Wow, this is a really loaded issue. What’s a sensible “first model” for a kid who starts at age 4, like I did, or age 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14… Get it wrong and your gift will be uninteresting because its too simple, or uninteresting because too daunting (or requiring too many skills). Revell, Revell Germany and Testors in the USA are all promoting “easy” kits for beginners. Hasegawa once had a line of small, cheap, easy kits, and Heller had a separate “Cadet” range to this very end. With minor exceptions, the entire Matchbox model kit product line that was created in the 1970s and 80s was aimed at beginners.
Here are some postulates I think cover the decision space:
The younger the child-
the fewer pieces needed;
the lower likelihood of paint being needed;
the GREATER the need for good kit engineering and easy fitting of parts;
the GREATER the likelihood that the existence of the object depicted will be a surprise!
the GREATER importance of “play value”- moving pieces, tough construction that doesn’t break. lack of thin bits that might injure or break
So you want a high quality kit that makes a good toy when completed. The old Monogram 1/48 (aka ‘ 1/4″ scale ‘ – ie 1/4″ = 1’) airplanes; Car kits with hoods that open and engines inside, ships and boats that float (!!!). In the old days, smaller model tanks with molded rubber tracks and motors inside had pretty good play value. Lack of ‘drivability’ limits the play value of today’s scale model military vehicles.
The younger child will view building anything as aspirational, and will have all their attention consumed by cutting a dozen or two dozen pieces off the runners, matching them to the instructions, trimming and generally getting the pieces to fit, gluing it together and applying the decals with a glass of water and their fingers. They will need a Helper for the first 1-5-10 kits they build.
Parent, grandparent, qualified sibling or friend, or other helper. REQUIRED.
Fingernail clippers will do for cutters and a file.
Moderate-tack/long release masking tape to hold the pieces together while the glue dries. 3M’s line of blue masking tapes are perfect.
Future floor wax. (aka Johnson’s Kleer)
Clip out the parts as needed, not all at once. The nail clipper and file is fine get the parts ready to assemble.
Fingernail sanding sticks are a nice luxury, as are diagonal cutters and a real file or two, but the whole job can be done with clippers.
Coat the clear parts with Future floor wax inside and out and non-toxic tube glue or the liquid equivalent (Testor’s blue label) can be used to firmly attach the clear stuff without messing it up. Liquid non-toxic cement is flammable but not poisonous… that’s a neat trick!
The older the child:
The more they’ll enjoy assembling larger numbers of parts.
The more likely they’ll want to paint some or all of the pieces; (HOWEVER, for a first model, not having to paint the whole things is real advantage, at any age)
The more likely they’ll have aethestic and or knowledge-based opinions about what kit to build.
50 to 100 pieces are fine for a first model for a teenager; (13 and above)
Buy a car kit molded in more than one color- white body, black and silver engine and fiddly stuff. Vinyl tires are supplied black and don’t need to be painted. In airplanes and ships, pick something appropriate to the gray or white the kit will be molded in. In the old days, kits came in white, silver, olive drab, light blue, red, yellow, orange, black, etc . Monogram and Airfix were particularly adept at this, and the late, lamented, Aurora. Lots of US car kits were molded in white because the builder would have the least trouble paint it any color they liked
Some prefer the good guys, some prefer the bad guys. Pointy planes or biplanes with the pilot sitting out in the breeze. Some kits will be an education, something they’d never seen before, but in the area they care about, they’ll know what they want.
So, OK, what do I recommend??
If you really want moving features, go for Legos. Harry Potter, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Technic’s, Mars Mission, Underwater, sports, cars, trucks, airplanes, real Mars Rovers, Space Shuttles, cars and motorcycles, whatever. I find there is less play value in the Bionicles because mostly what they do is pose and shoot something and the relatively large pieces limit possiblities. Consider them as aimed at the under 8 crowd. Anything with hinges and the like make good basis for toys.
If you want models to play with, Revell’s tugboat is pacific in nature, floats well in a bathtub, can be painted in bright colors or left plain. The PT boat and flat-bottomed ships all float pretty well. The round-bottom Essex-class (or “Battle Of Midway”) aircraft carriers need to be carefully balasted. Lindberg or someone has a fishing boat which might once have been Aurora’s Soviet Spy Trawler…. Some big cargo vessels are out there too.
Any smaller airplane can be a fun toy in the bathtub or pool, if balanced more or less correctly (1/3 back from the leading edge of the wing). But ships are better.
Probably my fondest memories of moving parts models are
1) Revell’s 1/72 F-111A/B. Swing wings that move in and out. VERY fiddly landing gear that fold up and retract OR come out and and support the model. Crew escape capsule that can be removed from the model. Radome comes off and a somewhat generic radar dish is inside on the front of the fuselage.
