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A large-scale hobby with small-scale cars

St. Cloud man has has been building, collecting car kits for about 65 years

By Bill Vossler

Though Jerry more prefers older cars, he did set this 1978 Revell Mazda R7 together, as it has a style he likes. Photos by Bill Vossler

As a kid, Jerry Smitten of St. Cloud got interested in cars through his uncle, Al Lindsay. “He had a salvage yard at Cambridge, and my brother and I stayed there in the summer when Mom was ill, and other times for a few weeks. We stripped plastic off wire from the vehicles to get the copper.”

But uncle Al also had work for 12-year-old Jerry. “He gave my brother, my three Lindsay cousins, and me, a bunch of tools, and said, ‘Loosen the bolts, then pull the heads off those engines.’ We skinned our knuckles trying to take off those bolts from the old engines. Then sometimes he said, ‘Pull out the oil pan so we can get the rods out of the engine.’ Even with the engine gone, I saw cars big and small, and noticed how beautiful the bodies were.”

Several times they rode with their uncle in his old truck, “In which we almost choked to death due to its bad exhaust system as we were taking smashed cars down to a dealer in the Twin Cities.”

That work and seeing those old cars initiated Jerry’s love of old cars, especially vintage ones. Then about 65 years ago his brother Mike gave him a gift of a 1/25th scale 1932 Ford Roadster plastic model kit. “My older neighbor Dennis LeVine helped me set it together, and taught me a lot of how to do it, because I have a reading disability that keeps me from understanding things clearly.”

That kit piqued Jerry’s interest, and along with his love of old cars, led him to start buying car kits and setting them together.

“I now have about 250 of them, and I’d have many more models, but when I was much younger, I traded a bunch of them, and gave many more away to friends and neighbors, including young kids. Younger kids don’t understand that these kit models aren’t toys to be played with. They’re made to be set on a shelf intended primarily for display, to be looked at. But if you try to explain that to a 7- or 8-year-old kid that it’s something just to be admired, that just doesn’t work.”

A close-up of the 1933 Duesenberg shows the grand detail required to get it to look real. Photos by Bill Vossler

With so many cars and other set-together kits in the house, space is problematic, he said. “Most of them are in two rooms downstairs, though some are in the living room. Some are in a set of shelves a friend’s dad made for me 50 years ago.”

Then there’s the dust. “I keep them all covered with Saran wrap because dust causes real problems, drying the glue and stripping off parts.”

With each new kit Jerry paints the pieces. “I spray paint most bodies and frames and parts for a smoother finish, and hand-paint other parts. Some kits already come pre-painted and ready to be assembled. The instructions list suggests colors, but sometimes I prefer to be creative, and use my own colors. Some kits have decals, too.”

Kits range from 20 pieces to more than 200, like his 1953 Porsche 356 Carerra Coupe. “It takes 31 steps just to put it together, with some pieces small as pinheads, which my big fingers would struggle with. It’s got so many small parts that I’ve never put it together, even after 15 years. Maybe during a snowstorm this winter.”

He added that, “Generally now, all I have to do is look at the kit’s illustration, a blueprint that helps me set them together. I spend 30-40 hours on each kit, no matter if they are 1/25, 1/32, or 1/48 scale.”

Most kits are plastic, though a few are metal. “Most kits require glue,” Jerry said. “Though some metal kits required quite small screws. Lately I’ve been using a lot of super glue because it bonds longer, and doesn’t dry as fast. Though windshields, windows, and headlights require a different non-fogging glue.”

Recently a number of the parts of some kits have not been molded accurately. “So I have to trim them, a tremendous amount of tweaking the parts to get them to fit, by sanding them with a file and cutting with craft knives. The quality just isn’t there like it used to be. Makes me wonder if they aren’t being made by 3D printers because of the odd sizes.”

Occasionally some kits are missing parts. “I usually call the company and often they send me the pieces I need. Or sometimes pieces are broken and wouldn’t fit. Some companies respond but others don’t.”

Jerry Smitten of St. Cloud has loved to assemble kit cars since he got his first one about 65 years ago. Because this 1929 Ford Woody can be made in four ways, Jerry was intrigued about it. It can be assembled in stock, custom woody stock, stock pickup or custom Woody pickup, which is the one Jerry is working on in this photo. Photo by Bill Vossler

Jerry’s biggest dilemma is finding kits of ones he doesn‘t have. “Online I might find a 1937 black Deluxe like Dad had, and try to find one in a store, and if I find one, it is very expensive. The first one I ever bought 60 years ago was a 1/25th scale 1949 Mercury that cost $1.49. Now they can range up to $40 or more. Some kits that I want just aren’t being made. Then if a die-cast model of one of those is available, I might buy that one. I’ve got about a dozen of those.”

He’s also set together 1/25th scale pickups, 1/12th and 1/24th scale motorcycle kits, 1/48th airplane kits, 1/32nd armored vehicles, and a few tractors.

