Memory Bank: Model Kits

I grew up with model kits in the 1970s and 1980s, and I’ve always loved them.

And neither of those qualities, incidentally, is the same thing as being good at building model kits.

My father is a truly great model-builder, but I don’t think I have ever possessed the patience, coordination or necessary skill to build great models, and then to paint them as well.  Most of the time, I just wanted to play with the kits immediately after assembly and begin my imaginative adventures in the final frontier.

Still, I have terrific childhood memories of sci-fi model kits from decades-past.  Starting from the time I was probably five or six, my father would purchase a model kit for me almost weekly from a hobby shop in nearby Bloomfield, New Jersey, and spend Friday evening assembling it for me. 

I would have to go to bed before he finished gluing and painting, but first thing the next morning, I would spring up from bed and find the completed, painted – gorgeous — model waiting for me on the staircase leading up to the attic, which was right outside my bedroom.

It was always a spectacular thing, to wake up Saturday morning to a new toy, essentially.  After breakfast and some Saturday morning television, I was off to worlds of fantasy and excitement…

I still remember my Dad’s work station in the house where I grew up on Clinton Road in Glen Ridge.  Behind the family room sofa, he had a table (with wobbly legs…) and atop it was a giant gray box.  Inside that large flip-up box were all of his modeling supplies, from utility knives to paints, to clamps and sand paper. 

In a narrow space nearest to him, on the other side of the box, he had his assembly area.  I still remember that the surface of the table was splotched and blotted with paint droplets.  Sometimes, when I was very little, I would sit at his table during the day and try to scratch the paint off with my fingers, for some reason. I also have lots of memories of watching my Dad working on my models at his “station,” occasionally looking up to catch what was happening on Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk, or The Bionic Woman.

Since I’ve always been a space adventure fan, the kits my father built for me were when I was little were usually of the Star Trek or Space: 1999 variety: starships and moon bases and the like.  That was where my tastes went, but my Dad was also a great builder of his own kits, primarily tanks from the World War II era. 

One morning in the early 1970s that I’ll never forget, I found on those stairs outside my room a completed Star Trek exploration set from AMT, consisting of the famous communicator, phaser, and tricorder.  That kit really made my weekend, and I promptly took the Starfleet equipment out on landing party duty (by the nearby train tracks and field, where I played…).

I also remember going to that same hobby shop in Bloomfield some time in 1978 — before Battlestar Galactica actually premiered on ABC — and seeing on the shelves the whole line of Monogram model kits from the series, including Colonial Vipers and Cylon Raiders.  At that point, I had no idea what a “Colonial” or “Cylon” was, but I knew I had to have those spaceship kits, and my father, as usual, indulged me.

Another experience I recollect very clearly came in the winter of 1980 — when I was very ill — resting on the sofa in our family room and watching the Lake Placid Winter Olympics while my father built me an AMT Starship Enterprise.  As bad as I felt physically, I also felt good because I knew for certain that the next morning I would wake up and have a beautiful Constitution class starship to play with.

When I became a pre-adolescent, my love of models didn’t abate.  Now, my Dad and I would go out together on Saturdays and hunt for hobby shops all over New Jersey and sometimes in New York City.  My Dad would always use the opportunity of model kit “hunting” trips to talk to me about how I was doing in school, how I was feeling, and on one occasion, he used our weekend ritual to fill me in on the facts of life…

Over the years of my childhood and adolescence I collected model kits from Star Trek, Space: 1999, Planet of the Apes, Star Blazers, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, The Black Hole and other franchises.  Eventually, I started building the models myself, but as I wrote above, I never was as good at the task as my Dad was.   I did build a terrific Blue Thunder and Airwolf, when I went through my obsessive helicopter phase in 1983-1984, however.

And to this day, one of my all-time favorite models to build was “Gerry Anderson’s Starcruiser One,” a kind of three in-one spaceship from Airfix that, in my opinion, was an absolutely perfect spacecraft.

I have included with this post some photos of the model kits (boxes…) I’ve collected over the years.  I know it’s a wealthy collector’s hobby today, and in 2012, there are toys available of the vast majority of these spaceships.  But there’s still something incredibly special to me about a sci-fi model kit. 

For when I was young, there was no other way to play with the starship Enterprise, except by AMT model kit. 

Although I suppose most Star Trek fans would say that the famous Federation starship was constructed at the Naval Yards in Earth orbit, as a kid I knew with certainty that the great vessel was built – with a lot of love — at my Dad’s work table in the family room.

14 responses to “Memory Bank: Model Kits

  1. The first kit I ever received was from my dad: an Aurora Wolf Man. We put it together (mostly him, really). We didn't spend much time together when I was growing up, but at least one evening was never forgotten. I still love model kits, old and outdated hobby perhaps, but fun enough for me.

  2. Ah, the memories of a kid and teen in the 1970s who was a fan of all things fantastic before such things were common and cool. I still remember the fun of building my fantastic model kits, and the frustration of gluing the anti-matter pods to my Enterprise model. On top of the models the related merchandise was great too. Anyone remember the Vincent Price Shrunken Head Kits?

