I Used To Build Models

by Rick Kopec (May 2015)

I used to build model airplanes at one point in my young life. I think I was about eleven or twelve when I started. I would spend hours in the solace of my bedroom, painting them as accurately as I could, using the wonderful illustrations on the boxes as a reference. The results were never the way they appeared in the illustration on the box (it was a lot like fast food advertising is today – the Whopper you get isn’t anything like the Whopper on the sign in the drive-up menu). My wanting attempts only made me try harder with the next model. Remember the small, square bottles of Testor’s enamel? I would use up the black, white and red first, and then have to buy another full set. At some point I had a lifetime supply of brown and yellow. Only then did I discover a place where colors were sold separately.

If painting the individual pieces was like baking cookies, assembling the model was like eating them. The styrene cement never dried fast enough to suit me because I lacked patience. Eventually the glue dried and then it was time for the decals. They were water transfer decals and had to be soaked in a small dish of warm water. They were thin and would tear easily so they had to be applied carefully. But they were really the finishing touch because the edges were crisp and sharp; unlike some of parts I had painted.

The propellers on these planes would turn, and I can recall holding the model in front of a fan and watching the spinning propellers blur as I imagined what it must have been like to actually fly in one.

My favorite was the Mitchell B-25 medium bomber. Visiting my grandmother one day she took me up into her attic. Boxes and crates were everywhere amid musty smells and thin cobwebs, things no longer used but still too good to throw out or containing too many memories to let go of. One large trunk had my grandfather’s name stenciled on (he had died before I was born, so I never knew him). The name was preceded by “CAPT.” He had been an artillery officer in WWI and then served in the National Guard after the war. The trunk was full of uniforms, a Sam Brown belt and military souvenirs that I was allowed to handle and play with whenever I visited after that. One day she gave me a smallish, hard covered book that she said I would like. It was titled, “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” by Capt. Ted Lawson, one of the pilots who flew a B-25 in the now-famous Doolittle Raid that took place four months after Pearl Harbor. Sixteen bombers took off from the aircraft carrier Hornet (which was considered virtually impossible). It was able to get them close enough to Japan to bomb a handful of military targets in a few major cities. Taken in context, the damage was negligible but the mission provided a shot in the arm for the country, raising morale and showing the Japanese that their homeland was not invulnerable. Doolittle’s raid was considered something of a suicide mission because although the planes would have enough fuel to reach Japan, they did not have enough to return. Not that they could have landed on the flight deck of the Hornet if they did. Instead they continued on to China were most of them landed or crash-landed. Fourteen crews were assisted by Chinese guerillas in evading the Japanese and being returned to U.S. forces. Eight men were captured and three executed, demonstrating how dangerous the mission was.

Ted Lawson’s book detailed his experiences from pilot training to practice for the Top Secret mission. It also described the flight to Tokyo, the bombing run and the subsequent escape to China. Lawson crash-landed near the shore after running out of fuel. In the crash he suffered a major injury to his leg that later had to be amputated by an Army surgeon who had flown with one of the other crews. I read the book as soon as I got home. It was probably one of the first hard cover books I had read on my own (i.e. not assigned by a teacher). In fact I used the book to write a book report, not only that year but for the following two years. I got to know the book pretty well. A movie based on the book was made in 1944. It starred Van Johnson and Spencer Tracy and I watched it every time it was on television.

My old man made several large "X"s out of strips of pine that we hung from the ceiling in my bedroom. Using monofilament fishing line, I hung four model planes from each one and looked at them all of the time. Any movement of the air in the room would cause them to move. Then, one day everything changed. I don't know what caused the change but it was like I snapped. I took a couple of the planes outside. I tied a 15-foot piece of fishing line to the end of one wing and coated the fuselage or engine with styrene cement. After lighting it with a match, the cement began burning and emitting swirls of thick black smoke. I swung the plane around in a large, lazy circle, watching the black smoke trail behind the plane. It wasn’t Hollywood special effects, but in our backyard it was pretty impressive while it lasted. Which wasn’t very long. But fortunately I had plenty of planes. The B-25 was the last one to go, and I felt a touch of sadness watching it finally crash land as it was consumed by thick black smoke. I never built another model plane again.

Shortly thereafter the first model car made its way into my bedroom. I think I was about thirteen. Hot Rod Magazine’s cars were about to come to life in my hands. Why do I recall these details so clearly? I’m not sure. They must have made some sort of a lasting impression. That first model was a Revell 1/25 scale 1956 Ford convertible. The kit was molded in medium blue and the custom pieces included chrome Buick-style portholes and red and yellow flame decals. The decals that ran along the side of the front fender were designed to emanate from the four portholes.

