A BRIEF HISTORY OF PLASTIC MODELING
(As I remember it or I think I do)



by John Loughman

 

 

Introduction

The story of injection molded plastic (polystyrene) scale models begins in the early 1950's when two businessmen (Lewis Glasser in America, founder of Revell and Nicholas Kove in England, founder of Airfix) decided independently of each other to use their injection molding equipment to produce toys that the purchaser would put together with a suitable adhesive. Initially, painting the toy or model was an option only if the purchaser was able to obtain suitable household paints or artist's oil paints.

Although the scale detail was crude by today's molding standards, both businessmen were surprised by the sales reaction of people who readily accepted their offerings and soon a wider range of model types began to appear. Neither of the two men were model hobbyists in any sense of the word and Lewis Glasser was even to boast that he had never made one of his company's model kits. Their interest in model kits was purely profit driven and particularly in the early years of Revell it could be safely said that the interests of scale detail and accuracy never interfered with profit making. In fact, Revell's scale policy at the time was to make the kit fit one of several sized card boxes which resulted in very unusual scale variations. That said, it is difficult to understand how at the same time Revell produced an excellent series of well detailed 1/90 scale sailing ships even by today's standards, complete with rigging cord and long lengths of chain (incidentally this chain was coveted later on by AFV modellers).The Cutty Sark ship model was probably the most popular of the range and countless kits were bought and stored by purchasers to build in their retirement many years to come. In fact, by the time retirement came around many of the builders usually had shaky hands and poor eyesight and induced younger people to build the kits for them.

Airfix soon realised the value of constant scale kits, introducing a range of 1/72 aircraft models and 1/76 scale tanks, plus model railway accessories. The 1/72 scale model aircraft line complemented the pre-war Frog range of bakelite aircraft kits and the post war balsa "solid model" kits which provided acetate canopies and diecast wheels and propellors. The "solid scale" fraternity took to the plastic kits with fervor and skills obtained with the former balsa kits served them well when changing over to plastic. Eventually the balsa wood solid model kit firms, such as Keil Kraft in the UK, disappeared although Keil Kraft had a final fling with an injection molded 1/72 Hawker Hurricane with retracting wheels. But it was too late to compete with Airfix and Frog who now had dominance in this scale.

Revell began producing American car kits to a constant scale around about the time the slot car craze was developing and the popularity of these kits encouraged the company to hold large model car competitions throughout many of the American states. It was a very long time, however, before Revell introduced constant scale aircraft kits and by then other manufacturers on the scene, particularly Monogram, had a firm grip on this aspect of the model market.

The early success of Airfix and Revell saw the rapid emergence of other firms in various countries into the lucrative pocket money hobby market. At this stage of the emerging hobby, the cheap price of plastic models meant that a determined modeller could purchase and build most of the range of kits available in hobby shops and if a small disaster occurred when the lady of the house accidentally knocked a model of a shelf or mantelpiece with a feather duster it was not a disaster of any great magnitude, except perhaps in the case of a sailing ship model.

Model kits were now appearing ranging from simple aircraft kits with single piece flat wings with two fuselage sides to complex ship and car models. The instruction sheets were in English language and often contained construction photos and detailed assembly drawings. In most cases the kits parts were identified by name and there was an educational aspect connected with the hobby. The major downside to the emerging serious modeller was the often crude decal or transfer sheet associated with the model kits. Early Airfix aircraft kits usually provided roundels of indifferent size and a set of squadron markings and crude fuselage serial numbers. Any other markings such as stencil markings and alternative markings were non existent.

It did not take long for some modellers with a background in the printing trade to realise that there was a small market for alternative and improved decals, one of the first being the firm of HisAirDec which also produced a small magazine promoting its products.

The new breed of solid scale modellers initially modelled in a vacuum , eagerly seeking scale drawings and color information from the commercial aviation publications and flying scale magazines such as the British "Aeromodeller" which from time to time published 1/72 scale aircraft drawings. Occasionally modellers considered themselves lucky if their library had a volume or two of "Aircraft of the Fighting Powers" produced during the war years and terribly suspect in outline accuracy, but then the only game in town. Individual model collections began to grow quickly with the regular release of new affordable kits. Modellers became used to repainting and decalling old kits as new marking information came to light and with no peer group pressure criticising prominent seams, decal varnish, and odd dihedrals it was a most enjoyable and heady period. Now and then a model kit might have two sets of decals stuck together which for the modeller was the equivalent of winning the lottery.

