models. Since most truck models are produced at 1:64 scale, “we got into it because it was hard to find a truck that could haul a 1:50 construction model,” Sword says.
Part 3: How big-iron equipment manufacturers use scale models to promote their brands
o an manufacturer, the primary purpose of a model is to promote the brand.
“Models are great exposure to fans of Caterpillar,” says Sara Hays with Cat’s merchandising group. The company uses them for awards, customer gifts, machine promotions, and saying thank you to the design team involved in producing the big iron. Hays works with Caterpillar product groups and its model licensees — Norscot, Tonkin and Classic Construction Models — to come up with the list of which machines will get models.
“There’s nothing better to promote the business than a model,” adds Scott Stern, president of Norscot, which has been making Caterpillar models for 44 years.
Jim Ryberg, Bobcat aftermarket product manager calls models a reminder of all of the machines the company carries. “Dealers like them, customers ask for them, and people buy them even if they don’t have equipment. The thinking is if a kid owns a little one, he may want to own a big one when he grows up.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by David Althaus, manager of events and promotions for John Deere, and the father of four: “I see models serving a lot of different needs, and one of the most important is to keep kids interested in construction.”
Sometimes, it’s a model’s absence that’s felt. “When the recession hit, no one thought of scale models,” says Mats Bredborg, director of global brand management, Volvo Construction Equipment, “but three years ago our dealers told us loud and clear it was important to get our scale models up to date. The latest models are the ones that help the buying conversation.”
JCB licenses its brand to six model makers: TOMY, Joal, Siku, Motorart, Universal Hobbies and NZG. “We like to have different scales and levels of details,” says Sam Johnson, senior licensing manager. It uses TOMY for entry point models, designed to appeal to beginning collectors. On the other end, Germany-based NZG produces 1:50 scale detailed models. “For us,” Johnson says, “it’s a great way to reflect the breadth and diversity of our line. It also shows the key selling points of the machines.”
JCB actively courts collectors, a rarity among OEMs. Last September, when it launched a vintage diecast of its 1977 JCB 3C Mark III backhoe, it hosted a press event to “our most keen collectors and the diecast press. It was a great success.” JCB relies on its collector contacts, seeking advice on future models. It also showcases 150 models at The Story of JCB museum at its headquarters in Rocester, United Kingdom.
Models can also be part of company milestone celebrations:
- To celebrate Bobcat’s 50th anniversary in 2008, the company issued six gold-colored models depicting six significant evolutions of the skid steer.
- This year, Volvo Construction Equipment released a model of its first loader, the H-10, in a specially designed wooden box, to celebrate its 60th year of making wheel loaders.
- And this summer JCB is issuing a special edition JS220 tracked excavator model, celebrating last summer’s millionth machine milestone.
While special editions get a lot of attention – and are collector’s favorites because of their limited runs – Norscot’s Tom Ristow says the more typical models do a better job of extending a company’s brand. “We’re a better steward of Cat’s brand with those models, and not just creating a couple of cool things for a couple of cool people.”
The timing of a model requires careful choreography. “It takes at least 12 months from the time we decide to do a model on a machine until we get the finished product,” Althaus says. “There can be some real challenges in getting the final sheet metal on a new product reflected in the model,” including Tier 4-related tweaks that changed engine hood and exhaust designs.
“If you get the scale model at the same time as the machine introduction, the impact is fantastic. It doesn’t have the same marketing impact if it comes three months later.”
— Mats Bredborg
“Sometimes the lead time for models is extremely long,” says dealer Roy Ferguson. “Other times the model is ready, but OEMs put a hold on it because the real machine isn’t ready.”
Adding to the complication, there seems to be an increased emphasis on timing the release of a model alongside its big iron brother, certainly true at this year’s ConExpo. For the first time, Volvo Construction Equipment introduced several models with real machines at the show, including one for the A40G articulated truck. “If you get the scale model at the same time as the machine introduction, the impact is fantastic,” says Bredborg. “It doesn’t have the same marketing impact if it comes three months later.” Timing was also a factor when Bobcat produced the special-edition model for it’s 1 millionth loader promotion: it kept it under wraps until the real iron was unveiled at the show.
No relationship with a U.S.-based company and current model maker goes back as far as the Ertl brand and John Deere. In 1945, working out of his basement, Fred Ertl started to cast a number of sand-cast molds, including the John Deere Model A tractor. A few years later, the relationship between the Ertl family and Deere grew, and Ertl moved to Dyersville, Iowa in 1959. When Deere branched out into construction equipment, Ertl started making the models to match. The company, now owned by Japan-based TOMY, still has its off-road division in Dyersville, says Bill Walters, vice president. Ertl also makes models for Case, New Holland and Link-Belt.
“We’ve found that for our customers bigger is better. We tried a skid steer model once, but it was not what our customers wanted.” But a Cat 390 excavator? “It sailed out the door.”
— Gary Peterson
Norscot started making models for Caterpillar in 1970 and until recently was the sole model producer for the brand. “Our single largest channel is to Cat dealers,” Norscot’s Scott Stern says.
While many model manufacturers mass produce units, Classic Construction Models specializes in limited production runs of big iron replicas. A division of winch maker Allied Power Products, Classic started when Allied Power president Bob Peterson wanted to help a customer get a model of a 4100 Manitowoc lattice boom crane. Not pleased with the quality of models currently on the market, he decided to commission his own, ordering 300 brass models. The plan was to give one to his customer, sell the rest at $800 a piece, and end his venture in model making. “But the customers who bought that one asked him what was next,” relates Bob’s brother Gary Peterson.
“We’ve found that for our customers bigger is better,” adds Peterson. “We tried a skid steer model once, but it was not what our customers wanted.” But a Cat 390 excavator? “It sailed out the door.”
Models can cost in the $30 range for the more mainstream units up to thousands. For example, Classic Construction Models’ highest priced unit to date was a Marion 6360 shovel that went for $6,295. What elevates a more typical model to one that would bring this kind of money? Detail. The Marion shovel, for example, had a fully detailed operator’s cab, moveable track rollers, idlers and crawlers and operable gantry service crane.
In addition to the major diecast makers and specialty model producers, there are a number of custom model creators, who specialize in made-to-order and one-of-a-kind units. Some of these can get quite large, such as the 1:3 model of a Cat D11, one of several large size models owned by Leon Thompson with Thompson’s Grading, Virginia Beach, Virginia (Go here to see Leon's model collection).