It’s race day! The sounds and smells of high-revving sports cars fill the autumn air and the moment the fans have been waiting for is here. The start of a late ‘50’s race gets underway as cars jockey for position on this 2’ x 3’ diorama built for fun and display.
Creating a racing diorama in 1:87
by Frank Joyce/photos by the author
In the years I have been a model railroader I have enjoyed collecting, building, modifying and kit-bashing 1:87 scale vehicles. It is a hobby within a hobby. While my current model railroad is set in the late 1950s, I have collected vehicles from many decades. I can, for example, use 1970s vehicles, signs, trains, etc. to re-set the scene on my layout for photographs or a video. I have used vehicles from different decades to this end, but I also found a few racers over the years and always wanted to make a racing diorama to display them.
As a kid I enjoyed racing “HO” scale (closer to 1:64) slot cars with my brothers. Today I enjoy televised racing: the American Le Mans series, Formula 1, Grand Prix, GT, Daytona and Le Mans prototypes – a great range of cars on the great tracks of America and abroad. In June I watched the 24 Hours of Le Mans (in sections, during spare time). It was inspiring, and it seriously lit the fire under me to start that diorama at last. The famous Dunlop tire bridge across the Le Mans racetrack just had to be included. I started planning right away. A mirror placed under that bridge would be cool. I’d set it at an angle and use it for depth. A quick search on the internet yielded an inexpensive replica of the bridge, offered by Scalextric. It is in 1:32 scale, 16” long, but that didn’t stop me. I would down-scale the bridge somehow. Just having a model to work with would be a huge time-saver and better than anything I could create from scratch.
At first I used a 3’ x 1 & ¼’ board and had the idea for a “J” configuration for the roadway with a lane leading off to a pit area. The bridge/mirror would be placed at the curve of the “J” to give the illusion of the roadway and stands continuing around the curve.
The original base layout and the “J” curve. The ruler is placed where the bridge and mirror would go.
However, once the bridge arrived I realized I’d need a wider board to optimize positioning of the bridge/mirror. So I started over with a 3’ x 2’ board. I discovered that with the extra width I could now do an “S” configuration of the racetrack (visually more interesting the way it leads the eye) and have room for background scenery to fill out the scene. My original vision of the diorama started to come to life then.
While 3’ x 2’ may seem large for a 1:87 scale diorama (I’m used to working way smaller) it is still easy enough to handle. All of the structures would be removable so I could store the diorama standing up. I talked to the local glass company, brought in the Dunlop bridge kit and they cut a custom mirror that snugs up under the bridge so the edges are hidden. I’d paint the bottom of the glass to reduce the visible line across the track.
I re-worked and down-scaled the bridge kit by making it a covered bridge, re-painting it from the taxi yellow it came in to a flat acrylic aged white. I painted the underside and inside of the bridge, (the steps), engine black to hide their over-sized look. The 1:32 scale steps appear to all be in shadow, you no longer notice them. Now I had a decent replica of the real Dunlop tire bridge that would work well in 1:87 scale.
Scalextric’s 1:32 Dunlop Tire bridge, straight out of the box, with the mirror cut to fit underneath.
When I first thought out the diorama several of the close-to-HO structures from slot car racing memories were on my mind. I wanted to recreate memories. Another search of the internet; the few kits I did find for sale from the ‘60’s were astronomically overpriced. Then I came across Model Motoring, Inc. on the web and discovered they have re-made the same Aurora curved bleachers kit I built as a kid. It brought back great memories. Even if it is slightly large for 1:87 scale, once signs and people are in place it is not noticeable. It was such an easy build and came out so well that I drew in plans for a second one at the other turn in the “S.” It was such a treat to find the kit and have the structure on the diorama, just like I had initially dreamed up.
The bleachers finished in boxcar red, white railings, aluminum light fixtures, and slate grey added to the seat tops to set them apart a bit. I found my own signs on the internet (try “vintage racing signs” using the Images mode) and used a printer to scale them down. They were applied with white glue. The revised Dunlop bridge is also seen here; covered using styrene sheet, painted aged white, with engine black on the inside and underneath. It hides the mirror nicely.
