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ISSUE 14:
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1950s Spaceship Model Kits
Possession Obsession
Are You a Packrat?
Deep Space 9 Model Kit
Space Stations and Star Trek
Academia and SF Fandom
Sci-Fi Girl Toys
Science Fiction Book Reviews
Letters to the Publisher

 

SNW Issue 14
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SNW Issue 12
SNW Issue 11
SNW Issue 10
SNW Issue 09
SNW Issue 08
SNW Issue 04

 

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Chesley Bonestell - New York Central Building 1930
New York Central Building 1930
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classic-plastic-model-kits.jpg (9199 bytes)
Classic Plastic
Model Kits:
Identification
& Value Guide

by Rick Polizzi

 

 

Strange New Worlds Issue #14
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Feature Article
Strange New Worlds  Issue 14 - June/July 1994

"It is part of the nature of man to start with romance and build to a reality." - Ray Bradbury

Spaceship model kits and popular publications of the 1950s
(for Robert Shaw)
by Elliott Swanson

Mankind’s exploration of space began years before words like Sputnik and astronaut entered the language. No, I'm not talking about science fiction. For a decade and a half following World War II, fantastic arrays of spacecraft, launched by the minds and imaginations of a small group of rocket scientists, offered the public tantalizing hints of what life beyond the confines of the atmosphere might be like. These conjectures avoided science fiction clichés like bug-eyed-monsters and space battles, but focused on the technology needed for the exploration of the next frontier.

This article reviews the range of artifacts relating to this fascinating dawn of the space age, with the primary focus on one of the hottest collectibles the era produced -- plastic model kits. I will also cover some of the pitfalls associated with collecting model kits and how to avoid them.

The Golden Age of Spacecraft Design

The 1950s are generally heralded as the golden age of spacecraft design. An established base of practical knowledge, primarily assembled by Germans involved in the V-2 program, provided the groundwork needed for educated guesses about spaceflight.

The nostalgia associated with '50s space memorabilia may be due in part to the fact that, while the actual launch vehicles that lofted the Soviet and American payloads were effective in meeting their objectives, they lacked the grace and whimsey of the ships created by Wernher von Braun and his contemporaries.

The Beginnings — Early Spaceship Designs

Prior to World War II, rocketry scientists like Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Hermann Oberth also designed inventive spaceships. Tsiolkovsky, one of the founding fathers of the Soviet space program, put together a manned vehicle concept that used water-filled iron bathtubs as acceleration couches! What happened to the water once orbit and zero gravity were achieved is unknown.

Another classic ship was designed by Oberth for the 1929 Fritz Lang film production Die Frau im Mond (The Woman in the Moon). As the title suggests, the ship was supposed to carry passengers to the moon. The scenario was suitably realistic enough to cause considerable fear in the British Foreign Office. The Gestapo later destroyed Oberth’s prop spaceship model due to concerns about revealing the existence of the V-2 program.

'50s Designs — Popularizing the Space Age

Though intriguing, such early attempts were never intended to represent practical, functional spacecraft. That didn’t happen until the post-war era. At that time, names previously known only within the scientific community started appearing in public news media. Names like Wernher von Braun, Willy Ley, and Krafft Ehricke.

Collier’s magazine deserves much of the credit for popularizing the space age via a series of keynote articles in the 1950s. Also, a number of illustrated children’s books such as By Space Ship to the Moon by Jack Coggins and Fletcher Pratt (Random House, 1952) captured the hearts of a generation of technology-worshipping youngsters.

The Viking Press series of books, based upon the Collier's articles, provided the best material in terms of quality of illustration and information. These books contained many full color paintings of spacecraft and space environments. Among the notable illustrators whose work appeared in the Viking books (and the Collier’s articles) was the Van Gough of space art, Chesley Bonestell (see the book The Art of Chesley Bonestell). Copies of the magazines and books in good condition are highly desirable collector’s items.

There are also a number of space-age comic books. These are based upon films such as Disney’s Man In Space. A short-lived '50s television series Men into Space starring William Lundigan also generated a series of comic books.

Now in Print

In the realm of future collectibles, two currently available publications that assemble information about the development of spacecraft are Blueprint for Space : Science Fiction to Science Fact, a catalog of the aerospace exhibit of the same name, edited by Frederick Ordway and Randy Liebermann (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC, 1992) and The Dream Machines by Ron Miller (Krieger Publishing Co., Malabar, FL, 1993). Both titles are excellent, heavily-illustrated overviews of the subject, although the hundred dollar price tag of the Miller book may be somewhat intimidating. (It’s worth every penny.)

