In the medieval town of Modra, Slovakia, the Horna Brana (upper gate) stands at the top of the elongated main square as the lone obvious remnant of the city walls. However, have you seen the other equally tall but less obvious tower, the bastion housing the museum of Ignac Bizmayer? This is one great structure, now part of a beautiful museum.
I think Revell kits are the most widespread in the world today, and indeed they probably already were in the 80's. They were the only Western kits regularly available in communist Czechoslovakia. They were relatively rare compared to KP, Smer, and KVZ, but more common than ZTS––most hobby shops and some toy stores had one, maybe a few, behind the counter (but then ALL kits were behind the counter in those days). I recall they were actually expensive. Interestingly, the quality––of the small models, at least––wasn't much better. Details were more fine and true to scale, and the fit was a little better. But the interiors were still minimal, and the models pocked with sinkholes and ejector pin marks just like the domestic stuff. But they came from the west, and it was the way they were presented––in crisp, bright colored boxes, with photos of crisply finished model prototypes on the sides and top––that spoke quality. The pilot figures, crucially, looked like normally proportioned and posed humans, hands furiously clenching tiny plastic control columns. My mom once promised me a kit if I took a swim lesson when I was six. The swim lesson was terrible, I was simply flung in the water under the shouts of a stern coach. I sunk. I emerged to find safety, and Revell's 1/72 P-47, on dry land.
ZTS was a Polish company, comparable to Smer and KVZ in the overall impression the models made, and especially comparable to KP in their choice of ostensibly native subjects––Polish, in their case. The fit and detail was about comparable to KP and Smer––deporable but, with effort, could produce a nice-looking result. What was special about ZTS was its scarcity. In my seven years living in communist Czechoslovakia, I built many KP kits twice. The whole time, I saw a grand total of one ZTS kit, the RWD-5bis. This civil airplane set some kind of mileage record after being modified to replace a passenger seat with a fuel tank. The tiny box was covered with dark, foreboding art––just the thing to reinforce the mysterious aura of this unknown brand. Opening the box, however, revealed a lack of pilot figures, a profound disappointment.
KVZ was an East German concern whose moldings skirted the border between models and toys. Wildly out of scale and unrealistic details combined with poor fit and meager decals to create models that looked absolutely goofy. Their boxes were similarly artistic, with cheesy nationalist paintings of the airplanes dominating the scene before a hazy background of glowing power and justice (I don't recall the inse. What made the KVZ models valuable, though, was the distinctive choice of subjects, which consisted mostly of airliners. Thus, a less military-minded person could take joy in pieces such as the Tu-134 and the Let-410 Turbolet, to mention their magnificent Russian helicopters. My grandpa once bought me their Saab Draken in the unusual 1/100 scale. It had the smallest pilot figure I had ever seen, and was thus a clear winner in my book.
Smer re-boxed plastic parts from italian and other Western manufacturers. Unlike KP, their boxes were big, their moldings chunky and ill-fitting, and their instructions byzantine. Nevertheless, they released some interesting subjects that built up well, such as their Bristol Bulldog, which won me over with its chubby pilot figure. I think I got their Hurricane night fighter as a gift from my grandpa--twice.
KP aka KoPro aka Kovozavody Prostejov (literally, "Metal mills of Prostejov") - The staple diet. The little boxes of KP were cheap, instantly recognizable, and available in nearly every toy and hobby shop. They epitomized communist-era thrift: gorgeous box art printed on paper so cheap it almost crumbled, fascinating airplane subjects that swelled with national pride. Early KP kits such as their Letov 328 had pilot figures, which I found particularly valuable. The later models such as the fetching Avia B-35 had more detail but disappointingly empty cockpits. In fact their first kit, the L-29 Delfin, was arguably the most crude as well as the most beautiful. I lusted after it but, for some reason, it was scarce.
I became addicted to plastic model airplanes via my parents. They introduced me to this fine hobby even before my 3rd birthday––my first memory is my mom taking a break from writing her dissertation to glue the pilot figure into the seat of a 1/72 Revell P-39 Airacobra.
In the mildly deprived world of iron curtain toy commerce, five brands of plastic model airplanes were available (for comparison, consider that Squadron, an online mail order model hobby house, lists hundreds of brands). These five brands took on a life of their own in this young boy's imagination. In my next five blog posts, I will chat a bit about each.