Hot models: Model cars of the world

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Pier Van Netten has brought the model cars of the world to Melbourne for 35 years. Could 2013 be his last?

Hot models: Model cars of the world
Model Cars of the World

 

Model cars of the world

MODEL CITIZEN

Pier Van Netten’s car collection is truly something to behold. To my left is Stirling Moss’s 1955 Mille Miglia-winning Mercedes 300SLR, behind me a rally specification Lancia Delta integrale and right in front of my eyes a Ferrari 250LM in as-new condition.

And that’s just the start. Race cars, rarities, exotics, US and Australian muscle cars – Pier has them all. GT-HO Phase IIIs? Which colour would you like? Oh, did I not mention? Pier’s whole collection is for sale, and at prices that you could definitely call affordable. Welcome to the world of model cars – or, more accurately, welcome to Model Cars of the World.

It’s easy to see the attraction of collecting model cars. It allows enthusiasts to indulge their passion without the space, or the all-important financial burden, of trying to obtain the real thing. But don’t think that, just because the cars are scale models, the enthusiasm collectors have for these auto miniatures is similarly downsized.

Pier Van Netten and his wife Hilary began Model Cars of the World in 1978, trading from home where they had a showroom set up, viewable by appointment. Bi-monthly catalogues listing their entire stock could be purchased for between $4-6, with Pier informing me that his mailing list consisted of around 500 people. The catalogue eventually became monthly before being replaced by a website in 1999 (www.modelcarsoftheworld.com.au).

Few industries have been immune from change in the past three decades, and the model car business is no different. Sadly, most of the change has not been positive, largely due to the effect of the ever expanding tendrils of the World Wide Web.

"The whole nature of collecting has changed," says Pier. "eBay has taken a lot of the stock coming in." A decade ago, Model Cars of the World employed three full-time and two part-time staff; now it’s just Pier, Hilary and customer-turned-employee Mark Bennett, whose own collection runs to around 600 cars, comprised mostly of Brock race cars and Bathurst winners.

Buyers’ tastes have also evolved over the years. "Thirty years ago everyone wanted 1:43 scale," Pier tells me. "1:18 scale has only become popular in the last 10 years. More and more people are specialising in certain marques such as Cadillac or Land Rover – these are the people keeping the business going."

It appears that different types of models appeal to different sorts of enthusiasts. "Biante limited editions tend to go, 10 per cent of Biante collectors are speculators, but when I started that wasn’t the case. [You also] get guys that come in every two weeks and get a new Biante or Classic."

As if on cue, designer Ange walks up holding a 1:18 scale 1963 T-Bird (to match the life-size one in the garage) and a 1957 Chrysler 300C (to match the one that will one day be in the garage).

At 66, Pier comes from an era when Dinky toys were king and he’s increasingly finding that many others are now attempting to recapture their youth. "Another trend is blokes my age want the cars they played with as a boy but in really good condition and they’re finding they have to pay for it."

The rugged Dinkys may be a lot less intricate than today’s spectacularly detailed models, but decades of crashing into skirting boards have thinned many models’ numbers considerably and subsequently sent values soaring.

As an example, the crash scene that Pier set up for us to photograph would have been a pricey exercise had the cars been in excellent condition. "The red truck and the Beetle would be worth $100 in good nick and the other truck $60 – it’s almost more expensive than a real car crash," he grins.

With 35 years in the business, and with plenty of time spent model-hunting overseas, it’s unsurprising that Pier has many tales to tell. "I still dream of finding a warehouse with 20,000 model cars but it just doesn’t happen anymore. Thirty years ago I went to Hong Kong – I went every year to buy more [stock]. I said ‘it’s amazing you have so many’ and they replied ‘oh there’s another 12,000 in the warehouse’. So I bought them all!"

If you think model cars are a little on the pricey side, a chat with Pier will soon set you straight. He indicates the GT-HO Phase IIIs, made by Biante, sitting behind the counter; "It’s $250,000-plus for the tooling to make a model car, then another $250,000-plus to build the car." Suddenly, a couple of hundred bucks doesn’t seem quite so steep.

Sadly, with almost 40 years of experience under his belt and in the face of declining business, Pier will soon shut Model Cars of the World for good. "Five years ago I decided to stop," he says. "With the stock holding I have, I’ll probably remain open until the end of the year."

When the door is locked for the final time on that non-descript little shop in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, Pier’s car collection will be gone forever. The good news is, though, it’s not too late to transfer some of the finest examples to your very own ‘garage’.



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