Getting Rich on a Small Scale

by Robert J. Conners. Illustration by John Berkey. Published in Road & Track, August, 1985.

No, that one is not for sale, Both of them are mine. Yes, they’re Warren Johnson models. He was the greatest modeling genius the world ever saw, I allow. Know him? You bet I knew him. Better than anyone else around here. He was a strange one, all right, but I liked him. I sometimes wonder where he is now.

I expect it must have been around April of last year when I saw him for the first time. He was kind of mooching around in front of the store with a big cardboard box under his arm. He’d walk on by, looking in the window like a dog in front of a butcher’s, disappear, then come back. I was setting up a Tyco raceway in the back, so I don’t know how long he was out there.

Finally the door chime rang, and he came in, kind of gliding in cheap sneakers. A big fat guy, the sort who always looks shiny even in the winter. Ban-Lon shirt and greasy jeans; he looked like the fat kid in “Gasoline Alley,” except older and gone baggy. About 40, pink cheeks, curly yellow hair. And with this big cardboard box he carried real carefully.

The store was quiet just then. He put the box down on the counter and stood moving from one foot to another, like he had to go or something. And I asked him if I could help him.

“You, uh …” he said, his voice sounding scared, “you buy models as well as sell them, huh? My friend said you bought them.”

I went over. “Yes, we buy models. But only antiques or very special models. Not your old Revells.”

“This isn’t an old Revell. Do you want to see?”

“Okay, sure. What have you got?”

He took the top off and began to pull out cotton wool from the box. I looked, saw a flash of chrome, and then he reached down very carefully and slowly drew out a model car, a green 1967 Chevy, and put it on the counter in front of me.

It was not a commercial model. It was about 18 in. long, every line correct. Reaching out, I touched the fender with my forefinger, and the car rocked on tiny springs. Tiny coil springs. The model was all metal.

“Nice, huh?” He sounded proud. “All the details work, too. You have to use these tweezers and this needle.” Fumbling the tools from a shirt pocket, he unlatched and opened the Chevy’s door (it gave a high squeak). The seats were of worn vinyl, the driver’s covered with a miniature cool-seat. Reaching in with the long needle, he pressed the horn ring, and a thin blatting came from under the hood. He poked open the miniscule vent window.

“Pretty good model, huh?”

I was trying to keep my voice steady. “Not bad, not bad. Let me look more carefully.” I went and got my 20X magnifier while he stood there shifting from foot to foot.

Now, I think I know model cars as well as anyone around this city. They can be pretty damned nice. The Pochers are beautiful, the Solidos are fine models. I’ve seen those hand-cast and bolted Bugattis from Switzerland-lovely! I’ve seen photos of little Mercers a man builds that actually run. I know the market. But never in my life had I ever seen anything to approach the detail of this little Chevy. The tires were pressurized. The radio antenna went up and down. The doors all opened, the windows all raised and lowered (well, the driver’s side didn’t; broken, he said). All the tiny things were right; the little chrome Impalas were there. The wipers worked, the lights went on and off, it even had tiny rust holes and a bitty ding in the bumper. I mean, it was perfect. It had little casting holes in the back of the steering wheel, for crying out loud.

I tried to be blase. This fella was the greatest modeler in the world and didn’t seem to know it. “Not bad,” I said jokingly, “a little rusty, though.” He looked pained. “That’s for realism,” he said stoutly. “You could repaint it anyhow, couldn’t you? It runs good, real good.”

Staring, I said, “Runs? The motor?”

“Sure. Look.” Reaching carefully in with the tweezers, he turned the microscopic key in the dashboard. A highpitched, whirring sound, then a sharp growl from under the car. “Needs a new muffler,” he explained. “Is it a V-8?” I asked sarcastically. “No, just a six. Watch it go.”

He gingerly set it on the floor, where it was regarded with amazement by a couple of kids who had come in. Reaching in clumsily with an index finger, he moved the automatic transmission lever over; the growl changed. Holding the car back by the edges of the roof, he straightened the steering, then let it go. It crept, about 6 in./sec. down the aisle of the store. The kids were bug-eyed.

Warren (that was the name he told me, Warren Johnson) ran and stopped the car, turned it off, then looked up at me. “Well, are you interested?”

I nodded. “Come on into the office. Bring the car.”

