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Written by Chuck Miller   

After 60 years, a legendary American company is still building the future

The memories are still strong for model kit builders – the accomplishment of working with tiny plastic parts, plucked like fruit from a styrene tree, assembled with a tube of tacky-sweet airplane glue, gobs of which would inevitably stain your clothes and sting your nose. In the end, after hours of assembly – and an additional hour finding the wing assembly you accidentally dropped somewhere during the process – the finished product was ready for display. On your dresser or nightstand, or hung with strands of fishing line from the ceiling, there it was: a glorious miniature plastic replica of a sporty hot rod, a patriotic fighter jet, a vintage schooner from the high seas.

Such has been the adventure and excitement provided by Revell’s plastic model kits, which are still assembled today by hobbyists who’ve taken the kits from dresser tops to nationwide display competitions where skill, creativity and ingenuity rule the day. At the same time, the Northbrook, Illinois-based company behind these plastic marvels is building new products and forging new partnerships. Revell’s RPMz line of miniature remote-controlled racers is rising in popularity with R/C hobbyists, and Revell’s latest product, a do-it-yourself robotics kit called the VEXplorer, may help bring the robotics hobby from school science labs to the household.

“I remember building lots of planes and jet fighters,” said Michael W. Brezette, vice president of marketing for Revell Monogram. “I had jet fighters hanging all over my ceiling. The majority of our model kits sold today are cars, followed by model planes, then boats and ships. Right now we’re in a cycle where muscle cars are the most popular type of model kits, a few years ago it was more of the pony cars like Mustangs and Corvettes.”

What we know today as Revell began in 1945, when a company called Precision Specialties, founded by Lou Glasser, manufactured injection-model plastic kits for various companies. One of those companies, Gowland & Gowland, used Glasser’s models to create a pull-toy replica of the “Maxwell” vintage jalopy popularized on Jack Benny’s radio and television shows. The Maxwell toy was a major hit, encouraging Gowland & Gowland to create a series of miniature Highway Pioneers, 69-cent model kits of vintage automobiles like the 1900 Packard, the 1911 Rolls-Royce, and the 1914 Stutz Bearcat. The kits drove off F.W. Woolworth store shelves. By then, Glasser concentrated exclusively on the plastic model kit toy market. Adapting the French word for “new beginning,” reveille, Glasser named his plastic modeling company Revell.

“Before World War II, model kits were designed for high-talent craftsmen,” said Alan Bussie, a model kit enthusiast and operator of oldmodelkits.com. “Model kits in that day were made of wood – balsa wood, strip wood, you name it. Modelers would carve airplanes and ships out of wood and add details, or they would build the bulkheads of ships and cover the ship with strip wood, or cover the aircraft with Japanese silk tissue. It was a very demanding and excruciating ‘build-from-scratch’ method. It took lots of talent to make a decent model from the kits of that time.”

Revell, however, changed the hobby with the release of one of its most popular kits, a 1953 replica of the USS Missouri BB-63 battleship, upon whose original deck the Japanese military signed the surrender of World War II. The kit attracted the attention of hobbyists and World War II enthusiasts alike. Because Revell manufactured the kit entirely from injection plastic, the model builder was able to assemble the “Mighty Mo” without taking a course in naval engineering or woodworking.

“The Missouri was the best-selling kit that Revell has ever molded in its history,” said Bussie. “If you bought a Missouri kit before that, it was the Monogram kit containing a bunch of wooden squares. You unfolded the plans and they said, ‘Make wood look like ship.’ For the first time in history, anyone with a nominal skill level could go down to the store, and at the end of the day, have a fully detailed replica of a famous battleship.”

In fact, by the late 1950s and early 1960s, Revell, along with model kit companies Aurora and Monogram, successfully marketed their products through discount department stores like F.W. Woolworth and S.S. Kresge, and model kit building became a nationwide craze. Revell created new vehicle product lines enabling kids to build bombers fighters, schooners and tanks. Several “motorized” working engine kits, including the Allison Turbo Prop Engine and the Chrysler Slant 6 Motorized ¼-Scale kit, were also manufactured. Today, those particular kits can command hundreds of dollars in near-mint, “unbuilt” condition.

