My boys and the Hot Wheels Shoebox

I took the boys to Toys R Us the other night to do some Christmas shopping and buy a little (very little) something for them. I ended up finding 99 cents worth of something for me, too, in the diecast aisle. I like to buy Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars and un-hotrod them for my train layout. And the Hot Wheels shoebox, with a small amount of work, looked like it would make a very passable 1949 Ford. So I bought it.

The next morning, my youngest brought the car to me as I was getting ready for work. “Daddy, will you open it?”

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How to customize Matchbox or Hot Wheels cars

How to customize Matchbox or Hot Wheels cars

It’s fun to customize Matchbox or Hot Wheels cars. I tend to buy representations of pre-1950 cars and un-hotrod them so they’ll look like they belong on my O27 (1:64-ish) train layout; others buy them, paint them differently and put different wheels on them to make something different from what Mattel sells.

It’s a job you can do with simple tools and materials, at least at first. But like many things, you can keep it as simple or get as advanced as you like. And while you won’t do your first car in 15 minutes, it’s easy to divide a car project into 15-minute-per-day steps, especially if you work on two or three of them at once, and at the end of a week you’ll have a few nice cars to show for your time and effort.

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Go-Bots vs Transformers: My small-town perspective

Internet pal Rob O’Hara posted a photo of a whatzit antique mall find earlier this week. I knew I’d seen it before, and I knew some of my friends had it, but its identity escaped me. The answer got me thinking about Go-Bots vs Transformers.

A commenter identified it as a Go-Bots command center. I seem to recall it doubled as a carrying case as well. Go-Bots, if you missed that particular month of the 1980s, were transforming toys, like Transformers, that transformed from robots to vehicles. I was in third or fourth grade when they arrived in the small town where I was living, an hour south of St. Louis. They were made by Tonka, a mighty toy company, but they were a flash in the pan.

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Cars for trains

Vehicles are a frequent topic of discussion on the various O and S gauge train forms. At times these discussions can get rather heated.

Since use on train layouts is rarely the objective of the companies making various diecast vehicles, there’s no true right answer to what one should or shouldn’t use. This is my personal philosophy. Take it for what it’s worth.

I run prewar and postwar Lionel and Marx trains on my layout, primarily. Most of them are undersize O27; I only have a handful of American Flyer cars that might perhaps approach proper 1:48 O scale.

Prior to the early 1970s, Lionel paid no particular attention to scale. Therefore I see little need to break out the scale ruler and be anal retentive about what vehicles will and won’t go on my layout. A Lionel 6014 Baby Ruth boxcar is very close to 1:64 scale, although it’s riding on trucks that are very close to 1:48. The famous Lionel 6464 boxcars are about 1:55 scale. Marx had a whole line of 1:64 scale O gauge trains; its cheaper plastic cars are also very close to 1:64. Some of its “deluxe” cars were closer to 1:60–somewhere in between the Lionel 6014 and 6464 in size. Maybe making them bigger than the 6014 for about the same price made them seem to be a better value for the money.

And for that matter, while A.C. Gilbert’s American Flyer division paid more attention to scale, Gilbert wasn’t shy about shipping off-scale stuff with the American Flyer name on it either. The trains themselves were pretty close to scale, but many of the accessories and buildings were too large or too small.

Needless to say, it doesn’t bother me then that a Matchbox VW Beetle is 1:55 scale but a Matchbox model of a larger vehicle, say a ’57 Chevy, will be 1:64 or perhaps even a bit smaller. If it’s the right era, I’ll use it.

Besides, park any of them outside a Plasticville house, and it’s clear to anyone that it’ll fit inside that garage. Therefore, it will look believable.

I do pay attention to era. Even a casual passer-by can tell the difference between cars from various decades. And I do think era sets the tone of a layout, so I draw my line at 1949. Postwar fans have it easier, as there are tons and tons of great vehicles from the 1950s and 1960s available. Since I stick to pre-1950, generally speaking I can only count on each manufacturer of Hot Wheels and Matchbox type cars offering one or two vehicles per year that I can use. If I drew the line later, I could probably find a couple dozen cars per year to buy.

Many cars have to be modified to suit my purposes, since I want everyday city street scenes, not a hot rod convention. In the case of the Hot Wheels ’32 Ford Delivery sedan I picked up at Kmart tonight (along with baby formula and a cordless phone–you gotta love it), the car is pretty tame. No jacked up wheels, no overly funky colors. It does have flames. Remove the flames with some nail polish remover or purple cleaner on a cotton swab, and I can probably pass it off as stock to a casual observer. Other times, it’s necessary to drill out the rivets on the bottom, swap out the wheels for more conservative ones, and maybe even strip and repaint the vehicle.

According to a car buff on an S gauge board I read frequently, prior to WWII cars tended to be painted dark shades of green, brown, blue, red, and black. Fenders might be a different shade of the body color. After WWII, the colors lightened up and two-tone paint jobs became popular.

The need to swap wheels means sometimes you have to buy cars just to get their wheels. So I’ll look for cheap vehicles with conservative-looking wheels to use as donors. This adds cost, but consider some people pay $20 and up for each vehicle on their layout. Compared to that, it’s still cheap.