He chooses kits with a certain style that intrigues him, like an old Porsche or 1930 Mercedes-Benz, or a 1912 Stutz Bearcat, in hobby sections in stores. “Since I retired I get five or six new kits a year.”

Jerry feels very satisfied when he gets one completed. “That is very rewarding, to get it completed to my satisfaction,” Jerry laughed. “I’m kind of a perfectionist, and want it kind of perfect. Aggie can look at one I’ve set together, and thinks it’s okay, but for me it’s not. It has to be better.”

Jerry’s wife Aggie said when Jerry gets a new one, “After he sets it together he puts it on the TV console so he can admire it for a month or so.”

Some people who see his collection take a real interest in it, Jerry said. “But some people don’t appreciate it because they don’t understand it. To them the model is just of an old car, and they just don’t totally understand it. But other people are really interested, and know about the different engines and mechanics of the vehicle and how they are put together.”

Some of Jerry’s favorite kits include a blue 1953 Buick Skylark, and a 1/18th scale of a white 1948 Tucker Torpedo automobile. “It has a helicopter engine in the trunk because he couldn’t get anybody to sell him any automobile engines, and only 51 of the Tuckers were manufactured in real life,” he said, “and 47 are still in existence. It had three headlights, and the middle one pivots with the steering wheel so you could see where you were turning. The company was probably forced out of business by the big three auto companies. To get a Tucker at an auction now would cost a million or two million dollars. We saw one of the Tuckers at the LeMay-America’s Car Museum in Tacoma, Washington.”

The 1948 Tucker Torpedo in 1/18th scale is in remembrance of the very rare vehicle, where only 51 were made in real life.

Jerry said he loves older real automobiles. “I like those from 1920-1960s especially, and some 1970s. I like the classics too, so at car shows I can spend the entire day there, like the yearly August Pantowner Show in St. Cloud, visiting with swappers, owners, and dealers. I love those vintage vehicles, and hope they never disappear. Otherwise, we can only see them in books.”

He said, “People look at an older car, like a 1955 Packard or 1933 Duesenberg ‘Duesie,’ which looks like a limousine, and to them, it has four wheels and an engine, and that’s about it. To me, I see the artwork and phenomenal craftsmanship that went into those vehicles, with character. That Duesenberg had gull-winged doors, front doors that open up like bird wings, and suicide doors in the back, which open to the rear.”

The Smittens visit places with old cars wherever they go. For instance, the Volo Auto Museum in Volo, Illinois, which has the car Bonnie and Clyde died in, a 1934 Ford Model 40 Fordor sedan, as well as a Flintstone car, and a car piano. “One that really caught my interest there was a 1966 Chevy Nova Supersport muscle car because I had a 1967 Chevy Nova as my first car. It weighed 2,800 pounds and cost $2,800. I’d love to have one, but they go for $36,000-55,000 now.”

Another favorite kit is of a 1933 Duesenberg. “They usually sell for over $200, but I got it for $25. It has gull-wing front doors that open upwards, and back doors called ‘suicide doors,’ because if people would fall out they would get run over.”

The 1948 Tucker Torpedo in 1/18th scale is in remembrance of the very rare vehicle, where only 51 were made in real life.

He added that by looking at a kit he knows how much it will cost. “I guess I’m kind of a cheapskate and don’t want to pay that much money for some of them.”

Other unique ones include a 1907 Rolls Royce “Silver Ghost,” because of its color, and a 1953 Hot Wheels Ferrari. “That is a model of a very rare car, because only six of the actual cars were ever built.”

Many models are made outside the United States, Jerry said. “Tamiyas in the Philippines, Revell in Germany, and AMT (Aluminum Model Toys) in Michigan.”

Jerry said he sets car kits together for the love and enjoyment of it. “Sometimes it’s for relaxation and a pastime. And the challenge. Generally I enjoy the challenge. But some of them are so super challenging that they are very frustrating. Sometimes the frustration is so high that I have to literally walk away or I think I’d end up smashing them.”

Jerry has received ribbons when displaying some of his work, including a blue ribbon for a 1954 Green Hudson Hornet Special, red ribbon for a 1953 Hudson Hornet with a Hollywood hardtop, another red ribbon for a car he built for Aggie, a 1934 Ford Econo Van. She said, “It was kind of unique and interesting and caught my eye, so I wanted him to build it for me. I suggested colors and liked the ones he chose.”

To keep dust off his collection of cars, Jerry covers them with Saran wrap, else the glue will dry out quickly, the cars will come apart, and he’ll have all kinds of parts laying on the shelves.

Jerry has had a fraction of his collection displayed at Whitney Senior Center in St. Cloud three different times. “People say, ‘Marvelous work,’ ‘Brings back memories,’ or ‘You did those? Wow!’”

“My favorite kit to set together is the one I’m working on now,” he said.

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