Miniature Masterpieces - a trip down memory lane with Revell, Adams, UPC and Life Like.

By Norm Filer


Editor's note: My good friend and regular IM contributer, Norm Filer, makes a guest appearance this month.

As a teen-age model builder growing up in the late nineteen forties and early nineteen fifties, I built my way through the early development years of the U. S. plastic model companies. Like most builders of that era, I started with balsa kits, then balsa and white metal details, then wood with plastic parts and finally all plastic kits. Today I don’t remember being aware of any historic moments with this process, but I do remember very well when the first of the line of “Miniature Masterpieces” first became available. By then I had built several of the early kits from Revell and a few from other companies that had begun to market all-plastic models. But these were the first of the truly impressively detailed and interesting subjects other than ships, planes and tanks.

It might be worth while to go back and tell a bit of the background of the parent company behind these kits. Revell's founder was a man named Lew Glaser. He started a small injection molding operation called Precision Specialties just a few weeks prior to Dec. 7th, 1941. During the war he manufactured various items for the military war effort along with a small plastic lady’s face powder compact for the civilian market. With the end of the war, and war production contracts now gone, Glaser switched to injection molded toys. A toy washing machine, a toy-like radio and simple circus animals and pull toys seem to have been the principal items. None of the products did much more than just keep the doors open.

The 1950 New York Toy Fair was the start of the plastic kits we now associate with Revell. One of the pull toys mentioned above was a 1911 Maxwell car. An attendee at the show saw the potential for an unassembled kit with the toy like parts cleaned up or deleted, and the revised product became the first of the “Highway Pioneers” unassembled car kits. These plastic models were the start of the Revell kits we see today, and led directly to the product line that came next, Miniature Masterpieces.

The Miniature Masterpieces line of very detailed horse drawn wagons and carriages was the result of a business agreement between Glaser and Steve Adams in May, 1953. Revell was a small company trying to grow, and investment money was hard to find. Glaser’s agreement with Adams was that Adams would cut molds for a new line at his own expense, and would retain ownership of those molds. The choice of subjects, design, and sculpting of the masters was all done by former or current Revell employees, then the masters were sent to Adams for mold manufacturing. The finished products were distributed by another ex-Revell assembly manager from his own seemingly independent company. The reason for the “shadow” structure has never really been explained but probably had more to do with investment and ownership of processes than any intentional attempt to hide the ownership of the various parts. In the fall of 1954 all the shadows went away and it was announced that Revell had taken over the Miniature Masterpieces line. Steve Adams did retain ownership of the molds, however, and actually released them again under his own label in the late fifties. In later years two more companies, Life-Like and UPC, purchased the molds and released them under those labels. The kits are long gone today, but now and then do show up at swap meets and on eBay.

One of the most appealing draws of these kits was that they were all done in a constant scale. The note on the side of some of the boxes states “Constant 1/40th Scale.” On inspecting the contents of all of the kits, it is apparent that while they advertised being a “constant scale” there are some doubts. Since everything in these kits is items that are not any standard height, it is pretty hard to check. But a few of the kits do include adult males in a standing position. I measured those and decided that if the average adult male of the late 1800s was about 5’8” to 5’10 inches then the kits probably were somewhere around 1/43rd.
Then I found a note in the instructions for the 20 Mule Team (more on this one later) that stated the bigger rear wheels on the wagons were seven feet tall. The calculator and ruler made that out to be 1/48th. So there is some variation here and there, but the overall impression of the kits is consistent with a constant scale.

I'll start with the "Western" part of the series and cover the rest of the kits in the second part of this article.

stagecoachWells Fargo Stage Coach

partsThis was the second in the series, and this time it was complete with a driver, a shotgun armed guard and even a separate guard riding his horse at a full gallop. This issue also included a small decal sheet for the lettering on the side of the coach. Most sideof us kids growing up during this era were fed a constant diet of movies, comic books and a bit later, TV programs that glorified the “old west”. This was the first of several of the Miniature Masterpieces that would have a solid footing in the old west.

chuckwagonChuck Wagon

partsThis kit is chuck full (bad pun) of neat little details. I have two of this kit, one Revell and one UPC. They are identical except for plastic color and the small decal in the UPC kit that allows you to have a “Circle K” brand on the canvas of the wagon. I think this kit is one of the best of the whole series. The details are endless. It includes three figures; a cook, complete with apron, handlebar mustache, and a feisty attitude, a cowboy standing in a casual leaning back attitude with a cup of coffee in his hand, and a figuresvery apparent Mexican sitting cross legged with a plate of food in his lap. All three of the figures are well posed and clearly fit the situation. All the cook’s tools of the trade are there as well; pots and pans, a lantern and even a dinner bell, and to finish it off there is a camp dog.

coveredwagonCovered Wagon

To continue the western theme, the next kit was a covered wagon. I have this one in UPC and Adams releases. Somewhere along the way the Adams box disappeared, but again, other than the different colored plastic, they are identical. Unlike many of the Hollywood movies that featured covered wagons, this one is being pulled by two oxen rather than horses or mules. And what oxen they are! These are not barnyard animals but big brutes intended to pull heavy loads. Dad on a separate horse, Mom driving the wagon and a boy sitting alongside are just beautifully done. The other details include a long saw, a rifle and other items to hang on the side of the wagon. It just looks like a hard day on the trail.

medicinewagonMedicine Wagon

This one is a snapshot of the traveling snake oil salesman peddling his wares. Two bored horses standing waiting to get on to the next stop, a light surry-like wagon with a lot of fancy work, and an Indian and banjo player, helping the salesman who is dressed in a top hat and tails, trying to sell his bottle of snake oil to a woman with two clinging kids and what has just got to be an old hard rock miner with a full beard. As with all these kits, a complete scene just waiting to be assembled and painted.

ranchwagonRanch Wagon

This is one of the lesser known releases and uses some parts from the other kits. It uses the basic wagon parts from the covered wagon, but has a four mule hitch instead of the two oxen. The young boy rider also makes another appearance. Somehow this one never seemed to have appeared on the sides of the other boxes, nor was it shown as part of the series in listings included with the other kits.

corralLazy M Corral

partsThis is another somewhat obscure release. In this one, the boy and his dad from the covered wagon and ranch wagon make a re-appearance along with a couple of the oxen masquerading as cattle in the corral. We also see the Mexican with the same plate of food and his dog from the chuck wagon. The mules from the ranch wagon come back as pack animals. While lacking any kind of wagon to add more interest, this still would add a lot of details to a western scene diorama.

Over the years there have been rumors of a buckboard wagon. I have never seen the kit nor have I ever seen a solid reference that confirmed that such a kit existed. It would fit the series very well, but it remains just that - a rumor.

muleteam20 Mule Team Wagon

In the late 1950’s the United States Borax Corporation was sponsoring a very popular TV program called Death Valley Days. They approached Revell and the result was a close cousin of the Miniatures Masterpiece series. Revell designed the product, sculpted the masters and Adams made the molds and handled production. This 20 mule team kit was never released under any of the Revell, Adams, UPC or Life Like brands; it was only offered as a promotional item from U.S. Borax. Oddly enough, some of the other wagon kits were offered for a short time by U. S. Borax. To my knowledge it was never released in anything but a plastic bag with a shipping box, but it is to the same high standard of detail and is a very impressive 45 inches long when assembled.

This wraps up the “Western” part of the Miniature Masterpieces series. The series continues with a look at the European subjects, but that will have to wait for the next installment and conclusions to come in a later issue.

Thanks, Norm! We'll all be looking forward to part two!

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