The more enterprising modellers would approach the hobby and toy shops seeking to display their models in exchange for a kit or two, leading to contact with other modellers and visits to see the respective collections.

In 1956 Harleyford Publications produced "Aircraft Camouflage and Markings" which quickly became the "bible" for aircraft modellers. Although later careful research would highlight numerous errors and omissions the publication had a beneficial effect on the hobby as modellers began to produce models with markings much different to those supplied in the kit boxes. Around the same time the German researcher Karl Reis published a book on German Camouflage Colours which became the definite reference for a long period of time. To produce the recommended colours of Dunkelgrun and Swartzgrun modellers usually used Humbrol No 30 for the former and added some black for the latter. In fact the ubiquitous H30 doubled or tripled as British green, American Olive Drab and Japanese Green, until competition caused Humbrol to introduce its range of "Camouflage Colours" providing a range of finishes for a whole range of camouflage themes. Humbrol's early attempt to market a true "Olive Drab" was disastrous as most production runs produced a colour more suitable for painting vehicle tyres.

In 1981 most modellers of German aircraft model were stunned by the colour scheme revelations contained in the series of books on "Luftwaffe Camouflage" produced by Kookaburra publications which provided alternative schemes in many cases to those put forward by Karl Reis. Owners of large collections of built up models were in a quandary as whether to repaint in the new recommended colours and risk marring the decals or purchase fresh decals and strip the paint from the model. Those with large collections of unbuilt German model themes breathed a sigh of relief.

About 1960 the Airfix magazine appeared on the market. Although owned by the Airfix company, it operated relatively independently with apparent editorial freedom and soon attracted a variety of modelling authors who contributed regular articles ranging from kit reviews to kit conversion articles and a variety of how to do it articles, One of the most prominent was a former Royal Navy sailor named Chris Ellis. Although initially a model railway enthusiast, Mr Ellis produced a host of articles on naval and military items and eventually served a time as Editor. He is seen today as the person who encouraged and developed the enormous interest in small scale armour kits, through his informative and encouraging articles on construction and conversion. The theme of small scale armour conversions and scratch building was also encouraged by George Bradford from Canada through his eagerly sought after and hard to find AFV News. In the late 1960's the Miniature Armoured Fighting Vehicle Association brought our a regular magazine call "Tankette" which provided armour modellers with excellent 3 view drawings which complemented the range of drawings produced by the short lived Bellona Publications.

The 1960's period has often been described as the "boom times" of plastic modelling. Magazines devoted to scale modelling and reference material appeared, vacform models began to appear, aftermarket firms began producing improved decals and kit replacement parts, Humbrol Paints began producing a large range of flat and gloss enamel paints aimed specifically at the model enthusiast and the International Plastic Modellers Society started in England and rapidly spread to America, Australia and eventually to most parts of the western world. Most countries had a National committee and each branch had its own committee. Newsletters and magazines were produced by these groups as a means of keeping isolated members in touch. .These publications gave a number of budding historians a chance to publish reference articles based on WW2 photographs and material they had often obtained by corresponding with pilots and aircrew in the 1950's.

Aircraft camouflage and markings research also found an outlet in these publications, sometimes leading to the authors publishing the collected information in book form. In an eagerness to get into publication quickly, numerous items were published as fact without proper research and documentation and any modeller using old model magazines as reference material would do well to read the next two or three issues and note the errata and corrections that followed the articles. Later in the 1970's and onwards, the "Letters to the Editor" section of popular modelling magazines often produced serial entertainment as authors and their detractors savaged each other espousing their own particular point of view. Even today, a magazine article on "Olive Drab " paint will reverberate for at least several issues.

