What's In the Box?
We receive many interesting emails from you, our readers, spanning a wide range of subjects. After the recent update of our Hobby Shopping Online article, one email in particular brought up an interesting point about hobby shopping – what is in the box? As a kid, I would go to the drug store to buy a model, bring home an interesting subject only to find that the kit in the box wasn’t what was on the box art. In one instance, I purchased a spacecraft kit, unwrapped the cellophane, and found a car kit inside. While such extremes rarely happen today, you don’t always know what you’re getting inside the box.
Over the last decade, the practice of reboxing other companies’ kits has grown significantly. In fact, as tooling costs skyrocket and the global economy continues to drop, it has become prohibitive to release new kits these days. While modelers ‘want’ new kits, the global market for scale modelers has shrunk significantly over the last few decades. The model companies needed to reinvent themselves to survive. We’ll look at some of the different business models at work and how they should impact your buying decisions. But first, a little background…
At the ‘peak’ of the scale modeling industry, the logistics of kit production was based upon a 50,000+ boxes per release. To withstand that amount of production, injection mold tooling was made from steel and (if properly maintained) would last forever. This is why we still see Revell-Monogram, Hasegawa, Tamiya, etc. kits that are over 30 years old still being produced and looking as good today as they did decades ago. In those days, a 50,000 kit production lot wouldn’t run out right away (usually) but the good subjects would be gone within a few months while others would sell out in less than a year. When you spread out the cost of that production run across 50,000 units (design, prototyping, molding, packaging, instructions, decals, etc.), your cost per kit is relatively low and your resulting retail price is also low. We won’t be seeing those numbers again anytime soon.
A New Paradigm
As the hobby market started its decline, a few pioneers came forward with a new way of doing business. One such pioneer was Jules Bringuier who owns Classic Airframes. His business model was to tackle subjects that the ‘big companies’ wouldn’t touch. His production runs were scaled down to match the projected demand for a kit – between 10,000-15,000 units. These kits were multimedia (plastic, resin, photo-etch) so the production costs were higher, but so were the details in the box. His goal was to sell out the kit before they reached store shelves by selling his complete production run to the distributors. By the time Jules put Classic Airframes into limbo, production runs were under 5,000 units and even those weren't selling as well. The market was indeed declining.
In those early days, the big companies scoffed at business models like this, though they found that their 50,000 unit production runs were resulting in unsold kits sitting in warehouses and this excess stock (mostly car kits) would find its way to the half-price outlet malls. Before long, many of these big companies either shut down or were sold off. Before these companies declined or closed, they collectively changed the hobby market forever. In an attempt to bring costs down, kit production was moved from various parts of the world and into an inexpensive new resource – China.
As with other global industries, the hobby companies took their tooling and expertise and trained factories in China to initially perform the injection molding of the kits, but soon this expanded to the development of tooling and finally the mastering of CAD/CAM technology to digitally design the kit, robotically machine the molds, and produce the kits. While many of these companies still produce the kits for the various global hobby companies, we’re now seeing kits emerge from Chinese companies directly.
As I mentioned above, those companies that couldn’t adapt to the declining demand for kits were either shuttered or sold off. A few brands like AMT/ERTL tried to diversify their portfolio by expanding into the die-cast market, though that market also dropped off rather quickly. Racing Champions bought AMT/ERTL but not for the plastic kits. Many of these tools stayed in storage during this period though a few were produced in other companies’ boxes (like the short-lived AMTech). Racing Champions also acquired a few other brands like Polar Lights before selling off most of the tooling to their current owners – Round 2 Models. Revell-Monogram changed hands a few times during its own struggle with the declining market before being acquired by Hobbico, one of the larger general hobby distributors in the world. Humbrol went into receivership (taking Airfix with it) before being acquired by Hornby. Lindberg shut down completely though much of their tooling was later acquired by a new (old) company – Hawk. Hawk/Lindberg also grabbed up a significant number of other old molds from companies like Testors and IMC.
Hasegawa developed an interesting approach to the problem. They continued to produce a large number of bag shots of a given subject and then issued smaller increments of them in different packaging. For example, they’d produce a large number of 1/48 F-14A Tomcat bag shots and then put groups of them into different boxes with different decal options. There was a period of time several years ago where Hasegawa was issuing a new F-14 Tomcat (as well as other subjects) nearly every month (same kit, different decals and box art). This resulted in a significant number of these ‘limited run’ kits ending up on sale racks and the US importer dropping Hasegawa altogether (Hobbico is now importing the Hasegawa line into the US market).
