Melvin’s Racer

Wooden toy race car from Depression Era

Melvin's Racer - © Copyright 2011 by William Beem

I shot this on the same backdrop as the guitar shots I posted yesterday. This one has a bit of a different story, though. The obvious part is that it's an old, wooden toy race car. It belonged to my uncle Melvin. My mother gave this to me last year, along with another one of his toys – a metal duck that flapped its wings and moved its head from side to side as you pull it on a string. That's the kind of stuff you had for toys when you're a three year old in Depression Era West Virginia. Apparently, it's a good idea to mark your toys.

Melvin's Mark on bottom of wooden race car

Melvin's Mark - © Copyright 2011 by William Beem

No labels or Sharpie pens back then. Just whip out a knife and carve your mark on your toy.

I don't know much about my uncle Melvin, and neither does my mother. He was one of those unfortunate children who died at the age of three. He was gone before my mother, the last child in her family, was born. My grandfather was a coal minder in West Virginia, as well as being the local preacher. I don't doubt that they cared for Melvin as best they could, but health care in rural West Virginia during the Depression simply couldn't save every child. It's one of the reasons people had such large families back then. Losing a child was a fact of life.

Racing history in Daytona Beach pre-dates NASCAR. Bill France didn't come to town until 1935, so racing was well under-way. The original track started in 1903 and ran along Highway A1A and the beach. This little car is is a pretty fair replica of the cars being raced back in those days. I never saw those races, but my father used to race motorcycles on that track. He told me it was hell coming off the beach and onto the pavement of A1A due to the sand scattered about. Having slid on sand a few times myself, I can understand.

The setup for this shot was quite rudimentary – a single SB-800 flash at 1/128th power on a stand about four inches over the car. I experimented by using a grid and trying some sidelight. They gave some interesting shapes to the car, but I wanted the “Daytona Beach” part of the car to come out in this shot. Some of the shots had too much light, so it took a little tweaking to find a balance of light and shadow that I liked. You definitely can't be heavy-handed when shooting small objects like this one.  Little moves, adjust and move. One thing is for sure, it's a bear trying to focus on something like this with a black background and little ambient light. I ended up using a Mag Light to get my focus before each shot.

In the end, it's just a little car. To me, though, it's a piece of family history and I wanted to capture it.

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4 comments

  • Ckgmt400 May 17, 2012   Reply →

    I actually have that exact same car mine belonged to my Great Uncle Harvey. I wish I knew more about this toy do you have any idea what year its from?

    • William Beem May 17, 2012   Reply →

      I’m not certain, since there isn’t any mark on the car.  The closest I found was an eBay listing for a rare 1940’s wooden race car, but that auction ended and I can’t see the picture to determine if it’s like this one.  The 1940’s would be about right, I suppose, given my mother’s age.

  • Aaron Rossner September 25, 2016   Reply →

    I love this image and often go back to it. Probably mostly because I’m really inspired by these old wooden cars and want to make my own.
    Your perfect lighting shows off the characteristic features of this era of toy; Love the deep shadows on the wheels and the rich aniline wood dyes… Thank you for sharing!

    • William September 25, 2016   Reply →

      Aaron,

      Thank you. If you make some of your own, I’d love to see them. This one is on my mantle and I enjoy it every day. Just a little piece of family from the past.

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