Aviation enthusiasts are scouring the country for the vintage airplane kits of their youth.
Nowadays, scale-model airplane kits are so meticulously detailed and cosmetically accurate you half expect to see them start a takeoff roll and launch themselves into the air. And while manufacturers have always offered kits for the most popular airplanes—think Supermarine Spitfire—they’re now selling kits for aircraft as obscure as the Boulton Paul Defiant.
But with this revolution in quality and choice has come an unintended consequence—a backlash from modelers who are overwhelmed by the new kits. “I’ve actually had an adverse reaction to these fantastic new models that have hundreds of pieces—or even a thousand pieces,” says Alan Bussie, who not only builds vintage models but also sells them. “Now I tend to go back and build kits from the ’50s. They have, like, 20 pieces, as opposed to 120 or 160 or something like that. I tend to pick only simple projects that I can actually get done. Otherwise, they’re going to languish on the workbench forever.”
Paradoxically, even though the 2020s are the best of times for airplane models, the 1950s and ’60s are still considered the hobby’s Golden Age. This was the era when plastic model kits flooded into the mainstream. Enticed by cheap prices, easy-to-follow instructions, and wildly dramatic—if fanciful—box art, an entire generation of American kids without access to video games and the Internet grew up assembling small vintage aircraft in their basements and garages.
“In the early ’60s, Boys’ Life did a survey of Boy Scouts,” says Jeff Garrity as he strolls down a corridor between shelves stacked with model boxes. “What do you like to do for fun? Ninety-nine percent of them built model kits. Ninety-nine percent! Everybody our age built models. What other business has that kind of coverage?”
Now 65, sporting the white goatee and flowing hair of an ex-rock-and-roll guitarist, Garrity fondly remembers staying up all night with friends, gluing together models two at a time, working on one while the other dried. Today, he runs Rare-Plane Detective (rare-planedetective.com) out of a discreet storefront in an industrial park near Palm Springs, California. “We’re not actually a store,” he says. “We’re a warehouse you can shop at.”
Garrity is one of a handful of dealers around the country who sell vintage plastic model kits that are, in some cases, older than they are. Bussie, 58, a pilot and former aeronautical engineer, is the president of Oldmodelkits.com, a website listing page after page of classic models as well as a blog with invaluable histories of the hobby. A third dealer is Jim Pentifallo, who sells old kits through Mustang-Hobbies.com and more traditional fare at his shop in New Jersey—Ridgefield Hobby—across the Hudson River from New York City.
Pentifallo says that hardcore builders—what he calls “rivet counters”—prefer modern kits, which are usually more authentic than vintage models. But the older kits, even though they’re more primitive, evoke an earlier time and scratch a nostalgic itch for hobbyists of a certain age.
When he was a kid, Rick Forster had 119 model airplanes hanging from the ceiling of his bedroom. He continued to build models throughout his career as an anesthesiologist, and he’s still going strong at 70. “A few months ago, just for fun, I built one of those wonderfully simple Aurora kits of an Albatros D.III, just like the ones I had put together more than half a century ago,” he says. “It’s not the best in terms of authenticity. It actually has the wings of a D.III and the fuselage of a D.V, but in those days, most kids were just happy to put a biplane together. I built it as a trip down memory lane.”
America’s Top Models
The history of plastic model airplane kits starts in 1931, when FROG (Flies Right Off the Ground), a British company in England, sold flyable models built of wood and metal, such as a rubber-band-powered Interceptor Mk.IV. This was during the heyday of “aeromodeling,” with clubs springing up in Europe and the United States periodically gathering for model flying competitions. In 1936, FROG unveiled its Penguin line of products (so-named because they couldn’t fly), made from a cellulose diacetate polymer. Penguins were the first plastic airplane models ever produced.
But it was the technological ferment inspired by World War II that served as the foundation of what would eventually mature into a multimillion-dollar industry. The necessary breakthrough was the mastery of injection molding, which allowed for the mass production of hard plastic parts. In postwar America, plastic models could be found on hobby store shelves bearing company names like Varney, Hawk, Renewal, and Lindberg. But modeling enthusiasts of the day were unimpressed by the early plastic kits because they were so crude, especially compared to the more traditional balsa wood models valued for their quality and authenticity.
