John Estlow: National Champion Modeler
by Mark S. Gustavson, Trustee
The history of the model car hobby is peppered with great builders who set new standards for technical achievement but who, so often, aren't well known. Whether because of sparse media
coverage, or the lack of self-promotion, these builders didn't have a major "presence" in our hobby and, for that reason, their work isn't recognized. In our Vol.12, No.1 issue of The Builder, this newsletter presented a major article on John Estlow III and his great custom 1949 Mercury that
received top honors at the 1964 International Modelers Guild Modelrama Championship in Detroit.
Briefly, we learned that sometime in 1963 a somewhat loosely-knit organization called the International Modelers Guild (most likely spearheaded by Ron Elkhorn) held a number of model car contests across the United
States, culminating at Cobo Hall in Detroit. Held under the auspices of the show car division of Promotions, Inc., according to the article in the August 1964 issue of Car Model ("Flash! World Champion
Crown Awarded to Michigan Modeler," pgs 56-57), event coverage revealed that the top thirteen regional winners were culled from winners at model car contests held at ISCA shows across the United States. A
further clue to this event can be seen in the background to the photo of Robert Manmiller, in that same issue of Car Model magazine, where an ICAS banner appears. Additional information can be found in the March
1964 issue of Rod & Custom which features pictures from this event in the "Reader's Models" column (p. 39).
Our initial article speculated that John Estlow and Charles Jones had roughly equivalent awards (though in different contests). Since then, we've confirmed information gathered from other sources, and through
the materials that John's family has generously donated to the Museum about that contest series, that Chuck Jones won the sole top overall Championship Award, which should have resulted in Ed "Big Daddy" Roth
building for him a replica of his award-winning model. We learned that Roth refused to build the car, as detailed in our newsletter article in Vol. 10,#1
Since the first article on John was published, he and I spoke several times, and I sent him materials on the Museum and GSL. John sent me a lot of e-mail notes, and forwarded a lot of photographs of his "TV-Merc" as
well as pictures of his other models (John also won top awards in the original Revell-Pactra, and the first year of the Revell-Testor, contest series). As plans for GSL-XXII were coalescing, in early 2009, we
were deeply saddened to learn that John passed away from a sudden illness. After his death, Allen Taylor, John's nephew, called me and indicated that John's family had decided to honor John's wish to donate to
our Museum his famed "Mercury in a TV" model and boxes filled with historic memorabilia, including a full written record the "TV Merc" and the incredible electronic schematic that permitted John to build all of the
systems that powered and operated his incredible model. The donation also included many other model cars John had built.
A series of phones calls ensued, which led to Allen loading the TV-Merc model and all the associated items in a large truck van and driving it to GSL from Danville, Virginia. John's family shortly followed Allen
and spent the weekend at GSL-XXII. The group included is John's father Jack W. Estlow Jr. (who has since passed away), his sisters Nina E. Taylor and Joyce E. Payne, his wife, Judith H. Estlow, and stepson
Sterling Hartman. Allen and the family enthusiastically participated in the 22nd GSL Championship, and played a big role in the Friday-Night Museum seminar at which time the "TV Merc" was unveiled. Allen
played a specially-prepared CD which included quite a few photos and an "back-in-the-day" audio interview with John at 1964 Cobo Hall Show. Allen will be presenting the Museum with a copy of that CD, which
will be added to our "oral history" section. Also, the entire "official" GSL-authorized recording has been transferred to a digital medium by Jeremiah Gladstone, and copies will soon be available for a donation.
Since almost no one in the audience knew about the Merc or John, and with only four of the Museum staff having seen the Mercury before the unveiling, you can imagine the collective gasp, and thunderous approval, as
Allen unveiled the "TV-Merc"! The presentation was very emotional for Allen and the Estlow family, who sat on the front row, and for the astonished people in the audience. Even though I was pretty
well acquainted with the "TV Merc," I was blown away by the superb workmanship of the model and the incredible electronic work that was designed on a note pad and built in 1964, without the sophistication of
contemporary electronic parts and equipment. In addition to the expertly-crafted customizing work and paint job, John's Mercury exhibited working lights and related features that were rare in 1964, and are not often
seen even today. John's Mercury is incredible, on every level, and has held up splendidly in the ensuing 46 years!
After the seminar, David King, the editor of the newsletter for the Utah Miniature Automotive Guild, accompanied Allen Taylor and the Estlow family to the Museum, where everything was placed in a special section of
Please enjoy the following images and accompanying captions so that you can fully appreciate the work of this great modeler whose legacy continues to inspire us all. The Museum expresses its deepest appreciation
to the Estlow family for their generosity, and to Allen for his dedication to this whole project. John's "Merc in a TV," other models, documents and memorabilia will be protected in perpetuity. We'll
explore the dozens of bits of history that have been donated, and will prepare an in-depth story on this website!
John's Mercury is in excellent condition and exhibits considerable original work, as well as a stunning
array of working electrically-based feature. The TV features three mirrors to give the viewer full appreciation of the model.
Looking into the back of the TV case, the vintage electrical work is wonderfully complex and really
well-executed. And it all still works, some 46 years after it was built! We have the full schematic for the set-up.
When Allen Taylor presented the model to the crowds at GSL-XXII (2009), everyone was awed by this
too-little known model. The room was whisper-quiet as Allen explained the model, and operated the nearly dozen switches to operate the features in the model.
John's family also donated a great number of contest-winning models, some of which range back to the early Sixties. The workmanship is very good!
The Museum exhibits the "Merc in a TV" on a special stand with the trophies and an information card atop the case.
In 1964, John exhibited his model on a stand with trophies from prior contests. John's family has
donated a lot of written memorabilia and photographs. This all is a remarkable vision of our hobby in the early and mid-Sixties.
At the first show, John is filling out the entry forms with George Barris (middle) looking on. Anyone know who the other guys are in this photo?
John was also greeted by Budd "The Kat" Anderson (on the left) and another unknown show administrator in the center of this pic.
We also have the official letter advising that Chuck Jones won the contest series in which John participated.
After the placement of the Estlow collection in the Museum, some members of his family posed for
this photo: John's father John W. Estlow, Jr. is in front, with two of John's sisters standing behind their father: Nina E. Taylor and Joyce E. Payne. Allen Taylor – who spearheaded the donation and its
transportation to GSL and the Museum – stands on the right.