Today we conclude our interview series with Michael Paul Smith; previously, we discussed his background in scale modeling and then some of his techniques and inspiration. But I know there’s a small (at least I hope it’s small) number of you who yet might dare indignance: “Yeah yeah, them’s there models is real cute and all, but this is a blog about cars!” Well shut yer yaps because here it comes, straight from the man himself: You want cars? You wanna know why and how and if your own favorites have ever been granted the pass to miniaturized photo-art immortality? Well as they say: strap in, shut up, and hang on, because we’re about to get our final discourse from Mr. Smith…
GIC: Have you ever owned or worked on a classic, eccentric, exotic, rare, custom, over-appreciated, underappreciated, unappreciated, older, craptastic, spectacular, or simply-just-dares-to-be interesting car? If not, tell us what flavor of Toyota you own, and has it been recalled yet?
MPS: Yes, my beloved 1951 Studebaker 4 door Champion! I had it for 12 years and it drove beautifully.
One day, a guy pulls up to the house and asks if it’s for sale. Without hesitating, I said “yes and you could take it for a test drive right then and now.” And he did. When he came back I told him he could borrow it for a week and pay me if he wanted to keep it. And that’s how I sold my Champ. (Yes, that is a true story).
I don’t have a car now – it’s a long sad story. When I did have one, it was a Subaru Legacy Station wagon. It was a great little car.
GIC: Have you found that modeling skills translate to their full-size counterparts? I find that quality modeling imparts a sort of zen-like approach and patience toward full-size projects, and a creative outlook for solutions. At least that’s what I’m hoping, for when I finally have a workable “garage” of my own. Explaining further (perhaps simplifying a bit): perhaps mastering an airbrush makes full-size paintwork easier. Bondo is used the same way on both model and real cars. And a critical eye for detail never hurts when restoring, showing, or even buying a car. I guess you can tell I’m making the pitch for modeling as a skill-set for life; would you agree, or am I way off base?
MPS: I’m a terrible mechanic. Even changing a headlight becomes an epic production for me. But, I can do home renovations fairly well for some odd reason. My modeling skills have helped me look at full size projects as a series of sub assemblies: “this” has to happen before “that” can happen. And unless it’s electrical or serious plumbing, most everything can be broken down to a series of small tasks. I just have to use bigger tools.
GIC: What metrics do you use when choosing vehicles for your collection and your pictures? There’s obviously an eye towards era; after that, why, say, the Plymouth instead of the Buick, or a particular color over another?
MPS: I’m very partial to orphan cars and everyday vehicles. As nice as high-end vehicles are, it’s the common man’s ride that I’m drawn to. Even as a kid, I was aware of how people tried to make ends meet. To have a car – any car – was a big deal. You kept it running and took pride in it. In 1956 we became the owners of a ’48 plymouth; it was our family’s first car. It was as big and gray as an elephant and my Dad washed and waxed it and babied it.
In my photos, I try to capture the lower middle class ambiance of early and mid 20th Century America (which was not a bad place to be socially). I wish there were more diecast cars that reflected that social strata. But because there aren’t, I tend to mix older cars with one or two newer cars to give the sense of different social classes interacting.
As for colors of diecasts in my collection and photos, I really prefer anything that’s not red. When I was a kid, there were virtually no red cars where I lived, so this is a built-in prejudice for me. The town was only one square mile, so I knew the cars that were around. I do remember the occasional 2- and 3-tone jobs, but mostly the colors were fairly pedestrian.
GIC: Do you have other vehicle models you haven’t shown off in your photographs, say from different eras or in different scales or the like?
MPS: I’m always waiting for the right time and inspiration to use certain models. I’m waiting for inspiration so can I use a ’58 or ’62 Thundebird. Again, I don’t want to showcase the car, but use it in a way that it appears incidental. There’s also a Studebaker Hawk that’s waiting in the wings.
The photo with the ’39 Ford Deluxe came about by looking at cars driving on a bridge I have to cross every evening. The way the fading sunset reflected off the sides of the cars, as they drove by, was inspiring. The ’39 has a terrific profile that reflects light beautifully. I brought it along for the shoot, just in case the lighting was right. Even though the finished picture doesn’t have that exact look to it, the essential idea is there.
Rumor has it that a ’53 Studebaker is going to be released. Although it’s red, it does have a white top. To de-emphasize it’s “showy-ness “, I was contemplating a “barn scene” where it’s covered with a tarp or lots of dust. [GIC: wow… do I ever have a photo for that!]
GIC: Do you leave most of your car models stock, or do you modify them in some way (either for appearance or photography)?
MPS: Too many of the diecast cars have white walls so I sometimes cover them up with paint. Or I take the tires off and reverse them so just the black walls show. If you look at old photos, most cars just have black tires. Black walls give a subtle hint that this is a working-class vehicle. (Granted, this is a gross general statement, but you know what I’m getting at).
I did alter the Custom Ford Hot Rod [in the “Dink’s” photo above], because the rear fender was just too unusual and drew too much attention to itself. After I removed the piece I added a chrome spear to give a little visual zip to that area.