The plastic kits might have continued languishing on the top shelves of hobby shops, unwanted and unsold, if not for a handful of visionaries who had an epiphany: marketing the plastic kits as toys would extend their appeal far beyond the tiny universe of aeromodeling geeks.
There seemed to be an endless appetite for plastic model kits during the ’50s and ’60s: cars, ships, tanks, rockets, satellites…even TV characters and movie monsters. “We had a sealed Bride of Frankenstein that went for, like, $1,200,” says Garrity. Airplanes, however, dominated the hobby, especially fighters and bombers. Over the years, the P-51 Mustang alone has inspired nearly 800 different kits. And plastic model kits were sold not just in hobby shops and toy stores but also in department stores, drugstores, and even gas stations.
Before long, three manufacturing giants emerged. “The best, in my opinion, was Monogram,” says Dick Montgomery, 76, past president of the International Plastic Modelers’ Society/USA. “Their fit was good. The molding was sharp. The instructions were clear. And for the most part, the models were fairly accurate. Revell was next on my list, but that was mostly for spacecraft. Aurora was the minimalist. Still, when you look at their old vintage pieces today, they’re well done. It’s just that there’s not as much detail as Revell would put on a model and nowhere near as much as Monogram.”
Interest dwindled during the 1970s and cratered in the ’80s with the introduction of video games and the Sony Walkman. But, as the song goes, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” As kits went out of production, there was a revival of interest in classic models from the previous generation. In the early 1980s, Pentifallo took on a bunch of Monogram Blue Box kits from the 1960s as a trade for some new models and dumped them on a bottom shelf in his basement. “That same day, a guy comes in and asks me for a Monogram [Hawker] Typhoon,” he recalls. “I said, ‘I got that.’ I told him it was $15. He said, ‘All right. I’ll take it. And I’ll also take that one.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, wow! These old kits sell too.’ So that’s when I really started getting into it.”
For Pentifallo, it was an easy transition. The 62-year-old son of a hobby shop owner, he’d been in the business his entire life. But since there was money to be made with classic kits, new players gravitated to the market. Garrity, for example, had been dealing in comic books and other pop culture artifacts when he picked up a collection of old models at a flea market, more by serendipity than design. To sell them, he started making the rounds of model shows.
“The ’80s were the Wild West days of kit collecting,” says Garrity. “A guy would come into the room with stuff that no one had seen before, and I’d literally see people punching each other to get to an Aurora model. The thing is, back then, you had no idea what was out there. Kit collecting was just starting. It’s not like today, when someone can put ‘rare’ on an eBay listing and find out there are 30 more models just like it. Back then, no one knew what everyone else had. And so when something new came to market, it was like discovering gold at Sutter’s Mill.”
Attempting to make order out of chaos were the price guides self-published by Baptist minister John Burns, a lanky Oklahoman with a vast network of dealers, vendors, and builders. Most of the listings were limited to kit number, subject, scale, and value, but additional notes were sometimes included. For Monogram #5436, a Marine Corps version of the Douglas OA-4M Skyhawk, priced at $8 to $12, he wrote: “First production run of this kit spelled Marines as ‘Marinies.’ When this error was spotted, Monogram immediately withdrew the kits and replaced the box with the correct spelling. Kits with this error should be valued at $18-$24.”
Eventually, Burns’ quaint price guides were rendered irrelevant by newfangled technology such as online bulletin boards, which brought together far-flung communities of like-minded enthusiasts. Far more influential was the rise of e-commerce. AuctionWeb was founded in 1995. Three years later, the company went public as eBay. “The price guides were all we had until eBay came out,” says Bussie. “Then the famous ‘Sold Auction Search’ on eBay gave you the selling prices, and that became the new standard.”
Besides standardized pricing, eBay also brought thousands of new people, both buyers and sellers, to the market. And with these first-timers came thousands of new kits—make that new old kits. “Everything came out of the woodwork,” says Pentifallo. “After eBay came along, nothing was rare anymore, and you could always find something you were looking for.”
This was a win for collectors on quests for particular kits, but there were losers as well, like the sellers of the beloved 1/48 scale Aurora models of World War I aircraft. “They were very popular,” says Bussie. “They had great boxes, and everybody remembered building them. But, suddenly, everyone found out how many of them really were left. Almost overnight, they were worth $15 instead of $45, or $40 instead of $89.”
The Wild West had now given way to the Information Age.