Some people get irritated at having to modify vehicles before using them on the layout. It doesn’t bother me all that much. I think it’s part of the fun, and the result is that I have vehicles that don’t look like anyone else’s.

Cars (as in vehicles) for train layouts

I was at Kmart today, and as I usually do, I wandered down the toy aisle on the off chance I might find some cars that might work on my train layout.

I did a lot better than I usually do–Jada and Maisto came through for me.I won’t talk about HO and N scale trains because for those scales, you can walk in to any hobby shop in the country and find pretty much anything you want. Us Lionel and American Flyer fans have it a lot tougher.

Lionel O scale is roughly 1:48. You won’t find 1:48 vehicles anywhere these days, but you can find 1:43 and 1:50. Some people fret that 1:43 is way too big, but sometimes you can hold up one maker’s 1:43 vehicle next to a similar 1:50 vehicle from another make and find they’re just about the same size. Maisto and New Ray are two makes of cars that size.

Lionel and Marx O27 is 1:64, more or less. Maisto, Jada, and Ertl make lots of 1:64 cars. Some Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars are close, but most are closer to 1:72, which is a bit small.

American Flyer O gauge trains made after 1937 are 1:64 scale, and all American Flyer S gauge trains are 1:64.

Since I run O27, I have lots of vehicles to choose from, but the problem is finding something era-appropriate. Contemporary vehicles are no problem to find, but if you want something old, it’s hard to find much other than a ’57 Chevy. Well, you can find a handful of late ’50s cars of various makes, but it tends to lean towards the late ’50s, and from looking at the stuff in the diecast aisle, you would think Ford and GM were the only two companies making cars in the ’50s. Want a Studebaker or a Hudson or (gasp) a Dodge? Good luck.

Of course I had to make things more difficult. I like really old trains, so a ’57 Chevy isn’t exactly going to cut it. I need 1930s and 1940s cars.

Maisto just happens to be offering a 1:64 ’36 Ford Coupe as part of its G Ridez series. It has homey-ized rims and thin tires, but other than that, it looks pretty stock. Hot Wheels has offered a ’36 Ford since I was a little kid, but it was always a hotrod.

Maisto also offers a ’37 Ford, but it has a prominently chopped roof

And Jada is offering a 1:64 ’39 Chevy Master Deluxe as part of its Dub City Old Skool line. Like the Maisto, it has thin tires and weird rims, but aside from that, it looks stock, and it’s black. This is a very nice car to have because it’s a late 1930s station wagon–a family car. It looks just like the cars you see families using in the movies set in the ’30s and ’40s. I hope I can find a few more of these because it’s the kind of ordinary car that will look natural even if I had several on the layout.

So if your toy train preferences lean towards American Flyer S gauge or Lionel or Marx O27, a trip down the toy aisle at your local Kmart or Target would probably be a good idea.

One thing I’ve learned is that I have to be patient. Usable cars are out there, but there may only be a handful of them issued every year–including anything Mattel releases under the Hot Wheels or Matchbox brands, undersize or not. I take what I can get. But improving the layout a little bit at a time over the course of years is part of the hobby’s appeal. At least it’s supposed to be.

How to build and paint miniature buildings (and make kids have fun with what they learn in school)

I found this tutorial on building a miniature building and a companion article on painting. The intended audience is wargaming, but the same tricks work for buildings for train layouts, or for kids to build cities for their Matchbox/Hot Wheels-brand cars or their action figures.To me, the gem was the technique on painting windows. I have never figured out how to draw or paint a glare on a window that looked the least bit convincing.

The most convincing way to get a glare or reflection on a window is to cut out the window, cut a piece of slide glass–or, in a pinch, plastic packaging–and glue it into the window. Or if you’re not going to detail the interior of the building, cut a piece from a gallon milk jug. Nothing looks more like a window than a window.

But for those times when that’s impractical, or for those times when you want a bit more of a toy look, the technique in this article is exactly what you need.

Don’t discount this as a fun craft for kids. Kids get bored easily, but this allows them to use their creativity, and it teaches them hand-eye coordination, problem solving, and it’s the only fun and interesting application of math I’ve ever found. If a child is struggling with division, like I did, here’s a motivation.

How do you turn this into a math lesson? Instead of eyeballing the size, encourage the child to figure out how big the building ought to be. If the building is intended for die-cast cars, measure a toy car. Then measure a real car. You now have a ratio. (Most die-cast cars scale out to somewhere between 1:64 and 1:76 scale). So, figuring that a one-story house is about 12 feet tall, multiply that by your ratio to figure out how big a floor should be. Measure doors and windows and multiply that by the ratio to figure out how big those should be.

The result will be toys that look better because some thought went into their proportions, and your kids might learn to enjoy math a little bit. I know I would have paid a lot more attention in math class if I’d realized I could use it to make cool toys.

At some point you might want to head down to Radio Shack to pick up some miniature light bulbs and teach your kids a little science lesson too. Horror of horrors, they might find they like that too.

Or, if your child is very inclined towards math and science, and hates art class, this might be a way to give them a bit more appeciation of what they learn in those classes.