GIC: I used to think I had a fair knowledge of what’s out there in model form, but you’ve got quite a few that aren’t the most common. It seems fair to say your diecasts aren’t all the mass-market Maistos and Johnny Lightnings, or even Franklin Mints or Brooklyns or AutoArts… you’ve got some nice stuff. Is there a favorite brand you prefer to work with, or does it not really matter in the end?
MPS: I love Danbury Mint! The Franklin Mint is a close second. My best Chevy’s were from West Coast Precision Diecast – the steering wheels were the correct thickness, the glove compartments opened and the front seats moved on rails. Plus the range of colors was jaw dropping. I’m always looking for accurate and interesting diecasts that reflect an era.
GIC: Is there a car you long to see a model of, but haven’t found or know to exist?
MPS: Oh to have a ’52 through ’54 Ford! A Kaiser Manhattan! A Nash Rambler! A ’46 through ’48 Plymouth! A ’38 Chevy! A Willys! And how about a ’55/’56 Plymouth or Dodge? And just for kicks, a 1961 Plymouth Fury?
The good news is you never know what’s coming down the pike; I never thought they’d produce a ’51 Studebaker… I now have 3 of them.
GIC: If intergalactic overlords decreed that your entire collection shall be reduced to vaporish rubble, save for one item that could be spared for you to keep… which one would that be?
MPS: Ok, I admit, over the years, I have given that considerable thought. And it’s a tough question. If you put a gun to my head, I’d have to say the two-tone ’55 Ford Victoria.
If I can waffle for awhile, then it’s a toss up between the ’55 Pontiac hardtop and ’49 Mercury woody. But then if I had a few more minutes, the Tucker and the Le Sabre would be in the running.
Man, this is too difficult…
Here’s a sad story: I had 70 of my best diecasts in a glass-fronted cabinet and it fell over causing a terrible situation. I didn’t cry or yell out because it was so surreal. I remember everything being in slow motion and there was a drawn out crashing sound that lasted for what seemed to be 10 minutes. I salvaged most of them, but the severe casualties are still in a box which I haven’t had the courage to open up since “The Incident”.
GIC: You’ve an incredibly eclectic collection of cars on display; the Starlite, Edsel wagon, and panel wagon/vans (just to name a few) are all very-much Hoon-approved. I like the “everyman” approach you seem to take, instead of the usual “muscle cars and dream machines” most people focus on. Of course that era hadn’t really taken hold yet, but I just wanted to commend you on keeping things “real” as opposed to fantasy.
That being said… on the other hand… do you have any completely “irrational” displays? (I just saw the Chrysler Turbine & Robots… great shot! )
MPS: I have plans for a Jetson’s type house that I designed at 1/24th scale and the cars in the shot will be the Le Sabre and the Mako Shark ‘Vette. There’s also a planned scene with the Super Car.
In my Elgin Park site (which is also on Flickr), there is a photo of the bungalow model with the Cyclops tramping around in it. Another Elgin Park thing I’m doing, with online friends, is taking my model photos and photoshopping ourselves into the scenes. It’s a complete “180” from my model photos – sometimes you just have to get silly.
And now, the Lightning Round…
GIC: Chevy (GM), Dodge (Mopar), Ford (FoMoCo), or AMC (AMC)?
GIC: BMW, Mercedes, or VW / Audi / Porsche?
GIC: Aston Martin, Mini, or Jaguar?
GIC: Honda, Nissan, or Toyota?
GIC: Saab or Volvo?
GIC: Alfa, Ferrari, or Lamborghini?
GIC: Petty, Earnhardt, or Stewart?
GIC: F1, Nascar, WRC or “other”?
MPS: F1 (if I have to choose)
GIC: Lada, Trabant, or Yugo?
GIC: Pacer, Pinto, or Vega?
GIC: “What’s your Eleanor”?
MPS: 1961 two tone Plymouth Fury! It defined an era that never happened.
And with that irrefutably worthy Eleanor, verily as all good things, does our interview now come to an end. I (GIC) and we (my overlords the rest of the staff at Hooniverse) hope you enjoyed this change of pace and scenery – if it was a TL;DR that’s probably my fault. We’d once again like to offer our sincere thanks to Michael Paul Smith for taking the time to be such an enthusiastic interviewee, and for allowing us to share a small sampling of his works here. It was our pleasure… but if we can ever decide on a singular, official Hooniverse Mascot Vehicle (FC-150! FC-150!), By hook or crook he’ll have to build it for us.
No seriously I jest. Or do I? But that would be cool, would it not?
Again: enjoy a comprehensive mega-gallery of selected works from this entire series below; and do I really still need to be telling you to check Michael Paul Smith’s Flickr Photostream? Do I? You know what, forget the tongue-in-cheek warnings… just pay up your health insurance (or defensively numb up with everclear and 40-weight), and head over there already.
[Photo credits: Ken Leonard (’61 Fury), Michael Paul Smith (all others)]