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Garage Kit history
from a personal viewpoint...

By Lee Staton

My first monster kit cost me 98 cents back in 1964, when I was seven years old.  We didn't realize it at the time, but American modelers who grew up in the 1960's had it made.  Model kits were plentiful and cheap, boasting a much greater variety of subjects than are seen today. Monsters and sci-fi were everywhere!  We took it for granted and thought it would go on forever.

By the 1970's, however, the advent of video games and other alternative pastimes seemed to siphon the life out of the modeling hobby, and youngsters were nowhere to be seen in hobby shops and contests. The demise of Aurora in 1977 put the last nail in the coffin for modeling as a hobby for the young. 

Between 1980 and 1982, the publishers of Starlog Magazine released six quarterly issues of Fantasy Modeling under editor Philip O. Stearns.  The mag featured articles about sculpting with Sculpey, scratchbuilding spaceships, coverage of kits Aurora designed but never produced, scantily clad (and *gasp* topless!) female kits, and utilized full color pretty extensively.  It truly was the precursor to the modeling magazines of today.  

Sadly, in a climate where Aurora was gone and nothing new was coming out, Fantasy Modeling failed to find an audience.

By the mid 1980's, many sci-fi and horror modelers had simply given up the hobby because there was nothing to build. It seemed the "glory days" of great monster and space models were only a distant memory.  But waiting in the wings, a whole new hobby was about to emerge....

Centaur Kit by Mermaid In my own case, a chance encounter with a copy of Hobby Japan magazine in the summer of 1984 opened my eyes to that new hobby.

Inside was an ad for something I never thought I'd see: models of Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion characters that looked just like the movie versions!  I couldn't read a word of the magazine, but I was able to see a Yen value under each photo. These models were for sale!!

It became my mission in life to find a way to get those models, and I succeeded!

By mid-1985 I had gotten my first resin and vinyl models. There were no magazines to tell how to build them (and the instructions were, alas, in Japanese), but it wasn't too hard to figure out. The price shock of $30 per model was quickly overcome once I saw what the vinyl Ymir from a company named Billiken looked like! I was hooked!

In late 1986 the first issue of Model Figure Collector (MFC) appeared in my mailbox. Published by Bill Brugeman, it was mostly about older plastic kits but gradually began sneaking in a few bits about what we learned were called Garage Kits. Primitive as it was in its very humble beginning, MFC deserves much credit for providing the very first view of Garage Kits in the U.S.

The August '87 issue of MFC ran a feature on hobbyist Terry J. Webb and planted the seed for his eventual contributions as a staff writer and reviewer for the magazine.

MFC #1

The first American resin Garage Kits emerged from such companies as Lunar Models, Classic Plastic, AEF Designs and Randy Bowen. Golden Era Models in San Francisco released the first U.S. vinyl kit in 1989 (however, it was produced overseas; Screamin' would eventually be the first company actually manufacturing vinyl kits here), it was a licensed figure of the "Sixth Finger" character from "The Outer Limits" TV show. Around that same time, Dimensional Designs, GEOmetric, Horizon, and others arrived on the scene with better and better model kits to choose from...and the American Garage Kit hobby took off!

The Garage Kit That Ate My Wallet Soon Terry Webb stepped out of his reviewer's role for MFC and shook up the hobby with the publication of his books "The Garage Kit that Ate My Wallet" in 1990, "Son of …" in 1991, and "Revenge of…" in 1994.

They became a guide for the then-forming U.S. Garage Kit hobby, a hobby which was so spread out that one modeler couldn't possibly know what was happening elsewhere and what constituted the "state of the art." Without a doubt, Terry's books and columns were crucial to helping the Garage Kit hobby take form in America.

As the years progressed, Gordy Dutt began publishing Kitbuilders Magazine (then called Kitbuilders and Glue Sniffers) as MTC shifted its emphasis to toys. In 1994, Terry Webb cemented his partnership with artist David Fisher (who was creating a successful line of painting how-to videos) in their new venture, Amazing Figure Modeler magazine.  AFM has developed a solid following for its slick, full-color content.  It is published quarterly.

Parallel to the magazine and book developments, conventions with part or full emphasis on Garage Kits were beginning. In New Jersey, a convention named Horrorthon began. Although it was primarily a horror movie con, the Garage Kit contingent began to emerge there and has been a strong presence ever since. Later renamed The Chiller Theatre by owner Kevin Clement, the show continues to draw great crowds twice a year for its unique programming mix.

In Louisville, KY in 1989, a local model club was formed called The Scale Figure Modelers Society. They began the Louisville Plastic Kit & Toy Show in 1990, which quickly evolved into WonderFest. Larry Johnson and Irvin Severs planned the first show (and I helped!), and all concerned were surprised when this first little local show attracted 450 people. Who knew there were so many people building monster kits?   Evolving in both size and quality with each passing year, WonderFest is now one of the premiere hobby shows in the world.  Eventually, the show was spun off from the club and became its own company.  Today, a staff of five people work year-round on the show.

On the West Coast, the Mad Model Party began in 1993, bringing yet another variation on the hobby show format into the mix. Now there are several other contenders in the Garage Kit convention field.  Near that same time, The Modeler's Resource grew from a newsletter to a full-fledged magazine under the watchful eye of Fred DeRuvo, and the GK hobby had taken another baby step toward the mainstream.  Modeler's Resource continues to grow and is now bi-monthly.

Today, while the large plastic kit producers like AMT and Revell-Monogram have had a pretty regular output of conventional s-f subjects, it's mainly the smaller companies who are more tuned-in to the market that will surprise us with something special. GEOmetric, Janus Company, and others are doing vinyl and resin justice. Playing Mantis/Polar Lights seems to have rejuvenated the traditional plastic kit.  And the Japanese companies still manage to turn heads with their astounding quality and diversity of models.

Looking back on two decades of change in the U.S. hobby, it appears that imaginative models have been making a slow comeback.

We may never have another "golden age" like the 1960's again (especially price-wise), but things are definitely looking up for the Garage Kit enthusiast. Major magazines, major conventions, and an abundance of good kits--along with more how-to resources than ever--make the future look especially promising. No one knows just how far this hobby will go.

Amazing Figure Modeler

Today, people reminisce about how good Aurora models used to be.  And as good as they were, now I think there are hundreds of Garage Kits that are better.  For a time, I could only dream of having really great models of s-f genre characters. Now I've come to take them for granted. Maybe it is a "golden age" after all.

Lee E. Staton is President Emeritus of WonderFest USA, Inc., and has been building models since he was seven.

"Centaur" kit by Mermaid Models of Japan.  MFC cover © 1986 by Pangolin Publications.  Garage Kit book covers © Terry J. Webb.  Amazing Figure Modeler cover © 1997 Amazing Publications & Communications, Inc.

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