The Revell model company is an American icon, the largest and most successful of them all. It is also the last survivor from the Golden Age of plastic model companies that got their start in the 40s and 50s. A longtime force in the worldwide model industry, Revell started life as a toy company. They did not produce a model kit until 1951 when they introduced the wildly successful Highway Pioneers series of antique automobiles. This famous kit line was almost an accident rather than a carefully researched market strategy. They all stemmed from a single automobile subject, the 1913 Maxwell which started life not as a model kit but as a children’s toy. Not only the Highway Pioneers series, but all of Revell’s massive plastic kit legacy can be traced back to this humble forebear.
The Maxwell was one of several Revell toys featuring a pull cable. Revell got a lot of mileage out of this feature. Operating the plunger on the cable caused the Maxwell to “jump.” A similar feature was incorporated on Buckaroo Bill, a horse and rider that jumped, Chu Chu, a train engine that also jumped, Quacky Wacky, a duck that laid a marble egg, Champ, a dog that begged and barked, and the Backfiring Hot Rod, a car that used caps to produce a backfire “pop.” The backfiring feature was also incorporated into a Ford Model T as a companion to the Maxwell, both of which were to 1/16 scale – twice the size of the later 1/32 standard for the Highway Pioneer kits. Incredibly, the Backfiring Hot Rod, which was also to 1/16 scale, was later repackaged as the 1932 Ford Hot Rod. It is so laughably bad that collectors no doubt kill for it – if I could find one I would be tempted.
One of the oddities of these toys is that none of them were designed by Revell. They are the product of the fertile imagination of John Gowland, a British expatriate toy designer, and his son Kelvin. They licensed the right to manufacture their products to Revell. It was a convenient marriage for both – the Gowlands found a path to the marketplace through Revell and Revell got new products without having to incur the costs of design and tooling. Following the success of the Maxwell, the Gowlands came up with the idea of reducing the pull-toy car to 1/32 scale, half the size of the Maxwell. Interestingly, they chose the Model T, not the Maxwell, as the prototype for this downsizing effort. In addition to the Model T, the Gowlands produced a Cadillac, Packard, Stanley Steamer, and Model A in a series marketed as “Action Miniatures.” These five cars would eventually emerge as the Series 1 group of the Highway Pioneers. A significant feature of the smaller toys was the ability to remove the cable and display the cars as models in their own right. With the success of the Maxwell as a kit, the smaller cars followed right behind. The role of the Gowlands accounts for the “Gowland and Gowland” copyright that appears on many Highway Pioneers kits. The familiar Highway Pioneers end panel is almost universally known.
Less well known, however, is the fact that the opposite end panel featured the Gowland balloon logo. In those instances where this did not appear on the end panel, it was featured on a side panel.
One of the ironies of the story is that the Maxwell, the legend that started it all, was not reduced to 1/32 scale by the Gowlands. It would eventually appear as H-101 in the smaller scale but the mold was a Hudson Miniatures product, not the Gowlands, and it never appeared in any of the Highway Pioneers series. One of the more fascinating aspects of these old kits was how they were engineered. The challenge with the Maxwell was that it was designed as a toy, not as a model kit. It was originally marketed only as a kid’s toy.
As the above photo shows, a cable served as the towing device. A thumb-operated plunger also imparted the “jumping” capability to the toy.
The photo of the underside shows how this was engineered. The cable was anchored and braced quite securely, no doubt to withstand the abuse of the miscreants who owned it. The force of the cable movement caused the chassis to pivot around a hinge line right at the engine firewall – this pivoting is what generated the “jumping” action. It also served to compress the bellows visible in the engine compartment which produced the honking horn noise, although I believe the resulting sound could be better described as a “squeak.” There was also a plastic card and gear that made a clicking noise as the car moved, reminiscent of the old “baseball card in the spokes” we used to do with our bikes. The driver was attached to the steering wheel so when the front end pivoted the driver popped up from the seat.
The jumper car came in its own box. The prominent label ensures there is no doubt this is a pull toy. Of note is the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. This seal was a prominent advertising theme for toys and model kits that underwent testing by this well-known consumer magazine. Originally focused on food products, the first list of “approved” products were given the seal in 1909. In 1941, the “approved” concept was expanded to “guaranteed.” If not as advertised, Good Housekeeping offered to replace or refund the price of the product. Thus the Good Housekeeping Seal is more than a certification, it is a warranty. The reader will note that the Seal has not been applied to model kits in decades. The Seal, however, is still in use today for a variety of products although the warranty period has since been reduced to two years.
Also of interest is the box lid - note the prominent recognition of John Gowland as designer. And the Hollywood location – Revell was never in Hollywood, but Gowland was. There is also a bit of a mystery here. I have seen photos of other boxes for the Maxwell which label it as a “wind-up” toy rather than a pull-toy with a prominent hand-crank on the front. Tom Graham gives an excellent account of how the Maxwell jumper car became the Maxwell model kit in his Remembering Revell. In addition to the Maxwell, the Model T pull-toy also was marketed in kit form - the 1/16 big kit, not the 1/32 version.
The photo of the original 1951 issue of the Maxwell kit version shows a Los Angeles address – Revell didn’t move to the familiar Venice CA address until February 1953. One issue that surfaces from time to time is what model year the Maxwell depicts. Burns identifies it differently as both a 1910 and 1913 model, while Graham goes with 1911, although the latter may be a typo. Burns indicates the original kit version box had no kit number and is the 1913 Maxwell while the second issue was kit H-24 and labeled as a 1910 model. Graham also notes the initial issue didn’t have a kit number but includes this information in the listing for H-24 and the 1910 label. Mine is the original unmarked box and says 1913. The original pull-toy box does not have a model year. The original kit version box and the instruction sheet both say 1913, so 1913 it is for me.
No mold changes were made to the Maxwell molds. Even the chassis hinge was retained although the pull cable was obviously deleted. As the parts breakdown shows, this was a fairly simple kit. Wire rods were provided to form the windshield frame and the mounting bars for the optional top, a requirement that no doubt produced some lopsided efforts by 9 year old pseudo-craftsmen.
While there were mounting holes for the windshield rod, you had to drill your own holes if you opted to do a top. A separate sheet of paper was provided for the modeler to cut out, fold, and glue to the mounting bars to make the top for the car – pretty cheesy. The wire rods for the axles were enclosed in the crinkly cellophane bag. No rod was provided for the chassis hinge – the diagrams show the hinge was to be glued. The complete instruction sheet is provided below. They featured freehand written text, almost an amateurish effort. So what does the new modeler use to assemble this ground-breaking product? According to Step 1, how about “balsa wood cement!” True, this is acetate plastic, not polystyrene, but I can’t imagine that balsa glue would get the job done. The drawings and text don’t correlate well – there are 18 steps but only 8 diagrams. Printed on the instruction sheet were a dashboard and two license plates you were to cut out and glue on the model.
The success of the Maxwell, the grandfather of them all, led directly to the series of 1/32 pull-toys which quickly turned into the Highway Pioneers we all know and love. It is hard today to appreciate how wildly successful these kits were – a million kits sold in the first 10 months! What’s a first run kit today, maybe 5 or 10K? Can you imagine anybody doing a million today? Quick now, what’s the last kit to sell a million copies?
The Maxwell’s place in history is secured. The untold millions of Revell kits released over the past half-century, built by untold millions of modelers, skilled and unskilled, can all be traced back to this lowly kid’s toy. There is a National Toy Hall of Fame - can there be a more worthy candidate for induction?