Found in the Letterbox

The following are e-mail responses to 'Tales of Toy Cars' and The Breithaupt Miniature Motorcar Museum. Your letters are welcome and may be submitted via e-mail

"Doug, good morning. I just finished reading the Sept. 01 Webzine, & wanted to let you know how great a job your doing. If I could make a one suggestion it would be to change the color of the text in your articles to a darker color. The light blue gets totally washed out & almost impossible to read & enjoy. I know I'm probably a minority of one but thought I'd try a suggestion any way. Thanks for your time & keep up the great job your doing."

Mel Nunns

Editor's Response: Thank you for the encouragement. The text should be in black or dark blue for all the articles. Is anyone else seeing light blue?

"Doug, I have just read your September magazine and want to congratulate you publicly on yet another outstanding set of articles.

I also want to thank you for deciding to stay with us in (the Matchbox) forum. I think I can say on behalf of all of us that we are glad to have you here. Your copy of our "Lada 2101" thread in the letterbox section (including a link to (the Matchbox) forum) is a particularly nice touch.

Of course I was especially thrilled to finally see a Citroen article which I found very interesting indeed. I want to make a few comments on some points: The first small-scale diecast Citroen DS model was not the Majorette, but most probably the Matchbox DS which was introduced in 1959 (not 1955). The Husky Citroen ID Break was first issued in 1964, being one of the very first Husky models. Sadly Majorette's Citroen XM is not current anymore; it was phased out in 1999. I do not think I have ever heard of a brand called Gisima. If anybody knows any details about the Citroen BX model of that brand, please get in touch!

In the Toyota Celica article you forgot to mention the 2nd generation Celica by Matchbox, which was first made in Japan in 1978/79, later in Hong Kong. That particular Celica model was only made in the Lesney era, from 1978 to 1982. The Celica was first issued (and made) in Japan in 1978, available in cream and red. It appeared in the USA for the first time (in red with "Sunburner" tempa, made in Hong Kong) in the Limited Edition set of 1980. 1981 saw the release of a plain red version in the Australian range as number 77. This was also available in the USA in a four pack called "Speed Sticks". Later in 1981 the blue version was included in the basic 1-75 US range as number 25. The yellow one was number 25 in the US range of 1982, soon to be replaced by a re-issue of the Chevrolet Ambulance, formerly known as number 41.

Finally, your comment on the number of color variations in the Corvette article seems a bit odd to me. Of course there are lots of model cars of which more than sixteen different color variations exist. You could mention almost every Bulgarian-made Matchbox model, for example, or Majorette's Citroen SM or several other Majorettes of the same era. The list can be continued endlessly!"

Christian Falkensteiner, Linz, Austria

Editor's Response: Christian is right on all these points and I appreciate his help on these issues. I have to find one of the Matchbox Celicas shown above.

"Other corrections you may be interested in are the introduction dates for Majorette Citroëns. According to The Unauthorized Guide To Majorette Toys by the two Ronnies (sorry guys but I figure someone had to say it ) Ron Lohr and Ron Gold, the dates are:

Acadiane 1980
DS 21 Ambulance 1973
DS 21 covered headlamps 1969
Dyane Maharaja 1975
Dyane Raid 1976
GS 1972
GS Camargue 1974

Hope this helps,"

Mark Foster.

Editor's Response: Thanks for the clarification Mark.

"I read your article in Tales of Toy Cars. It was a fascinating comparison feature with a list of companies I wasn't even aware of. The comparative features were well thought out and added for an extremely nice balance. Bravo, please keep it up. After eying some of the photos for some time, I realized that I do in fact have one question.... Where can I get them all? I can only find the odd Matchbox or Hot Wheels."

Derek Johnson

Editor's Response: You will find some of the Porsches on my sale/trade page. Otherwise, you need to scout out the local retailers in your area that offer diecast cars, attend local toy shows and search online. That's how the rest of us do it. Further note: Derek cleaned me out of extra Porsche models.

Editor's Note: Here is a wonderful story from Chuck Dressing of RACER magazine. Be sure to read to the end for a nice toy car twist.

You Can Tell It's Mattel

Jacksonville, Fla., Sept. 7 - There is always a sense of relief after the Grand Prix of Belgium. Speedvision's broadcast of all the bon homie and back-slapping after Schumacher Major won his 52nd F1 was further proof of Spa's dark and nasty reputation. Their body language said, "Thank God that's over."

Like you, I tried to watch the start last Sunday, because I think Spa is an important and magical place. But the dogs, creatures of habit that they are, finally lost patience when Frentzen's Prost stalled on the grid.

When we returned from our walk the red flag was out, and Bob Varsha was sounding very serious and professional. These were the same careful and controlled tones we heard from Bob seven years ago on the seventh lap of the San Marino GP. Very professional; very correct. Not a good sign. Especially at Spa, one of those few remaining grand places like Monza, Indy and Le Mans where the game is played at high speed for big stakes.

Spa has always been serious business. Even when they amputated the nasty and lethal bit from Haut de la Cote eliminating Burnenville (the sweeping right that none other than braver-than-all-of-us-combined Chuck Daigh called "the scariest corner in the world"), Masta, the Masta kink, Stavelot and La Carriere to rejoin the old circuit at Blanchimont, Spa maintained its blinding pace and kept its fangs.

Mighty Spa is the place where Michael Schumacher should have won his fourth World Championship, rather than at that polite little bit of Hungarian pavement 12 miles north of Budapest. Spa is majestic in a manner that no other contemporary F1 circuit can approach. Even without the Masta straight and The Kink, Spa reeks with portent. Seeing Spa in person can change your perception of F1 racing.

