I once met Marcel van Cleemput.
For almost thirty years until 1983 he was chief designer at Corgi, makers of toy cars that kept generations of children happy,. This was the man who came up with toy Batmobile, the Sean Connery-era Aston Martin DB5 with the ejector seat and Bond figurine that was inevitably ejected into a parallel universe where it would never be seen again. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with folding plastic wings and less famous models like the Buick Rivera coupe with a clever little lens that made its head and tail lamps shine if it was pointed at a light source, and the Mercedes 600 limousine with windscreen wipers that moved when it was pushed along the floor were also the products of his fertile mind.
Marcel, who died in 2013, was selling some of the large collection of models he’d amassed, when I was lucky enough to interview him for the Daily Telegraph. He was a lovely man, who’d hugely enjoyed his job, and had a great fondness for the children who had bought the little cars he created. He also possessed a sense of fun and silliness that resonated with them, mixed with an engineer’s interest in making his ideas work.
The model car market was huge. Toy shops were filled with Corgis and their rivals made by Dinky, and the smaller Matchbox toys. Most of them looked like the real things, and carmakers where happy to let Marcel and his rivals measure every detail of their latest products to produce scaled down versions. This was brilliant marketing.
Tastes changed, and by the time Corgi closed its doors the toy car market had shrunk and a lot of the models that where available lacked the care and accuracy of the cars Marcel had created, many of which have since become collectors’ items.
You can still find his legacy in the sort of models that tend to be bought by adults, but more recently it seems to have made something of a comeback with the genuine toys intended to be played with rather than polished. Even some cheap, very plastic models are a lot less crude than before. A lot of children won’t notice, but some of them will, and so will the adults who supply the pocket money to buy them.