Model makers produced their own classics

PHOENIX — Like so many other boys of my generation, I saved my pennies and I saved my dimes (“giddy up, giddy up 409”) and when I had enough of them I’d spend them on an AMT or Revell model car kit.

Except for the tires, the pieces in the kits were made of plastic. Those parts included the body shell, dashboard, seats, steering wheel, the various components that formed the engine and transmission, and dozens and dozens more.

Most everything was white in color, though windows and headlights were clear plastic, tail lamps were tinted red, and bumpers had a chrome-like finish.

Also included was a fold-out sheet of instructions, and a sheet of decals so you could customize your car with flames or pinstripes or race car sponsor badges.

The kits were sold in hardware stores or at the local “5-and-Dime” store, where you also could buy small spray cans of paint to make your car and its components look even more realistic.

Provided, of course, you had both patience and skill. I had neither.

It was hard enough just to separate the various plastic pieces from the frames in which they were molded, let along go back with an Exacto knife and try to smooth off the little bumps that remained from the connection points.

Then there was the matter of trying not to drip or smear or spill any of the Testors glue onto your car’s finish during assembly — a challenge made more difficult because all the while you were inhaling the intoxicating fumes the glue emitted as soon as you removed the cap from the tube.

Painting presented more frustrations — in part because you were supposed to paint components before they were glued together but always were in such a hurry to assemble your model that there was no way to avoid horrible overspray.

And I don’t think I ever applied a set of decals without bumps and lumps.

Memories of my inability to assemble supposedly easy-to-use model car kits rushed back into mind while I was looking with awe at model cars boys of my generation had created not from a kit but completely on their own, from doing the original design to the construction from wood, plaster, metal and paint. Their cars were designed so creatively and built so skillfully that these boys won college scholarships and many went on to careers creating not just model cars but the vehicle we’ve been driving on the roads and highways for several decades.

Those boys and a few girls built their cars as part of the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild scholarship competition, which General Motors sponsored from 1930-1968. Several dozen guild alumni and their model cars were here recently for a reunion they held in conjunction with the annual Arizona classic car auctions.

For two days, the model makers shared their stories and showed their cars in the lobby of the Arizona Biltmore, the resort where the RM Auctions company was selling full-size classic vehicles at prices ranging well into seven figures.

Several of the guild alumni told of spending considerable amounts — not in dollars but in time, typically 700-800 hours building each model. But their efforts paid off in scholarships that enabled them to attend college and then enter and enjoy careers as car designers or in other fields, from teaching to engineering.

Many of those stories have been captured two books — “The Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild: An Illustrated History” and “Inside the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild: Contestants Recall the Great General Motors Talent Search,” both written by John Jacobus, a guild alumni and long-time U.S. Dept. of Transportation auto safety engineer.

In his “Inside” book, Jacobus notes that the late Chuck Jordan won the Guild’s first-place national award in 1947, went to work in the GM Design studios after his college graduation and later became the company’s vice president for design, leading studios that employed more than two dozen other guild alumni.

Many of the guildsmen at the recent reunion said the contest was a life-changing event, especially for those who won scholarships that allowed them to go to college.

Anthony Joslin said his parents had saved enough money for him to attend college, but that when he won a GM scholarship, his parents used the money they’d saved to buy the only house they ever owned.

Even though he didn’t win a scholarship, Jeff Jones said participating in the model-building contest “was a seminal point in my life.”

Building his cars led him to study mechanical engineering and then to a career as an oil-field engineer.

The reunion was another such event, Jones said.

“I had never met any of the guys or seen any of these cars before,” he said at the reunion, where he was making new friends and offering to help with planning their next gathering.

Larry Edsall

Larry Edsall is a Phoenix-based freelance writer. You can reach him at ledsall@cox.net.