Aurora Plastic Model Kits - A Brief History

September 4, 2007 – 12:04 pm

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By Alan Bussie Google+ profile

Many thanks to John Burns, Tom Graham and the innumerable number of collectors who have helped to compile this information over the years. Without your tireless attention to detail, this would be impossible.

Aurora was one of the most prolific names in American Modeling from 1952 to 1977. The line was very diverse and included military and civil aircraft, shipstanksmissiles, figures (monster and many others), science fiction, automotive, animals, guns, totem poles, HO train items, electronic kits, “Coppersmith” sets, prehistoric scenes and more.

The Early Years - The Brooklyn Era
In 1950, Abe Shikes and Joseph Giammarino created Aurora as an injection molding job-shop. Injection molding was booming in post-war American and business went well. In 1952, they hired a salesman named John Cuomo. The three produced many toys but quickly realized that plastic model kits were the wave of the future, the they banked Aurora’s future on it.

Kit production started in the Brooklyn Plant in late 1952. These kits were in one-piece flip-top boxes and carried the circular logo and the “U-Ma-Kit” slogan. The first two kits were the 1/48 F9F Panther Jet (kit #22) and 1/48 Lockheed F-90A (kit #33).  These first two kits carried no landing gear or missiles and had minimal rivet and panel line detail. Box art was simple and used two colors. There was no price extension after the kit number.

First Issue Aurora F-90A #33

Issues exist with the instructions printed on the inside of the box and with the instructions printed on a separate piece of paper.

If you have the early Hawk releases of the F9F or F-90,you will notice that they are almost exact copies of each other, down to the stand design. The Hawk kits predate the Aurora kits but there is no evidence of mold swapping.   To keep production costs and time down, Aurora simply purchased the two Hawk kits, copied the dimensions of the kits and made their own molds.  The Mates Brothers, owners and operators of Hawk, were not happy.  Reportedly, sharp words were exchanged at trade shows.  Hawk began hiding the word ‘HAWK’ in morse code in rivet detail.  However, Aurora did not copy any further Hawk kits and after many years tensions eased to the point where each company could joke about the incident at future shows.

From the start, Aurora marketing strategy was simple and effective.  Revell and Monogram prided themselves on making kits that were highly accurate and had the maximum number of operating features.  Aurora simply wanted to sell low- priced kits of fascinating new subjects to the younger audience.  The accuracy of early Aurora kits suffered accordingly, but the young model market did not care.  Injection molded kits were completely pre-shaped and went together quickly with out carving or sanding.  Prior to this, most airplane kits came with blocks of wood and plans -leaving the builder to carve, whittle and scratchbuild in such a fashion that most models were never completed.   Injection molding changed that and introduced an entire generation of boys to model building.  At Aurora, Shikes and Giammarino kept overhead low and operated with a minimal staff.  Many ‘Lean’ Manufacturing practices (Toyota Production System) were put into place long before they were practiced in Japan.  The mold presses ran 24 hours a day and some popular kits had runs of over 1,000,000 copies.  Aurora had no trouble turning a profit.  It was the right strategy for the 1950s/early 1960s, but not for the future.

The success of the the first two “Hawk Copy” kits encouraged Aurora to cut six more molds.  These kits, with the F-90 and F9F, constitute the famous and rare “Brooklyn Eight” from 1953.  The new kits were the P-40E, Me-109, Yak-25 (Mig-19), F-86D, Zero and P-38L.

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Price extensions were used for the first time.  All eight did not have landing gear or missiles and have minimal panel line and rivet detail.   The rectangular stand was retained with “Brooklyn” etched on the base.   The circular logo was dropped and a new one with the word “Aurora” curved into a rising sun was substituted.  The “U-Ma-Kit” logo was retained on the sides and the “Famous Fighters of All Nations” slogan was introduced on the box top.   Due to the weakness of the one-piece box, two piece lift-off boxes were used.  These are “hard-boxes”, or boxes of stiff cardboard with a paper lithograph (called a “slick”) glued to the top box.   The artist Jim Cox was contracted to do the boxes and instructions.  Jim’s paintings were very colorful and action-packed, which certainly lead to increased sales.  Other Brooklyn releases include the USS Nautilus submarine.