Now I needed a building to serve as the pit area. PikeStuff’s #541-5001 “Truck Terminal” from their “Kitbasher Series” fit the bill perfectly. You can make it anything you want, so I measured and cut 5 bay openings from a blank wall, cut down all walls to a low 1-story height, and cut the roof so I’d have a big overhang on the front end only, over the bays. It is such an easy kit to work with, like all their products, and comes with stairs, railing, bay doors, downspouts, doors and windows. I have plenty of parts and walls left over in the spares box to make something else down the line.
Another kit I remembered from the old days was a small “judges stand” for officials. Since it’s not available I did some hunting and found an inexpensive kit with potential: Airfix’s 1:76 scale “Airfield Control Tower” for military modelers. I modified it by adding a roof over the balcony, and super-detailed and relocated the rooftop control room from the middle of the roof to the edge. I didn’t like the kit provided idea of posts and sewing thread to create railings, (too much work, too many ways it can go wrong during later handling and dusting). So, I added Central Valley styrene railings all around.
The cobblestone under the judges stand and the worn asphalt in the pit area are made by Busch, cut to fit and dull-coated. For the low price and the two 8” x 5” printed sheets you get from Busch it’s a great deal and a terrific looking detail. It always gets good comments.
The vehicles range from cheap train show finds that were labored over and re-worked, to models from Brekina, BUB, Busch, Classic Metal Works, Herpa, Model Power, Ricko, Schuco, Spark and Wiking. I sometimes change wheels, repaint, decal, add window visors, wheel skirts and a driver. I enjoy modifying the vehicles to have something unique or more purpose-built for a scene. There are figures from Model Power, Preiser and Woodland Scenics.
This racing diorama was a fun diversion from my normal model railroading activities, but related in so many ways. The lesson learned here is to check out the other scale model hobbies, you can often find something usable for your model railroad. It helped me with this diorama.
A tribute scene to the race (and movie) that inspired the diorama; Le Mans. A Brekina Porsche 917 leads a Spark Porsche 917 and Ferrari through the Dunlop Bridge turns and flies past the camera crew and pit area, where we see a Ford GT pulling out to re-join the race.
A string of miniature lights were spliced and added to the inside roof of the Rix pit building. The garage walls were decorated with brick paper and racing posters. Each garage has its own crew and tools and details from JL Innovative and Preiser.
At this angle the mirror placed under the Dunlop Bridge is very effective at adding depth. The trees are select pieces from Woodland Scenics fall foliage.
A Spark model of Aston Martin Racing’s “007” gets its tires checked on pit row. The roadway underneath is a Busch product ("Worn Asphalt”) and comes with two printed sheets on cardboard backing. The Gulf logos on the crew uniforms were made with decal paper.
Three 1950’s racing legends; a Jaguar D-type, Aston Martin DBR-1 and a Mercedes 300SL bank through the apex as the crowd cheers in this vintage race scene. Guard rails are from Rix, safety cones from JL Innovative. It’s the details that bring each area to life.
I affixed the pit building walls to the surface so I could lift up the structure and access each garage to change out vehicles and details for different era racing scenes. With the pit building in place again these scenes are illuminated from within.
Fast-forward to some racers of today’s era. We get a close look at the exit to the pit area during a full-course caution. A camera crew has a prime spot to get up close to the action.
In view just behind the stands are a Wiking Chevy Malibu, Classic Metal Works’ Ford Galaxy taxi, Preiser motorcycle with riders and Woodland Scenic’s’ terrific hot dog vendor scene.
A close up of the kit-bashed Airfix 1:76 scale airport tower kit. Camera crews man the balcony while the officials have the rooftop vantage point to observe the race.
The fans cheer on their favorite teams in this sunlit scene. A close-up of the 1:64 scale bleachers kit shows what you can do to downscale a kit for your own purposes.
The rolling start of a typical 1950’s race scene. The racers include a Wiking Triumph TR3, Eko Mercedes racer, Spark’s Jaguar D-type, Aston Martin DBR-1 and Mercedes 300SL, and a Wiking Corvette. Drivers were added to each vehicle and racing tires to the Eko kit. Acrylic paint was used for the roadway, including the lighter “racing line” the cars take at speed.
See Frank Joyce's "Memories of New York City in HO scale"