Article originally published in:|
Military Heritage magazine, December 2002
Militaria: Scale Vehicles Measure Up
By Peter Suciu
Collecting actual vehicles from history would require both a lot of money and space, but today’s latest developments in scale models offer alternatives that really can’t be beat.
Almost as long as there have been history buffs there have been scale models. Toy soldiers were popular among children for hundreds of years, but it was the introduction of specialized military vehicles that really gave birth to scale models after the First World War. These tin miniatures, along with those made of cast iron and even ceramic, however mostly appealed to toy collectors, as they weren’t especially detailed or realistic. Today there is quite a collector’s market for these tin toys, which were mass-produced in Europe and America in the 1920s and 1930s and prices for vintage tanks and airplanes can be especially high.
After the Second World War the introduction of plastic as a consumer material saw the birth of the hobby of model building, and virtually every military craft was represented from massive battleships to tanks to combat airplanes. During this same time high-quality die-cast miniatures began to appear with greatly improved detail.
Eventually miniatures fell into three unique genres. There were those that were unassembled and unpainted, and depending on your time and skill you could either put them together in the most basic sense or go all out and provide realistic paint schemes and even provide “battle damage” as you saw fit. This in turn led to the creation of dioramas that represented a scene from the past. Additionally some collectors preferred to leave the kits sealed and preserved for all time as an unassembled model in the original packaging. As with other toy collectibles old models in their original packaging can fetch a rather high price from collectors.
The second category of miniatures was the aforementioned die-casts, which were usually reserved for smaller scale vehicles with less detail. These were usually quite expensive and meant to be displayed items but in turn have become highly prized today. Finally there were rudimentary plastic toys that lacked detail but also didn’t carry the higher price points of the die-casts.
Miniatures on the march again
During the past decade miniatures in general started to lose their popularity and model kits became harder and harder to find. The popularity of other toys meant fewer youngsters were getting into miniatures and a decline in interest in the products led to lowered production. But in the last couple of years there has been a tremendous turn-around and miniatures of all shapes and sizes are as hot as ever – with one notable exception. Unassembled model kits, especially of the historical variety are still slowly fading away like old soldiers. This is no doubt due to the competition from other miniature categories including science fiction and fantasy, but there are other reasons present.
“Kids have more choices today,” says Dave Gerardi, senior editor of Playthings Magazine, the toy industry trade publication. “Model building skills take time to develop.” He adds that TV, video games and other toys have replaced model building as a hobby for children, but adds that other miniatures are actually filling the void left behind. “We’re seeing manufacturers offering more ‘easy build’ type kits instead. The hope is that the easy kits are able to draw a younger customer base to help the skill building process.”
Additionally companies that entered the scale action-figure arena with their detailed soldiers have slowly tested the water by releasing highly detailed plastic models that are pre-assembled and ready for play or display. With reasonable price points vehicles from 21st Century Toys fit both the desire for reasonably priced toys to be played with, while still providing the exceptional detail that collectors and buffs expect. The company’s line of 1/18 scale vehicles include Panther and Sherman tanks as well as P-51 and Me-109 aircraft, plus infantry troops that could be used for detailed dioramas or perhaps just an invasion of the living room.
Die-cast vehicles have also added a challenge to the model-building community, in part because the detail has gotten so much better but also because with the introduction of Internet and catalog sales the items are more affordable and obtainable. While only specialty retailers and upscale toyshops previously carried die-cast miniatures, these vehicles are more readily accessible online. Marc Dultz, owner of the Internet retail site The Motor Pool, suggests that the rising popularity of die-cast could be further explained by the advantages of traditional model kits.
“To begin with, the detail on some of the new die-cast introductions is absolutely amazing, rivaling, in many instances, anything a veteran model builder can create from a scratch-built kit,” explains Dultz, whose site specializes in highly detailed products. “Secondly, there’s the time management issue to consider. Most of today’s model builders simply do not have the time to build and paint a vehicle from scratch. Thirdly, there’s the issue of price. Since most of today’s die-cast products are made in the Pacific Rim countries, we can retail these fully assembled die-cast vehicles at truly affordable prices. All in all, it’s a win-win situation for both the model building community and avid military collectors.”