The Boom Time -West Hempstead Era

By the mid 1950s, plastic kits were selling very well.  In a survey, approximately 80% of all young boys said that modeling was their primary hobby.  This is more significant when you realize that ‘model building’ never even made it to the list of boy’s hobbies before this time.  Aurora’s gamble had paid off, and the future belonged to plastic.  To meet increased demand, the factory moved to a larger facility in West Hempstead in 1954.  The colorful two-piece hard box became the mainstay.  The first logos from the new plant were “Aurora” curved into the rising sun but with “West Hempstead” replacing “Brooklyn” immediately below it on the box sides.

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Some short-run releases were made using Brooklyn box art and this logo with the Brooklyn price extension.   The “U-Ma-Kit” logo was dropped and new price extensions appeared after kit number shortly after.  At this time, old releases had the molds modified for increased rivet detail, and landing gear and bombs or missiles were added.

The F6F, Spitfire, FW-190, XFV-1 Pogo and Convair XFY-1 kits were introduced early in the West Hempstead era, along side the Milk Truck and Gas Truck.  Other kits followed very quickly.  By about 1955 the logo was given flash of color and read “Aurora Line”.   At this time, external pressures resulted in Aurora dropping the swastikas from German aircraft.  This created some rare box variations as old artwork was quickly touched up with replacement German crosses while completely new art was developed.

In 1956 the famous World War I series of aircraft kits were introduced in 1/48 scale with the new rectangular large “Northern Lights ” logo.  New World War II aircraft were released as well.  In the same year, Aurora obtained the molds from Helicopters for Industry and released the S-55, H-21, H-25, HOK-1 and Hornet with the “Northern Lights” logo.

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In 1957 the famous oval Sunburst “Famous Fighters” (SBFF) logo was first used as on this Regulus with Launcher and the rectangular stand changed to the triangular base ‘globe’ stand.

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The revised stand caused most decals to be altered slightly to include the model’s name in a triangle.  Around 1958 the first Aurora airliner kits were introduced and became an instant hit.  The last use of the SBFF logo was about 1959.  In 1960 the same Sunburst was used, but the words “Famous Fighters” were dropped, as shown on this N-156 (F-5)

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In some cases, the “Famous Fighters” was retained on the side panel logo but without the sunburst.  The era from 1953 to 1960 can be confusing for Aurora due to the numerous variety of price extensions, logos (or combinations of logos), box art, plastic colors and instructions.   Some have commented that Aurora must have had poor quality control at this time.  Instead of jumping directly to that conclusion, it is important to remember that Aurora Plastics Corporation was a business. Excess stock of boxes, instructions, stands, etc represented a dollar value of inventory.  These parts were used, even if not in the “correct” way.   You may find a rectangular stand or Aurora Line instructions in a SBFF box.  The collector should be aware that this could also be a “married” kit with parts from another box. (Such variations, either from the factory or otherwise, will be noted when possible in model descriptions on this site.)  People living in West Hempstead have told me of “Aurora Sales” to local boys. Sometimes kits with no boxes were sold for 25 cents direct from the factory.   Still others went through the trash to recover parts of kits in hopes of making a complete kit.  Test shots, used to verify correct mold operation, also exist and can be in transparent or odd colored plastic. On very rare occasions test shots were accidentally packed and sent to the market place.

International Sales

Aurora did market kits internationally from the 1950s forward. “Playcraft Toys” in Great Britain marketed these kits in boxes and in bags with header cards from about 1957 to 1964.  Price extensions were dropped for Playcraft issues.  This is the only known Aurora release in bags with header cards, making these kits desirable to collectors.  From 1968 on Aurora kits were marketed in Great Britain by Aurora/Great Britain. From 1958 on Aurora distributed kits from Aurora/Netherlands.  Sometimes the artwork on these kits varied from the USA artwork, such as on the F-107 kit.   Aurora/Canada issued kits for that market from 1964 on.  Again, there is some box art variation, like the B-25.

