Automotive Renaissance Man Philippe de Lespinay joins the Selection Committee

Model cars are a unique hobby. The number of different ways to express these cars in model form often goes way beyond variations of the real thing. This can lead collectors down some very unique paths. The Journey of Philippe de Lespinay, our newest Selection Committee member, certainly represents an example. Throughout his career in the automotive and model car world Philippe has moved between continents as well as from diecast, to slot cars, to real race teams and back again.

As an 18-year-old in France collecting Dinky Toys and other 1/43 diecast, Philippe was hired by Heller as a designer. Despite lacking any design experience at first, his creations eventually won widespread praise, attracting the notice of another big player in the model kit world: Revell.

The early days of Philippes career

After meeting executives from Revell at a trade show, Philippe was offered a job in the States and decided to make the move.  Rather than heading straight to LA, Philippe wound up first in Bangor, Maine, where he saved up to hitchhike the remainder of the journey.

By the time he reached the West Coast, Revell was in trouble and his job offer had evaporated, but the sixties was a heady time for models, particularly slot cars. Within a day, Philippe had found another job, this time with a consulting company, Innova Inc., designing a set of HO scale slot cars for Matchbox.

It was here that a long relationship with slot cars began. Beyond just designing, his bright idea for magnets to improve rear-wheel traction was purchased by Matchbox. Although the initial explosion in popularity that slot cars enjoyed was waning, Philippe continued to design and to race semi-professionally, winning the ’72 USRA Championship.

The ’72 Western States Championship winner

In the wake of slot cars’ decline, Innova went bankrupt and Philippe moved on to Cox Hobbies, where he was finally able to see his magnet traction design used in production.

A Cox Hobbies SuperScale car, with a traction magnet

Philippe’s life remains firmly in a slot car orbit. The TSR slot car company, which he started on a bet, continues to serve the true enthusiast with cars built right here in the states, many based on designs he worked with decades earlier. His collection of 1/24 and 1/32 scale slot cars, some of which are the very same cars he raced back in the seventies, now resides at the Los Angeles Slot Car Museum, for which he works as a consultant. He has written a book on vintage slot cars and is now working on another which he hopes will be the go-to for racing enthusiasts.

Showing off some models at the Los Angeles Slot Car Museum

Although slot cars became one of the most steadfast of Philippe’s automotive passions, it certainly didn’t remain the only one. From ‘71 through ‘98 he worked with Dan Gurney to design race cars, one of which he currently owns and races himself. His current diecast collection of about 1000 cars contains prewar Tootsietoys, French lead-cast toys from the thirties, Dinkies, rare tinplate cars and more. 

A sampling of Philippe’s Tootsietoys

Philippe still hasn’t finished traversing the Automotive world. He also plans to write a book on prewar Tootsietoys and an illustrated tale on the rise of rear-engined cars in F1. Clearly, Philippe knows what he’s about when it comes to cars. We plan to make use of every bit of that knowledge here at the Hall.