Fire Engines by Reader’s Digest

Mike Pigott returns to the subject of fire engines with a look at this unusual range that was given as a premium with subscriptions to Reader’s Digest books.The long-running and popular monthly magazine Reader’s Digest contains a selection of condensed articles on a wide range of subjects, and for many years was one of the best-selling magazines in the world. Reader’s Digest also publishes books; probably the best known of these are Condensed Books, which are hardcover volumes containing four abridged novels. There are also sets of encyclopaedia and large reference books.

To encourage sales of the books, Reader’s Digest often sends premiums with book orders. While these are frequently things such as pens or coffee mugs, they can occasionally be diecast models. Sets of two or four models were given as the ‘free mystery gift’ with large reference books, while individual models from a series were included with each condensed book or encyclopaedia volume. There were various types of model vehicles given away, including vintage cars, classic cars, classic trams, trains, delivery vans and vintage planes. And, as we’re about to see, fire engines!

The fire engine series consisted of eight different models of classic American fire trucks. They were only issued in the USA, and were produced in 2000. Like most of the Reader’s Digest models, they were made by Chinese budget company High Speed. As with many models from this manufacturer, quality and accuracy was somewhat lacking. However, what made the series collectable was the extremely unusual models included; they were all-new castings and not copies of other brands, as was the case with Summer Toys. Some of them were fire engines from incredibly obscure companies… where else are you going to find a Knox-Martin or a Task Master?

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Demolition Man by Hot Wheels

Mike Pigott examines the Hot Wheels models based on the 1993 action film starring Sylvester Stallone and directed by Marco Brambilla.

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Although Hot Wheels appears these days to dominate the diecast character toy market, this was not always the case. In the 1990s, Hot Wheels produced very few licensed models, and the 1993 sci-fi / action film Demolition Man was one of the very few franchises that was modelled by Hot Wheels during this time. A range of nine diecast cars was issued, based on the concept vehicles seen in the movie.

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Hot Wheels Scorchers

Mike Pigott looks at this exciting range of motorized Hot Wheels vehicles from 1979.

White ThunderScorchers were a range of spring-powered diecast vehicles introduced in 1979. They were not the first motorized cars produced by Hot Wheels; the rechargeable battery-powered Sizzlers had been introduced in 1969 (although these were not diecast), and the clunky rubber-band powered Revvers dated from 1973. However, the Scorchers were the first powered diecast cars that actually worked convincingly.

Mattel described the Scorchers as being ‘spring-powered’ on the packaging, and they were activated by rolling the vehicle backwards, or backwards and forwards, to wind the motor. These days they would be described as ‘pull-back-and-go’ cars, and this type of friction motor seems to be fitted to all sorts of el-cheapo, pound-store junk toys. However, in 1979 this feature was incredibly innovative, and the motors fitted to the Scorchers were very powerful. Scorchers were the big stars of all the 1979 international toy fairs, and the ‘Scorcher Chamber’ track set was a particular favourite.

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Classic Fire Engines by Yat Ming Road Signature

Mike Pigott looks at this recent range of 1/43 classic fire engines made by Yat Ming of Hong Kong.

Dennis Light 4Yat Ming is a Hong Kong based manufacturer of diecast toys that dates from 1970, created to take advantage of the diecast boom inspired by Hot Wheels. Yat Ming models were largely cheap and cheerful knock-offs of Matchbox and Hot Wheels products aimed mostly at the American market, and were often sold under the ‘Road Tough’ brand.

In 1997 Yat Ming entered the collectibles market, producing a line of budget 1/43 scale American cars. These were quite sparsely detailed, but were good value and featured a number of vehicles not modelled elsewhere. Later a range of highly detailed 1/18 cars were introduced under the ‘Road Signature’ marque, and were again aimed at the USA market, where that scale is extremely popular. This was followed by a series of 1/24 scale fire engines, which were again well detailed, good value and featured a number of moving parts.

In 2006, a line of 1/43 scale vintage fire engines was launched, initially featuring pre-war American vehicles, although British and German ones were later produced. The range was extremely well-made, with great attention to detail, and mostly featured fire engines that had never been modelled before. Another plus point was the price; at around £14 each, these were less than half the cost of similar models by Matchbox, Corgi or Conrad. Yat Ming had clearly researched the real vehicles carefully, as the models were very accurate right down to the coach-lining. Of the models produced, they mainly dated from the 1920s and ‘30s, with seven American items, three British, and a German wartime truck.

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Siku Super Classic Fire Engines

Mike Pigott examines the 1/50 scale ‘Super Classic’ fire engines made by German company Siku.

Mercedes Zetros

The Siku range from Germany has traditionally been made to a uniform scale of 1/55. The miniature cars and large truck models have always been in this scale, although many of the trucks and other vehicles in the Matchbox-sized Super Series were to ‘fit the box’ scale. Siku has consistently made very high-quality diecast products, which are probably closer to being toys than fine-scale models. The oddball scale of 1/55 and the abundance of moving parts meant that Siku not really compatible with fine scale models, and tend to be aimed at the juvenile market.

