By Mike O'Connor - images & text © 2006
Before Aurora's demise, the company produced some of the most interesting model kits in the world. Today, the kits evoke fond memories and command high prices.
In 1952, Aurora got off to an inauspicious start in the model kit business. Their first two kits were copies of Hawk's F9F Panther and Lockheed F-90 - the injection-molding equivalent of recasting. Aurora stopped pirating other manufacturer's work but they continued their very lean business strategy. Aurora concentrated on producing simple kits that could undersell their more detailed and higher quality competition. The strategy worked and mass market stores sold Aurora kits. The business grew at a phenomenal rate.
As an adult, I've been curious about the industry that produced the models of my childhood. I think Graham's Aurora Model Kits does a better job of satisfying my curiosity than the other books I've read about the model business. I found it more enjoyable and informative than Graham's earlier Remembering Revell Model Kits (which I like), Airfix: Celebrating 50 Years of the Greatest Plastic Kits in the World by Ward or Reder's A Brief History of Monogram Models, Inc. the First Forty Years.
The first 99 pages of the book chronicle Aurora's history and are interspersed with photos of box art and build-ups. The final 75 pages are an illustrated kit list and price guide with small photos of all of Aurora's box art. The book is filled with color illustrations. Like the other Schiffer modeling books I've seen, the layout is attractive. It looks a lot better than some of the books from Kalmbach.
Graham starts with brief biographies of the founders and follows Aurora to the end under a new lavish spending president. He continues the story following Aurora's dies to Monogram and other manufacturers. The Aurora story concludes with Addar, Cinemodels and Polar Lights - companies that attempted to continue the Aurora tradition.
In 1950, Abe Shikes and Joseph Giammarino founded Aurora with some silent partners. Shikes was a businessman skilled at starting and running companies. Giammarino was an engineer who would work day and night to solve a problem. Aurora started as an injection molding contract shop with about 100 clients. All that changed in 1952. The company reorganized and hired salesman John Cuomo. Lured by the possibility of enormous profits they started manufacturing model kits. Shikes, Giammarino and Cuomo put in twelve-hour days at Aurora in a single uncarpeted office without secretaries or receptionists.
Aurora approached the business differently than their competition. Revell and Monogram battled each other to produce the most accurate and highest quality kits. Aurora's early kits were aimed at a younger audience than the 11-14 age group other manufacturers targeted. Aurora molded their models in bright colors and priced them low. Aurora also tried to be the first on the market with a subject. To meet the low price and get new subjects to market quickly, Aurora's early models were less detailed and less accurate than the competition. The pattern makers were instructed "not too much detail." To keep prices low, Aurora made smaller models. Most of their earlier cars were 1/32 scale instead of the more common 1/24 or 1/25 scale. Instead of 1/35 scale armor, Aurora's tanks and military vehicles were 1/48 scale. This strategy coupled with the hard work and frugality of the management proved remarkably successful. Every year Shikes, Giammarino and Cuomo were at the helm, Aurora turned a profit.
In 1967, Cuomo retired. Giammarino was forced out in 1968. In 1969, Giammarino sold his stock to a group of investors headed by Charles Diker. Diker replaced Shikes as president and Shikes left Aurora in 1970. Aurora changed.
Thirty-four year old Diker was a former vice president of cosmetics giant Revlon and had a degree from Harvard Business School. Diker had big plans for Aurora. He wanted to expand beyond the shrinking hobby market into toys, games and crafts. He felt Aurora was understaffed and had been "run like a candy shop." Diker wanted to turn Aurora into a modern corporation.
Diker brought in a bunch of MBAs, instituted new organization and procedures and increased spending on everything. Under Diker, Aurora's gross sales soared from $30 million in 1969 to $70 million in 1975. This couldn't keep up with his expenditures. Aurora lost money every year. Nabisco purchased Aurora in 1971. In 1975, Diker left Aurora and Nabisco brought in Boyd W. Brown, Mattel of Canada's former president. Aurora continued to loose money. In 1977 Nabisco sold Aurora's model business to Monogram.
