Me as a kid in the 1970s:
- Acquire brand new U.S.S. Enterprise model
- Build brand new U.S.S. Enterprise model, to include shoddy paint and poorly placed decals
- Take model outside and run around, holding it up to simulate its flight through space
- Drop the model onto the sidewalk or parking lot
- Cry over all the broken pieces
- Try (and fail) to repair the model
- GOTO 1
Yup. That was a thing that happened. A few times.
Most Star Trek fans of the 1970s at least knew about the line of models from a small, Michigan-based model company called Aluminum Model Toys or “AMT” as they’re more commonly known. AMT’s Enterprise model, the company’s best-selling offering for a number of years and just the beginning of what ended up being one of the most successful Star Trek licensing arrangements in the history of the franchise, was first released while the original series was still in active production. What fewer people know is that the history of the show and the models created by AMT is far more interwined than the usual sort of relationships involving films and/or television shows and the companies that obtain licenses to create and market products based on said films and shows.
Indeed, AMT’s history with Star Trek began before the series even premiered, with the company securing a licensing arrangement to produce models based on the Starship Enterprise. Prior to its working with Desilu Studios, AMT was known for its range of kits based on popular automobiles. The closest to anything “fanciful” the company offered was a kit based on the car from the TV series The Munsters, so this was something of a gamble for AMT. History would go on to show that…yeah…this was a pretty good call.
The original version of AMT’s U.S.S. Enterprise model hit store shelves in April 1967, just as Star Trek was nearing the end of its first season on NBC. This first version of the kit even included a basic lighting kit which allowed the bridge dome atop the primary saucer and the warp nacelle caps to be illuminated (a feature which would survive a couple of re-issues before being abandoned). Sales were strong enough – over 1,000,000 kits sold during the first year – that AMT requested an expansion of its licensing agreement with Desilu Studios to include the ability to market the kit outside the United States.
Even before the model arrived on store shelves, AMT and the Star Trek production crew were in further cahoots. As part of the original agreement for the Enterprise kits, AMT was also looking for a second model, but at this early stage of the show’s development there weren’t all that many possibilities (1 + nuthin … carry the nuthin … subtract nuthin…yeah. 1 ship at this point: the Enterprise). However, series creator Gene Roddenberry and his team had plans for a smaller vessel, a “shuttlecraft” which could carry people to and from the mighty starship for whatever reason, including situations were transporters weren’t working, safe, appropriate, or whatever.
Enter AMT, who offered to build not only a filming miniature of this imagined craft, but also a “full-size” exterior mockup and interior set which could be used with the actors, all in exchange for the rights to license the resulting vehicle as a second model kit to go alongside the Enterprise. Working with original drawings and specs provided by the show’s art director, Star Trek legend Walter M. “Matt” Jefferies,” designers at AMT helped refine his original ideas into something that could be made without busting the series’ already straining budget. Thus begat the shuttlecraft Galileo, which made its debut in Star Trek‘s sixteenth broadcast episode, “The Galileo Seven,” which aired in early January 1967.
And yet, after all that effort, a shuttlecraft model was not immediately forthcoming from AMT. Instead, the company was already discussing with Jefferies what else might be an option. While the Romulans were introduced in the early first season episode “Balance of Terror” and included a rather formidable-looking warship, a “Bird of Prey” complete with birdlike markings on the underside of its hull, it was the Klingons, who appear much later in the season but who receive more screen time during the series’ second year, that seemed to have AMT’s attention. What kind of ship might Klingons use?
Of course Matt Jefferies had an idea for that, and his drawings led the way for AMT to produce its second Star Trek model, “the Klingon Alien Battle Cruiser.” Incredibly, the new kit – featuring a basic lighting kit just like its Enterprise predecessor – was in stores months before the actual ship made its debut on the show, in the third season episode, “Day of the Dove,” in November 1968. Even that is a bit of television shenanigans, as the footage of the ship seen in this episode was actually filmed for “Elaan of Troyious,” which was shot before “Dove” and yet broadcast later in the season.
The Enterprise and the Klingon cruiser ended up being the only two Star Trek models AMT produced while the series was still on the air. A few years after the show’s cancellation and as it aired in reruns on television stations around the country, interest in the show continued to grow. People – kids, in particular – were discovering the series via episodes broadcast every weekday after school or on weekends. AMT re-issued both of its existing kits, adding more decals to the Enterprise model so that you could label it was one of its sister starships…which might mean you’d want to buy enough kits to have the whole fleet! They also leased the molds to another company, Aurora Plastics Corporation, which in turn used them to market kits in Canada and the UK under their own name.
Aurora also produced a model of their own in 1972: a diorama-style kit featuring Mr. Spock facing off against a three-headed serpent. This “Spocks With Snakes” model would make its way to the States the following year, and AMT would even retool and re-issue the kit in 1980 as a tie-in to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, eliminating the serpent and with Spock now resembling (more or less) his appearance in the film. I know. Weird, right? That said, this remains one of my personal favorites.
Along with continuing to release the steadily popular Enterprise model as well as the Klingon cruiser and Mr. Spock, AMT developed several other Star Trek models during the mid 1970s, which is around the same time I was getting into building such kits (see sob story above). 1974 finally saw the release of a Galileo shuttlecraft model, originally designed so you could lift off the shuttle’s upper hull and see a fully detailed interior. Another childhood favorite was the “Exploration Set,” featuring scaled-down (and notoriously inaccurate) representations of a communicator, phaser, and tricorder. Like the Enterprise, this was the one kit I built several times. Also like the Enterprise, these models did not survive outside play, requiring occasional replacement. Sorry, Mom.
AMT’s final 1970s Star Trek offerings included a diorama of the Enterprise bridge (accuracy? Eh. Close), a “snap together” set featuring smaller versions of the Enterprise, Klingon cruiser and Romulan Bird-of-Prey, a larger version of the Romulan ship, and the K-7 space station seen in the classic episode “The Trouble With Tribbles.” This one even came with an itty-bitty Enterprise model of its own. Of these, I only built the bridge and the snap-together ships, and the bridge was by far the more involved piece, particularly with my admittedly amateur model assembling skills.
AMT was acquired by various other companies beginning in the late 1970s and on into the early 2000s. Throughout this period, the advent of the Star Trek feature films and sequel television series saw the company – in partnership with its owner/partner du jour – continuing to produce models based on ships from each of these new shows. To be honest, AMT’s history beginning around 1980 or so and into the present day (as I write this) is worth its own article, so I’m going to save that for another time.
Meanwhile, many fans inspired by the original AMT Star Trek kits have gone to great lengths to customize and improve upon their favorite models. The Enterprise and bridge models in particular have been the subject of more articles, blog postings, videos, and other publications than I can easily count, with fans sharing their passion and expertise as they demonstrate how to improve on-screen accuracy, add enhanced lighting and even sound effects, more detailed paint and marking schemes, and so on. Star Trek model building, either from commercial kits or scratch builds as created by some amazingly talented people, is its own corner of fandom, and many if not most of these artists will likely tell you they caught their initial inspiration from that original AMT Enterprise model.
You know, the one I broke. A bunch of times.