THE GARAGE BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN
I may bore some of our Czech and Slovak colleagues with today’s version of Tail End Charlie,
while younger modellers will, perhaps, see it
as an uninteresting remnant of the past. I get
a lot of questions coming my way as to why
there are so many model manufacturers in the
Czech Republic. And it is mainly for them that
I wrote this issue of TEC. But the conclusions
drawn at the end of it may be of use to the locals, manufacturers and customers alike.
I was searching for a gift for a friend, as we
were approaching Christmas. I wanted a model
of an AFV, which he commanded some twenty
years ago while in the army. He really was surprised, since he is not a modeller. I am no expert when it comes to armor kits, and this was
my first time looking for something along these
lines. I quickly realized that what I was looking
for could be very difficult to find in Europe. In
the end, I was able to locate my objective at
an internet store, and I paid for it. Despite the
Christmas rush and the covid influence on just
about everything, I had the item in my hands
within a couple of days. Glue included. I didn’t
even have to leave the house, unless you count
physically taking the package from the courier.
I imagined what it would be like, and how long it
would take, to find this model in the days before the internet. There would be a lot of running
around, and I would work my phone into the
ground, and restricting myself to local numbers
at that. And then, I imagined what it would be
like looking for the same item in the days if the
old communist Czechoslovakia, before 1990.
I was not quite eighteen back then.
There was no actual shortage of specialized
model shops, but the assortment available was
strongly limited, and the biggest shops were
only supplied with imported goods a couple
of times a year. And there was almost always
a long lineup. The majority of items were from
the domestic manufacturers, with the odd item
from East Germany. Foreign stuff appeared sporadically, at shops like the so-called Tuzex and
Pragoimpo outlets, shops specializing in imported goods and having their own retailing protocols that had to be followed. They were outside
of the realm of traditional stores based on their
foreign goods supply.
It was similar with reference materials. What
didn’t correspond to post-1948 Czechoslovak or
Soviet themes was not imported, and little was
produced. However, as the eighties rolled in,
it was possible to push through an article or
even a chapter about our flyers in the RAF in
some magazines and publications. Among such
skeletal pieces was a series published in the
magazine L+K, called ‘Equipment that was Unable to Defeat the Vietnamese People’. It dealt
with the air force of guess who.
Fortunately, there were swap meets where it
was possible to come across beautiful things
from the West. I can’t remember who it was
exactly that brought me to my first such experience, but I’d wager a bet that it was Marian
Kolev, a highschool friend of mine. He also was
responsible for getting me in as a member of
the Prague-Uhříněves Model Club. His beautifully built 1:72nd H8K Emily is something that
is difficult to forget, and by the way, it was the
The swap meet was held every couple of months in Prague at a couple of alternating venues
including Radiopalác building designed in Czech
Art Deco style. They didn’t differ a whole lot
from what these types of events look like today,
INFO Eduard - March 2021
prior to the pandemic, of course. The square
footage was a much bigger, and it was horribly
crowded. In order to find something there that
was really out there, it was necessary for me to
get in line at about six or seven in the am. Those who know me, know that I am no early bird.
So imagine the motivation that was needed to
get me up and at it that early in the morning.
The interest in Second World War German and
Japanese aircraft was enough. And why these,
in particular? Because it was around these subjects that there was much censorship imposed
by the communist government. So, that naturally piqued my curiosity. And if it was not possible to buy a certain kit or book at a swap meet,
there was often a chance to at least see one,
and to buy a magazine with some drawings and
Gradually, I accumulated enough courage to
convert 72nd scale Avia S-199 s into Messerschmitt Bf 109Fs and Gs. At the time, I was in
my fourth year of practical co-op experience at
the Avia factory, and soon, I was able to get
a drawing of the spinner for the ‘109 to one of
the machinists. I asked him to make a master
for me, over which I could pull a heated piece
of plastic sheet and make the spinners that way.
I proceeded a little differently with the canopies. The end result was a similar type of creation out of clear plastic heated over the heating
element of a stove. We also tried to make glues
by ourselves, and even putties and paints.
It wasn’t all fun and games for me, buying
things at the swap meets. I remember like it
was today the feeling of victory after having secured a Hasegawa 1:72nd scale Ki-84, despite
the massive crowd. It cost me 220 Czechoslovak Crowns, which I put together from pocket
money. Back then, the average monthly wage
was around 3,000 Kcs, and you could get a beer
for somewhere in the neighborhood of 2.50 Kcs.
Today, the model costs about the same as back
then, but the wages have risen substantially.
So has the beer!
My talents back then as a beginner couldn’t be
compared to what could be done by more experienced colleagues under domestic conditions.
The Czechs’ ability to improvise when there is
a shortage of one thing or another is very high.
Not only were they able to create various items
from poured resin or vacuformed parts, but
were quite able to sell them abroad, across the
Iron Curtain as well, through trading or selling
with other modellers or companies such as Hannants. Some even categorized model making as
an artistic endeavor, and were able to gain its
legalization. Once the communist regime tripped and fell, it was as though the blanket had
been removed and the cottage industry came
out of a grey zone. When this is combined with
Czech manufacturing traditions, going back to
the Austro-Hungarian Empire days, then you begin to see the answer to the question as to why
there are so many Czech model companies.
The period during which our economy and social structure were derailed lasted a half century,
from the spring of 1939 to November, 1989. It’s
important to remember that we are still trying
to get that train that was derailed for so long
moving properly again. We are still trying to
make up for those lost fifty years. The Czechs
are a nation that loves to complain, criticize
their Czech neighbors and have a tendency to
over-exaggerate praise of whatever comes from
abroad, but fortunately, we are also a competitive nation. I think that over the past thirty
years, our nation has done a lot of work. Some
of the companies have gone far, after emerging
from their garages.
There are a number of manufacturers that in
certain respects keep part of cottage industry mentality, regardless of company size. And
I don’t mean just with respect to their interpretations of copyright. Some seem to interpret
this English expression as the ‘right to copy anything and everything’ out there. We have come
a long way down a hard road, but there is still
a lot of work to be done if we want to get to
a level where the term ‘Czech quality’ is synonymous with all that is positive from not just
a technical viewpoint, but an ethical one as