Small wonder

Updated: 20 September, 2020 08:22 IST | Anju Maskeri | Mumbai

A collectibles shop at Flora Fountain is the oldest place in the city where you can feast your eyes on miniature models of the world's hottest wheels, right down to the last detail

A scale die-cast model replica of the 1932 Ford Lincoln KB Top Down. It's a great piece for any vintage car collection, says Shah. Pics/ Suresh Karkera
A scale die-cast model replica of the 1932 Ford Lincoln KB Top Down. It's a great piece for any vintage car collection, says Shah. Pics/ Suresh Karkera

The first time Nikhil Shah, 55, came across a miniature car was in 1988 when it came as a freebie with a bottle of Ferrari perfume. "Somebody sourced it from Dubai and wanted to sell the perfume to me." It wasn't the scent that caught Shah's attention, but the bite-sized automobile. "So, the man sold the perfume to somebody else and agreed to give me the car," he laughs.

At the time, Shah owned a curios shop in South Mumbai. When one of his clients saw the car, he insisted that Shah should source scale models because there were sure to be collectors who'd be interested.

Shah's Flora Fountain shop, Miniature Model Zone, stocks vintage and modern cars, model aircrafts, construction sets and electric trains. A majority of his clients are male, and aged 45 to 65. Landing a die-cast model car is a hot pursuit among automobile aficionados, he tells us. All Shah has to do is broadcast the message of a new arrival on WhatsApp and he has enthusiasts making a beeline. Collecting can actually be an expensive hobby, which explains the demographic of his clientele. Prices range from R1,200 to R50,000 and, in some cases, could go up to Rs 1,00,000, depending on the scale and the manufacturer. Although business has slowed down during the lockdown, the organically-earned fan base has helped keep the venture insulated from the economic slowdown. That said, logistics and delivery are a concern given that they are dealing in fragile items. "A model changes at least eight hands before it reaches the customer, so we ensure it's tightly encased."

 A 1961 Volkswagen Beetle Saloon
A 1961 Volkswagen Beetle Saloon

Shah thinks people don't mind spending big bucks, because it is about fulfilling a childhood passion. "They are products of real craftsmanship."

The process of creating a model is laborious and detailed. Shah says companies like Rolls Royce and Lamborghini invite select manufacturers to come and take thousands of pictures of the original car, and measurements by hand. The designers then work on scaling down the dimensions, while retaining the details of the original automobile. "They create a mould and then build, assemble, and finetune each of the component parts," Shah explains. The original brand is fastidious to a fault when it comes to accuracy of replicating a miniature model, because their reputation is at stake.

 Routemaster RM, a front-engined double-decker bus built  in 1954 in London.
Routemaster RM, a front-engined double-decker bus built  in 1954 in London. 

According to him, the easiest way to categorise model vehicles is by their scale size. It could be as large as 1:12 to as small as 1:160; the higher the ratio, the smaller the car. "Let's say it's 1:12 scale, means that the model car is exactly 12 times smaller than the actual model." Presently, the bulk of manufacturing of scale models takes place in the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, China, Vietnam and Bangkok. Among the models at Shah's store, it's the cars that are highest selling.

A 1973 Mercedes-Benz Stritch and Coupe
A 1973 Mercedes-Benz Stritch and Coupe

Shah's first brush was with Italian brand Bburago, which makes a variety of modern and classic Ferraris. He is currently the official distributor for Macau-based Sun Star Models Development Ltd, which manufactures die-cast models in the 1/12, 1/18, 1/24 scales. "To be honest, we knew very little about this business when we started out, because it was so niche in India." This is not the case abroad. In America, over six billion Hot Wheels cars have been produced since 1968. "In the west, the trade is supported by passionate collectors from USA, Europe and Australia, who engage in active dialogue on various forums." That India lacks a manufacturing culture by auto brands means he is miles behind his colleagues in other countries. "A friend in Hong Kong, who started the same business in 1990, has a scale model inventory of Rs 10 crore and runs five factories where she manufactures models. I'm still retailing a handful of cars."

Nikhil  ShahNikhil Shah

The next generation is unlikely to carry on the passion, according to him. "They prefer video games. Even my own sons aren't interested." His family thinks it was a looney career move to deal in scale models, but he has no regrets.


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First Published: 20 September, 2020 08:20 IST

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