The 1960s 

The 1960s were a happy and busy time for modelers, and Aurora and its competitors released dozens of new kits.   In 1963, Aurora purchased Comet and many of their kits were released with new box artwork.  Comet often had the same aircraft in two scales, such as the Beech 18, B-58 and the Boeing 707.  In most cases, Aurora reissued both scales which could lead to one kit being marketed in three scales!  The B-58 is one example.  Comet’s smaller line of civil aircraft in near 1/72 sold well, and the success apparently lead Aurora to add to this line with new aircraft such as the Piper Aztec, Jet Commander, Cessna Skymaster and more. In addition to Comet, Aurora leased three molds from Strombecker for the T-37, A-37 and TT-1.  Around this time Jo Kotula, the famous aviation illustrator, was hired to do the Aurora box art to provide a new look.

Movie and Television tie-ins were used when possible.  In 1965 Aurora released several WWII aircraft kits with the “Twelve O’clock High” logo.  The B-17 kit was a special release with three B-17s, bombing base, stands, a poster and special battle damage decals.   B-25 and B-26 kits were released with battle damage decals, as well as some single seat fighters but without special decals.

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Ships were released in special promotional boxes for the movies “Dr. Doolittle” and “The Buccaneer”.

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In the 1960s the famous Monster, Movie and Television figures began production.  These kits fueled the “Monster” craze that swept the nation, as popularized with the TV shows ‘The Addams Family’ and ‘The Munsters’.  The Aurora figure kits sold so well that other companies found themselves playing ‘catch-up’ to Aurora’s find.  Monster kits became bolder and bolder until public outcry put an end to them.  During this time Aurora also released the popular Coppersmith kits and less successful Electronic kits.  Several new airliners were introduced including the Convair 880 and 990.   As newer airlines appeared, some older kits were re-boxed with new livery art and decals.   In the early 1960s the Aurora dropped the sunburst and Famous Fighters for good and the logo changed to the oval with the “Aurora” inside.  Price extensions were still being used at this time but are often over-stamped with a new (higher) price or blanked/punched out at the factory.

A Change of Owners

In 1969, Charles Diker, a former Revlon Vice-President, gained control of Aurora through stock purchases.  Shikes was the last of the original three to leave.  Diker did not agree with how Aurora had been run, and was determined to turn it into a larger corporation and to diversify.  Spending was increased, and quality was improved.  The new molds were much better, but not necessarily up to modern standards.  Many older molds were still used but the kits did not sell well.

The Demise of Aurora

In about 1970, Aurora introduced the “Big A” logo consisting of a large “A” with the word Aurora written in the crossbar, as in the complicated Sealab kit.

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Box art, which has been fairly consistent through the 1960s, changed again.   Model building as an established hobby was maturing and older builders were demanding accuracy.  Aurora was introducing fewer new molds and the accuracy of many older molds was less than perfect.  Meanwhile, Monogram and Revell continued to expand their accurate kit lines and this was finally paying bigger dividends in the new market.   International competition was making inroads into the US market with very nicely produced kits from Frog, Airfix and others.  Aurora needed to act.  In about 1972 they modified the molds from many WWI aircraft to make them more accurate.   Some new, more accurate molds were made including the Skycrane, Cheyenne and Soviet ASW Cruiser Moscow. They were greatly improved kits, but it was too little, too late.  Aurora had lost money every year since Diker took over.  Nabisco bought Aurora in 1971 and Diker left in 1975.   The former president of Mattel Canada, Boyd W. Brown, was brought in next.  But the years of quick-sell products and recent high spending had caught up.  In 1977 Aurora ended all kit production and Nabisco sold all the molds to Monogram.  During shipment to Morton Grove, IL, five molds were destroyed: Jet Commander, Albatross CIII, Halberstadt CLII, Breguet XIV and Skymaster.  This has created a greater demand for these kits.

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Monogram released some of the WWI kits, submarines and a few airliners in the 1970s.  (click here for Monogram history.) Monogram was bought by Odyssey in 1986.   Revell (history) was purchased by Odyssey at time also, and the three company’s molds were pooled together at Monogram’s old plant.  If you know of any mold swapping of Aurora kits under Revell or Monogram names from 1986 forward, please email me.  Obviously, the molds for many Aurora kits still exist (or simply copied from kits) as evidenced by the reissued from Polar Lights/Playing Mantis.   The condition of the molds that have not been used for years is questionable.  Molds must be maintained or they will decay and become unusable.   If you can confirm mold status on any of the old Aurora molds, please email me.

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