Like many a red blooded American boy, I grew up with Auto World as a constant companion. First dreaming over my older brother's catalogs for the early to mid '60's, then my own as I grew older into the early '70's and later. I went off to the Navy in 1981, and by the time I got out Auto World had slipped into oblivion. Like many things that come and go in life, you never truly appreciate what you have until they are gone.
I would spend every waking moment memorizing the latest catalog, and saving my allowance and lawn mowing money to order the latest kits, or those customizing accessories to make my models look the coolest around. I still have bits and pieces of Mini-Men in my parts boxes left over from my youth, and a few catalogs I'd saved from my mother anxious to throw away anything out of date. Auto World catalogs never went out of date, they just need a price update, but the pictures, the articles, and that "feeling" never got old.
Time and time again, the words "Auto World" would pop up on various message boards throughout the Net, and the name "Oscar" was sure to be part of that thread. Questions of where is Oscar? and What is he up to today? are common, and I was fortunate enough to finally make contact with Oscar. Who is Oscar? Oscar Koveleski founded Auto World, one of, if not THE most famous and successful mail order operations to ever take on the hobby industry. That Oscar.
And now I am very excited to bring to you an exclusive interview with Oscar Koveleski, a hero of mine and many others.
[SCI] You founded Auto World in 1958. What was your strategy by opening such a store, and did you ever dream it would become the icon that it was in it's heyday? (And living on as legend today?)
[Oscar] We started mail order first. Then the store. Lots of people make legends. I don't think anyone can sit down and design a legend. Ask Shelby. The first Cobra was a s***box. Ask Ferrari. I had a '56 . It was a s***box until my lifetime mechanic and friend Jack Deren (who recently restored most of BMW's GTP Racing cars) put a Chevy engine, gearbox, rear end in it. Then we won a pile of races with it. Even beating NART Factory Team Ferrari's and private Cobras. There were rumors the Ferrari fans wanted to buy it from me to retire it but I sold it to Andy Warhol for $3600. Its back in Italy now, fully restored to original and worth about $7,000,000. That was the first "Car 54 Where Are You".
If guys like Mark Donohue, Jim Hall, Carroll Shelby's guys including the late great author of race car "How To" books Carroll Smith didn't pass on their knowledge many race car builders would still be building s***boxes. Check out the real stories about the first Lotus cars.
I grew up with model cars, gas model planes. My dad (rest his soul) opened Scranton Hobby Center in 1939 where I worked before as a kid and during the war years (he was a flight instructor in WW II and in the Air Transport Command) and also after I was discharged from the Army (Korean conflict. I was in MASH as a combat environment field instructor training doctors and nurses how to stay alive in Korean type environments.
I learned to fly at age 9 and went auto racing at age 18 (1950) in an MGTC which I hopped up and went SCCA Road Racing whenever and wherever I could. Even raced Sam Hanks at Bone Stadium who was driving a Madman Muntz Jet Sports car. I had the only MG with Alfin brakes, a Studebaker Champion clutch, Weber carbs (I made my own manifold!) and Lincoln Mercury pistons etc. and even beat Porsches with it! Porsche didn't like that!
After WW II my dad formed a company called Old Timers where we started manufacturing HO scale die cast models (the first Hot Wheels?) and then 3/4" scale Balsa and metal, then plastic 1/32 scale Antique model car kits which is documented in a number of books. AMT and others started making plastic model kits which I sold at some of the races to raise money to race. I needed the cash. Gas was 19 cents a gallon!
Auto World started not as a store but a mail order company we operated
out of my friend Bob "Smitty" Smiths basement. Because of our
aggressiveness and knowledge( and need to make some money) we became
important to real enthusiasts and manufacturers. My wife and I did the
first catalogs on the kitchen table and ironing board. Our first two of
four kids got to like licking the glue on the stamps! Eventually they
all got to work at Auto World during school years, then went off to do
their own things. Bob in San Diego, Sharon in Jupiter FL, Lee in Seattle
WA and Chris, founder, editor of
Our first ad cost $55 (send certified check-there were no credit cards or quick banking then) in Hot Rod magazine for a Monogram Dragster. It worked. Well, kind of at a $1 or so a kit you have to sell allot of them. I had a recurring problem with a bad back I injured several times (once in the Army as a passenger in a Jeep rollover)- which had me "flat out" in bed off and on for years but careful exercise and effort got rid of it but in the meantime "Mail Order" was something I could do in or out of bed.
Smithy was on crutches all his life so we were a "pair". I started Auto World by cashing in my Life Insurance policy ($300.00)
In 1962, I met with Bob MacLeod (magazine assembler) and Larry Shaw (auto editor) and together started we Car Model Magazine (OLR Publishing, Oscar-Larry-Robert). We got our ideas together, stories, photos, and with the help of many auto world customers (who became writers) published the first bi-monthly edition which sold for 25 cents!