Well, the long and short of it was that I ended up paying him $375 for the Chevy. I told him I had never seen a Chevy so fine and that any time he had any more models like that to come and see me. He was pleased, I was pleased, we shook hands and he twitched out the keys and gave them to me. I asked him how long it had taken to put the Chevy together. He looked confused for a second, then said just a couple months. He had some others under construction now and would show them to me when they were ready. He left then, walking fast.

I looked the car over. God, it was something. A little battery the size of your fingernail, an automatic transmission 3 in. long. Every nut and bolt perfect. There was even a flat spare and a miniature bag of rock salt in the trunk. I put the car in the window with a sign reading “World’s Most Detailed Model” and three days later a man from Cleveland bought it for $1100. When I took it from the window there was a little pool of oil under where the engine had been.

I didn’t see Warren for a few weeks after that, and thought it would take him months more to complete another model—I mean, it should have taken years to put a model like that together. He was a genius, that’s all. That’s what I told myself. Then about three weeks later he came in with two more models.

His clothes were new. He had on a cheap green polyester leisure suit that made him look like a watermelon, and the cardboard box was heavier.

“Hi, boss. I see you sold the Chevy.” His manner was different now; he was confident. I don’t know why he called me boss.

“Right. Got any more?”

“You bet. Can we go in the office?”

He had a Volkswagen Beetle model and a really nifty little old fastback Mustang. The details, everything, were just as perfect and amazing as those on the Chevy had been. He had somehow even duplicated the spare-pressure windshield-washer on the Bug.

“I, uh, have to tell you,” he said, casting his eyes down, “’the VW has a blown engine. Doesn’t run. For realism, y’know?”

“Realism. God, Warren, any more realism and I’ll expect you to produce a little human being out of your pocket and have him drive the cars away.” I was fascinated, tinkering with the 4-speed of the Mustang. “How do you get that weathered-paint look?”

He spoke quickly. “Oh, sanding, and a special paint I mix up myself. Do you want these?” He never seemed to like to talk about his techniques.

“Do you have any more?”

“I have some almost finished and some in the works. How much do you think these are worth? Do you want them?”

I couldn’t help it; I had to ask. “How in the world can you part with them for money after all the work you put in? I would want to keep them forever.”

“These?” He almost laughed. “Just a VW and an old Mustang? They’re nothing. I’ve got others in the works. But I need the money for these.”

Yes, I know. Strange. But not for me to wonder why, like the man says. I made a deal with Warren: I would be his exclusive distributor and he would sell all of his works of art (Who could call them just models? They’re worth tens of thousands today) through me. I gave him a grand on spec for the two he had brought and he promised to return within the month.

So we started our business relationship, Warren and me. I sold the VW for $1500 and the Mustang for $2300 to a Ford nut. The week afterward I got a call from a man who had seen the Chevrolet and wondered if I had anymore Johnson models. I took his number.

Two days later Warren mooched in with a yellow Pinto and a pretty Datsun B210 model. The polyester outfit was gone: now he was wearing a wool sportcoat. His nails were clean. “Hot stuff, huh, boss?” he said happily. Hot stuff it was; both models were gone in a week. His cars were getting known around the state and collectors often called me. At one point I just had to tell people I’d put them on a list.

It went like that. He would show up at odd times, and he’d have the damnedest models. Over the next few months he brought in a VW 412, a Sunbeam Alpine, two Plymouth Dusters, and a 1965 Valiant. That sort of car.

Most modelmakers do the classic cars, the Model Ts and the 1955 Chevys, the Cords and Bugattis. That’s what most people want models of. But this fella—the greatest modeler who ever lived, I expect—did only cheap, everyday cars. “I like those cars best,” he said when I asked him about it. “Those are the cars I grew up with.” And he kept on with the Mavericks and Toyota Corollas.

I know: I should have suspected something. In six months he came up with 16 complete model cars, and each one sold for more than $3,000. I put an ad in Model World and selling them was no problem. I kept a third and he got two thirds. My share came to more than $21,000. That’s a lot of money.

Throughout all this Warren kept completely to himself. He never told me where he lived, never gave me a phone number. “You take care of the business end, boss,” he said. “Everything.” He would come into the store at odd intervals with a model or two, talk a little while about prices, pick up his money and leave. He always asked for cashier’s checks. His clothes were much more expensive, I noticed, and one day when he left I saw him drive past a minute later in a gray XJ-S.