  3. Great memories, John. Man, I wish I had a shot at some of these when I was your age. It seemed we had airplane and Universal Pictures monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman) models to assemble (and get glue everywhere). Fun stuff!

  4. I had a paper route as a kid. My mother would make me put three out of four paychecks in the bank. The fourth paycheck was mine to spend, and I spent it either on Starlog and Fantastic Films magazines, or on model kits. It was a great decade for genre model kits. Perhaps my favorite though was the Star Trek Exploration Set. I knew the models were not accurate but to have these model props for my very own was a dream come true.A few other favorites were the Space:1999 Eagle and Moonbase models, as well as the Star Trek Bridge model.Thanks for the wonderful article!

  5. I have that Vincent kit that you have pictured above. I've always wanted to build it and make it "BOB" instead, but I'm not sure my skills are good enough to distress it correctly. My first model was a 1939 Ford Roadster. I built it when I was nine years old and entered it in a model building kit at the local Woolworth's. They had to ask the manager if it was all right for me to enter, since I was a girl. He gave me permission and I won 3rd place!

  6. Hi John,Great memories of model kit building. I remember the Aurora Wolf Man, and also the Aurora King Kong and Godzilla. There is something quite wonderful about model kit building, and today, for both of us it sounds like, something extremely nostalgic.Thank you for the comment, and the retweet of this post as well, my friend.Warmest wishes,John

  7. Hi John,Oh my goodness, I tried so hard over the years — on multiple kits — to get the Enterprise nacelles right. They couldn't stand at different angles, they couldn't droop, and they couldn't lean forward. The Enterprise D design was a great improvement in The Next Generation from a model kit standpoint because those nacelles weren't on long sticks!!!Great memories!best,John

  8. Hi Le0pard13:The sky really was the limit in the 1970s and 1980s where model kits were concerned. We had monsters, Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, Space:1999, Galactica, Star Wars, The Black Hole and on and on and on. Glory days indeed!Best,John

  9. Pierre,Thank you for your kind words about this article. They mean a lot to me.I loved that Star Trek Exploration Set too. Not accurate as you say, but close enough to pretend we were Starfleet officers, right? I also love th Eagle and Moonbase models from Space:1999 and have 'em right here in my home office. Great kits all around!Thanks for a great comment!best,John

  10. Hi Ellen,I love your story about the kit contest at Woolworth's. What a great memory, and what a great victory to place third.I sure would love a model of Old BOB as well. I'd settle for an action figure of him, these days…All my best,John

  11. I still have all my Aurora Monster and prehistoric scenes kits…as well as many of my science fiction ships such as the beautiful SPACE 1999 Eagle and Hawk kits. And the collection still grows from that youthful begining. I added the 23 inch EAGLE and the 19 inch HAWK display models recently and even have a 4 foot tall Godzilla pearched in the living room. The fact that my lovely wife shares and encourages such a collection makes me a very fortunate man 🙂

  12. Great article! I have most of the kits pictured sat in my store-room waiting for a rainy day when I can get around to building them. I remember staring longingly at these on toy shop shelves as a youngster but having to wait for adulthood, disposable income and the advent of e-bay to finally get them for myself. We are also lucky that companies like Round 2 and Moebus have recognised this 'nostalgia market' and started re-popping classic kits as well as new kits of sci-fi classics like the Jupiter 2, the Seaview and the C-157D.

  13. John, like you, I agree that there’s something special about a sci-fi model kit. As a boy in the ‘70s too, I built all my model kits alone or with childhood friends [ unfortunately, my father had no interest in my model making ]. Even today, all of these models kits photos that you have posted bring back an emotional connection since I also purchased and built them all back then. It appears that you and I had the same taste in model kits from Star Trek, Space:1999, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers In The 25th Century, Star Trek:The Motion Picture, The Black Hole and Gerry Anderson‘s StarCruiser. I played endlessly with the AMT Star Trek Exploration Set with my neighborhood friends who got there‘s too. I agree with your sentiments that there was only one way to play with the Starship Enterprise being that of the AMT model kit. My friends and I all built AMT Starship Enterprises and had a half of Starfleet named and ready to play with. We marked many warp hours with countless phaser or photon torpedo battles against Klingons and Romulans. I also enjoyed building the Fundimensions Space:1999 Eagle, Hawk and Alpha Moonbase[ Which I had fun correcting the launch pad count from 3 to 5 launch pads by placing the model on a larger piece of plywood and referring to the blueprints from the STARLOG Alpha Moonbase Technical Notebook.] However, most of all, I want to thank you for sharing your father-son relationship that you had with your dad and the model making that brought you close. That is truly awesome and must be some of the best of your boyhood memories. I hope that your son and you create many model making memories too. SGB

  14. Hi SGB:Thank you for a lovely, lovely comment. My father and I indeed bonded over model kits, and it's something I look forward to so much with Joel. I have several sealed Star Trek models, in case he "leans" in that direction. If not, I'll help him build whatever he loves: Transformers, race cars…anything. Building models together is really a great thing to share…Thank you,John

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