Model builders are by nature meticulous and detail-oriented. Montgomery maintains a database listing every kit he’s bought; where and when he bought it; when he finished it; what awards, if any, it won; and so on. “I have 638 completions,” he says, referring to the kits he’s actually built rather than the total size of his inventory. “That’s not very many. At one point, I had about 2,650 models sitting out in my storage area, the garage. But now it’s down to 1,397.”
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that most hobbyists are afflicted with the eyes-bigger-than-the-stomach syndrome. “They’re all hoarders, every model builder,” says Pentifallo. “They’ve got a closetful, a basementful, an atticful, you name it. Every customer who comes in here says: ‘I don’t know why I’m buying another model. I wouldn’t have enough glue in my lifetime to build all the models I already have.’ ”
A certain percentage of the market is collectors who buy rare kits to treasure them as both objets d’art and historical icons, but most modelers are builders at heart. “One gentleman bought $1,200 worth of Aurora Brooklyn kits [from the mid-1950s], the rarest kits there are,” says Bussie. “I mean, the Japanese Zero alone was $400. And he told me that when he got them, he slapped them all together with a ton of glue in 30 minutes and loved it because he was reliving his childhood.”
Collections of unbuilt models are the lifeblood of the vintage market. They come up for sale more often than you’d think thanks to what Pentifallo calls “the three Ds”—death, debt, and divorce. When collections become available, dealers leap into action. Garrity has put as many as 40,000 miles on his truck in a year. He vividly remembers traveling from Mississippi, where he was living at the time, to North Carolina to attend an estate sale offering a collection of 10,000 kits.
“At two in the morning, I realized I was not going to sleep anymore, so I drove up there and I was number one in line,” he says. “When I went in, it was like the old TV show ‘Supermarket Sweep.’ By the time I was done, I had a pile that was like 20 feet long and about five feet wide and about four feet high. The average modeler was looking for F-4 Phantoms, and I was looking for everything that was not a Phantom. I got the best stuff I ever bought,” he says, chuckling. “The next weekend, they had another sale, everything at half price, and I went back up again.”
As with any collectible, prices are a function of supply and demand. Condition is also important: A few missing parts or brittle decals can be dealbreakers. But one factor that’s unique to model kits is box art. “That’s what drew us to most of the model kits we bought when we were young,” says Bussie. “Back then, we didn’t know what was inside other than the subject. But if the box art really caught your eye, that was very, very exciting.”
As it happens, the glory days of box art coincided with the golden age of vintage models. Since realism was less important than wowing shoppers browsing shelves filled with kits, visual drama was emphasized at the expense of accuracy. Dogfights are compressed into impossibly compact spaces. Smoke and flames abound. There’s a famous—or maybe that should be infamous—1958 Aurora Famous Fighters model of a pilot being barbecued in the cockpit of his Fokker D.VII. Introduced that same year was a Revell “S” kit—highly prized because it included cement supposedly optimized for styrene plastic—featuring a zoomy North American X-15 that appears poised to leave the Earth’s atmosphere and rocket around the moon.
Like box art, dioramas were a selling point. An elaborate set created by renowned builder Sheperd Paine helped make a 1/48 scale Monogram kit of a Boeing B-17G one of the most popular kits of the era. Says Pentifallo: “The airplane was plain-Jane, but when you put it in the diorama with a couple of figures, it told a story.”
Memorable for different reasons was another Monogram favorite—the 1/32 scale Phantom Mustang P-51D. “Clear body and wings show very good interior detail,” says Bussie. “Buttons on the red stand operate the motorized propeller while another motor extends and retracts the main and tailwheel landing gear, including opening and closing all gear doors. Two small levers on the stand drop the bombs on the wings.”
Forster fondly remembers a triad of World War I fighters—Frank Luke’s SPAD, Werner Voss’ Fokker Triplane, and William Barker’s Sopwith Camel, all released by Revell in 1/28 scale. (His parents gave him the Triplane as an eighth-grade graduation present.) Montgomery has a soft spot in his heart for Revell’s so-called “fit-the-box” line. Since one size (box) fit all, the models were built to weird and wildly different scales: a 1/40 scale Bell X-5, a 1/96 scale Fokker F27, a Boeing IM-99 Bomarc ground-to-air missile (with launchpad and “actual moving parts!”) in 1/56 scale.