As I say, this went on for about half a year. The models sold well, but they were not, never would be, the classic cars that collectors would kill for. I finally figured that I needed to talk with Warren about it. One day after he had brought in a beautifully detailed but sort of ratty 1967 Ford pickup truck model, I sat him down in the office.

“Listen, Warren,” I said, “how long do you want to go on with this pennyante modeling? You can keep making these Checkers and Dodges at three grand a throw forever.”

“Yeah, the money’s pretty good!” he interrupted enthusiastically. I went on. “Or, you can start to make some real money.”

He looked confused. “Real money?”

It was time to give him my big gun. “I got a phone call yesterday from the president of the regional MG club. They’re willing to pay $9500 for one of your models. But it has to be an MG TC. Not another Malibu or Falcon.” He swallowed. “Almost ten grand? For one car?”

“Yes. And that’s peanuts compared to some. We could get more for others. There’ve been several people who wanted to order models, and I’ve had to tell them you were an eccentric genius who only did models of damn fool cars.”

“Ten thousand dollars,” he said wonderingly, and walked out the door in some sort of daze. Three days later he came back with his box: a perfect dark blue 1949 MG TC. You can’t put together a Pocher kit in three days, and this TC was 50 times more detailed.

I should have known then that something wasn’t right. But I expect that the dollar signs were in my eyes too. When the president of the TC Society came to pick up the model, he was flabbergasted. He looked at it for a moment, nudging the fabric of the top with a finger, sliding the side curtains back and forth.

“Unbelievable. Unbelievable.”

As he was making out his check I put the TC into one of the glass display cases I had had made up for Warren’s cars. “Where you going to put this model, Mr. Gallant?” I asked.

“Right in the lobby of my building,” he answered, tearing off the check.

“I’m going to lock this handbrake so it doesn’t roll around during the tr…hmmm, I guess not.” The handbrake lever had no tension; cable broken maybe.

“It broke?” Gallant came over. “Hmmm, no tension,” I said, moving the lever up and down to show him.

“Well, don’t worry about it. Just pack it in shavings or something …” He stopped, looked closely at the car again. “You know, the handbrake on Jack Castine’s car was always loose like that. Same color, too. Last I heard he was selling that car. Maybe your man used it as a model.”

“Might be, might be. Thank you, sir.”

All right, all right. But in all honesty, there was nothing illegal about what I did. The models were all sold legally, I have all the tax records. They were all bought and paid for. I run a clean shop; I sell no airplane glue to kids.

The operation changed for a while after that. Warren Johnson models had gotten so well known that I could name the prices; from middle-income and regional collectors our customers became top-level national and even international people. The days of Gremlins and Galaxies were over: after that MG, Warren let me know he’d accept orders.

“It might take me a little longer, boss,” he said as I made out his bank check for $8,000 (I worked on percent age by then; he got smarter). And he did take longer-he would sometimes be gone for a month before he showed up with what the collector had ordered.  I tell you, those were the glory days. We got orders from all over; for a Z-car, a Jag E-Type, a Lotus Elan, and Warren kept the models rolling in. God, they were lovely. No more misplaced “realism,” no more rust and dings. The models were gems, just gems. The 240Z sold for $13,500, and I heard it just changed hands for $37,000 last week.

But Warren would only take certain orders, nothing too old, nothing too rare. “I always have to get more for the model than the car itself.” he told me once, “it’s a point of pride. If one man built a Pinto, it’d be expensive too.” So I had to turn away the Cord and Duesenberg people, the serious individual collectors. And the number of people with big money who want modern car models is limited.

The day came finally. Warren walked in with a really heart-breaking model of a Mazda RX-7 (the little Wankel engine made a high whining sound) and wanted to know what was next. I had to tell him there were no more orders.

“No more orders? For my cars?” he repeated dumbly, eyes round. “Sure, I’ve got orders,” I replied, “orders for a Bugatti Type 35, a Duesenberg SJ, a boat-tail Auburn, a…”

“All right, all right,” he growled, “you know what I told you about those cars. Too hard to blueprint, too hard to do…” He sounded unconvincing.

“Hard to do?” I made my voice sarcastic. “Look at your detail work on this Mazda. Look at that wheel. Look at those headlights. Hard to do!”