I learned a lot about the model industry from Aurora Model Kits. Many of Aurora's business practices from the 'fifties and 'sixties seem quite modern. Aurora would fit in with today's virtual corporations and coopetition. Aurora and some of the other manufacturers subcontracted nearly everything. The ideas and subjects for models frequently originated with outsiders. Subcontractors created some of the masters and all of the tooling. Freelancers painted the box art. Many of these companies also worked for Aurora's competitors. In times of very high demand, other companies molded Aurora's kits. Competitors even cooperated with informal agreements not to produce the same subject in the same scale.
I was surprised at how the masters for Aurora's famous figure kits were created. Modern garage figure kits are sculpted in an additive process. The master is built up from epoxy putty or polymer clay, usually around an armature. The masters for Aurora's figure kits were carved from acetate blocks using a dental drill.
Talented artists created the outstanding box art that contributed to Aurora's success. Aurora hired many freelance artists who later make a name for themselves. James Bama painted most of the monster kit box art. Now he's a famous Western artist. Harry Schaare is another Aurora painter who became a Western artist. Mort Kunstler is a leading Civil War illustrator. Keith Ferris is a top aviation artist. Dave Cockrum designed products and created box art for Aurora. Today he's best known for the work he did on Marvel's X-Men.
Like other manufacturers, Aurora made kits of aircraft, cars, tanks and ships. Today, when enthusiasts think about Aurora, they'll think of figure kits and other licensed subjects. Aurora made models based on movies and TV shows like Green Hornet, Batman, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Land of the Giants, Fantastic Voyage, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Doctor Dolittle and 2001: A Space Odyssey. This was an area where other manufacturers rarely ventured.
Figure kits were Aurora's other specialty. Aurora pioneered figure kits with their models of knights in armor. The knights were a hit and Aurora followed up with more figures. Many of the new figure models failed to create much interest in model buyers.
Aurora's breakthrough occurred when Bill Silverstein, their marketing and advertising genius, noticed boys lined up in front of a movie theater showing a Frankenstein-Dracula double feature. Silverstein knew he had discovered what Aurora's target market wanted. He had a hard time convincing the company. Eventually, Silverstein threatened to quit if Aurora refused to make movie monsters.
The first horror movie figure kit, Frankenstein was a big hit. Dracula and Wolfman joined Frankenstein in the stores by Christmas of 1962. More movie monsters and comic book characters followed. Silverstein had the perfect marketing strategy for the kits. Aurora placed ads for them on the back pages of comic books. This combination of subject and marketing was a remarkable success.
Today, it's hard to imagine the sensation the monster kits caused. Parents were concerned about the effect the movie monsters had on young minds. Newspapers ran stories and editorials. Network news broadcasts latched onto their fears with segments on the kits. They were the featured subject of a prime time television talk show. Despite, or perhaps because of, the controversy the kits continued to sell.
In 1971, another line of figure kits created a furor that damaged Aurora's reputation and bottom line. When master modeler Andy Yanchus created the Monster Scenes kits he emphasized the campiness and tongue in cheek humor. Diker's marketing department focused on the horror. Parents groups were outraged and the series was quickly discontinued.
In both Aurora and Revell, Graham is best at chronicling beginnings. You get a feel for the founders and what the business was like when the companies started out. He's not as good at endings. I would have liked much more information about the events leading up to the sale of Revell and the destruction of Aurora. Did anyone have any reasonable plans to save the company? Maybe he is uncomfortable at questioning the judgement of people who were kind enough to offer him interviews.
Old geezers, who browsed department store shelves stacked with Aurora kits, will find this book filled with memories. Younger modelers, who've only seen original Auroras on ebay, will enjoy learning the history of their hobby.
This page copyright © 2006 Starship Modeler. First posted on 11 October 2006.