Many of Revell’s model kits have remained in production for decades. You can still purchase a Missouri model kit today and build it with the same parts and directions that were included with the original 1953 model. This, however, can cause confusion for novice model kit collectors, who might be fooled into purchasing an “original” model kit on the Internet, only to find they’ve received a recently manufactured “reproduction” kit.

“The best way to tell if the kit is original or a reproduction,” said Bussie, “is that all kits prior to the late 1960s were sold in a thick, substantial cardboard box covered with a lithographed slick wrapped around it. The modern kits have the printing directly on the thin cardboard boxes. Also, any of the reproduction box art will have the copyright date of the artwork on the box, but most of them will have the re-release date located on another portion of the box. But the printing of the reproduction date on the box is so tiny, it doesn’t often show up in photographs.”

By the mid-1970s, the model kit industry went into decline. As a petroleum-based product, the price of styrene plastic rose dramatically with the 1970s energy crisis. At the same time, parents were becoming alarmed over reports that teens were sniffing or “huffing” vapors from model glue to get an intoxicating but very dangerous high from the ingredients, including toluene, acetone and naphtha.

Revell and its competitor Monogram continued to manufacture kits, however, and were still operational when, in 1986, both companies were purchased by Odyssey Partners, the first in a series of parent companies that would own Revell.

“Many modelers who fly or drive remote-controlled vehicles got their start in the hobby by building a plastic model kit,” said Wayne Hemming, president of Hobbico, the world’s leading manufacturer, distributor and retailer of model hobby products, and who in 2007 became Revell’s newest corporate parent. “Plastic kits are the foundation of model building. We are committed to giving Revell the support it needs to continue its 60-year tradition of quality and excellence in plastic models.”

Among model kit builders, the changes at Revell have only improved the hobby company’s long line of quality products. Revell kits are very popular with the members of the International Plastic Modelers Society (www.ipmsusa.org), a club dedicated to building and showing off their plastic miniature creations. At hundreds of IPMS display shows nationwide, hobbyists display their skills in not only constructing model kits, including Revell’s products, but they also take the kit farther than the last page of directions suggest. Tiny fabrics are added to seat covers, “plug wires” run from the engines, and working headlights and turn signals shine from tiny LED diodes and hidden control chips. “Revell has taken some of their existing molds and created alternate toolings of them for modern kits,” said Katie Boyd, a member of the Dedham, Mass.-based Mass Car Model Club. “Revell will take a kit that they already own, like a 1955 Chevy convertible that Monogram originally released – since Revell and Monogram are now one company – and they’ve created a new tooling of the body they can release as a Chevy Bel Air sedan. They’re using good-quality plastic that fits well and lends itself to conversion for modelers who want to add new features to existing kits – the sky's the limit for modelers now.”

“If you talk to any hobby dealer in the country,” said Brezette, “and ask them, ‘What model kit do you think we should do next,’ or ‘What kit should we bring back,’ you’re there for the next hour. We get suggestions at hobby shows, at IPMS events, anyplace we attend. Every one of the ideas is a good one, and every one is different. One dealer will tell us, ‘You need to bring that F-4 Phantom II fighter jet out again,’ and the next person will say to us, ‘If you brought this other kit out again, I’d sell 40 of them tomorrow.’”

As successful as the company has been in the model kit world, Revell is now branching out to new fields and new projects. Early last year Revell began a new product line, RPMz remote-controlled race cars. With interchangeable wheels, digital electronics, upgradeable motors and more adaptable parts than you’d find in Richard Petty’s garage, the user can modify the performance of these 1:24 scale remote-controlled RPMz to suit individual racing requirements. Two more “performance model” cars, a Ford Mustang GT and a Dodge Challenger concept car, joined the RPMz product line in the fall.