However, in recent years, Siku has begun manufacturing models in more standardised scales. There have been a range of tractors and agricultural vehicles in 1/32 scale, plus trucks, tractors and construction equipment in 1/50 and 1/87 scales.

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Summer Toys Fire Engines

Mike Pigott takes a look at a fairly unoriginal range of diecast miniature fire engines made by budget manufacturer Summer.

Aerial Ladder Fire Truck

During the 1970s, a number of far-Eastern toy companies entered the diecast market to compete with the extremely popular Matchbox and Hot Wheels ranges. Some of the best known of these were Universal Toys, Zylmex, Playart, Yat Ming, Tintoys and Welly. While some of these companies made reasonably competent models, others were of extremely dubious quality and finish. Some were notorious for copying the leading manufacturers, and churned out inferior copies of toys produced by the likes of Matchbox, Corgi, Dinky and Tomica.

One Hong Kong-based company that was notorious for shoddy quality and ripping-off other manufacturers was Summer Toys. Summer was a low-end toy manufacturer that first appeared in the mid-1970s, when ‘Made In Hong Hong’ was still a byword for cheap, poor-quality toys. The Summer name was not marked on the toys or the packaging, although they could be identified by a trademark on the bottom of the blister cards and on the base of the models. The logo appears to be a leaping horse in front of three trees. The bases are also marked with the initials ‘SM’ which stands for Summer Metal Products Manufacturing Ltd.

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Blade Runner by Ertl

Now that 2019 has finally arrived, Mike Pigott looks at Ertl’s small range of diecast models based on the cult sci-fi classic starring Harrison Ford.

ertl bladerunner

Blade Runner, first released in 1982, is one of the most respected and influential sci-fi movies of the 20th Century. Directed by Ridley Scott, and loosely based on the 1968 novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ by Philip K. Dick, it follows the adventures of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a police officer called a ‘Blade Runner’, a type of bounty hunter who specializes in catching runaway androids called ‘replicants’.

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Athearn Ford Trucks

Mike Pigott looks at this high quality but short-lived range of 1/50 scale Ford trucks made by Athearn of the USA.

Ford C Box Van and Fire Truck

The American company of Athearn was a leader in the model railroad field since the late 1940s, specialising in HO scale. In 2004, the company entered the diecast truck market, producing a high quality range of Ford trucks and fire engines in 1/50 scale. Unfortunately, Athearn dropped out of the market within a few years, after just six castings had been produced.

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Code Red by Matchbox

Mike Pigott looks at a licensed range from Matchbox, based on a fire-fighting themed TV show that was aimed at the American market.


Code Red packaging

Over the years there have been very few character models in the Matchbox range. Unlike Corgi and Dinky, both of which had great success with TV and movie inspired character models, Lesney was very reluctant to pay royalty fees. It wasn’t until the late 1970s, when the company was desperate to increase sales in the USA that licensed toys were introduced, including lines based on Disney and Popeye characters. In 1982, Matchbox released a range of eight models based on a new television show centred on a team of Los Angeles fire-fighters called Code Red. A line of TV-related fire engines would seem to be a winning combination, but unfortunately, this was not the case; the TV series was short lived, and the models were poor. Matchbox put very little effort into making the models authentic, just using existing castings that were slightly modified or recoloured.

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Tomica Eco-Toys

Mike Pigott looks at this amazing range of model vehicles from Japanese company Tomica, which features working lights but no batteries.

Ecotoy lights-2 

Model cars with working lights are nothing new. In the 1960s and ‘70s Dinky, Corgi and Spot-On all produced models with working lights that were powered by small batteries. Around 1990, Matchbox introduced its LaserTronic range, which were 1-75 castings fitted with small LED lights on the roof that flashed when the cars were pushed down on their suspension. Majorette’s Sonic Flashers were similar, and had a variety of different effects, including warning lights, headlights and taillights, and all sorts of sound effects. Later, Hot Wheels’ Rumblers range had flashing lights and sound bites such as engine noises or music that played when the cars were rolled along. Probably the most refined model cars with lighting were Aoshima’s DISM range, which were highly detailed 1/43 models with working head- and taillights activated by small switches on the base.

However, all these models were powered by batteries. Examples produced after about 1990 required small ‘button’ batteries, as normally used in watches. In all but the DISM models, the batteries were non-removable, meaning that after the batteries had worn out, the lights no longer worked. The other main problem was that after batteries have expired, they can leak and become corrosive.

In 2012, Tomica of Japan came up with a way to produce model cars with working lights and avoid batteries altogether. These models were fitted with a gear inside one of the wheels, which powered a dynamo connected to a pair of small LED bulbs.

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