As the hobby market really started its downturn nearly 10 years ago, and tooling and labor costs rose, the only other way to get new kits into your catalog was to buy bag shots (kits molded and delivered in their intermediate bags) from other manufacturers and put them into your own box. With the cost of design and tooling off the table, the only expenses you need to deal with are the bag shots, instruction sheet printing, decal production, and box art/packaging (okay, there are a few other costs in there, but you get the idea). In fact, many companies simply exchanged equivalent bag shots. For example, I would receive 500 Bf 109G-6 kits from a given company in exchange for 500 of my Farley Fruibat kits, and both companies would have ‘new’ product to offer their customers. As you well know, this creative exchange is little more than ‘smoke and mirrors’ to keep investors happy, but modelers who wanted the Fruitbat have already purchased my kit. They’re not so thrilled to get Company A’s Fruitbat only to find they have my kit again.
Where we all run into frustrations is when a kit released as ‘new’ with no indication whether it is really a new-tooled kit or simply a reboxed kit from another company. While technically the reboxed kit is indeed ‘new’ (to their catalog), it is not new to the modeler. Most of these reboxing efforts add no improvement to the kit and sometimes make the kit worse than the original release. Take for example Accurate Miniatures – when the company was acquired by new owners a number of years ago, the only new-tool kit they released was the SB2U Vindicator series that was actually put into production prior to the company’s change of ownership. After the sale, the only kits released by Accurate Miniatures were reissues of the older Accurate Miniatures kits (where the ballast included with the original B-25 kits was deleted to save money) or reboxings of kits from Revell-Monogram, Eduard, and others. Take the P-39 kit from Eduard – Accurate Miniatures sold the kit without the Eduard photo-etch (essentially a Weekend kit) at the same retail price as Eduard’s kit with the photo-etched parts. These are a couple of examples of negative value.
Not all repackaging/reboxing efforts are bad. Companies like Eduard, Encore, and Wolfpack will select good kits to start with (usually the best of that subject in that scale) and then add their own improvements in the box. These companies are also very forthcoming about the source of the original kits and what you receive from them is usually a vast improvement on an already great kit. These improvements usually include photo-etch details, resin corrections and/or details, paint masks, new decals, and a great value.
So which companies rebox other companies’ kits, and of those, which companies are forthcoming about their efforts? Let’s look at a few of them:
- Academy: In the earlier days of Academy, they reboxed a number of kits that had previously been released by Hobbycraft Canada. Whether this qualifies as reboxing or simply buying bag shots from the same Korean injection-molding company, I don’t know. While you don’t see Academy reboxing other companies kits for the export market, I believe you’d find other toolings in Academy boxes in their domestic market. Since I don’t read Korean, I can’t tell you if the identify the source of these toolings on their boxes.
- Accurate Miniatures: This company’s line is now being run by Model Rectifier after the previous owners shut the company down. To date, MRC is getting Accurate Miniatures tooling back on the market and not dealing with reboxing of other kits. As for the reboxing of Eduard, Revell-Monogram, and other kits by the previous owners, I’d pass on these unless you’re a kit collector.
- AFV Club: This company has been producing mostly new-tool kits though recently they did rebox the MRC OH-58D kit with resin modifications to bring the kit up to more modern configuration. This new kit is great (I have one) but the box doesn’t identify that this kit is based on another company’s tooling (at least not in English).
- AMTech: While the company is long out of business, many of their kits can still be found. Their first offering was the new-tool Ta 183 kit while subsequent releases were based upon AMT/ERTL kits that were either modified (and never seen again in anyone else’s boxes, like the NKC-135) or stock kits with resin modifications (like the P-40F). The original kit was the Huckbein which has more recently appeared in a Tamiya limited edition box.
- DML: Dragon Models produces their own kits though some of their earlier aircraft kits might seem familiar. DML acquired the tooling for the highly detailed Trimaster kits and even improved on them, but technically these are now DML tools.
- Eduard: These folks have mastered the engineering of short-run kits with a level of quality that is outstanding. They are also very forthcoming about their limited run reboxings of other companies’ kits and even keep them in their own series just so you know these are not Eduard kit toolings. What is Eduard are all of the details that are added to the kits to make them better than their original releases.
- Encore Models: This brand from Squadron is all about reboxing – there are no original toolings in this series. Like Eduard, Encore takes a nice kit and adds a number of enhancements to the box and offer them at very nice prices.
- Hasegawa: As I mentioned above, this company pioneered the limited run business model for kits which allowed for the larger production runs to be divided into smaller batches, each with its own decal sheet and box art. The company has previously released Revell-Monogram kits in their boxes, but these are clearly marked as to their source.
- Hobbyboss: This prolific company is too busy releasing their own new-tool kits to bother with reboxing.
- Hobbycraft Canada: While some of their kits appeared in Academy boxes, Hobbycraft themselves released a number of kits that came from Trumpeter and other sources.
- Italeri: This company is a very prolific kit swapper. In addition to their own kits, you’ll find kits from AMT/ERTL, ESCI, Accurate Miniatures, and many others in their boxes. Unlike many other companies though, Italeri is not very forthcoming about which kits are new toolings versus reboxings. Given that some of the reboxed kits they do offer come from VERY old toolings (like ESCI), you may be in for an unpleasant surprise when you open the box. Do your homework.