The early IPMS clubs in all countries operated and existed under various difficult conditions.(Perhaps they still do).Initially aircraft modellers and aviation enthusiasts formed the larger part of the membership. Advertising was usually a simple notice in a hobby shop specialising in flying models and model trains. Recruitment was often accomplished by obliging hobby shops allowing membership application slips to be placed inside kit boxes on the shelf ( this was long before shrink wrapping occurred) . Membership was spread through many city and country towns and one of the difficulties was finding a meeting place central and accessible to most members and also affordable. A typical meeting would be held on a week night starting at 7.30 pm and usually breaking up at 9.30 usually due to hiring restrictions. The late evening times and transport problems also made it difficult to attract juniors .In order to keep members informed the committees in each country and some branches produced a regular newsletter and/or magazine. Postage was reasonably cheap at the time for registered publications and overseas postage was dearer but usually within the reach of the clubs. International phone calls were generally prohibitive due to the need for long discussions.

Perhaps the greatest problem was the need to ratify all changes and rules through monthly meetings and the annual general meeting which saw the election of or the re-election of a new committee. Committee meetings were usually held two weeks before the monthly meeting and changes mooted there were usually argued and debated for a large portion of the short monthly meetings leaving little time for the monthly model competition and after meeting discussions .This often caused some members to leave or not rejoin. Most of the early members of IPMS in most countries were in their early or late twenties and often involved in aviation historical societies and some even authors in their own right. Others were what was come to be known as "armchair modellers". These sometimes well meaning persons tended to dominate the vital committee positions and exercise editorial control the magazine publications.

In time the UK, USA and Australian branches agreed to exchange magazines on a reciprocal basis. This was very beneficial to all providing a great wealth of hints, reviews and scale drawings as the only easily obtainable model reading matter was the Airfix Magazine and Flying Review/Air International. The latter included several pages devoted to new model kits issues and a page of drawings in colour. Frustratingly , the drawings usually showed only one side of a camouflaged aircraft and one half of the top view. When pressed to change, the magazine stated that the drawings were included for the aviation enthusiast and not for the benefit of modellers. This is probably why most modellers quickly browsed through the magazine and then replaced it back in the newsstand.

Each IPMS magazine editor was under pressure to include as many "bangs for bucks" per issue and eventually as membership rose the magazine paper quality improved together with cost increases. Overzealous editors wanting colour magazine covers could blow the particular clubs budget very quickly. Printing the magazines was usually fraught with problems in rising costs, delays in printing, often needing a change of printer and further delays and even regular changes in magazine editors could induce further hiccups. The general members, particularly those unable to attend meetings wanted their magazines on time and were frustrated by delays or mail problems and tended to make life difficult for the club secretaries.

The emergence of IPMS and its regular modelling surveys gave the hobby a united lobbying front for the first time to impress upon the modelling companies the need to improve the level of detail and decals in their kits. Most of the modellers at that time failed to understand that their combined purchasing power amounted to virtually nothing when compared with the "kid pocket money "market which was happy with oversize rivets, raised panel lines and thick clear canopies. As IPMS developed so did the beginning of regular club model competitions. Initially this had a beneficial effect on the hobby as the more skilled and daring modellers began to "push the envelope" and a spirit of co-operation resulted in the creation of many spectacular models, a number of which are still regarded as landmarks in the history of plastic scale modelling. The Historex Chasseur officer animated conversion by Ray Lamb, the Monogram B-17 Diorama by Shep Paine and the Esci Harley Davidson with scratchbuilt rider by the late Bill Hearne readily spring to mind. Another influential individual was Francois Verlinden, an active Belgian modeller with an acute business sense, who eventually turned a cottage industry into an international business.

