Left to right: Christian Braun, Marcel R Van Cleemput and Tony Brandon
As part of our fundraising for the Helen and Douglas House Tony Brandon, Christian Braun and I met Marcel for dinner last Saturday. Apologies from Andrew Adamides, Chris Aston (of Aston Auctions), Hugo Marsh (formerly Christie's and now SAS) and Tom Hickwell who after paying up in full for the charity all for various reasons could not make the dinner.
The dinner took place at Fawsley Hall which is located near Daventry in Northamptonshire. Fawsley has an interesting history and was a Royal Manor as early as the 7th century. Over the centuries Fawsley was continuously developed in a variety of styles, reflecting each period. Today Fawsley Hall is a Country House Hotel and Spa with facilities to house conferences and is an ideal wedding venue. For anyone wishing to explore Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire, Althorp, Warwick Castle and Blenheim or racing at Silverstone Fawsley Hall is ideally located.
Over a very enjoyable dinner, there were lots of questions for Marcel from ourselves and Toy Collector’s members! To start with, we asked him to name the five top models he’d include in his model range if he was still in the toy car business. Marcel told us that since he doesn’t follow current car models, he’d be pushed to name five but that the range would definitely include a Smart Car because he has one, and a BL Wedge Princess would be number two because he once owned one during his time at Mettoy and found it to be totally reliable (in contrast to the image of most BL products!). Another likely candidate would be a Triumph Herald as he had a memorable journey in one, driving from Daventry to Florence, Italy on a summer holiday with his wife and two young daughters in around 1960. The journey was 1002 miles and Marcel hadn’t booked accommodation in advance but struck it lucky while driving round Florence looking for somewhere to stay. He suddenly found himself outside “The Grand Hotel” and, taking his two young daughters into the reception area, he managed to persuade the reception staff to allow him and his family to stay. Marcel said that a special feature for this model would be a roof rack with two large miniature suit cases strapped on. He didn’t mention whether it would be a coupe like the famous Corgi model!
Marcel went on to tell us more about Mettoy. At its peak, the company employed over 5,000 people. These included 60 tool makers and three people in their Art Department. There were occasions when they outsourced moulds to Germany in the first few years, later, toolmakers were used in Italy. Prototype models were mainly outsourced from Ian Pickering of Southend, Ian was the finest model maker and was responsible for the best prototypes, The Coronation Coach, as shown in the Great Book of Corgi being typical of his fine work. When really stretched Marcel used Gerald Wingrove whose models were outstanding.
The injection moulding machines Mettoy used were designed and made in-house. These machines were always on the forefront of technology and regularly updated. Mettoy did use die-sets made by Die Casting Machine Tools (DCMT). Copper masks were deployed for two-tone models and for applying additional painted detailing such as grilles and bumpers. The Art Department were responsible for producing all art work including catalogues, decals and packaging. However, the decal production was outsourced and the manufacture and printing of the packaging was carried out by Vernon Packaging of Northampton.
Although car manufacturers would supply blueprints of their models, Marcel never used them. He recalled that Studebaker once sent him 1:1 scale plans of their Golden Hawk. They weren’t used for two reasons - one was the lack of space they had to roll out the plans in their office and the second was that they were out of date! Soon after he received the plans, Studebaker had carried out several modifications to the car and Corgi wanted the most up to date version. As was common with manufacturers, they rarely updated the blueprints when they made design changes after the fact.
Instead of using blue prints Marcel preferred to photograph a car. This would result in around 70 images of the vehicle in question, taken from all angles, including the interior and occasionally of the underside of the chassis. Marcel would then develop the films at home that evening and print off all the whole plates early next morning so that the model designer could start work immediately on producing an accurate body external drawing of the model. These were always drawn at 4 times model size for accuracy but then reduced to twice the model size for the master pattern maker to produce the body pattern. The wood used was lime as it has a very fine grain. Marcel always took along with him the designer who was to produce the accurate body external drawing. This helped to ensure that the designer was fully au fait with the vehicle and would easily recollect the fine features etc. After taking the photographs, they measured the car and made a drawing to scale on graph paper of the side, front and rear elevations as well as a plan view. They also used very large sheets of paper to lay over the main areas of the car and used crayons to rub over the entire curves and shapes. The principle was" just like taking brass rubbings in a church" Marcel told us. He explained that using this method all the details and their relationship with each other was faithfully recorded. These records would then be used by the model makers to prepare scale models for evaluation purposes. Once the go-ahead was given they would then be used by the tool makers in the first step towards model production.
In the Mettoy era, paying royalties to make models of cars was a rarity - Lord Stokes and Ken Tyrell wanted to be paid royalties from Mettoy for certain Corgi Toys, but Marcel refused and managed to get ELF fuels, Tyrell’s Formula 1 sponsor, to pay Ken the £6,000 he asked for, in return for selling ELF 20,000 Corgi Tyrell in special boxes for them to sell in their filling stations. Indeed, all deals Marcel struck with car, film and TV companies were on a handshake! There was no paperwork involved.
Many of our members asked why the move to 1:36th scale. Marcel took full responsibility for this one! He reasoned that a larger scale would enable finer details and the only additional costing implication would be for materials. Research and development costs incurred were the same whatever the scale. Marcel felt that the larger scale was well suited to the Formula 1 racing cars Corgi were planning at the time. When asked why didn’t he use the more established 1:32nd scale, the same used by Airfix for their plastic car kits and Scalextric for their slot racing system, he replied that he never considered any competitor’s ranges. “We were too busy dealing with what we were doing to look at what other firms were making” he replied.
