Tom Daniel 1/43 scale Die Cast Cars
By Rudy Panucci

So you may be asking, "Who is Tom Daniel?". It's a fair question. If you have played with or built a toy car or cool-looking funny car model kit anytime in the last forty years, chances are you've had a first-hand experience with the work of Tom Daniel. He designed some of the most memorable custom cars of the last century. Many of his cars wound up as classic model car kits from the 1960s, and many of them also had toy incarnations as Hot Wheels or Johnny Lightning die cast cars.

Among his creations are such automotive icons as the Tijuana Taxi, the Paddy Wagon, Rommel's Rod, S'Cool Bus, and his most famous design The Red Baron.

Now Toy Zone is bringing us new versions of his most famous cars in their Iron Legends 1/43 scale die cast line. These are larger than your typical die cast (Hot Wheels are generally 1/64 scale) and most of these new versions of the old classics measure around four inches long-big enough to fill an adult collector's palm the same way a Hot Wheels car fills up a kid's hand. This is a welcome treat for aging eyes.

It's a bit weird seeing the Red Baron made by someone other than Mattel, but these new cars are spectacular realizations of Tom Daniel designs in an affordable format. The larger size shows off the little touches even better than the Johnny Lightning set of Tom Daniel-designed cars from about a decade ago.

The first offering, which turned up in some Wal Mart stores shortly after the new year began, was the pinnacle of 1960s cool car culture, The Red Baron. This is the toy car that every boy wanted in the late 60s. Younger kids wanted the Hot Wheels version and older kids built the Revell model kit. So striking was this design, with the spiked chrome helmet serving as the roof of the car, that it was even featured in the movie "Toy Story", standing in as the quintessential Hot Wheels car.

Luckily, this new version from Toy Zone restores the longer spike to the top of the "helmet". Safety concerns forced Mattel to reduce it to naught but a teensy nubbin when they reissued it for their early-90s anniversary line, and the later Toy Story tie-ins.

In the last few weeks, Bad Medicine, Paddy Wagon, and the Tijuana Taxi have all joined the Red Baron on the pegs of Wal Mart's die cast aisle.

One of the cooler things about this new line of Tom Daniel cars is the price. These are just under five bucks at Wal Mart ( they'll run you three times that if you order them direct from Mr. Daniel himself at http://www.tomdaniel.com ). At that price, you get a fun-sized car with a decent amount of detail and nifty packaging (which is a pain to open). The detail is hardly museum quality, but at that price, you can't really expect too much. There is an impressive amount of care and detail on these cars, but the execution is sometimes lacking.

Some of the vac-metalized faux chrome is a bit rough, with bubbles and bare spots, and some of the assembly is a bit off, but in general, these are still pretty darned cool. If they were asking big money for these, it'd be harder to overlook these defects, but at this price, they almost add to the charm. The minor sins are easily forgiven.

That's not to say that these are just slapped together. While occasionally less than perfectly rendered, there is a great deal of detail on these cars. The Red Baron has his helmet spike back. "Bad Medicine" is driven by a skeleton. There's a chicken in the coop on top of the "Tijuana Taxi". And "Paddy Wagon" has the Keystone Cops hat and nightstick sitting on the front seat.

Future releases that have been announced are S'Cool Bus, Ice "T", Cherry Bomb, Jinx Express, and Rommel's Rod. It'll be great to see if they include all the skeletons with Rommel's Rod.

Actually, it's a kick to see these classic funny cars back in the die cast aisle where a new generation might be exposed to them. When you think back on the great innovative car designs that came out of the hot rod culture of the 1960s it's a bit depressing to look at what passes for custom cars today. Reality shows about "pimping out rides", and cars that look stupid, but jump up and down can't hold a candle to the cool cars that sprang from the drawing boards of men like Tom Daniel and George Barris. The 60s were truly the golden age of custom car design. I mean, what's more impressive, a lame car with five-thousand-dollar "rims" or a car with a giant Kaiser helmet for a body?

Now, if only they'd make some bright orange track big enough to hold these guys, we could all recapture a bit of our childhood.