“RPMz are natural extension for Revell,” said Mike Brezette. “We did slot cars for years under the Monogram name, and we decided to go right into the hobby class R/C (remote-control) business rather than the toy class R/C world with RPMz. Hobby class R/C uses sophisticated electronics, digital proportional steering and a much higher standard of performance. We’re working with our new parent company Hobbico for other R/C products, including helicopters. For our NASCAR-themed RPMz, we commissioned Sam Bass, the foremost graphic designer of cars on the NASCAR circuit, to provide the paint and color schemes. He has done the designs for most of the racing teams, and in that world everybody knows his name.”

The biggest project on Revell’s plate, however, could change the world of robotics kits, just as the USS Missouri styrene plastic kit changed the model kit hobby in the 1950s. In 2007, Revell partnered with the educational robotics company Vex Labs to create the VEXplorer, a remote-controlled robot that can be built – and modified – and re-imagined – by hobbyists and robotics fanatics. VEXplorer can travel across a carpet or a wooden floor on its all-terrain wheels, its robotic claw can pick up a feather or a soda can without damaging either, and its “Spycam” attachment provides images to a nearby TV screen, allowing the VEXplorer to send back images and sounds of what’s going on in the next room or across the courtyard. Essentially, the VEXplorer is a Mars Rover for earthbound use.

“We made a decision at Revell that we did not want the child opening this package on Christmas morning, and upon seeing 300 parts in the box, becoming overwhelmed and unable to build the VEXplorer,” said Brezette. “In the early stages of development, I had that experience. I was in China, and the developers sent me the VEXplorer in the original stages of development – all the parts were all over the place, and I thought, ‘My God, where do I even start.’ We felt that we needed to preassemble a good part of the components, or it’s too overwhelming and you’re not going to get the child into the system. It was important to have a robotic experience in an hour out of the box. The way the VEXplorer is set up now, you can build it completely out of the box in an hour. Once you’ve hooked it up to your TV and had fun exploring your house … you can take it apart and see what else you can do with it. We think it’s important to take the child in comfortably into the product, to give them a starting point in the hobby.“

To test the VEXplorer’s constructability and adaptability, Toy Collector Magazine delivered a VEXplorer kit to the students at Harriet Gibbons School in Albany, N.Y., to see how ninth graders would fare in assembling the device. “The students took about 70 minutes to put the VEXplorer together,” said Wayne Jones, a science teacher at Harriet Gibbons. “Once it was built, they used a TV monitor connected to the robot’s camera eye, and they maneuvered the robot around chair and desk legs, and picked up objects like plastic mugs and hair scrunchies from the floor with the robot’s pincers.”

“At first I thought it was going to be easy,” said Elijah Davis, one of the students involved in assembling the VEXplorer, “but when we started taking it out of the box, it was a challenge. The battery pack was supposed to be installed in the bottom of the robot, but we thought it would be easier to attach that to the front so we could change the batteries easier. Once we put it together, we drove it through the school hallways, showing it off. We even drove it into the principal’s office.”

Throughout the company’s history, Revell has inspired generations with its model kits. Yesterday’s modelers are today’s aeronautical engineers, automobile designers and vehicle customizers. In fact, many of today’s Hollywood special effects pioneers not only built model kits as a kid, years later they’ve even incorporated model kits into their films. To provide the illusion of detail to the spaceships in Star Wars, the film’s special effects department purchased hundreds of model kits – including Revell productions – and covered the Imperial Star Destroyer and Millennium Falcon spaceships with hundreds of airplane, car and boat parts, all arranged schematically to make the ship appear more believable to filmgoers.

“If you’ve ever seen Star Wars,” said Brezette, “take a look at the Millennium Falcon. That spaceship has all kinds of piping all over it, and if you look at it closely, you can see that a lot of those parts are from our model kits. We can watch that film, and we can recognize exhaust pipes, tail pipes, pieces of fender. Then, when we built our model kit of the Millennium Falcon for the hobby market, we can actually incorporate – and recognize – a lot of those parts from our old kits into this new kit.”