Choosing favorites is, of course, an eye-of-the-beholder proposition. A couple of kits, however, appear on several worst-models-ever lists. Two of the most inaccurate were early Aurora takes on the MiG-19 and the Yak-25. While both models look suspiciously alike, neither one remotely resembles the airplane it’s supposed to depict. “It looks like a pregnant guppy with wings,” says Pentifallo of the MiG. Evidently, the kits were designed before reliable photos of the airplanes had been published, so the models are less artists’ renderings than fevered Cold War dreams.
The prices of these vintage models are all over the map. An entry-level Revell Hawker Hurricane might set you back $25. An Aurora Convair B-58 can go for $50. After that, you can easily spend $100 and more—a lot more. Holy Grail models such as a FROG Penguin kit, a Craft Bell X-2, and a Revell Space Station (“outer wall sections come off to reveal interior detail in 4 space-age colors,” according to the awesome 1959 box) command more than $1,000 apiece.
One of the Holy Grails of collecting is Revell’s fantastical XSL-01, a three-stage spaceship with detachable boosters designed to take astronauts to the moon. The molds were reportedly damaged so badly that the model couldn’t be reissued, hence its rarity today.
Bussie theorizes that vintage airplane kits will follow the same lifecycle as most artifacts that make the transition from junk to collectibles. First, they were sold at flea markets and garage sales. Then they were traded at club shows and conventions. Next, they were found in antique shops and online auctions. Now they’re being offered by specialty dealers like Garrity, Pentifallo, and Bussie himself. Eventually, as collectors die and supply shrivels, models will change hands through specialty auctions and private trades.
At the moment, baby boomers are the primary market for both vintage kits and the hobby at large. But despite fears that model building will go the way of felt hat-making, the craft continues to survive. Yes, the numbers are paltry compared to what the market was 50 years ago, but there’s been an uptick in activity since the pandemic began, and newbies continue to discover the hobby all the time.
“I had a kid, about three or four months ago, who brought in a Panzer IV [German tank] model,” says Pentifallo. “He’d painted it purple and I complimented him on it. We’ve got to encourage these kids because they’re going to be our next generation of modelers.”
It’s hard to imagine modelers-to-be feeling the emotional attachment and wellspring of nostalgia that draws boomers back to the vintage kits of the 1950s and ’60s, but maybe next-gen modelers will create a golden age of their own. That’s one of the most appealing virtues of modeling: One size needn’t fit all. A Focke-Wulf Fw 190 can be built as one of a dozen variants and finished in countless liveries, depending on when and where it fought. It can even be painted purple.
Preston Lerner is a longtime Air & Space contributor who last wrote about the potentially revolutionary (or not) Celera 500L business jet.
An Early Start
Even as a child, this aviation entrepreneur was imagining a career in the airline industry.
Like young people the world over, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy expressed his fascination with flight by building model airplanes. To him, aviation was not only a source of inspiration, but also a hoped-for means for his family to escape from Communist Hungary. With no commercially available kits available to him, Udvar-Hazy relied on pictures in books, newspapers, magazines, and films—as well as his memories of aircraft he had seen—to guide his model-making. For construction materials, he used common household items: pens, chewing gum, fingernail polish, and matchsticks.
When Udvar-Hazy’s family secretly left for Sweden in 1958, following the Soviet occupation of Hungary, he gave a model to each of his mother’s five sisters for safekeeping. Later that year, Udvar-Hazy and his family would immigrate to the United States. In 1980, when he visited Hungary to introduce his fiancée to his extended family, his aunts gave the models to his future wife.
Six of the models that Udvar-Hazy built in Hungary and in the U.S. are now on display at the museum building that bears his name in Chantilly, Virginia. While Udvar-Hazy’s first models are strictly representations of aircraft he had seen, the later ones show his growing interest in influencing aviation rather than only observing.
The Douglas DC-4, for instance, was inspired by an idea he had when he was younger: to sell DC-4s to the South African airline, Commercial Air Services (now Comair), which was flying DC-3s at the time. With the Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation, he experimented with an aircraft redesign. His models for the L-1049 and the L-1649 wear the livery of airlines he imagined he would someday create. Udvar-Hazy’s childhood fascination with airplanes paid off when he eventually founded a company that leased jet aircraft to commercial airlines.
Christopher Moore curates the National Air and Space Museum’s collection of model aircraft, which includes more than 5,000 objects.