One of the great things about having kids, I’m told, is that you get an excuse to buy all the cool toy cars you miss from your own childhood. That’s fine and nice, but I’m here to help you justify buying more miniature model cars regardless of your family situation.
Obviously, I’m not the first adult to enjoy and appreciate toy cars. But I am really proud of how I’ve started working them into the decor of my apartment and enjoying them in such a way that feels physically and mentally satisfying. So I’m going to inspire you all to do the same.
Now it probably won’t surprise anyone who follows me on Instagram to learn that there are model cars in various scales scattered on most flat surfaces in my place. It certainly didn’t surprise my fiancé, who very patiently said nothing as I built a shrine to International Scouts in my hallway and, more recently, recreated a scene from my imagination of 1970s Baja racing for our living room.
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The diorama was not terribly difficult to build, but it was hugely fun and now I can’t stop admiring it. I came to realize that making car dioramas like this could be a great outlet for automotive creativity for those who don’t want to or can’t afford to work on real project cars.
Modeling is not quite as satisfying as driving, but it barely requires any space or money. Plus, it will be an easy way to show all your guests how much of a car nerd you are. I’ll walk you through how I made mine to get you inspired.
This saga really started at the Culver City Car Show, where I met Paul Meck of the Burning Rubber Toy Company. He and his partner had an entire commercial truck that opened up and was basically a mobile toy store. I was having almost as much fun admiring the models as I was looking at the real cars of the show, when a Dodge Ramcharger decked out in South Point Casino Baja livery caught my eye. Then I saw a miniature of Pete Brock’s 240Z that raced in the 1973 Baja 500 and got to thinking, man, those would look so cool racing each other through the sand.
At this point, I have to admit that I do not believe the real versions of those vehicles ever actually went fender-to-fender. The Ramcharger would have first seen action at least a few years later than the Z, but come on. The models were to scale with each other (1:64 to the real thing) and I loved the fact that they were both atypical but real desert race rigs.
I paid about $10 a piece for the cars and headed straight to Michael’s arts and crafts shop after the show ended. There, I got some very light balsa wood to make a base, thin strips of wood to turn the base into a tray, fake sand (which is pretty much just ultra-coarse sand paper), fake palm trees (so cute!) and some fake shrubs I didn’t end up using. From there, I went to the beach to grab real sand and real rocks sized “small” and “extremely small.” I could already see the finished product in my head, and it was going to be awesome.
The first thing to do was to cut the base and “guardrail” strips. All I had was a hacksaw, which has tiny teeth optimized for metal and not wood, but thankfully balsa wood is so flimsy you can pretty much use a butter knife to cut it and so the saw worked OK.
When all the pieces were made, I used some Testor’s modeling glue to hold the guardrails to the wood base. The connection was tenious, but again, all these walls had to do was hold a few grains of sand from spilling onto the table so structural integrity was not a priority. My cuts were mediocre, so I just sanded down the edges to make the whole thing look coherent and organic.
The fake sand was necessary because it would make the foundation of the scene, and eventually the “road” such as it is in Baja. I needed the cars to look like they were following a path, and that path had to be hard-packed so they wouldn’t sink. Cutting it with a pair of scissors was kind of a pain, but once it was in, I didn’t worry about having it lay completely flat. One big benefit of building a scene that’s supposed to be rugged is that you don’t have to be terribly precise.
My next step was to lay little rocks, which would actually look like boulders next to my 1:64 scale cars. Even littler rocks went near those to make the stone piles look more natural. It totally worked!
After that, I used a tiny bit of glue to affix a few fake palm trees in an orientation I found aesthetically pleasing. Finally, I spooned real sand from the beach onto the rocks and over the tree bases to give the scene more depth and define the road.
With the trail blazed in my itty-bitty Baja scene, I parked the cars along the course and very carefully moved the whole thing from my dining room table to the book shelf. The only thing that’s really affixed to itself are the balsa wood pieces, so the next time we get an earthquake or a rowdy dog walks by this thing is done for. But that will just be an opportunity to try a new scene!
This took me about three hours, including material collection, and maybe $35 worth of stuff but I have to say–it was a lot more fun than crawling under my dirty old truck and accomplishing nothing, which is usually what happens when I try to play mechanic.
Anyway, I’m not going to quit learning how to work on real cars, but I would definitely recommend playing with little cars if you’re looking to do something with your hands that you can do successfully with a lot less time and skill.