Building model cars and airplanes from kits once was as much a part of an American boyhood as baseball.
“In 1960, a lot of kids had a ball, glove, baseball cards and a model kit,” said Terry Jessee, 61, a Billings modeler and author. “This was one of the essential toys.”
While most kids today are more interested in electronic gadgets than making model cars from a kit, some men who built models in their youth are rediscovering the hobby.
Now, more men than boys build model cars and planes.
The first plastic model kit was a Royal Air Force bomber made in England in 1936, Jessee said.
After World War II, car kits began using plastics developed during the war.
Jessee, who grew up in Billings, received his first kit on his 9th birthday from his father.
Assembling the AMT brand 1932 Ford Coupe ignited an interest in the hobby. He bought more $1.49 kits with money he earned mowing lawns.
Jessee continued to build models until he was 15 “when I discovered girls,” he said.
In 1973, he was living in Colstrip working as a pipefitter and needed a hobby.
“I didn’t shoot or go to bars,” he said, so he got back into making model cars.
Since then, he has built hundreds of scale models that fill several cabinets in his West End home.
Jessee, a former deputy sheriff who now is a mental health counselor at the Yellowstone County Detention Center, naturally gravitated to crafting replicas of police cars and emergency vehicles.
While he also enjoyed making hot rods and cars featured in movies and television, he went beyond conventional models to the folksy and bizarre.
He is particularly proud of his “Cowboy Cadillac” that started as a 1972 Chevy pickup kit. When finished, he had a banged-up, dirt-stained, rust-splotched truck with a stock rack, duct-taped seats and gun rack decorated with a cowboy hat and coiled rope. The body of the truck is yellow, except for one blue door.
The model, based on an actual ranch pickup he saw in Billings, has won several national awards.
One of Jessee’s strangest creations is the “Jolly Roger,” a kit that topped a 1921 Oldsmobile (think “The Beverly Hillbillies” truck) with the back half of Christopher Columbus’ ship, The Pinta. A skeleton sits in the driver’s seat and a ship’s mast sticks out the front of the truck like a hood ornament.
Speaking of "The Beverly Hillbillies," Jessee also made a model of the Clampetts' ramshackle Oldsmobile seen in the opening segment of each episode.
In 1982, Jessee began writing books and magazine articles, getting to know some of the big names in kit design like Tom Daniel and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth.
Roth always claimed that the Beatles killed model building because American kids suddenly quit making plastic cars and took up the guitar, Jessee said.
Jessee now predicts that retiring boomers with time on their hands will return to the hobby.
Kit building hooked another Billings resident when he was young.
Dave Siljestrom, 57, doesn’t remember if his first kit was a plane or car, but he clearly recalls liking the challenge of putting it together as a preteen growing up in a suburb of Chicago.
After working for the city of Elgin, Ill., he moved to Billings 16 years ago. He now is one of three technicians keeping city traffic lights working.
Over the years, he’s done 200 models of cars and military planes, tanks and trucks.
“I love working with my hands and I love seeing the finished product,” he said.
If you think kits are a few simple pieces to glue together in an hour or two, think again.
Contemporary kits can be as excruciatingly detailed as a builder has the time and patience to spend.
Siljestrom has enough patience to complete meticulously finished models.
For one 1950 Oldsmobile club coupe, Siljestrom glued 150 tiny plastic rods, each one-sixty-fourth of an inch wide, to the inside of the doors to simulate tuck- and-roll upholstery.
He spent 200 hours building a piece he calls “Waiting To Be Found,” which is an old truck rusting away on a landscaped base that suggests a Montana prairie.
Starting with a 1937 Ford pickup kit, he painted it with a flat blue paint to show age, covered it with Rustall to give it a rusty look and finally applied tan and yellow artist chalk to simulate dust.
A headlight dangles from the front of the truck. One side of the clamshell hood is pulled back so an engine vandalized for parts is visible. A tiny pitchfork, shovel, spare tire and chain are scattered in the pickup bed.
“I like to tell a story,” he said.
Model building has changed a lot since Jessee and Siljestrom were kids. Now, there is no limit to how deep modelers can get sucked into the hobby.
Model builders can buy the exact paint color to match the make, model and year of any real car.
Instead of painting on emblems and details on a model, kit builders can use those photo-etched out of thin metal such as nickel and brass.
Called “aftermarket” accessories, which are sold separately from kits, they allow a hobbyist to go crazy with detailing.
Siljestrom paid $100 for a model of the USS Missouri battleship and $150 for etched parts that include the ship’s railing, 50-caliber machine guns, a radar unit, life boats and anchor chains.
Kit builders are paid back many times over for their devotion. The hobby is so absorbing that that a bad day at work is soon forgotten.
It also is a creative outlet for someone who can’t paint or sculpt.
“It’s my art,” Jessee said.
Kids, even those in the high-tech age, also can benefit from making a kit.
Building a model requires reading and following instructions; is a way for children and parents to spend quality time together; and teaches patience and self- reliance. In contrast to the instant-gratification loop that electronic games inflict, the time and effort required to complete kits reward children with a lasting sense of accomplishment for making something they can keep forever.
Being able to take up the hobby again as an adult and connecting with that inner child is another good reason.