When Morry Barmak opened up his motorsports memorabilia store Collector Studio in Toronto’s chic, high-class Yorkville neighbourhood 25 years ago, the diecast model cars on his shelves topped out at a few hundred dollars. That’s about the bottom of his range now.
“The key was being near the Four Seasons hotel, that really opened us up to international business,” he explains. “[Because I was dealing with that sort of affluent clientele,] whatever I got, customers wanted something more, so I was always looking for the next greatest thing. It just kind of evolved over the years.”
Today, at his new location about a block north of the old one, Barmak trades in only the very best. Pieces that have passed through the doors there include the racing suit Steve McQueen wore in the film Le Mans and a motoring trunk owned by Ettore Bugatti; on the day I showed up, he had Enzo Ferrari’s jacket and tie hanging on the wall, the last helmet made for Ayrton Senna in his office, and an original Delahaye owner’s manual on his desk.
There are tons of diecast cars on the first floor, but the scale model cars Barmak has hidden upstairs – some two dozen of them in large, 1/8 scale and with five-figure price tags attached – are similarly impressive. They don’t draw your eye like the 1/5-scale 1930 Bentley 4.5L Blower in the centre of the room, though, a piece so thoroughly detailed you swear someone must’ve used a shrink-ray on the real thing. Price? $60,000.
“The demographic that we cater to wants something that’s at the top of the market, so this is what they would look at,” Barmak says. Translation: Collector Studio sells some of the best, most complex model cars in the world.
The 1/5-scale models Barmak has on display are pieces you won’t see virtually anywhere else. He commissions them from builder Dr. Miodrag Jelesijevic, in Germany, in runs of five or 10 pieces especially for Collector Studio.
Barmak first reached out to the Serbian-born Jelesijevic about 10 years ago after coming across some examples of his work. He’s since had him build models of such iconic cars as the 1928 Mercedes-Benz SSK Spezial and the aforementioned Bentley, and even a pair of naked Mercedes-Benz 3000SL “Gullwing” chassis, one black and one, like the display chassis shown at the car’s debut in Paris, in white.
His most recent commission is of the 1931 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Monza, a car it’s taken three years for Jelesijevic to finish. The long wait makes sense when you consider Jelesijevic, because he’s working in such an odd scale, has to scratchbuild every piece, and that the level of detail means the car even has an accurate scale Alfa Romeo registration chassis plate.
“Everything is made from the same fabric and materials as the original,” explains Barmak, pointing out the to-scale 0.5-mm copper bodywork and real glass windshield, and noting the 32-inch-long model weighs 43 lbs.
Generally speaking, Jelesijevic even uses the same construction techniques as the full-scale car’s builders did, and while the models don’t run, nearly everything on them, from the throttle pedal to the brakes to the steering, is operable.
The dark green Bentley might just be Jelesijevic’s finest work, with hidden details like an actual wood body frame wrapped in leather, just like the real car. “Even the wheel locks will turn the same number of times and in the same direction as the original car,” Barmak says.
The parts count on the model clocks in at some 7,300 pieces, which makes it runner-up for the title of world’s most complex scale model car, he figures (Barmak admits Pierre Scerri’s legendary 1/3-scale Ferrari 312 PB, a 12-year-build, likely has it beat).
“It’s like opening up a Patek-Philippe [wristwatch] with 700 parts versus a standard Rolex with a hundred and fifty,” Barmak says. “It really is the next level, even if most of the things the builder does cannot be appreciated.”
Barmak says he sources memorabilia from all over. “Every day I get a phone call or an email from someone different,” he says. “After 25 years of doing this, there’s not really a lot of other places people can go with these sort of unique items.”
But the customers for his “toys for big kids” are pretty consistently owners and collectors of the real things, most of them – over 90 percent – from outside of Canada. His client list numbers more than 10,000 entries, and a small handful of them have such famous names as Nicolas Cage, Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld.
“There were 39 [Ferrari] 250 GTOs made,” Barmak says, referencing the perennial ‘world’s most expensive car.’ “And we have 32 of their owners on our mailing list.”
While at first it may have been location that got customers in the door, now its selection and service that have secured Collector Studio’s reputation as a premiere motorsports memorabilia retailer. Business is good and getting better for Barmak, in part thanks to an overall upward trend in terms of the value of collector cars and associated memorabilia.
“The market’s changed a lot,” he says. “Even the smaller-scale model cars? Ten years ago those sold for $50 to $100; now they’re $200 to $600.”
The new five-piece run of Alfa 8C models Jelesijevic is working on are listed on Barmak’s website for $65,000, just eclipsing the figure on the Bentley, and if you’re still having trouble trying to justify how someone can pay that much for a model car, I suggest stopping by Collector Studio in person.
“Not everything can be appreciated on the internet with a JPEG image,” says Barmak.