Saturday, November 5, 2011


Mat Irvine reports:
I’ve just got back from an interesting US trip, and while there collected a number of items, which I will write about in the weeks to come. To start with, here’s the Revell Maxwell Auto ‘Action Pull Toy’, an oddity from the early days of Revell, with links to US comedian Jack Benny, whose weekly radio show ran from 1932 to 1955. 

Background to the Revell brand
Revell’s roots as a kit producer began with an association with the Anglo-American company Gowland & Gowland in the early 1950s. The Gowlands - father and son, Jack and Kelvin, (eventually along with fellow countryman Derek Brand) - were Brits who, soon after WWII set up base on the US West Coast, considered a better place to start a new business than war-torn Britain. 

Important US link
The Gowlands were toy designers and manufacturers first and foremost, but - being non native-born Americans - they needed someone who knew the US market. Enter Lew Glaser, who ran a manufacturing company called Precision Specialities. The Gowlands and Glaser joined forces, the Gowlands to design and make products, and Glaser to distribute them. But it wasn’t long before Lew wanted to manufacture kits himself, and eventually much of the Gowland line passed to the Revell name. 

Birth of a name
Urban myth has it that the name ‘Revell’ was invented for this task, but actually it already appeared in the Precision Specialities catalogue, and had been since the mid-1940s, although at that point mainly concerned with non-kit products, such as a popular ladies powder compact!

Action toys to kits
Because the Gowlands mostly designed toys, the first ‘Revell kits’ were action toys - and one of these was a 1910 Maxwell, issued as the Maxwell Auto Action Pull Toy, with a phrase printed on the box: 'The Car That Keeps America Laughing'. This had been added because it was supposed to represent the unreliable car that comedian Jack Benny drove - and even a small link with the star ought to be good for sales.

Jack Benny shakes hands with ex-President Harry Truman in 1958.

No permission
However, no other mention of this connection was made, as permission had not been given, although everyone knew exactly what is was. But - and somewhat perversely, as we are used to ‘star cars’ of films and TV - the Jack Benny Show was for decades only on radio, the car represented by sound effects, being visible only in the odd publicity photo. Later, Benny would make TV shows where the Maxwell actually appeared, though this was the later 1923 model.

Sophisticated toy
Information was given about detaching the pull cable, so the car could be displayed as a scale model. The cable was actually a sophisticated Bowden-type device that allowed the hinged car body to bounce along the floor when pulled, also making a 'honking’ sound to simulate a car horn. There was also a ‘clicker’ on the rear axle, for sound effects on the move. Neither honk nor click work on my model, as the parts are perished or broken, but it is still a fascinating relic which ‘mostly’ works - well, the wheels rotate!

Multi-material kit
The toy’s existing tooling was then modified to produce one of Revell’s first true construction kits, in 1951. The parts were moulded initially in acetate, though by the time of the second issue in 1961 (see pic above, along with the toy) components were moulded in styrene. This included the driver (who didn’t look anything like Jack Benny), but the raised top had to be built from wire rod and paper, making the kit an early ‘multi-material’ release. Note the cut-out paper pattern, the white parts for the driver and his hat, and that the tyres had changed from the toy's ‘rubber’ items, to being moulded in plastic as part of the wheels. 

Gowland’s early toys
Credit on the box was given to John Gowland as designer of the Maxwell, as well as the earlier Champ, a dog that begged and barked, and the Chu Chu jumping train. Also on the box was the Jack Benny reference line.

A new scale is born
Both toy and kit were made to the Imperial engineering scale three-quarters of an inch to the foot, or 1:16 scale, and later the Gowlands would produce true kits by halving this, in effect, inventing 1:32 for car kits, a scale that continues today with, for example, Scalextric slot cars.