It was the leading "How To" magazine on model car building, racing, etc (because it was the first) and it got started when Auto World sold over 3000 subscriptions at $1.00 for 6 issues ($3000.00) and me hustling subs at car shows, races and wherever with guys like Ed Roth, Dean Moon, Mickey Thompson, Jim Hall, etc as they years rolled by....our objective was to always be the best, not the biggest.
Both Auto World and Car Model opened the communications among leading manufacturers, modelers, retail stores, contests, activities as we were all about model cars. Our major target was kids ages 11-15, and fathers and sons helping each other in the hobby.
My dream was to be international in scope and grow up with the market, and more importantly lead the market in "What's New" in model cars world wide. We flamed out a lot, no money to operate, promised goods never made it to the shelves, but we had one thing, "kids, people, who lived their dreams" in miniature and learned from mistakes and when they grew up they were involved in real cars, real racing. I hear from many of them and see Andretti's, Ganassi and many others at races.
We just presented the ideas, the products, as honestly as we could. They (our customers, readers, hobbyists) were the ones that made Auto World and Car Model and all the other companies and publications involved in the hobby the success they became.
In short, we were "Lucky" to have the support base and will be forever grateful to them. Many companies spent the money sponsoring contests and races which created news and views and more hobbyists. We all owe them, our "thanks".
[SCI] You've seen the slot car craze come and go, and now come back again. What do you feel lead to the demise of the hobby the first time around?
[Oscar] Interests come and go. Many more auto activities like radio control, car shows, restoring cars, go karting, auto racing at every level opened up, many more opportunities became available to spend your time and money on. Miniature and full size. Population grew, but so did new and more exciting opportunities!
[SCI] You did a lot of 1:1 racing, but did you ever race slot cars? Do any favorite slot cars stand out in your memory?
[Oscar] Not really, only some celebrity slot racing with Shelby, Jim Hall, Chip Gannassi, Bobby Rahal (and others) for "charities. My favorite slot cars were the scale ones, Cox, Monogram, Revell, Atlas, etc. I thought "Thingies" were a waste.
[SCI] Tell us about your racing career. When did you start racing? Could you tell us a little about your Can Am experience? What was it like racing a McLaren?
[Oscar] There's too much to tell. Started racing in 1950. Racing in the Can Am with the World Champions was the most challenging. It was the only era of the "unlimiteds! In 100 years of auto racing nothing came close to the Can Am cars. Absolutely wicked cars on wicked tracks. 200 miles,200 MPH, no pit stops, cool suits, power steering, radios. My best finishes were 4th, 6th, 7th, 8th. I won the SCCA Natl Championship at Road Atlanta 1970 in the same Mclaren Mk 8B. 1/10th second over Jerry Hansen in Peter Revson's Lola. These were bare bones "brutes" and only had one wire (no computers) and that was to shut off the magneto. With 88- to over 100 gallons of fuel on board, weight changes and balance affected everything.
There's lot's of books out now about Can Am, Watkins Glen, etc. We had a very small team, no spares. They tell me I won more races (amateur) at Watkins Glen than any other driver the first 25 years of "The Glen". One weekend (1965) I won 3, including the Glen 500 Mile FIA race with Hal Keck in his Cobra.
Our PRDA Team (Polish Racing Drivers Of America) Tony Adamowicz, Brad Niemcek and I finished 2nd in Brock Yates's first Cannonball Run in a special Chevy van we built that carried five 55 gallon drums of 130 octane Can Am fuel inside behind Dan Gurney and Brock in a Ferrari Daytona Coupe. Brock's got a new Cannonball book out but I haven't read it yet. I did not write any of his story about us. Some die cast company called about making a model of the Van.
There's many opportunities in SCCA and Vintage to go racing with just about any SAFE car, even on very small budgets. Click on SCCA.Org and find out about what 70,000 SCCA members do on weekends! Some members may even buy slot cars.
[SCI] Vanquish MG is now producing several McLarens, with more on the horizon. Would you like to see the #54 Auto World McLaren as one of the liveries?
[Oscar] Because of their importance in racing history I think Can Am cars will become (to America and maybe elsewhere) what the P51 Mustang, P 47 Thunderbolt became to the history of aviation. GMP Die Cast has made a 1/18 and 1/43 scale model of the Auto World Jerobee McLaren ( our Radio Control Car Sponsor in 1971) so its possible.
[SCI] Auto World had a lot of influence on the slot car market, especially the HO market. Can you describe your relationship with Aurora, and any other influences that you, or that Auto World had on the slot car industry as a whole?
