Saturday, April 13, 2013

Premier Plastics & Knock-off Flash Gordon Space Ships – Pt 1

Have you ever started a nice little project thinking to yourself, “Oh, this’ll be done in no time” only to end up in a quagmire of details and unexpected twists and turns? That’s what happened with this ‘little’ project we're going to start today. Long time readers of the blog know that Saturday’s are usually reserved for Sci-Fi and Fantasy related toys. For the longest time now we’ve been highlighting space toys (of which there seems to be a never ending supply), but trying to concentrate on actual vintage toys OR more modern toys patterned after vintage designs. One of the treats of doing the blog is occasionally being able to present the kind of toys I had growing up during the 1950s. The ‘50s were an absolute joy for kids with so much variety in tin, steel, and plastic and so many of toys relied on kids using their imagination. Space exploration was still a topic of wonder and toys were fanciful designs often based on comic strip or Saturday matinee serial heroes like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. The less than glamorous wingless tubes of the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo programs were years away and the phrase, “Space... the Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before” was yet to be spoken. 
I really didn’t go to the movies much as a kid, so the Saturday matinee serials were something I missed out on. However, that in itself was no big loss as these serials were also shown on television, so getting a regular fix of: Flash Gordon; Commando Cody, Master of The Universe; or Radar Men From the Moon was not out of the question. Then there were the movies: War of The Worlds, Forbidden Planet, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers. All of them would eventually hit the airwaves once their run in the theaters was over and I watched them all in glorious black-&-white! I can remember racing up the stairs on Sunday morning as we got home from church and turning on the TV hoping to catch a very scratchy, ‘noisy’ showing of one of the Flash Gordon serials. You see, it wasn’t showing on television in Milwaukee where I lived, but it was showing in Chicago, and if we were lucky we would be able to catch a rather weak signal from there and still be able to watch it! 
What I Know
Although I would later have Cape Canaveral playsets from Marx, the space toys that I remember the most and which bring the most pangs of nostalgia for me were the so-called Flash Gordon spaceships by Premier Plastics.
Flash Gordon was not America’s premier space hero. That honor belongs to Buck Rogers who first appeared in an Amazing Stories magazine article back in August 1928. Flash Gordon wouldn’t appear until several years later as a direct competitor of the Buck Rogers franchise. In the book Blast Off! Rockets, Robots, Ray Guns, and Rarities from The Golden Age of Space Toys! By S. Mark Young, Steve Duin, and Mike Richardson, it is said that Buck Rogers toys outnumbered Flash Gordon toys. That may be true, but Flash was my go-to guy for space thrills and it was Premier Plastics line that enthralled me. Premier would only issue one set of space men with 5” rocket ships bearing the Flash Gordon name, afterwards changing the set name to Atomic Aces, but it was the Flash Gordon association which would stick in people’s minds and which is used to this day.
Premier made two types of hard plastic rocket ships in the line, what I have come to name, The Dart, and The Wide Body. Each body type came in three basic sizes (more on that later in the series): 3”, 5”, and 9”.
What I Think I Know
As there seems to have been little research into this particular line of toys, and as there is a real dearth of original packaging which has survived, it’s impossible to tell at the moment exactly how these toys were marketed. I assume many were simply cheap bin toys and came with no packaging. None of the hard plastic ships have maker’s marks in them and only occasionally is a number visible underneath but I am fairly certain all the hard plastic ships were Premier. But there were others. The same two body types, Dart and Wide Body, were also available in soft plastic in all three sizes. This is where things get murky. There are differences. A bunch of them. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that they were knock-offs which is a common practice and is not totally unexpected. There is also no hard and fast proof other than the quality of some of these is suspect.
Naming Convention
Once a collector gets a few of these it’s not hard to figure out that there were two distinct body types. Neither one actually invokes a feeling of a warbird, zooming around the cosmos and partaking in dogfights. With all those windows, these are more suitable as passenger transports than anything else, almost like a corporate jet, except that they fly in space. First, there is this beautifully long sleek space ship which I have called ‘The Dart’. For me it was reminiscent of the F-16 Fighting Falcon, which many had termed the’Lawn Dart’ because of its long, narrow, pointy fuselage design. 

And the second design is wider giving rise, in my mind, to the term ‘Wide Body’. I liken the Dart to a corporate executives jet, while the Wide Body is almost like a bus with more seating – travel for the masses.