Detroit never made them so small. Although they zip around the track at speeds as fast as 50 miles per hour, these sporty cars fit in your hand. Tin, wood and plastic slot cars, toy cars and model cars dating to before World War II are on display at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry this summer, as part of its 30,000-square-foot ``Cars'' exhibition.
The 200 minimotorcars on display are part of Mark Mattei's collection of 2,500. Born in 1951, around the time plastic model-car kits were introduced to the marketplace, Mattei became interested in modeling, a popular hobby for young boys in the 1960s and 1970s.
``The adult perspective is to collect things from out of the past, things I built as a child,'' Mattei said.
The interest was fostered in the late 1970s and early 1980s when he started a business related to model cars. Mattei opened and ran a commercial racetrack for slot cars. At 1/125 the size of full-scale cars, these 7- to 8-inch-long cars race at speeds of 25-50 miles per hour.
``It was a throwback to slot-car racing that was popular from about 1963-1969,'' he added. ``It was a huge fad. People rented out old grocery stores, set up a half a dozen tracks with eight lanes, with 100-200 feet per lap. It was a nostalgic thing; young adults remembered racing.''
Now owner of Cycle Smithy, a Chicago bicycle shop, Mattei collects model, toy and slot cars dating back to 1970. Plastics became a medium for toy cars, kits and pre-assembled cars in the early 1950s. Car dealerships distributed smaller-scale models of their full-size cars to children when parents took test drives.
The metal and plastic cars on display at the museum comprise windup, friction and gasoline-powered cars.Miniature toy and model cars of all shapes, sizes and eras reflect the desire to experiment with automobile technology and represent an overview of model-car development.
Small-model production cars include the Tucker, Isetta 300, Cadillac El Dorado Brougham and the Spirit of America. The Ford Cougar II and Chrysler Turbine as well as movie cars, such as the Batmobile and 007 Aston Martin, are examples of individually packaged kits.
However, it is the American model slot cars, such as Ford, Chevy, Buick and Oldsmobile, that are Mattei's favorites.
``Model manufacturers used the same tooling to make the electric slot cars,'' he said.
``At 25-50 miles per hour, they whip around the track fast enough that when they crash, the plastic breaks.''
The museum's slot-car presentation explains slot-car racing via photos and models. A variety of early and modern slot cars, including jalopies and motorcycles, are displayed.
Plastic model-making kits are injection molded and vacuum formed. Parts made from acetate in the 1950s were changed over to polystyrene in the 1960s. Companies like AMT and Monogram Models made these models in the 1950s and 1960s and continue today.
Ford Motor Co. is sponsoring the exhibit, which runs May 9-Sept. 7. Other exhibits include one-of-a-kind historic automobiles from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s; rare, classic and concept cars including a car that flies; and hands-on exhibits about the science behind engines and mechanics.
``America is in love with the automobile, so what better summer exhibition to put on during the busy travel season than Cars?'' said Marvin Pinkert, museum vice president for programs. ``Visitors will learn about a technology that they use in everyday life, and have the opportunity to view some rare and dynamic automobiles up close and personal.''
Nearly 1 million people are expected to visit the museum this summer.