I grew up in Norwalk, Connecticut, which was about 3,000 miles away from ground zero for the hot rod culture, Southern California. I had only seen a flame paint job on cars in the hot rod and custom car magazines, so I knew they existed. But not in Norwalk, a medium-sized town of about 70,000. In our part of town, residential middle class neighborhoods with a “Leave It To Beaver” feel, there were a handful of “custom” cars and although I didn’t know the names of the owners, the cars (all older because what else could a teenager afford?) were instantly recognizable to me. None had flames. Most had various parts in primer, identifying them as works in progress. Dreams in the making. Adding extra bars to a set of Dodge Lancer hubcaps or removing the hood and trunk emblems (nosing and decking, in the vernacular) was out near the edge for Norwalk. There was, at that time (late 1950s), only one speed shop in the entire state and it was about sixty miles away. If you were fortunate enough to go there it was like a pilgrimage to Mecca. Not quite Los Angeles or any of those places in California where you could turn your head in any direction and see a street rod, but the next best thing.

I worked hard on my Revell kit, having gained a tad more patience from the airplane days. My biggest problem with the kit was that the body was not molded in one piece, like the 1/24-scale AMT and Johann kits that would come along a year or two later. The Revell kit had fenders that were seamed along the top and had to be glued. The fit was not precise and always looked a little sloppy no matter how much care you used. At this point, the main goal was to get the car built so the flames could be applied.

The glue was barely dry when it was time for another one. Monogram had come out with two hot rod models based on Model T roadsters: “The Black Widow” and the “Green Hornet.” Both were quickly added to my collection. They were followed by various AMT and Johann kits, which came in deeper boxes because the bodies were molded in one piece. It seemed like every time I went to the hobby shop there were three or four new kits available: New models (starting around 1958 and adding new models every year) as well as AMT’s “Trophy Series” which would eventually include a '32 Ford, '40 Ford coupe, '36 Ford, '25 “T” coupe, '49 Ford club coupe and so on. There were actually more models than I could afford so I was forced to choose between them. This was an early lesson that would be repeated throughout my life. Before long I had several shelves of models in my bedroom, lined up side by side, much as they would be in a parking lot at a car show. All were different colors (prompted by what I was seeing in Hot Rod or Car Craft magazines) and each had what became my personal trademark: A small round fingerprint somewhere on the car, made with the tip of my index finger when I tested to see if the paint was dry yet. Patience was still some way off

Like with every model builder, parts from one kit could be used on other kits (just like real car owners did when they customized real cars). Some would fit as is and some needed to be modified. I soon had a specialized set of tools that included an Exacto knife, single-edged razor blades, a sharply pointed awl and a collection of small files. Getting farther into customizing, I found a product called “Liquid Steel” that came in a tube the size of a large tube of toothpaste. It came out soft and pliable (although it stuck to your fingers and had to be scraped off) but it dried hard. Like steel. It stuck to plastic and once it dried could be shaped with a file and fine sandpaper. Seams could be filled and fender contours could be changed. You could fabricate a hood scoop or a rolled gravel pan. The jewel of my collection was a '40 Ford coupe with a chopped top and sectioned body. It probably weighed a pound or so (thanks to liberal amounts of Liquid Steel) and was finished in a deep, candy purple paint.

When I turned sixteen and got my driver’s license, the models were never touched again. They were soon covered in a thick layer of dust and eventually given to a neighbor kid who thought he had won the lottery. The model-building years for most kids are between ten and sixteen. High school usually kills that hobby, due to sports, real cars and girls. The companies that make models have always known this. Every year a new batch of “customers” enters the market while the older ones exit. It’s like a revolving door. Once the manufacturers have the tooling for a kit, they can reintroduce it every five years, using new box art and adding a few new optional pieces here and there, updated because hot rodding is continually evolving. They get to market these “new” kits to a new group of hobbyists. This explains why there are so many variations of AMT’s 289 Cobra roadster. Each time a kit is reissued it is presented in a new box. It’s the same basic model kit but to a ten-year-old it’s brand new.

I don’t know any ten-year-olds, and from the few times I’ve passed through department stores’ toy sections I’ve noticed the selection of car models is not even close to what it was fifty years ago when the shelves of the larger stores seemed to stretch to the horizon. Seemed to. While some of today’s newest performance cars are certainly worthy of being reproduced as models, the ones offered back in the 1950s and 1960s were the ordinary cars we saw every day on the street: Ford Galaxies, Chevy Impalas, Pontiac Catalinas, Dodge Lancers, Ford Falcons and even Cadillacs and Oldsmobile sedans. The demand for models has probably slackened due to the competition from computers and computer games. That’s a shame because a large percentage of young boys no longer have the opportunity to work with their hands as they consider what the car of their dreams might look like. Fingerprint in the paint notwithstanding.