Unfortunately ,the club competition scene saw the development of a small modelling "elite" in many clubs which tended to deter more timid modellers from entering competitions and in some cases the intense rivalry saw the competition scene develop into a "blood sport" compounded by the need to categorise competition winners as either "first" "second" or "third”. Quite often the regular competition winners were also committee members and tended to resist efforts to group the better modellers into a separate competition group. It was a long time before the "Out of the Box" category was introduced, initially for the benefit of the beginner or less accomplished modeller. Although the UK Model Engineer Society had for many years used a "Gold", "Silver" and "Bronze" award system it was left to the Americans to introduce this system to the plastic modelling scene to bring common sense back to the competition scene. One of the unfortunate facts of many model competitions is that models are often judged by modellers who have not entered in or are not fully conversant with that particular category with the result the standard of judging often falls short of the standard of modelling. An interesting later development was peer group judging introduced by the innovative Francois Verlinden in his Mastercon, where competition entrants voted for their entered category, naturally not being able to vote for their own model.

In the 1970's there began a downturn in the commercial aspect of the hobby with the introduction of arcade computer games. At the same time a world energy crisis occurred which also caused a paper shortage. A number of publishers had to decide between books or magazines. As the hobby had always been fully dependent on the "kid" market with its abundance of pocket money, the result of young people flocking to arcades to play "space invaders" and similar games saw the hobby kits starting to gather dust on the shop shelves and consequently the manufacturers balked at introducing new kits .Airfix attempted to solve their problem by re-issuing their kits and upgrading the kits series with a subsequent price hike. Other manufacturers increased the size of the boxes leaving a considerable amount of air space in the box which was jumped on by some consumer authorities. Another downer for the hobby was the replacement of "box top" art by photographs of often poorly painted models apparently to avoid legal repercussions from any modeller frustrated in achieving a finish similar to the box art work. The resulting model boxes left many fledgling modellers to surmise that the box top finish shown was the best that could be achieved.

The Vietnam War also had a downturn effect on the hobby especially in America where mainly Revell and Monogram were reluctant to produce new military aircraft and armour models, even though Monogram had a promising series of 1/32 military vehicles. The emerging Japanese Toy and Hobby industry had no such inhibitions and saw a niche market in the 1/35 and 1/72 - 1/76 armour markets. Exercising a greater degree of accuracy and attention to detail in their product, firms such as Tamiya, Hasegawa and Fujimi quickly established supremacy in the market place a position which they still hold today although other manufacturers such as Academy and Trumpeter are proving to be their equal in many respects.

In the mid 1980's the personal computer effect saw the demise of the arcade games and the beginning of a return of juniors to the hobby although this new generation of hobbyists tended to lack a parent with a previous interest in modelling. Before long however, this resurgence was overtaken by the new craze of radio controlled cars or buggies produced in the main buy Tamiya who saw this as a licence to print more money. With so much previous radio control experience by hobbyists in America it is a constant source of wonder why Revell and Monogram were never to invest and dominate this particular field.

As we progress steadily into 2003 those modellers who became involved in the hobby of plastic scale modelling at the start of the 1950's,after exchanging Gem safety razor blades for Xacto hobby knives, can look back on 50 years of gradual evolving change in the nature of our chosen hobby. Starting with a dearth of reference books and magazines we are now faced with a bewildering array of reference photo books, cd-rom's and web site walk rounds. From early Humbrol thick pigment paints that often varied from batch to batch there are dozens of acrylic and oil based paints brands matched with hundreds of various gloss, satin and matt colours, not to mention thousands of shades of Olive drab. Tools now range from power tools, compressors and air brushes, exotic tweezers, files, drills. Where once there was only Humbrol body putty (ugh!) we now have fillers galore, fibreglass resin , super glues and any other product from the space age. We veteran modellers can only watch amazed as newcomers to the hobby readily embrace multi-media kits as beginner entry and instantly achieve a well built and finished model that would have formerly have taken a toll in blood, sweat and tears and time, not to mention hours of research and use of initiative. I suppose, collectively over these early years in particular , much blood was spilt from sharp knives, double edged razor blades and slipping pin vices, fortunately as far as I am aware, none of it was fatal, although I am sure quite a few septic fingers resulted.

Like the medical profession, where at the start everyone was a "general practitioner", new entrants are more likely to specialise in a particular field, usually because of the huge range of available model kits in that field. How could one modeller build one of every type of 1/72 scale aircraft, especially when encouraged to enhance each particular kit and thus increasing the time involved. How then could he also build all of the 1/72 scale armour and/or 1/35 armour let alone 1/48 aircraft and scales above.

