Monday, December 19, 2016

A Mini Means of Transport

QUESTION: Ever since I was a kid, I’ve long been interested in Plasticville buildings and accessories. I’ve got a few vehicles, but unfortunately, I don’t know very much about them. There were about a dozen different colors of these cars made, some with a molded hood ornament and some without.  Which colors are the rarest? How rare are the black ones?  I have heard rumors that there are reproductions of these cars on the market.  How would I be able to tell a reproduction car from an original?  Are the cars still being produced in China?  Are there ant new colors of these cars being made? 

ANSWER:  That’s a lot of questions about such little items. But before answering them, a bit of background is in order.

Bachmann Brothers, in business in Philadelphia since 1833, selected the name "Plasticville, U.S.A." for its line of injection-molded plastic buildings and accessories which it began manufacturing in late 1946. Prior to that time, the company manufactured women’s hair combs from celluloid, the first synthetic plastic material developed in 1868, followed by celluloid optical frames known as "tortoise shell" and protective eye wear for military use until World War II.

At first, Bachman produced plastic white picket fences for use around “putzes,” or under-the-tree Christmas displays. With the success of these rather common items, the firm launched a group of accessories, including plastic trees and bushes, a foot bridge, a wishing well, a trellis, as well as a brown rustic fence and a picket fence, for use in the displays, themselves. Before then, the firm sold its fencing in nondescript packaging. But after expanding its line of accessories, it needed to link the various accessories it had begun to produce. The key, executives knew, was to create an fictional town of plastic buildings, so they decided on the name "Plasticville U.S.A."

The new product name captured the optimism of the early postwar years and conjured up the modern as well as the traditional. The word "plastic" connoted a revolutionary new material with unlimited potential associated with convenient, inexpensive, and readily disposable items.

But the fictional folks of Plasticville had no way to get around until 1954, when Bachman brought out its first vehicle assortment, the V-10, which included a jet bomber and jet fighter (for the veterans of World War II and Korean war who had become fathers), a fire pumper truck and fire ladder truck (to protect the town’s buildings from fire), an ambulance (for emergencies), a bus (for mass transit), and four cars.

A smaller V-6 Assortment, consisting of a fire pumper truck, fire ladder truck, ambulance, bus, and two cars, followed two years later. The company only sold its vehicles in sets. Buyers had only the choice of these two assortments, or in special “Master” units, which contained a number of items on a theme such as the “Airport and Accessories Unit” with its two jet planes, ambulance, fire engine, and car.

Occasionally, individual building kits contained a specialized vehicle. So if a buyer wanted more cars, for example, he had to purchase another whole assortment to get them. Bachman packaged all of its Plasticville accessories this way.

But Bachman cut corners on its packaging. The boxes which contained these vehicle sets and those of other accessories were cheaply made. Each was of the thinnest cardboard and had a window covered in a thin sheet of cellophane to show off the product inside. Needless to say, they didn’t last long. Most owners of Plasticville items packed them up in their original boxes after Christmas. The constant unpacking and packing eventually took its toll, so few of these vehicle assortments exist today in their original boxes.

While the airplanes came in silver and the fire trucks in their usual red, the cars came in a variety of colors, including  red, orange, yellow, green, dark green, pastel blue, gray blue, turquoise, dark blue, aqua, black. The mix varied randomly from one assortment to another. So if a buyer wanted to purchase more cars of one color, he had to purchase more assortments. Of all the colors, dark blue is the hardest to find in any vehicle. Orange is also hard to find. As for the cars, black is the hardest to find. It’s for this reason that a set of a half dozen black cars, claiming to be rare by its eBay seller, couldn’t possibly be so.

The company produced two different styles of cars for its Plasticville assortments. One had a plain hood and the other had a hood ornament added. There’s not correlation between the hooded ornaments and those without and the colors of the cars.

Because the Plasticville cars, in particular, have become such hot items for collectors, there are lots of reproductions and fakes on the market. Each authentic Plasticville car bears the inscription “Plasticville U.S.A.” on the interior underside of the car’s roof.

One of the most mysterious of all the vehicles is the dark blue bus. Collectors believe that it originally came with the Lionel Highway Set No. 955 and the Lionel Vehicle Set No. 958 sold under license from Bachman in 1958. The first set’s 22 pieces included two buses in either grey or dark blue and a car, plus assorted street and road signs and telephone poles, all selling for $1.00.

The second set sold for 25 cents more and included all the vehicles in the V-10 Assortment except the jet plane, plus a fire alarm box, a traffic signal, assorted street signs, a mail box, and a fire hydrant.

Those seeking to tell whether a car is an authentic Plasticville should look for the “flash,” as well as the quality of the plastic. Today’s plastics are definitely stronger and more solid looking than those used in the 1950s.

In 1984, Kader Industries of Dongguan, China, took over Bachman’s entire Plasticville line. That year Plasticville pieces looked exactly like the originals, with the company’s trademark BB in a circle plus Plasticville USA molded into each piece. After that, the company re-etched the molds to say "Made in China.”

Kader Industries still produces a car assortment, consisting of a fire pumper truck, aerial ladder truck,  a yellow ambulance, a green bus and a car. It’s important to note that the bus and ambulance have never been offered in these colors before.

Today, individual Plasticville cars sell for anywhere from $1.25 to as much as $27. Most are sold in groups of three or more. As with most collectibles, condition and rarity affect price. There’s also a marked difference in the design of the cars from their beginnings in 1954 to the present day.

Original cars had a solid molded plastic body with turning white wheels.  Later versions had more detailing and black wheels with hub caps. But buyer beware since some online sellers offer groups of six “rare” cars of the same type. If a car is that rare, it would be hard to find six in mint condition.

Read more about collecting Plasticville U.S.A. in The Antiques Almanac.

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