There was a long silence. Then he said slowly, “Do you have any pictures of the Bugatti?”

So we started the third and last phase of our partnership. Two months after that night he brought in the Bug. When the man came to get it, he stood for a second and peered at the little blue car on the counter. Walked closer, looked carefully. Then his back convulsed, and two huge tears trickled from behind his Coke-bottle lenses. “It’s … it’s … the most beautiful thing ….” he said brokenly. I said $25,000.

When Warren brought in the Doozie, I seriously considered stealing it for myself. It was a 1932, chocolate-brown and black, with a long 2-seat Murphy body, gray upholstery, that purring straight-8 engine with the miniature supercharger… I can see it now, twinkling on the counter. That counter there. They tell me that car’s gone now, stolen. I’m not surprised. It went to a private collector then was resold, then stolen. No, I’m not surprised. That model was like the Hope diamond: I wouldn’t be surprised if someone killed for it.

What came next? Oh yes, the Model-A. Beautiful little rumble-seat coupe; bright yellow, black fenders. That one was cheap then, only $12,000. I guess Warren figured he could loaf a little; the Duesenberg had gone for $38,000. We were both well off.

We had a long-standing order for an Auburn, and I think he was in the middle of doing it when Mr. Gottschalk came in for the first time. I looked up from a Lionel tank car I was trying to repair and there was this figure in black, all black. His skin looked white and puffy; sort of… in my mind I called him the Pillsbury Doughboy, although he must have been at least 60.

“Are you the agent for Johnson models?” His voice was cold and twangy; real precise.

“Yes, I handle business for Warren Johnson.”

“Then I have a commission for you.” He talked that way; never looking straight at you, speaking as if he’d just eaten sour persimmons.

“I am Sidney Gottschalk. You may have heard of me. Gottschalk Refining, Pretoria, Bern, and Rochester.”

I allowed as how I had.

“I wish a model of a vehicle I own. A 1938 Delahaye with coachwork by Figoni et Falaschi. Can your man build such a model?”

I allowed as how he could. For a large sum of money.

“I am prepared to pay $40,000 if the model is of the quality of the others I have seen.”

I allowed as how it would be. We signed paper. “I will expect to hear from you within three months.”

“You will. I’ll need good quality 8 x 10s of the car from the side, front, rear, top, bottom.”

“My chauffeur will bring them. Good day, sir.”

When Warren showed up with the Auburn, I was appalled. It was beautiful, of course, but then I opened the hood and the engine was a Chevy V-8. Inside the cockpit-the car was an automatic!

“Some~something wrong?” Warren quavered. “”It’s perfect. isn’t it?” I closed my eyes, put my head down on the desk. “What’s wrong?”

“Warren,” I finally moaned, “why in the name of God have you built a model of a modern replicar—a fiberglass Auburn body on a Chevrolet chassis?”

“Re-replicar?” he stammered. “”It isn’t a real…?”

“Oh, cripes,” was all I could say. He didn’t seem to know anything about classic cars at all and instead of a $30,000 model we had a useless piece of miniature junk. Well, not completely. I salvaged something by selling the model to the Indianapolis company that makes the replicar bodies. But it was a big loss.

“Get it right next time, you lunkhead!” I told him. He was plenty sheepish, and promised not to screw up on the Delahaye.

“Jeez, boss, I’ve never seen a car like this around anywhere. Who wants it?” I wished he wouldn’t call me boss.

“Never mind. There are only eight cars like it in the world. Can you do it?” He hesitated. “I guess so… it may take time; couple, three months.”

It was a couple of days later when I was packing up the fake Auburn for shipment and my eye fell on something. I was crumpling up newspapers, and the word “Duesenberg” on a page made me stop and read. It was the Detroit Free Press for about three months before; I don’t know where it had come from. The story was only a column on page 8: VINTAGE AUTO DISAPPEARS.

“Police continued today to investigate the mysterious theft of an antique 1932 Duesenberg roadster from the locked garage of industrialist Fred T. Prianowski early this morning. The brown convertible, more than 16 ft. long, disappeared without the heavily electronically alarmed garage door being opened. ‘The locks weren’t tampered with,’ said Sgt. Thomas Cochrane. ‘A small window was broken, but hardly even big enough to get the bumper out. It just seemed to disappear into thin air.’ The car was valued at more than $100,000.”