Monogram (now Revell-Monogram)’s 1/48 scale
Both have folding landing gear and a deploy-able tail-hook. Both have a pilot in the front and a gunner in the back, with a gun that moves. Both originally dropped their main weapons- the TBM dropped a torpedo when you flicked open the bomb-bay doors. The SBD dropped a bomb with the little displacing gear to keep it away from the propeller, operated by a tab that stuck out the bottom of the fuselage.
In the 1970s or 80s the bomb in the SBD was changed so it didn’t come off anymore. Since the torpedo just fell out when you open the doors, it may still work.
If you prefer a more peaceful working feature, paint your TBM in bright colors- white or silver with yellow, red trim,, with a big number on the tail, the wing tips and the engine cowling. Wad up a piece of very thin silk, red or pink, about the size and shape of a old school basketball player’s sock, and let it represent the “water” dropped by air-tankers fighting a forest fire.
The big differences between the kits are that the TBM has wings which might fold if you’re pretty good and follow instructions closely, and the SBD has 5 dive brake panels which opperate simultaniously. Sweet!
Tamiya’s early 1/12 cars- with a motor in the motor and a gearbox in the gear box and a suspension that works. I built the Matra MS-80 and it had two AA cells where the driver’s legs should have been. The steering wheel turned the front wheels, the suspension went up and down, the motor drove the back wheels through driveshafts with real universal joints… and the tires were hollow and smelled like real tires. AND the compltete engine and transmission could be removed from the rolling chassis.
Monogram’s (Now Revell-Monogram’s) other US Navy and other WWII planes with moving parts are: (all 1/48) F4F Wildcat,
All but the Wildcat have landing gear that fold up, most of the Navy subjects have folding wings. The TBM and SB2C have opening weapons bay doors, the SBD, SB2C and TBM all dropped weapons originally, but that feature was disabled in the 1970s or 80s. (boo!) The SBD has opening dive flaps that all work together (5 panels) and are way cool. Later 1/48 models, the de Havilland Mosquito, TBD Devastator, bombers and jets had more details and less moving parts. An age had ended.
Lindberg’s Me-262 WWII German jet had folding landing gear and opening hatches over the cannons in the nose. They had a number of less detailed 1/48 jets with moving parts, along with a B-17, He-111, Mitsubishi BETTY and B-58 Hustler in somewhat odd scales with moving landing gear, etc. The B-58’s folding mechanism is fun to play with and you can detach the underslug bomb and fuel tank, and open the hatches for the 3 cockpits. But WWIII atom bombs have less play value that you might have expected. Monogram made a near-1/72 B-66 with a single bomb, no doubt nuclear, and it suffered in comparison to the 1/48 Navy planes.
Monogram’s 1/32 P-51D Mustang, available in colored plastic or as the Visible Mustang with a clear skin, went two better with retracting landing gear where turning a wheel made all threee legs and wheels move, and the doors open and shut. There was also a fiddly deal to hang a bomb under each wing and release them separately. The canopy also slid back, and in the ‘visible’ version, besides a motor to drive the landing gear (in the base) there was a motor in the plastic engine to turn the propeller. How cool is that?? But its hard to build, hard to make work and harder to keep working. Legos are more fun. Sigh.
Revell’s B-24 Liberator, 1/72 scale, had movable flaps and retractable landing gear, along with the usual moving turrets. Airfix’s B-17 main gear could fold-up. Revell’s 1/72 B-17 had bomb-bay doors that opened.
Tamiya made a small number of 1/25 tank kits (Tiger, T-34, others?) that had operating suspensions and separate track links- super cool to drive around on wrinkled bed covers, but very complicated and expensive
Any car kit with rolling wheels has good play value- the Revell Snap Together kits in 1/24th scale are very nicely detailed and roll well when completed. The recent Hasegawa and Tamiya car kits have soft plastic retainers that trap a pin (The pin is on the wheel for Tamiya, on the hub for Hasegawa) so they can theoretically roll, but in practice, are simply movable. They can be removed to admire all the fiddly brake and suspension bits though…
For older kids, detail and scale accuracy are more important that moving parts. Seeing how its built is as interesting as Brrrrrraaaaaawwwwww play. Here’s where Tamiya’s Formula 1 and Sports Car models really shine- the ones with opening engine covers and so forth are just packed with bits and pieces, and they tend to come in a tree of body color parts, a tree of silver parts and a tree of black parts, along with rubber-like tires. No paint required!
Here are a pair of the old Revell 1/72 scale Hawker Hurricanes, the second or third kit I built as a kid, that I experimentally put together with just touches of paint here and there, and decals (the black one) ; and one with NO paint (the light gray one). I put decals on the light gray one but they all fell off!, so I used some white glue on the decals for the black one…
If you click here you can see the kit parts and a couple of steps during construction, including when everything is taped together and glue is drying.
More later, happy modeling!