Visiting it for the first time produced an eerie sensation featuring nearly the same elements and emotions as a trip to an important battlefield. We approached on foot from the little village of La Source encountering Spa at the hairpin with the downhill run to Eau Rouge as the panorama.

It was midweek, so the place was cathedral-quiet. There was some leisurely track maintenance underway. The local birds weren't yet in the mood for Italy or Africa, so there was singing and chirping in the trees to cut the silence and soften the mood. But the place is still dark green and menacing; all the photos and television pictures of Eau Rouge fail to convey the soul of Spa the way our brief visit did. It was and remains a circuit from the days before chicanes, when the organizers of the Belgian, French and Italian Grands Prix vied to host F1's fastest race. Spa, more often than not, won that unofficial title. Sometimes, I recalled last Sunday morning, at a high price.

The Battle of the Bulge was fought near Spa; the local road signs that point toward Malmedy still summon a pang for any American with a sense of history. Forty years ago our own Phil Hill scored the first win of his World Championship season from Spa's pole less than a week after he and Belgian Olivier Gendebien won Le Mans for the second time. Hill led a 1-2-3-4 Ferrari sweep in the Ardennes covering the 262.83 miles at 128.144mph: That in a 91ci V6 Ferrari Tipo 156.

And that was the slowest Grand Prix Phil Hill won in his career. He had won his first at Monza a year earlier, during the British boycott of Monza's banking. Hill's 132.069mph average in the voluptuous Ferrari 246 Dino was the final victory for a front-engined F1 car. It was the car he drove during the noon demonstration laps on Saturday at this year's Monterey Historics. Glorious stuff. Luckily a few 246 Dinos have survived, and we have Ford to thank for the preservation of Phil's Monza and Monterey ride.

Phil won the 1961 Italian GP at Monza as well. Exactly 40 years ago this weekend, he averaged over 130mph in the little 1.5-liter 156 to win Monza. His only rival for the World Championship, Wolfgang von Trips, died on the second lap when he touched the Lotus of Jim Clark entering Curva Parabolica.

It was a hard-won victory. The original engine in Hill's 156 was weak. "We took two lap times, adding the time around the road course with the time around the bowl," said Hill. "Adding them gave you your lap time. I was 2sec slower around the bowl! There's no skill driving on the banking; you just put your foot down." It was only good enough for fourth on the Monza grid, and he knew something was very wrong.

"That engine didn't have enough power to pull the skin off a rice pudding," he said. His memories of that September weekend are gin-clear. His 2sec deficit to his Ferrari teammates around Monza's flat-out banking triggered a complex and time-consuming Saturday-night engine change.

On Sunday, after 267 miles, Hill's 156 was the only Ferrari still running: Von Trips was dead; Ginther, Baghetti and Rodriguez were all out with engine failures. Phil Hill won the 1961 Italian GP and the World Championship on intellect and speed. Enzo Ferrari always reckoned Hill was the best man to have on your team when speeds were high, and Phil's juicy CV proves the point.

What Ferrari didn't say was that Phil Hill is also very likely the smartest man ever to sit in an F1 car. Ferrari teammate Peter Collins - his co-driver at Sebring in their 1958 victory for Ferrari - called Hill "egghead" in the era when the term was reserved for ranking academics, philosophers, intellectuals and other really smart guys. Hill's interpretation and solution of his Monza problem offer hard proof that Collins was on to something.

By September 10, 1961 Phil Hill had become (and remains) the first to win Le Mans and the World Championship in the same season. It gets better: In just six months he won the 12 Hours of Sebring, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, broke the Nurburgring's mythic 9min barrier, won the Grands Prix of Belgium and Italy and the World Championship.

A year later he was out of Ferrari, and the svelte little Tipo 156s were gone as well: Crushed, converted, mutilated. Gone forever. In this 40th anniversary year, a resurgence of interest in the amazing achievements of Phil Hill and the smallest Ferrari to win a world title seems to have emerged.

I was pleased to see that the latest Classic Motorbooks catalog features Sharknose 156, a new, hardbound 192-page book by Ed McDonough covering the Tipo 156 and Phil Hill's championship season. Apparently people are finally starting to get the idea that what Phil Hill did with the 156 was pretty special; even if Phil himself does not.

Then, last Sunday, right after the Belgian GP, I found absolute and incontrovertible proof that this anniversary has been etched in stone. There, next to the auto supply aisles of my friendly local Target store - I always buy from those who support racing - was the Mattel Hot Wheels display. And right at premium eye level was Mattel Hot Wheels Collector Car No. 050; a blister-packed Ferrari 156 Sharknose. Not some $1000 bespoke collector's model, but a Sharknose for kids - thousands of them - to play with and race and collect.

Sure the wheels and tires are well out of scale, but the detail on this 74-cent child's toy is impressive and amazing. Like the final iteration of the 1961 Tipo 156, it evokes Carlo Chiti's potent 120deg twin-blister V6 engine, a stylish and accurate-to-scale twin-nostril nose, even the flat-gray roll hoop, the riveted gas tanks, twin rear brake ducts and the yellow Cavallino rampante shield, even the twin megaphone exhausts. From every angle - save the tires and wheels - Mattel's 156 is brilliant and accurate. But the best part is every Hot Wheels Sharknose wears No. 2 - the number Phil Hill's Monza and World Championship winner wore 40 years ago this weekend.

Now I am hardly a Hot Wheels expert, but it seems to me that Phil Hill is the only World Champion, American or otherwise, to have his ride immortalized by Hot Wheels. I bought two.

Chuck Dressing, Senior Editor, RACER