Other Vintage Space Collectibles

Three other classes of items that should be noted as part of the 1950s space collectibles scene (but won’t be dealt with in any detail in this article), are:

  1. motion picture and television collectibles
  2. toys
  3. trading cards

Some of the films with poster art depicting prototype spacecraft are Project Moonbase, The Conquest of Space, Spaceways, Destination Moon, Riders to the Stars, and Satellite in the Sky. Theatrical motion picture posters (half-sheets, one-sheets, etc.) and lobby cards have experienced substantial increases in price [See Strange New Worlds article Yesterday's Tomorrow's, about collecting vintage posters].

While most of the movies would be considered fairly campy by modern standards, the poster art can add a nice touch to any collection or display of space memorabilia. Two sources of material and reproductions relating to '50s space movie art are Craven Images by Ronald V. Borst (1992, Grove Press, $50.00) and issue #21 of Filmfax magazine (July 1990).

The launching of the first Sputnik in 1957 also launched a large number of satellite and rocket-inspired toys. Almost none of them bear any resemblance to actual spacecraft designs, and are of little interest except to toy collectors. Even so, intense interest has driven up the prices for all toys of this nature.

Another oddball item is a set of "Space Cards" issued by T.C.G. in 1958 which depicts famous events in the history and projected future of space exploration. I’ve never seen a set of these cards, but they’re cited from time to time in reference sources.

Classic Model Spaceships Based on Real Design Concepts

But the real gems of this period, in terms of memorabilia, are the model kits based upon real design concepts developed by major aerospace firms and rocket scientists. The Strombecker issue of Walt Disney’s Man in Space ship, based upon a Wernher von Braun design, was arguably the first of these kits. Strombecker was transitioning from wooden models, and this was one of their earliest all-plastic kits. The first issue of the kit was in a monochrome box. The ship was molded in lemon-yellow styrene plastic. It was reissued in a standard full color box, but the reissue was in gray plastic. To further complicate things for a collector, there was also an assembled store display kit, and a gift set that had three kits in a cellophane wrapper and an added paper banner around the boxes. The same kit also was issued in England under the Selcol label. I haven’t seen one of these, but they show up from time to time in English model kit sales and auctions.

Most recently, Glencoe Models has lovingly restored the original Strombecker molds to a working condition. If you want any of the Glencoe reissues, don’t put it off. The molds are nearing the end of their usability. Glencoe ran less than 4000 of Strombecker’s "world’s first 4-stage rocket," and according to Glencoe’s CEO Nick Argento, they may try for one more run. Here’s your only chance to get this kit for $10 instead of the $300 or so you’d probably have to pay for a first issue version. Although the Glencoe issue is listed as a "Three Stage Ferry Rocket," it is the exact same D26/D26A Strombecker kit, with the exception of the Disney decal sheet. I have childhood memories of filling those bright yellow ships with powder emptied from firecrackers. The launches were spectacular, but orbit was never achieved.

Hawk, Lindberg, Revell, and Monogram also started cranking them out. Their kits are described in detail along with Strombecker’s in the "Model Kits" section of this article. As with the Strombecker kit line, most companies produced factory-built store displays. Figure that a display model that includes a printed cardboard backdrop should be worth two to three times the value of an unbuilt kit. The same ratio holds for the gift sets: two to three times the combined values of the kits. Display models and gift sets are very scarce.

Built-Ups (Assembled Models)

Another category of kits you may encounter are built-ups done by the kids who originally bought them. Some of these will be superbly done, but most will be fairly awful and frequently incomplete. If in the latter category and the price is right — say 10% to 25% of the value of the unbuilt kit — it may be worth buying. It can probably be soaked in Pine Sol, taken apart, and rebuilt by a skilled modeler into a great display piece. If you can find someone with a decal set from an unbuilt kit, the decals can be reproduced on 8.5 x 11 inch decal film copied on a Sharp color copier. Canon color laser copiers won’t work — the decal material is too thick. (Decal film is available from ATP, 3014 Abelia Court, San Jose, CA 95121.)

A professional quality built-up of a kit that has never been reissued can sometimes be worth as much or more than an unbuilt kit. When buying such a kit, check an under-area of the model’s base where paint can be scraped away to check for styrene plastic, and to confirm that it isn’t a resin recast. The value of a built-up can change quickly if the kit is ever reissued. The only ones that can be assured of retaining value are complete original unbuilt kits and factory-built store display models.

Reissued Kits

A question that often comes up is what happens to the value of an original after a reissue. If we’re dealing with a true rarity, my answer is that it remains unaffected. Many would contest this point. I base my call on the fact that when a book is reprinted, the value of the first edition is not lessened. Why should there be a difference for model kits? One is an historical artifact, the first of its kind. One isn’t.

Resin or Garage Kits

Garage kits will also appear from time to time. These are homebrew models cast in resin or made by vacu-forming. These vary considerably in quality. Only one, the von Braun multi-stage rocket made by Dave Merriman of D&E Miniatures, will be described in this article. Most of the garage kits are targeted towards military, monster, and science fiction fans. Lunar Models sometimes has classic 1950s spacecraft (mostly film related) garage kits available (Lunar Models, 106 Century Drive, Cleburne TX 76031. Catalog available: $5.00.)