That price issue is not one to be taken lightly either. Years ago as Dultz emphasizes, the die-cast vehicles were made almost exclusively in Europe, with the majority coming out of England and France. The switch to manufacturing in Asia, primarily China, has allowed costs to fall dramatically and thus higher detail and more affordable products are being released and in greater numbers.
The other reason for the resurgence of miniatures seems to coincide with the interest in World War II in films, video games and on TV. Additionally the continued growth of the re-enactor community has helped spur interest in scale vehicles. New York-based World War II re-enactor Bernard Delgado says while he knows people who are buying real jeeps, that is not always as option for many others, adding that collecting smaller recreations of the real thing is just part of the evolution of his hobby as well. “As collectors become more and more satisfied with the quality of the individual soldiers, they turn to the next stop for their displays and dioramas.” This re-enactor, who often takes the role of a combat photographer, adds that there is a nostalgia element. “They can buy the things their parents denied them, or gave away while they were at college.”
Taking control of the vehicle
The notable improvement with today’s miniatures is that they offer radio control abilities that previously were unheard of with past models. The current generation of products utilize much more precise computerized controls and as a result perform much better than those of the past. The results have actually led to a cottage industry of experts that will custom build vehicles to the buyer’s specifications. Additionally, the miniaturization of the electronics has meant that vehicles of all shapes and sizes can be created.
Hong Kong based Dragon Models, a company that leads the market for their 1/6 scale action figures, recently introduced a line of 1/72 scale Tiger tanks. Although small in size, these R/C tanks are big in features and include well-detailed chassis and turret and even come with small details like cables and tools. The tanks are factory painted with authentic camouflage schemes and markings, with patterns for both the Eastern Front and Sicily available, as well as highlights and weathering. A five-minute charge will give would-be tank commanders a full 15-minute of battle time.
For those looking for a larger miniature there are plenty of options available and currently the hot trend is in 1/8 and 1/6 scale vehicles – which as the size suggests can be quite large and quite heavy, often over 100 pounds. With prices well over $1000 these probably aren’t in everyone’s budget but they are especially impressive. These are also vehicles that for the most part need to be ordered and are custom built.
Currently these tanks are assembled and painted by only a relatively small group of dealers. Moreover some dealers have even taken the role of middlemen, taking custom orders domestically and then importing the finished product from Russia. David F. Lawrence, whose company goes by the name Armor Group South, works with partners in Europe to construct the actual tanks, where they are then shipped directly to the consumer. He has seen a steady base of buyers that already enjoy modeling armored vehicles and now has discovered the appeal of remote controlled tanks in the 1/6 scale.
“They really like the thought of customizing the model to their own taste with camo paint and weathering techniques that they honed on the smaller scale models,” explains Lawrence. He adds that the quality is one of the issues that has made collecting these larger vehicles so desirable but doesn’t believe it is necessarily the driving issue. “What excites them is the size of the vehicles and the fact that they are remote controlled. No other toy manufacturer is offering anything on this scale that can be controlled via a remote controlled radio.”
And as for why the sudden surge of imports from the Russia, Lawrence admits that there are several people in the USA with the skills and technical knowledge to build these vehicles, but only his comrades have been able to produce these miniatures in mass. He does add that he while these models are fun to drive and own, he doesn’t consider them of real collectible value even though these are very expensive. “However, I certainly can be wrong about that, since people collect just about anything.”
Collectibles worthy of a parade or display
No matter what the scale collecting miniature vehicles can be an expensive hobby, but at least there is currently little issue in the way of “fakes” when it comes to purchasing new products. However collectors do need to be on guard of poor quality imitations of the more expensive items. There is also a growing cottage industry of sorts that Dultz has seen crop up that upgrades or changes many of the die-cast metal vehicles offered by mainstream producers.
“These after-market houses are based all-around the world,” Dultz explains. “And will generally produce limited numbers of truly unique vehicles that are simply not available from the larger companies.” He cites how a standard German Mk. IV medium tank might be turned into a Wirbelwind flak gun by replacing the original turret with a high quality resin superstructure. “I’m oftentimes amazed at some of the home-brewed designs they’ve been able to replicate.”