The discussion then moved to the 1:18th scale Formula 1 racing cars. Marcel said that this decision was based on an historical connection. Back in 1958 Mettoy released a large scale Vanwall Formula 1 car at the same time as the Corgi Toys version was issued. The Vanwall was roughly 1:18th scale and was a special for Marks and Spencer’s. So in 1974 the first 1:18th scale F1 car was released. This was the Lotus ‘John Player Special’ and sold very well in its four year production run. Only one other 1:18th scale model was issued, the Marlboro McLaren. Further models were considered but other projects took over and the demand on time for their development curtailed any future involvement in this scale.
In the early 1970‘s there were plans to produce the Rocket stock cars in the Corgi Toys scale. These would have complimented the dragster range Corgi were currently developing. However, there was no time to proceed with this venture either, as other topics suddenly took priority. Marcel said that this was a typical recurrence. His team was small in number and they were always overstretched. At any one time they would be responsible for around 45 different models at various stages of development. His team of designers were always stretched to the limit and very hard working. They often put in as many as 25 hours overtime per week, this would include Saturdays and Sundays.
Personal recollections at Mettoy
Marcel didn’t enjoy a particularly good working relationship with Howard Fairbairn, his boss at Mettoy. An authoritarian leader, Fairbairn was set on doing things his way and his interpersonal skills could leave a lot to be desired. Marcel once had a personal invitation from the James Bond producers to spend three weeks on their set in Egypt, but wasn’t allowed the time off by Fairburn. The invitation was in recognition of Marcel’s hard work on the Corgi Toys James Bond Lotus Esprit and on previous James Bond models. His consolation was a lovely card from the film signed by most of the cast.
Another personal invite did actually go ahead. One day he received a call from Anthony Bamford, owner of JCB. Neither Anthony nor Marcel could find time for an essential meeting, Anthony therefore suggested a weekend and to meet him at East Midlands Airport and to ensure he brings his passport. On arrival he was taken to Mr Bamford’s private jet and taken off to Le Mans! Again this was in recognition of Marcel’s work on a variety of JCB models and a Ferrari Daytona owned by Mr Bamford that raced at Le Mans. It was a tremendous occasion.
There were plenty of other visits too - Marcel fondly remembers that when he visited the Lamborghini factory, it was spotlessly clean and he felt one could eat dinner off their floor! It was an amazing place and they were treated very well by all staff there. The only other impressive car plant was that of the De Lorean factory in Northern Ireland.
On a different matter Marcel recalls the problems with Spanish toy car companies pirating their models. Suing would have cost lots of money and one could never know what the outcome would be if it did go though the court system. Marcel didn’t think that moulds were offered to any Spanish firm.
One model that Marcel always wanted to make was a camper van with an opening roof with ‘fabric’ sides. The main difficulty here was selecting the material for the sides. Finally, Plastic moulded slats onto fabric material was tried out but it then proved too complicated to be able to fold the material. The folding was important because the roof had to be opened and closed repeatedly in the process of play. Unfortunately, lack of time was against them and the project was shelved.
The Marcel R Van Cleemput Collection
We also asked Marcel about his famous collection. There were, he said, many reasons why Marcel sold it. The main reason was that he was in the process of moving to a small cottage from his large family home of many years. The move took seven weeks and there was no room for Marcel’s Corgi collection. Instead a friend offered to store the 50 boxes in their loft.
Nigel Turner of Turner's Merry Go Round, in Northampton was using Marcel to design a computerised musical instrument for him and learnt of his collection of Corgi Models.
Nigel wanted to buy the collection and agreed to create a museum at his Merry Go Round complex where the models etc. would be on permanent display as they really belonged to be in Northampton. Marcel sold the collection to him for £ 7,250. This included all the models to the early 1980's as well as posters, leaflets, over 100 prototypes, master patterns and resins together with a body mould.
Nigel then talked to Alan Levy about a Corgi book, Alan jumped at the chance of a book about Corgi Toys and the rest is history, up to a point. The fact that all the models were now on display made it easy to do all the photography for the book, which took 3 weeks. Nigel then also wanted to buy Bassett-Lowke, the other Northampton based toy legend but would only do so if Marcel agreed to come in as Design and Management consultant. This he agreed to do for 3 months but eventually stayed for 9 months.
Unfortunately, shortly after Marcel stopped working with Nigel the collection was sold onto a collector in Switzerland for £55,000. 10 years later that collector fell on hard times and had to sell up. A German auction house was given the collection to sell and it realised £250,000! Needless to say that it is a shame that this collection is not available to the public anymore; but maybe some of our members here want to consider creating a Corgi Museum.
Marcel signing Chris Sweetman's copy of The Great Book of Corgi (read also Toy Collector's interview with Marcel from last year)
All in all, we had a very enjoyable evening and would like to thank Marcel for taking the time to make it possible and for answering all our many questions. Thanks too to Fawsley Hall for providing a wonderful venue! We raised a total of £860 for the Helen & Douglas House on this occasion with the cost for the dinner being paid for by Toy Collector and Fawsley Hall.