Contractor's Models and Scratch-Builts

Two additional categories of models are of interest: contractor’s models and scratch-builts. Many aerospace firms made models to distribute to executives, military brass, and congressmen to promote various projects. These are extremely rare. Pricing is generally determined via negotiation between buyer and seller. A good starting point for a prototype space model would be $300. The larger and more detailed it is, the more expensive.

Equally rare are professional scratch-built models done for exhibits or museums. A stunning example of the Wernher von Braun "Mars Lander" built in 1/160 scale by Lee Staton for the Smithsonian’s "Blueprint for Space" exhibit appears in the January 1994 issue of Fine Scale Modeler magazine (Kalmbach Publishing Co., 21027 Crossroads Circle, PO Box 1612, Waukesha, WI 53187, $23.95 for 8 issues.) The article, entitled "To Mars In 1956!" includes a full set of blueprints for the ship. Expect to pay fairly substantial prices for finished museum-quality models like this.

Pricing and Negotiating

Values listed in this article are current retail prices [Note: article published in 1994] for model kits. I’ve also tried to include general guidelines for some of the other space items. As you all ought to know by now, value is determined by the buyer and seller, so don’t be afraid to haggle. Larger dealers with heavy inventory will probably be trying for considerably more money than I’ve listed as current values.

Usually a dealer will give you one-half to one-third of retail, unless he or she has a ready market for the item you want to sell. As with most collectibles, condition and scarcity drives the price. Bear in mind that for most of these early space kits, unless a batch turns up in a warehouse somewhere the entire number available today for models made circa 1959 probably ranges from 25 to 100 surviving kits.

I derived this guesstimate from following buy and sell listings in Kit Collector’s Clearinghouse and Toy Shop magazine over the past five years. As expensive as some of the first-issue kits are, I feel that as people become increasingly aware of how scarce early unbuilt space model kits really are, the prices will, if you can excuse the pun, skyrocket.

Also, as the space program continues to get funding cuts, the nostalgia value will start to kick in even more. The collector will find himself competing with aerospace museums actively acquiring kits and collections. Kit Collector’s Clearinghouse (KCC) is a buy/sell/trade/info newsletter for model collectors published by John Burns, 3213 Hardy Drive, Edmond, OK 73013. It’s a good place to "beat the dealer" when shopping for kits.

What to Look for when Buying Vintage Model Kits

BUYERS GUIDE:

Vintage Space Books (Viking Press, Colliers...)

Model Kits:

(Where it exists, the number shown after the kit number is generally the original suggested retail price.)

bulletD & E Miniatures (Kit number n/a) Wernher von Braun 3- Stage Rocket. Scale aprx. 1/300? Issued circa 1990. This resin kit, standing about 9 inches tall including a simulated "blast-off" base, is an exact replica of the rocket seen on the jacket of the Viking Press book Across the Space Frontier. It requires somewhat more skill than assembling a styrene plastic kit, but makes a great companion piece for the Strombecker D26 "Man In Space Ship." I suggest you scrap the base that comes with the D & E kit, and replace it with one cannibalized from a Glencoe "Three Stage Ferry Rocket" kit (#05908,) The D&E kit may still be in production. For availability, contact D&E Miniatures, 835 Holly Hedge Ave., Virginia Beach, VA 23452. Current price is unknown, but estimated to be in the $50-$75 range.
bulletGlencoe Reissued Models (made from original vintage molds)
bulletHawk Model Co. Vintage Kits
bulletLindberg Vintage Space Model Kits
bulletMonogram Vintage Space Model Kits
bulletRevell Vintage Space Model Kits
bulletStrombecker Vintage Model Kits
(Strombeck-Becker Manufacturing Co.)

Closing (And a Brief Pitch for Items Wanted!)

I have all of the model kits and most of the books cited in the article, so if you have any specific questions, please feel free to write. Also, if you spot inaccuracies, feel free to set me straight. A SASE is appreciated. I’m actively looking to buy a few missing print items: Collier’s Magazines: 1952 --22 Mar., 18 Oct, 25 Oct. 1953--28 Feb, 7 Mar, 14 Mar, 27 Jun. Of special interest to me are the Disney booklets, Man In Space, and Mars and Beyond (not the comic books.) Will buy these booklets at full retail. Assembled junk Revell space kits, parts, and boxes from Revell and Strombecker space kits also wanted. Write: Elliott Swanson, PO Box 2324, Bremerton, WA 98310.

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Also in this issue:
Buyer Beware
1950s space books
Glencoe Reissues
Lindberg Spaceship kits
Monogram / Willy Ley kits
Revell model kits
Strombecker / Disney kits

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