No. Really. I don’t know anything. There’s nothing that can be proven. I just sell hobby supplies. I don’t know anything about auto thefts. I threw out the paper and forgot all about it. Just forgot it. Forgot the whole thing.

When Warren finally brought in the Delahaye I didn’t talk much to him. But when I called up Gottschalk to tell him his model was in, he was not excited. His cold voice sounded carved from ice now.

“Three days ago someone forced the door of my storage facility and made off with three cars from my collection, including my Delahaye. Yes, I am aware that we have a contract. My chauffeur will be in to pick up the model.”

He did, the next day. “Mr. Gottschalk is really down in the dumps,” he said, looking over the shiny curves of the body work. “He loved this car better’n any of ‘em. His big Daimler and the gray Caddy got ripped too, but this Delahaye was the only car he drove himself. He’s hell to live with these days. Well nice model. Here’s the check. See you later.” And he went out the door.

Seemed like the chime had hardly stopped ringing when Gottschalk himself was back in, his pasty face now a fiery red. “What have you done with my car?” he shouted, waving a small piece of black rag in front of my face. The model Delahaye was clutched in his other hand; his grip was so tight that the sheet metal of the top was crumpling. “My car!” I couldn’t quiet him down.

“You see this?” He waved the black scrap of cloth. “I drive car last weekend, it’s hot. I take off my coat, put it in the boot. Now in boot of this car, this toy car, my coat! Toy coat! And again I ask, where is my Delahaye??” He was dancing with fury; his eyes were bugging out.

I’ll tell you, that was an afternoon. I got him out finally with the help of the chauffeur, who was an okay guy really, but how do you convince a man that you haven’t magically reduced his most prized possession to a toy?

Warren came back in a couple of days later. I hadn’t had any orders when he last came in with the Delahaye, but he had a big box with him.

“Hey there, boss. No orders yet, huh? Got a couple of new ones here anyhow…” But I decided: No more.

“Hold it, Warren. Don’t take the cover off. I think I know what you’ve got.” He looked at me. “You’ve got two cars. One is English and one is gray.” He turned that color himself. “I thought so,” I said, as he sagged against the counter.

“Now listen, Warren, I want you to go away. Today. Now. I don’t know what it is you’re doing or how you’re doing it, but it’s starting to catch up with you. No, don’t say anything. My advice is to get out of town, out of the state, as fast as you can. I never want to hear from you again. If they ask me what I know I’ll say nothing, and it’ll be the truth. I don’t want to know anything.”

His face looked like a melting candle, and his hand was leaving a big sweaty print on the counter. “So go on,” I said. “Beat it quick. I don’t think you’ve hurt anybody really bad yet. Keep it that way.” And he gulped, and he stammered, and finally said, “Th-thanks.” and he left, running, without the box. And I never saw Warren again.

It was about three weeks later when the four Army guys from Ft. Belvoir came and showed me a photo of a younger, thinner Warren in a corporal’s uniform and said that Johnson wasn’t his real name and wanted to know if I ever saw him with a big suitcase or a backpack or if he ever bought any dry-cell batteries from me. And I told them all I’ve told you. Mostly. And they mumbled about National Security and Good Citizenship and The Research Race, but I didn’t know where Warren was then and finally they went away.

So, no, those aren’t for sale and never will be. I have some nice Tamiyas and Pochers over here. This Alfa’s a honey. But the Daimler and the Cadillac are mine. Warren Johnson models are real collector’s classics now, and those are the last two. No, as far as I know they never caught him.

5 Comments
  1. David Birchmeier

    Read the whole story; got me hook, line & sinker. Great.

  2. Matthew Reader

    I think of this story often! I was 15 when it was originally published, but it left quite an impression on me—I thought about it just about every time I looked at a model car. I haven’t re-read it yet, but was so excited to see the illustration—I recognized it immediately. You’ve saved me the trouble of trying to look through back issues to try and locate it.

    Love this blog, it’s one of my favorites!

    Matt

  3. Loved this story in 1985. Still love it today. Perhaps one of the best stories on model cars ever written. Great blog Dean!

  4. Bill Porter

    Great story!

  5. Neat story, but the car in the photo is a 69, not a 67… 🙂

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