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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
By Ken Shouler | From 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 The car is a "cigar nose" Lotus 49, the replica of a motorcar originally made in 1967.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."

But why would anyone put himself through the agony that Mathews does? Building these cars that can't drive would drive anyone else nuts. What impels a man to put his central nervous system on the line?

To answer that adequately, you must begin at the beginning.

Born in 1959 and raised in Philadelphia, Mathews has built things since childhood. "I've always been good with my hands, or so my parents and grandparents and everybody has told me. I was always fixing things around the house," he says. "If I had a bicycle it would always be taken apart and put back together and made better. As a kid I built models but gave it up when I was 10 years old. I think every kid probably built models." Who can't recall that messy pastime of trying to get the windshields, wheels or wings of a plastic model on right without leaving cobwebs of glue behind?

As an adult, Mathews took a marketing job in the clothing business that would ultimately lead him back to modeling. Seven years ago, a business trip brought him to Los Angeles. "While I was in L.A., my sister's company was doing a sponsorship of the Long Beach Grand Prix. I had never been to an auto race, never been involved in cars, never been interested in cars. I went to this race, and it was something new to me. And I fell in love with it.

"After that trip, I came back home and went into a hobby store and bought a model kit, a tube of glue, a knife, some paint, and I just slapped it together and I had a great time doing it! So I wound up buying another one, and it was sort of like going back to my childhood. It was good therapy for me because I traveled about 150,000 miles a year for my job, and so when I came home from a trip I would stay home and build. When I did these cars, I saw there were things I could do to make them better."

The first thing he realized he could make better was the body. "I actually took the plastic body of a Ferrari to a body shop," he recalls, "and said, 'Can you paint this with the genuine paint?' The guy painted it for me and that was the first thing." Soon Mathews was doing his own painting, using automotive lacquer and cyanide-based paint and special kinds of attachments on his paint gun to get different thicknesses. "There's a primer coat, a color coat and a hand-rubbed clear coat," he says. "The rub-out process requires seven steps, five separate grades of sandpapers, two separate compounds and a final compound and waxing." Mathews spends hundreds of hours on the bodywork alone for each car.

After perfecting the body, Mathews sets his sights on the inside of the car. "The engines are scratch-built, all handmade," he says. Some of the pieces are too tiny to handle, so he frequently uses tweezers. "You don't want to touch the metals after they're polished, because if the metals get oils on them they can oxidize. I'll take some parts that are readily available, from a toy or a kit. That part will give me the scale and then I might reproduce it in metal."

These are just the building stages. Before the body hits the workbench, there is voluminous research. "I do tons and tons and tons and tons of research. For instance, I'm now working on the 1992 Williams, which is a world championship Formula One car." This is the car he took 1,504 pictures of in England. "I brought my tripod and my special lighting adapter for my camera. I got in close and was crawling all over. The people were very helpful. You have no idea how shocked I was when a Grand Prix manufacturer came in and said, 'Yes, you can photograph not only our facilities but you can photograph our cars, and we'll give you a mechanic for the day to take these cars apart so that you can photograph all the details that you want to.' That's a coup. That's a coup! That's like calling the White House and saying, 'Can I speak to Bill?' and they say, 'Hold on, Andy.' It's just not done. It's incredible. I was in Jackie Stewart's factory. I was at the Williams factory. I was in the Donington Museum."

Mathews routinely heads overseas because England is the mecca of Formula One and Grand Prix racing. Photographing the cars he wants to make, he has built a huge reference library that has helped him in his effort to achieve authenticity.

Mathews loves to talk about the complexity of his cars. "The body is resin. A polyurethane. It's not plastic. It's completely different. It's impervious to lacquer thinners or anything of that nature. The chrome bar is rodium-plated brass and rodium-plated nickel silver. The primary pipes are made of German nickel silver and they are hand-brazed and then filed, polished and then soldered to the muffler part, which is turned out of brass on the lathe. I have a lathe and a mill. I do a lot of the work myself though I still farm some work out."

