Fascination with miniature versions of something grand, like an automobile, may seem frivolous, silly even. Items like this, arguably little more than trinkets, serve very little if any practical purpose. While they may be faithful recreations of something larger, they are just that, recreations. By the same token, though, our ceaseless and at times almost obsessive fascination with the larger automobiles themselves can also seem frivolous. Like models and toys, so many of the automobiles that arouse the greatest interest provide little more than recreation and visual beauty. And even though the car always comes before the model, the miniature can still play a formative role in a given person’s automotive interests. It is important to remember that for those enthusiasts whose passion dates back to their childhood, the first encounter with a dream car was typically not in the driveway or on twisting back roads during a blissful ride in the passenger’s seat, but with a tiny scale model perched on a bookshelf or bedside table. And thanks to the cruel laws of supply and demand, for many of those who covet a particularly rare dream machine, the well-produced scale model is the closest they will get to ownership of the real thing.
The world of model automobiles, while grounded in imitation, is not completely bound by it, nor is it just a mirror of the world of the larger automobiles upon which the models are based. Model cars have always had a fairly distinct community, and the subtle differences, even within representations of one individual car, can be vast. A full account of model and toy cars would of course be quite excessive. The story of one selection of model cars, however, captures the essence of the model car’s purpose as well as the intricacies of the model car industry and the interesting changes in that industry. The story of Mercedes-Benz SL models through the years accounts for the faithful recreation of a dream car for the masses, the collaboration with car manufacturers, and the cheaper, more crudely-made alternatives that make for serious competition. It explains what motivates the very existence of these models and toys, and our continual interest in them both as faithful renditions of actual automobiles as well as on their own merit as quality manufactured pieces.
Mercedes-Benz Model Toys
The drive to represent important elements of our lives in miniature form has been a definitive part of human culture almost since the beginning, as demonstrated by prehistoric animal figures and toys, while replicas of carts and horse-drawn carriages from antiquity sprang from a similar mindset as the model cars of today. Since the invention of the automobile by Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler in 1886, the motor car has been an established favorite within the world of miniatures and toys. In particular, model sports cars have evoked especially strong emotions, drawing from the pure, precise excellence of the cars in their original form. The distilled essence of fascination finds itself in one gleaming silver wind-up toy car. The tiny model of the 300 SL racing car, first produced in 1953, is a mere twelve centimeters long, but it provides more than enough space on which to project the extraordinary reputation that surrounds the original.
It is important to remember that for those enthusiasts whose passion dates back to their childhood, the first encounter with a dream car was typically not in the driveway or on twisting back roads during a blissful ride in the passenger’s seat, but with a tiny scale model perched on a bookshelf or bedside table.
The Dux brand toy car, manufactured by Markes and Co. in Lüdenscheid, marked the beginning of a great and fascinating tradition. The Mercedes-Benz SL series of cars has been one of the most represented automobiles in miniature format, particularly the 300 SL Coupe ( W 198 I, 1954 to 1957) and the 190 SL (W 121, 1955 to 1963). These cars, now iconic classic automobiles, both remain popular as models even today due to their timeless beauty. These enduring series of models showcase the wide range of sizes, materials and attention to detail that has characterized the culture of model cars. They also show how innovative processes have entered the toy industry over several decades, such as how deep-drawn tin bodies gave way to injection-molded plastic and/or metal, and how wind-up engines were replaced by electric drives.
The history of toy and model cars based on various incarnations of the Mercedes-Benz SL sports car is almost as long as that of the SL class itself. This link between real-life cars and their miniature versions has been a constant factor in the history of the automobile. From racing and sports cars to saloons and even heavy trucks, toys and models represent vehicles of every type and from every period. The evolution of model cars has necessarily flowed parallel to the evolution of the automobiles they represent, and while model cars have had a distinct automotive subculture surrounding them, they will always be inseparable from the wider world of the automobile. The Mercedes-Benz SL and its miniature renditions are fine examples of this fascinating relationship between real cars and the celebrations of them that come in model form.
Reflecting the SL Tradition
Many of the other cars in the Mercedes-Benz SL line have also enjoyed great popularity in the world of toy and model cars, right from the moment of introduction. Six decades of SL tradition have seen the creation of a whole universe of miniatures of these Mercedes-Benz sports cars, from the W 194 racing car and model series W 198 (300 SL) and W 121 (190 SL) to the ‘Pagoda’ W 113 from 1963 and model series R 107 (1971), R 129 (1989), R 230 (2001) and R 231 (2012).
Over the same period, there was an increasingly noticeable differentiation in the purpose and the target groups for these miniatures. On the one side were the sturdy replicas of Mercedes-Benz originals made for active play, while on the other was an increasing number of more and more detailed models whose intricate designs appealed mostly to collectors who wanted to display these little works of art in showcases.
Sports Cars – A New Beginning for Mercedes-Benz and the Toy Industry
When the miniature of the 300 SL racing car (W 194) was released under the Dux (lat. ‘leader’) brand in 1953, the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing Coupe (W 198) was still a secret development project at Mercedes-Benz. The design of the 1953 Dux model was, of course, based on the profile of the prototype racing car that had already burst onto the world stage and scored numerous important victories for the German car maker. But the W 194 already gave a taste of the line and the aesthetics of the now iconic 300 SL production vehicle that was eventually launched at the International Motor Sports Show in New York in 1954. The toy industry was happy to take this bright new beginning for Mercedes-Benz in the sports car sector as an incentive to create a whole new world of models.
In technical terms, the 1953 Dux miniature was designed and built according to the traditional principles used in most toy cars of the period. The body was deep-drawn from tin and then joined to the frame. This technique was used as early as the mid-1930s, in the well-known replica of the Mercedes-Benz W 25 racing car produced by Schuco. This little Silver Arrow is still being made today.
For its 300 SL, Dux decided not to use the normal process of sticking tin flaps through slots and then bending them over, but instead went for screw fastenings. This method enabled the proud owner of the model to open the 300 SL (screwdrivers and spanners were supplied) and even to remove the wind-up engine. A few years later, the metal construction kit “Auto-Dux” even contained a dismantled version of the 190 SL (W 121), which had to be assembled before you could play with it. SL sports cars were later also offered as plastic model kits by a variety of manufacturers. The change from tin to plastic represents a paradigm shift that affected the entire model car sector. Not only were new materials introduced, but different manufacturing techniques and other forms of propulsion became established, especially from the 1960s.
The fascination of the original wind-up tin car remains. These toys are technical reminders of the period characterised by the 300 SL as the first series sports car in its family. In the 1990s, Märklin used this very technology to produce an impressive large-scale model of the W 198 I, including a limited edition for the 40th anniversary of the Federal State of Baden-Württemberg (silver) and a museum model (red).