Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Aurora's Prehistoric Models: A Look Back

By the Rat Packer

The "Prehistoric Scenes" model kit series from the old Aurora company is one of the most coveted model series for many model kit builders including myself. How coveted? Let's put it this way, on e-bay last month I spotted for sale on of those e-bay stores an empty box for the "Cro Magnon Man" model for twenty dollars and that was one of the smaller models in the series. I don't normally collect models and have no idea what is the value for older model kits and their boxes, but twenty dollars for painted cardboard is a lot of money.

For those who don't know, this series made its debut in 1971 and was unique from most model kits in that no messy gluing was required in assembling the models. Builders simply had to snap the assorted hard plastic pieces together then paint the completed models. Many kits in the series came with elaborate and detailed bases that helped to recreate the prehistoric world, thus living up to its title. One of the best examples of such work could be seen in the "Jungle Swamp" kit which was a diorama featuring ancient flora and various prehistoric animals (the accuracy of their depiction will be covered in a bit) such as the miniature early horse eohippus and archaeopteryx.

The beauty of the bases was that they were intricately detailed, often coming with small prehistoric animals and were parts of a larger puzzle and were shaped to fit together with other model kit bases from the series to create a huge diorama. Although in practice that was quite awkward, my friends and I tried this but found the models themselves to get in the way due to their size. And you really needed a lot of room to be able to accomplish this feat.

Another interesting feature with some of the kits was the interchangeable and moveable parts that allowed builders to display the models differently. In a way, the models were more like toys than anything. For instance, the "Saber Tooth Tiger" model had two sets of limbs, one of which would allow you to place the model on top of another model as if attacking it (the trapped wooly rhino from the "Tar Pit" kit). The "Flying Reptile" model allowed builders to place it perched on a base or there was option to display it in flight thanks to a small hook on its back that allowed you to dangle it from a string.

Originally eight kits were released in '71 and consisted of "Allosaurus"; "Cro Magnum Man"; "Cro Magnum Woman"; "Neanderthal Man"; "Flying Reptile" (a pteranodon); "Saber Tooth Tiger"; "Cave" (an empty cave with lots of bones and artifacts); and "Tar Pit" ( a diorama featuring a wooly rhino and a vulture). The following year the next six were of "Cave Bear"; "Giant Bird" (a phorohacus); "Jungle Swamp"; "Spike Dinosaur" (a styracosaurus); "Three Horned Dinosaur" (a triceratops); and the "Wooly Mammoth." 1974 saw the release of the final three kits and are some of the most sought-after kits. These are "Sail Back Reptile" (a dimetrodon); "Armored Dinosaur" (an ankylosaurus) and "Tyrannosaurus Rex" the largest model of the series (ironically this kit didn't have an actual base but a painted backdrop due to the size of the model, eighteen inches tall, thirty inches long) and with glow-in-the-dark pieces. There were plans to release additional kits and a mold was actually made for a stegosaurus kit but sadly the line was discontinued.

In the years since, there have been re-issues in the late '70s and '80s by Monogram, which had since brought Aurora. The re-issues were for the basic dinosaurs such as triceratops and t-rex as well as the wooly mammoth and the bases were smaller than the original two-part counterparts. Unfortunately, it's been reported that some molds have since been destroyed which would explain why we haven't seen re-issues of the cave people and so on. Anyway, the company then merged with Revell and more reissues came out in 1993, most likely to cash in on the boom of dinosaur mania following Jurassic Park. The following year Revell put out mini versions of some of the kits which fit in the palm of your hand when assembled and didn't have any moveable parts. Another company called Polar Lights acquired the rights to use the Aurora name and put out three dinosaur models recently but these are different molds and don't have any connection with the "Prehistoric Scenes" series.

Admittedly from a paleontologist's point of view, these weren't the most accurate of dinosaurs and prehistoric animals. Many of the models had fierce, angry looks which was unrealistic. Also on the box art for the early kits, animals and people were put together that never co-existed. For example, the "Neanderthal Man" box art featured an allosaurus on the corner and the "Allosaurus" box art had the dinosaur facing off with a saber tooth tiger. Aurora had the images altered in subsequent editions not because of accuracy but due to complaints from consumers who thought these additional animals on the box art were part of the actual kit. But to the builders who brought and spent time assembling and painting the models the accuracy didn't matter. What stood out was the attention to detail and the coolness factor. We just loved the fact that you could always change the model's poses; although the models were in some ways more fragile than the normal ones that you glued together.

Nowadays, it's a real scavenger hunt to try to find these original models. If you're lucky you can find used or assembled kits in garage sales, conventions and maybe some mom-and-pop hobby shops. But I'll be the first to admit I haven't seen the originals in years. They can also be found on auction sites like e-bay, but be prepared to pay top dollar and stay on top of the bidding process. I've seen prices skyrocket in the final moments of bidding. The "Tyrannosaurus Rex" model in an unopened, sealed box can easily go for hundreds of dollars. Often instead of trying to find a complete kit, collectors just buy assorted parts from various kits and try to build a complete kit but that takes lots of patience, perseverance, time, luck and a good skill at model building to find the pieces, take apart the assorted parts, remove the paint and rebuild them. As for myself, I have most of the kits but in various states of disrepair due to childhood neglect. The nostalgia factor for me with these kits is greater than other memorable toys and hobbies from than era. When the time is right and when I find adequate space, I plan to repair what I have and join in on the prehistoric hunt.


bandoogleoogle said...

I too feel the way you do. At 43, this is nostalgic for me also. Lately I've been searching out any remnant or memory of the cool things I used to play with as a boy, and am finding that I am not the only one with this longing to touch the past once more.

Site Editor said...

Bandoogleoogle, Thanks for your comments. It seems that many of us, at some level, feel that the simpler, more hands on activities of old are preferable to the video game type activities of today.

Apparently, generations past said the same thing about books, at a time when the printed word was crowding out memorized knowledge at the expense of memorization. So perhaps I'm just an old fogey of today. But intuitively, I feel like we've departed from healthy activities (for our kids) as we become hooked on the seemingly addictive appeal of video games, the internet, etc.