- Revell AG: Before Revell Germany was acquired by Hobbico and reunited with Revell-Monogram, Revell AG would swap plastic with quite a few companies. While their catalogs would sometimes indicate the source of the kit, their boxes were not always so forthcoming. Without doing some homework in advance, it was hard to tell if a given kit was really tooling from Revell AG, Hasegawa, Italeri, Zvezda, or any number of other companies.
- Revell-Monogram: While Revell-Monogram and Revell AG would routinely swap bag shots, these were all under the Revell banner. With the recent acquisition of Revell AG by Hobbico, the two Revells are under the same management once more. Revell-Monogram did rebox some kits from other companies such as the F-4E Phantom II kit in a Revell-Monogram box that came from Hasegawa. Given the number of Monogram kits that appeared in Hasegawa boxes, this isn’t surprising, but like Revell AG, Revell-Monogram isn’t forthcoming about the source of their kits.
- Tamiya: A few years ago, Tamiya started reboxing kits from other companies, though they usually add addition parts of their own design to make that kit unique. Tamiya is always very up-front on the source of these kits so you won’t have any unpleasant surprises.
- Trumpeter: Like Hobbyboss, this prolific company is too busy releasing their own new-tool kits to bother with reboxing.
This list is by no means comprehensive. There are quite a few other model companies ‘out there’ and some of them do swap bag shots. In fact, it isn’t unusual to see the same kit show up in numerous Russian and Ukrainian (and other) kit boxes.
A pet peeve of mine is the practice of misleading packaging. A kit would have some really nice box art of a given subject, either a photo or a painting, and the kit provided wouldn’t render that subject. A good example of this was from Hasegawa. You’d see a photo of a Belgian F-16A in special colors and while the decals for that paint scheme were in the box, the plastic was the standard USAF F-16A. There were no parts to render the distinctive parabrake housing on the tail used by a number of air forces (including Belgium). In short, you couldn’t build the subject as shown on the box. Another example was the Hasegawa 1/48 F-14 Bombcats. The box art would show the F-14 with the LANTIRN pod in one release and just the bombs or bomb shackles in other releases. While the decals inside were correct, none of the Bombcat-unique parts were in those boxes. There are other examples, but you get the idea. Hasegawa has since corrected this practice and now you’ll usually find the right parts to go with the box art representation of the kit. Just be aware of kits found at swap meets or eBay may be from those days.
Clones or Copies?
A less frequent phenomenon is cloning kits. Sometimes a company will use another kit as a starting point, whether it is due limited resources or simply because the source kit is too good to ignore. In one case, I remember reviewing the ICM 1/48 P-51 Mustang kit. When I compared the kit to Tamiya’s 1/48 Mustang to judge shape and proportions, I was surprised to see the two kits were almost identical, right down to the panel lines. Only the alignment pins and a few details were altered to make the kit ‘original’. Since I had nothing nice to say about these findings, I never published that review. In another case, Revell’s 1/48 B-17F was developed prior to the merging of Revell and Monogram, but the shape and panel lines of Revell’s 1/48 B-17F matched up nicely with Monogram’s 1/48 B-17G.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have companies like Kinetic who will sometimes take a good kit (like the Revell-Monogram A-6E Intruder) and use that as a starting point. In this case, the R-M kit was digitized and then modernized as well as corrected. The Kinetic A-6E kit is better than the original R-M kit because they built on the original kit’s strengths and then addressed its weaknesses. Another example is the Minicraft 1/48 F4U Corsair kit. I love reading some of the online opinions about how much better the Hasegawa kit is when in fact the Minicraft kit is a copy of the Hasegawa tooling with scribed details replacing the raised details of Hasegawa’s kit.
As I mentioned above, kit sales started declining over a decade ago simply because the average age of modelers was increasing and demand was dropping. Today, the average age hasn’t improved, and now the economy over the last few years has also taken its toll on demand. More companies have adapted to the new market. Eduard has developed injection molding technology that easily supports limited production runs without the expense of steel tooling. Others have created other innovative approaches to keep their production going, and kit swapping is one of those approaches that provide the illusion of large-scale production by filling in the gaps between new-tool releases and reissues. Don’t get me wrong, companies like Italeri and Revell AG are still producing some nice new kits, but they can’t fill in the voids between releases with reissues of their own kits for very long.
Consider this article as a ‘work in progress’ as I’m interested to hear from you on your own experiences with the various kits on the market. What are your pet peeves when you’ve opened boxes and not been happy with your purchase? I’ll periodically update this article and incorporate your own experiences so that other modelers can learn from our experiences. In any case, when in doubt, look in the box. While I might not always recognize the parts from a review kit as being another reboxing, that is why I post the sprue images for your own examination. I appreciate the feedback I receive from you and given that more kits are purchased online than ever before, our reviews are some of the few opportunities for you to look in the box before making that purchase. When in doubt, do your homework, and Caveat Emptor.