Sometimes Mathews' passion for details becomes too much for even him to handle. "Some days I'm really in a groove," he says. "And then there are other days when I'm so overwhelmed trying to figure something out that my brain is literally scrambled. I need to pick up the phone and hunt down the right people. A lot of people who would say, 'Forget it.' You know, the corporate mentality: 'Farm it out. Let him do it.' People say to me, 'You're so lucky, you always get this information.'"

In reality, luck has little to do with it. Mathews follows details like a detective following a lead. That usually means $600-a-month phone bills, air tickets around the world and sleepless nights. "I'm 37 years old and I feel like I'm a hundred," he says. On his trip to England in October, he'd return to his hotel room past midnight and get 3 a.m. wake-up calls. "One night I missed my train coming back and spent $250 on a cab ride."

Jefferson once said, "I'm a great believer in luck; I find the harder I work the more I have of it." The same can be said of Andy Mathews.

If his obsession for perfecting autos seems a bit extreme to Americans, it is considered less so across the Atlantic. Formula One is the only true world championship of auto racing, with 16 races in 16 countries throughout the year. There may be a Grand Prix of Britain, a Grand Prix of Germany, Spain or Canada, and the drivers are from all over the world, too. "So it really is a world championship. Unlike Nascar or even Indy car," says Mathews. "Technologically, the Formula Ones are the most advanced cars in the world, bar none. Loyalty to the sport is unbelievable. Fans will talk about cars and drivers back to the 1930s."

Many of Mathews' customers are in the grip of that fervor. "I've dealt with about 50 different people, but I have a set number who just buy over and over and over," he says. "They love the craftsmanship. I have customers who are fans recapturing their youth, so they buy the cars because they love the drivers, they love the team. I have others who are doctors and surgeons and they love to look at the detail."

"I just like Lotus and [1965 Indy and Formula One champion] Jimmy Clark material," says Dr. Leon, an Ohio-based collector of Mathews' models, who declined to give his full name for this article. He has bought a Lotus 49, which Mathews delivered in April 1996. "Then I ordered the next four, a Williams 14-B, a Ferrari, a Tyrrell Ford and a Lotus 72. If it's years before I get them, it's still fun to wait. You can't rush this thing; it's not a mass-production, assembly line craft."

Leon now has two Lotuses--a model in his home and a real one in the garage. To hear him talk, he gets as much joy from the model as he does from the real thing. "I can't imagine anyone taking as much pain as Andy does," he says. "There was a gathering of model builders before the Indy 500 a year ago. There was no model even remotely close to what Andy does. He's told me about his painting process; if the weather doesn't look right, he won't paint anything. The details and authenticity and correctness in his work are staggering.

"Last summer I was in Atlanta for the annual Lotus gathering," Leon recalls. "I asked Andy if I could take the Lotus model there, but he wouldn't hear of it. 'You can't take it. Don't move it,' he said. It's still sitting in the glass case. It's never been touched. It's like he has strict rules and I must abide. He treats it like the wealth of the East Indies."

But there is no complaint in Leon's voice. "When I show a friend a picture of the car, they don't believe it's a model. They think it's a real car. Not a day goes by that I don't look at it."

So Mathews' reputation is as firm as a track surface. But he must keep on building. "I have contracts on about 20 pieces right now," he says. "I'm set for a few years."

He has been written up in magazines such as The Robb Report and the European bible of racing, Motor Sport. His work is internationally known. "It's very odd," Mathews says. "I started this business in a horrible recession in 1990 and I never, ever had a problem selling them. My problem has always been that I can never seem to build them quickly enough to realize a profit. The reason being is that I am so anal about getting it right. My hourly rate is about minimum wage."

When the painstaking work gets to be too much, Mathews pushes away from the workbench, gulps some fresh air and comes back. "I've taken up rollerblading," he says. "And that's been the best thing for my modeling." Even his parents, who once wished for his return to a 9-to-5 job, are gradually accepting his work. Time spent versus profits realized certainly creates a dilemma in an artist's life. Over the long course, solutions to these difficulties do arise. People with Mathews' brand of devotion usually win the race.

Ken Shouler, a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado from White Plains, New York, is the author of The Experts Pick Basketball's Best 50 Players in the Last 50 Years (AllSports Books, 1997).

(Andy Mathews and Exotics in Scale can be contacted at 215/878-6407 or faxed at 610/664-1028.)