The Stones that were Cast Aside

The plastic model kit business is a bit of a mystery. On one hand we have what appear to be a “few” fanatics who demand “realism” from plastic kits (who are assumed to be a trifle “odd” as people). On the other hand, we have a (possibly imaginary) population of “normal folks” represented by Auntie Doris or Uncle Pete, who buys a plastic model kit at the variety store for little Justin or Trevor.

Now come on. The last model kit at a variety store faded away a few years ago. You can’t find a model kit at Walmart. You can barely find them at Hobby Lobby. If the mythical Auntie Doris found a kit at Michael’s while shopping for yarn, she’d probably be smart enough to know that Justin would prefer a Lego set to a plastic kit that requires, at a minimum, some smelly, toxic glue and a place to make a mess. I mean really– ye olden days of a dear Auntie depositing a model kit under the Christmas tree are gone and dead in the past. That scenario does not exist now. Kids saving allowance to buy a model kit are as rare as the Chubacabra north of Denver. You just won’t find a kid, even a nerdy little historian, who wants to get a model kit over the latest add-on for the Total War series or a die-cast model that is, in truth, already done and ready to display.

Nerdy kids and adults both have many, many more choices than they did in 1960– the heyday of plastic kits. Today, the plastic kit market is healthy, but the reason for this good health is a bit of a mystery. Let’s consider it, for a moment. If Auntie Doris isn’t buying kits, and is buying Lego sets at Target or Walmart, and the kids are buying video games or flying drones or die-casts or, yes, Lego– then who or what is driving the plastic kit business?

Could it be that now, in a time when communication around the world is expanding exponentially and the number of people who can go online and buy “niche” products like elaborate model kits is growing at a rate both unexpected and unimagined– that the number of Super Geeks who like gluing plastic together and making something truly special out of it is not a small number. Could the “hard core” oddballs at last be driving the bus (or mini-bus)?

Many of my kit building colleagues insist on forums that the number of such “die-hards” as themselves is a relatively small one. They insist that “companies” sell huge numbers of kits in “discount stores” to “ordinary civilians” who have never heard of Pips Priller. I call bullshit on that. Discount stores don’t sell model kits now. Anybody who wants a model of an FW-190 and has never heard of Pips Priller can buy an acceptable die-cast model for about the same money as a kit.

I say that the hard core hobbyists are all that’s left. There just happens to be more and more of them all the time because of the way the world is changing. The third world, where nobody had no money to waste on goofy crap like plastic model kits, is becoming the second world, where some people do, in fact, have the money. The second world, where only Party Officials could build model kits at the dacha, is melting into the first world. where everybody eats McDonald’s all the time and every day is Christmas… and if you want to build exquisite miniatures of the wire and canvas aeroplanes of Von Richtofen you bloody well can.

What this means, I think, is that we (geeks who hang out on model building forums) should stop explaining how our ideas and desires are merely the fancies of a proud yet slightly perverse minority who are ignored because they’re WEIRD. No man, that’s not true. We’re IT. If Airfix or Hobbyboss or somebody makes YET ANOTHER Spitfire or Phantom, we should consider that they aren’t putting out “popular subjects for the whole family,” they are putting out what they think us basement-dwellers want. What person from the Normal Tribe cares about Spitfires or Phantoms? I’ll answer that. None. Zero. The average person is barely aware that the funny little waiting room that smells vaguely of bathroom, shakes from time to time and allows them to visit grandma in California is an airplane. The idea that there is a large, active population of World War II veterans buying hobby products for their grandchildren is just not related to anything true.

But every now and then somebody creates “the ultimate” Phantom or Spitfire and it sells a lot of copies (for a plastic kit). One of the great drawbacks of modern capitalism is the tendency for anyone who is a bit lost to march to the sound of mooing. Once a single outfit sells a few of those super Phantoms or Spitfires, then everybody else, in a sad and sorry delayed reaction, makes a version of it to try and repeat the “miracle.” Unfortunately, the arrival of the first truly accurate Phantom or Spitfire is a one-time deal. Being the second truly accurate, state-of-the-art Spitfire means being first loser.

But mimicking the fellows in first place is what modern business people are likely to do. Hence the flood of Mustangs and Messerschmitts. Only the first to the finish line usually records the big sales, but the followers follow, as they are so likely to do.

Fortunately, this situation is beginning to pass away. The same information revolution that released a horde of nerdy model builders from around the world (proving that pocket protectors and taped-up eyeglasses are universal) is leading the makers of plastic kits to abandon the old and losing strategies. Now, as we are seeing in “new” Airfix and the not-so-old Eduard, it is the Assembly of Model Geeks who rule the land. Long may we rule.

3 Replies to “The Stones that were Cast Aside”

  1. I could truly rule if only I had a Kings fortune. Who are the folks that will plunk down $80.00 bucks for a P-38? If folks will do that, how’s come Wingnuts bit the dust? Did they saturate the market of Wingnut nuts with lots of bucks? Were the kits just too good to pose a satisfaction for nerds who like more of a challenge for plastic nerd skills? I would fall into that category– that also never liked paint by numbers.
    Anyhow a peeve — why the heck doesn’t someone make a good 1:48 “Arry Tate” that I can afford? Airfix? Eduard, anyone?
    Anyone there? chirpet chirpet chirpet chirpet.

    1. Wasn’t there a scandal involving using the money of hard-working taxpayers to make toy airplanes instead of stuff everybody could enjoy?

      1. Oh right mate. I vaguely recall scandalous reports. Was wingnuts associated with the NZ builders of fabulous W1 aeroplane’s? I’ll research on the internet’s.

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