Traditionally, most British model car collectors would turn up their noses at the thought of plastic models. Only diecast model or toy cars would find a place in the collection, then in later years white metal was allowed in. In other countries there was no such prejudice. Plastic models were enjoyed in the USA, with 1:25 scale promo models and Germany was addicted to plastic H0 scale models, but it was France which had the widest range of plastic car models available.
The best-known range of plastic model cars was produced by Norev, but we will look at that range another time. Certainly Norev models were finely-made and accurate, but they were mostly of contemporary cars, whereas I am looking here at veteran and vintage subjects. When we do get round to an overview of Norev, we may be able to reveal what really happened when their plastic tooling was translated into metal in the 1980s.
But for now, we will leave that topic aside and concentrate on the 'other' French plastic ranges, which all made models of earlier cars.
I don't propose to produce exhaustive lists of everything made in plastic in France; we'll just cherry-pick our way around the various makers, starting with Minialuxe.
Minialuxe plastic model cars were made in Oyonnax, in eastern France, in the Jura. Production began in the late 1950s, and the models were mostly to a constant 1:43 scale, though they also made some modern cars in 1:32 scale. In their standard reference work Catalogue Mondial des Modeles Reduits Automobile, Jacques Greilsamer and Bertrand Azéma note that the modern vehicles series started production in 1959. From 1964 to 1967 they released a second range, of veteran and vintage cars, under the title Les Tacots ('Old Crocks'), which stayed in production well into the 1970s.
There were around 30 models in the Les Tacots range, which began in 1964 with a 1909 Ford Model T. Some models were variants on the same basic vehicle, so there were probably only a couple of dozen truly different cars. Subjects chosen ranged from the 'obvious' Renaults, Citroëns, Peugeots and the Oldsmobile Curved Dash, to more unusual items such as a Jamieson racing car. Minialuxe produced some versions of certain models as premiums or advertising items for French companies, but that is a topic to which I will return later.
Now for Clé. Our old friend David Conway was an executive with an international oil company, and a leading light in the Citroën Car Club (he wrote the excellent book on Citroën in the Auto Review series). As a model car collector himself, he saw the opportunity to sell model Citroëns to other Club members, to augment Club funds. His father had been a toy importer, so David revived the family wholesale business as the Model Import Company, and set off to France to find out what was still available. He soon found the Norev and Minialuxe modals, as previously described, but in his own collection he had plastic models of the 15-Six, 2CV, and DS19 in assorted scale, made by somebody called Clé, but who were they? The models had a key symbol on the bottom, and 'clef' is French for key, but that didn't help. Eventually David tracked down a company called Clément Gagnet, and went to visit them. He found that the main production of the firm was plastic housewares, in particular cheap plastic buckets. When he told me about this, I looked in our kitchen and found a plastic bucket made by Clé, complete with the key symbol on the bottom. It seemed that the model cars were very much a sideline, made from the mid-1950s onwards. David was able to obtain some stock from the company to sell to his Club members, but these were of 'modern cars' from the 1950s and 1960s.
Clé also produced a series of veteran and vintage cars, in assorted scales, of which some examples are illustrated here. They were mostly rather simpler in construction than Norev or Minialuxe models, and were cheaper to buy. Many Clé models were also offered as premium promotional items by French makers of household products. It may be that this activity came first, before Clé sold the model cars as retail items. Certainly the plastic bucket business will have given the company close links to other French companies.
Bonux was the most prolific buyer of premium items. It was a Procter & Gamble brand of washing powder launched in 1958, and made for half a century, whose USP was that every box of Bonux powder contained a gift in a plastic bag. These included novelties of all kinds; toy soldiers, tanks, ships, aircraft kits, and yes, veteran cars. Incredibly, as a child model Nicolas Sarkozy (ex-French president) featured in Bonux washing powder advertisements around 1967, playing with the free gifts. It is said that this was to earn some income for his impoverished family. Some of the Clé veteran car models were supplied as Bonux premiums, with 'BONUX' cast into the plastic. Not all veteran and vintage cars given away by Bonux were made by Clé, however, it seems that P&G used other, more anonymous suppliers. I have seen some by another plastics manufacturer maker, 'Del', and others which only featured a single code letter; 'G' or 'I'. Yet others had no distinguishing mark at all, just 'Bonux' imprinted somewhere on the model. The quantities of premiums given away by Bonux were so vast that many suppliers must have been involved in the operation.
Clé and Del also made give-away premium models for Huilor, a French distributor of cooking and salad oils, and for Vegetaline margarine (apparently hydrogenated coconut oil), as well as for Prior. Can anyone advise what Prior made?
Another French manufacturer of plastic veteran and Edwardian cars was Safir, some of whose early products originated as Jadali diecast toys. Safir models were made in Montreuil, near Paris from the early 1960s to the late 1970s. There were around 20 models in the range, in approximately 1:43 scale. Safir also made the Champion, Super-Champion and Championette plastic and diecast toys.
Other French plastic ranges, such as GéGé and Jep, made mostly modern cars, so they are not included here.
Any further information will be welcome on any of the ranges described here, or on any others who made plastic models of veteran or vintage cars in France. Send in your emails and photos today!
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