Prices for a standard 1/43 or 1/50 scale military vehicle averages around $20-30, while these after-market versions might sell for as much as $150 or more. Older vehicles produced in the late 1960s, the first heyday of die-cast miniatures, may command much higher prices, especially adds Dultz if the examples are in mint condition and packaged in their original box.
World War II German and American tanks lead the charge when it comes to collectible miniatures in the smaller scales but the more modern Russian T-90 and M1 Abrams seem to be the armor kings in the 1/6 scale. Lawrence says he gets more requests for these modern armored beasts, possibly to use with the modern figures from Dragon and 21st Toys.
As mentioned, both of those action figure manufacturers have introduced a limited number of 1/6-scale products. 21st Century has released a German motorcycle and sidecar as well as the go-anywhere Schwimmwagen, but as with their figures, the detail is lacking and require a bit of end-user work to give it that authentic look. Dragon meanwhile has turned their attention to those 1/72 R/C Tigers but the company did release two versions of the infamous German Kubelwagen, including a tan-colored ambulance. Collecting 1/6 scale vehicles isn’t as expensive as attempting to purchase the real deal, yet it does require some space especially as you’ll no doubt want a few troops to make your tank look all the more impressive.
Miniatures take to the air and head out to sea
One downside to even R/C land vehicles is that they really don’t do all that much – and they certainly don’t engage in combat. There is an entire hobby based on R/C aircraft but it is mostly beyond the scope of this article. However, there are numerous options of large-scale aircraft with wingspans well over 100 inches and these planes actually fly! They do require a lot of skill, as well as a great deal of maintenance but seeing a 1/8 scale B-25 take to the air is an impressive sight.
If space is an issue, bbi of Hong Kong has come up with a solution that provides the detail but doesn’t require the space. The company’s 1/6 F-15C Eagle cockpit features a light-up instrument panel and even a removable ejector seat – yet is compact enough for a desk or shelf display.
For naval simulation fans there is also a growing national hobby that focuses on miniature warships, which can be used in actual fleet-based combat. These kit-based products do require the would-be admiral to actually build their ships, but as with the other miniatures there are ways to lay down money instead of laying down a hull. In addition to radio control receivers and engines these vessels, which can cost more than $700, include a BB cannon system to simulate the massive deck guns as well as bilge pump to keep your ship from going to the bottom sooner than you’d like.
Much of this hobby involves building highly detailed ships and then heading to competitions that involve organized combat, complete with admirals overseeing the action. And while ship captains never go down with their vessel, ships are almost always recovered after the battle.
“The competitions are usually held in shallow water,” explains Steve Milholland, owner of Swamp Works, an online retailer of mail order business devoted to the hobby of scale naval model combat. “In the 20 years that I’ve been involved with this hobby I’ve heard of maybe two ships that were unrecoverable.”
For those looking to get into this hobby don’t expect to buy the biggest ship and come out the victor – you are more likely to go down faster than the Hood. Milholland offers advice for novices to stick to the smaller and more agile cruisers, which also cost significantly less than the $1200 kits for a large Missouri class battlewagon.
Also a ship to stay away from is the notorious aircraft carrier – especially as aircraft are not present in this sport in anyway. “Rules do allow aircraft carriers,” says Milholland, “But they don’t factor into the game much. They are sort of built as targets.”
Tilting the scales
As with any military collectible miniatures are something that appeal to an acquired taste. However they are a fairly inexpensive way to experience history what books and movies don’t allow. You can pick up a model and see the detail and even pushing a tank across the table or a die-cast plane through the air you are given a sense of motion and it comes alive.
Playthings’ Gerardi adds that as with any collectible, miniatures are a way for people to communicate to others their desires and personalities. “If you have scale replicas of every Panzer that fought in the Blitzkrieg, that says something about your taste for military history.”
For more information:
1/6 Scale R/C Miniatures:
Armor Group South
The Motor Pool