Over 50 years of active modelling and about 2000 plus kits behind me of good, bad and indifferent standard(I do know the difference) I am glad I was able to tackle just about every type of scale model kit available in every available media and also venture into the fields of scratchbuilding and model railways, because dabbling in different types of models and scales results in a cross fertilisation of ideas and techniques, not to mention meeting other modellers in the various fields of endeavour. As well as enjoying the company of other modellers I am glad I was able to share the hobby interest with my two sons and now my grandchildren.

Even with this vast experience behind me I would not dare to predict the way the hobby will progress over the next ten years let alone the next 50 , except to say that it will always be a source of contentment and relaxation for those prepared to take up the hobby no matter what their station in life is. They will always get out of it what they put into it.

Apart from a potted history of the Airfix company several years ago, a definitive history of the development of the plastic scale hobby kit industry is yet to be written. The story of the unnamed and unsung draftsmen, tool and pattern makers involved in the hobby over the years would make fascinating reading, particularly relating the trials and tribulations of injection molding and the story of the kits that never made it to the metal cutting stage.

The corporate history side would also make extremely interesting reading especially when you consider that at one stage Revell and Airfix virtually had a licence to print money for ever. The demise of the Frog Company and the collapse and sale and resale of Airfix, Matchbox, Revell and Monogram must have valuable lessons for business executives alone. The swift rise of the Japanese model companies and their eventual domination of the high quality end of the hobby would make fascinating reading. Other interesting sidelines would be the occasional friction and boxing matches between IPMS USA and IPMS Great Britain caused mainly by the delay or failure of magazines to arrive as promised and the width of the Atlantic Ocean and a common language. IPMS 's long insistence that that only kits constructed mainly of plastic could be entered in competitions had a big say in the emergence of various independent modelling clubs and groups as metal figure modellers and wooden ship modellers wanted to compete in these mediums but still be a member of a multi category club. The new clubs tended to include "scale" in their title in lieu of "plastic".(Although I have not been a member of IPMS for many years ,leaving to start a ":scale" model club, I do not regret the time spent involved at various levels IPMS Australasia.) The development of Webzines and Club web sites on the Internet as a modelling tool and reference system phenomenon would necessitate a book of its own.

Like any other collective group be it military, sporting or other, the hobby has generated its own source of heroes, legends and myths. Rumours of forthcoming kits and their gestation period (remember the Monogram Catalina) magnificent models broken or damaged on the way to competitions, bunfights over competition results, debates over scale colour (neverending) ,dirty deeds done dirt cheap, armchair modellers upsetting active modellers, distributors and model shops ignorant of their product and how to promote and sell it. Perhaps it is time for the significant model clubs and organisations to conduct an "oral history" campaign so that information will be available for anyone prepared to document our hobby as far as it is possible.

Be warned though, it will be necessary to delve through nearly 30 years of Airfix magazines, hundreds of kit catalogues, IPMS magazines, dozens of scale military and aircraft magazines plus early editions of Air Enthusiast and Air International just to build up the background knowledge to attempt a start. Perhaps the best way would be to have a collective attempt rather than an individual attempt.

If I had room and time I would write much about the characters, oddballs and events this hobby has produced (Ed Roth and his Finks spring to mind),the Airfix Riveter, the Matchbox Ditchdigger, trying to glue together the Monogram 1/72 B52 with stringy tube glue that dried on one fuselage side before you could effectively glue the other, the various model magazines that came and went, hobby shops and proprietors (Bruce Hearne of Melbourne take a bow) model club meetings in strange and weird surroundings, occasional embezzlement of club funds by itinerant treasurers (not only IPMS) fending off criticism of making "war toys" by worried mothers and home hosted committee meetings where one remaining member is oblivious to hints that supper is over and he should be heading home and letting the host and his wife get some sleep, and searching through the shagpile carpet to locate a kit piece that just took off for parts unknown, just to mention a few.

You may or may not agree with my foregoing remarks and comments but please do not send me your criticisms; instead sit down and write your own story on what you think is the history of modern scale modelling. I will be pleased to read it.