[Oscar] Too much to tell. We first offered Scalextric(Polks in 1958 imported them and we sold hundreds of sets- now very valuable. We worked with Aurora, Revell, Russkit, Tyco Monogram, Strombecker and other slot car companies including Mabuchi motors, etc. Much "history" is being written which I don't find time to read so I don't know how accurate it all is. Milestones in marketing were getting Aurora slot car race on the Ed Sullivan show (Sterling Moss) signing Jackie Stewart, AJ Foyt, Richard Petty with Aurora, then world champion Mario Andretti, things like that. A teen age kid in the Midwest named Tom Bowman hid some magnets in an Aurora chassis (I may be the only guy that paid him $100 to use his idea in a magnet pan that I designed that clipped on the bottom of an Aurora chassis...and you know the rest....all kinds of action was happening as many individuals invented and changed things. It was a build, tune, change things hobby at that time.
[SCI] What lead to you closing down Auto World in 1991?
[Oscar] It was a decision made by former Auto World employees who were running the business since the early 80's.
I was elsewhere. From 1980 (to 1996) I leased Pocono International Raceway and ran the SCCA Sports Car Races there. Also, as President of the Historic Can Am Association (1991-) I helped organize the Historic Can Am Races working with Dan Davis and Victory Lane Magazine. I also began work on the Kidracer Battery Ride On Project in 1988.
[SCI] Was it a difficult decision for you to make?
[Oscar] Not really. We were losing the "kids market" and I thought most of the hobby of model cars should belong to the kids. All kinds of stores were selling model cars and covering the kids marketplace.
[SCI] Do you still own the rights to Auto World? Would there ever be a chance of seeing an Auto World again in the future?
[Oscar] Rights are accrued through use. Many companies now use the name Auto World. But there was only one "Auto World". I don't know if any business today comes close. If there is, I'd like to shake that person's hand! You have to have the passion for it, and the 24/7 strength to keep pace. We were always in the thick of it.
[SCI] What advice would you give to Internet or mail order retailers today looking at doing something similar to what Auto World did, and do you think it's possible for another "Auto World" or "Auto World" like business to succeed today?
[Oscar] Be sure of your vendors, your suppliers. Their quality and delivery of goods will make you or break you. Your offers must be honest and sold on a money back guarantee. Your not a "brand" but a service company that must treat all customers fairly and with respect. You select the best they can afford (Wal Mart?) and let them know "What's New" as often as you can. Stay in touch with the world today, and tomorrow. "Have fun every day. Make your own decisions every day. Follow your dreams." Tiger Woods said that. Sounds good to me.
[SCI] I know you've poked around Slot Car Illustrated and looked at several of the reviews. What is your opinion of the slot cars of today? What would your advice be to the slot car manufactures and distributors to ensure the success of slot cars this time around?
[Oscar] I think they are on the right track to sell to an adult market. As far as slot car racing for kids, they seem less interested in detail scale, I think price is more important...but if there is no kids interested, there is no market. Slot car manufacturers should make the best they can, at the best price they can, and deliver the product on time. I prefer scale models as accurate as possible. Historically popular cars should sell the best based on my experience.
[SCI] And finally, what have you done since the end of Auto World, and what are you doing today?
[Oscar] In 1988 I organized the first races for kids ages 3-6 in battery powered cars at Watkins Glen and over the years our volunteers and groups have helped probably 50,000 or 100,000 kids to learn how to drive, race in various car at tracks, auto shows, birthday parties. The cars were not that good so a few years ago I designed a new one we are manufacturing in China. The first prototypes were raced at last years Indy 500. 300 kids participated. We now have some inventory for sale. You can check out the details on our web site: Kidracer.com. Our goal is to provide a business opportunity for parents and persons who want to sell cars, rent cars, run events, from back yards, parking lots to race tracks, malls all over the world. These kids live cars, want to sit in them, drive them and race each other wheel to wheel. It's the first step up the ladder in racing, and who knows, some day one of them many become the winner of the Indy 500 or even the Formula 1 World Champion?
Ken, thanks for putting up a great, informative, easy to understand, well designed web site with great photos for slot car enthusiasts all over the world and your kind words about our employees, vendors, customers that made it all happen while I was trying to steer Auto World and Car Model in the right direction and out of the ditches!
[SCI] Oscar, thank you for going far more in-depth than I would have ever hoped in an interview such as this. Your openness, candidness, and unique point of view have really brought back many, many memories, and I wish you the best of luck with your new ventures.
[Editor's Note] When this interviews was conducted back in 2003, I was the owner/operator of SlotCarIllustrated.com. I had contacted Oscar for an interview and he was eager to offer his most unique point of view on all of my questions. Then he offered to have me solicit questions from the message board members. The result was Part Two of the Oscar Interviews.