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Posted on Oct 20, 2004 in Armchair Reading

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.

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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.

Spitfire Mk I

Spitfire Mk I from 21st Century Toys

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.”

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