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Internal Compulsion: Model Car Maker Andy Mathews

Building Miniature Cars From More Than 3,000 Handmade Pieces, Model Maker Andy Mathews Is Obsessed with Detail
Ken Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Claudia Schiffer, Jul/Aug 97

He spent six days, 21 hours a day, crawling around the floor of Williams Grand Prix Engineering car factory in England. He took photographs of every last washer and screw of a Williams FW 14-B from every conceivable angle--1,504 photographs, to be exact. He took little time to sleep and even less time to eat. Can you spell "f-a-n-a-t-i-c"? How about obsessive? Model maker Andy Mathews shrugs. "I'm anal," he says, offering a partial explanation for his passion. Others choose different terms, saying Mathews possesses a dedication the likes of which they have never seen.

One fact beyond dispute is that he brought model making to hitherto unseen levels of sophistication and authenticity. When people see pictures of Mathews' work, they think they are looking at real cars, not models. "He is," says British model collector Timothy Simonds, "the Fabergé of the model-making industry."

What do his autos look like?

Even in the dim light of an Italian restaurant, a green car still shines. British racing green, that is. The car is a "cigar nose" Lotus 49, the replica of a motorcar originally made in 1967. All of 15 inches long, this Lotus may be just a model, but that's a bit like saying that a diamond is just a stone. On this Formula One masterpiece there are no Tide or Marlboro or Labatts ads or other annoying logos that cheapen the final product. "In the old days there were no tobacco or alcohol ads on the autos," the 38-year-old Mathews explains. It took three years for him to build 12 Lotus models.

Each Lotus meant intricately assembling 3,600 pieces, or about 240 pieces per inch. "The only thing that is big on these cars is the body panels," Mathews notes. "The cam cover on the Lotus right here is about 100 pieces. Every nut, every bolt, every washer, every wire, every lever, every spark plug insulator, every bracket. Some of the pieces are 1/3000 of an inch--about the width of a hair." Made at Mathews' usual scale of 1:12 a bolt head might measure about 20/1000 of an inch across.

A waiter, Ellio, wanders over to stare down into the dark recesses of the engine, where the tiniest parts are affixed. The Lotus that this model duplicates raced in 1967 in the Dutch Grand Prix. It won its first race, cruising between 170 and 190 miles per hour. Ellio tells of his own connection to Formula One racing, which began when he was a boy in Italy watching Fiats.

"See these springs on the back exhaust system here?" Mathews asks. "I had to have those made at $22 an inch. They have to be the exact size. Some of the springs I'll wind myself. You can't really see, but if you look down into the valley of the engine here, you see all the throttle linkage, the belts and cranks. I have stainless steel, brass, magnesium, photo engraving, pewter," he says excitedly. "Of the 12 [Lotus models] I made between 1994 and 1996, 11 have been delivered."

By "delivering" he means personally carrying them from his home to the purchaser's living room. What else could he do? Trust them to the UPS man? Ship them air mail? No, Mathews boards a plane and carts them to his customers in a black bag, like a doctor making house calls in an old movie. The doctor's bag is fitting; after all, painstaking surgery went into constructing the piece. A glass display case for the car will have already arrived via mail to the buyer's house. Following delivery, Mathews goes back to his shop, sits at the workbench, flips on his Optivisor and starts another.

Little in life is more painstaking than Mathews' work. His labor is an art that conceals art. His cars require vast research, meticulous craftsmanship and an undying passion for excellence. Mathews would have made a good Old Testament figure: he makes Job look impatient. With his neatly cropped red hair and beard, he could easily pass for one of the scribes or prophets.

Collectors pay $9,500 and up for Mathews' "Exotics in Scale"--the name of his Philadelphia company--and hardly seem to mind when his work takes longer than expected. They know that their car is still parked because Mathews is still fussing with details, trying to get every last particle precisely right. "If I do something on a car and it just doesn't strike my fancy and I just don't get it, the car will not go out. No customer has ever minded yet."

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