June 20, 2017

TOM STARK'S PLASTIC PASSIONS: Swoppets Part 1

Resident plastic guru Tom Stark checks in with the first part of his Swoppets opus...

In the 1960s and most of the 1970s I took a pause from toy soldiers for some reason. Oh yea, it was girls. Just before I noticed that they had come along I did participate in the early days of the Swoppet movement initiated by Britains in 1958, but that was about it. After my flush of hormones was somewhat under control, I came to my senses and made my way back to the hobby but I had missed the heyday of the swoppets without ever knowing it. As in all things, this had both good and bad aspects. Bad was the delay in my plastic gratification. Good, in fact very good, has been my discovery of what I had missed. Maybe some of you missed it too. Or maybe you didn’t but a trip down memory lane will still give you some pleasure. Let’s go together.

Swoppets, with a capital “S”, began as Britains’ way of producing toy soldiers in plastic, a material less expense and lighter than metal, that would not lose all their color/paint if hit by a dirt bomb. Or even a mild breeze. Polythene plastic hates paint. Despite their small, 54 mm scale, injection molding techniques were allowing ever smaller and more intricate pieces, like gun belts and revolvers for cowboys, to be made in whatever colors were needed and then pop-fit together into a full colored guy. Britain’s transition away from paint was not instantaneous and painting and paint loss continued to be an issue as the legs of the bowman and headdress of the Indian in the first two photos amply demonstrate. 
Paint loss on legs
Paint loss on headress
Paint accents never did go fully out of the picture for Britains but became less and less as technique matured and as the subject matter allowed. While an early example, the mounted knight from the Wars of the Roses series, perhaps Britains’ most renowned Swoppets , shows how the subject matter mattered. In full plate armor and flourishes, like plumes and heraldry, in separate molded colors, only the face, behind the separate and moveable helmet visor, and the horses chamfron and neck armor needed paint. As a side note, the sword scabbards on these knights are rolled metal sheet for holding removeable plastic swords. What toys were made “in the day”.  A later example is the British infantryman who’s head was cast in flesh and helmet snaps on and doesn’t have a speck of paint on him. 

Britains Wars of the Roses series
The advantages of this molding technique were seen by firms other than Britains so let’s decide what makes a swoppet a swoppet.  I refer to swoppets as figures on which color is predominantly provided by composite parts molded in different colors of plastic and then assembled. In my definition, the colors must also contribute to a more realistic presentation. A swoppet with flesh-colored plastic for faces and hands and footwear a color distinct from the pants mark the highpoints of the technique. Many figures I think of as swoppets still have the hands and boots painted. If realistic colors don’t count, figures like the Tootsie Toy cowboy and Indian which pop together at the waist, would meet the definition but no-one I know would consider these swoppets. MPC ring-hands with separate weapons and hats, like this pirate are also excluded since most of the colors are not realistic and the bodies are a single piece requiring no assembly or ability to “swop". 

MPC Ring-hand Pirate
Britains took this concept to the bank and Swoppets became a major part of their production from 1958 to the advent of their 1970’s Deetail ranges that were molded from a new, PVC plastic which did hold onto paint pretty well. Swoppet ranges, in which their Eyes Right Range also fits nicely, included cowboys and Indians, Wars of the Roses knights, American Revolution, American Civil War, contemporary British infantry and more ceremonial Royal Canadian Mounties and military bands among others. Every figure produced and every individual piece molded can be seen in Peter’s Cole’s fabulously detailed book, “Suspended Animation”.

What Britains could take to the bank, so could copycats and Timpo, another British firm, was the earliest (I think) and prime competitor. By the later 1970s many believe Timpo outdid Britains with 54mm foot and mounted figures plus quite a number of buildings, forts/castles, accessory pieces, clever mini-dioramas combining one or two figures on an enlarged base with a lands cape element and even a few by-god “playsets”. Timpo’s ranges included the “standard” cowboys and plains Indians of the American west complimented with Mexicans, U.S. plains (7th) cavalry in blue and in grey to do double duty for the ACW and a unique series of Apache. They also produced Romans and opponents in the form of double duty as Gauls/Vikings, 12th century Crusader knights in white tunics with red crosses and chain mail, Arabs as another enemy with these and a series of French Foreign Legion in tan uniforms, 14th century knights in plate armor, American War of Independence, WWII Germans, British and GIs and Eskimos. This last seems a bit out of place but Timpo was not the only maker at the time that ventured into the far north and south reflecting the explorations of these cold climes that was underway at the time. 

In fairness, as the Timpo range advanced it was transformed by a new production technique referred to as over-molding in which many of the individually colored pieces were fused together and therefore not able to be swopped. Today the transition within Timpo is delineated by “series” numbers with some ranges, like the cowboys, having four iterations. While most series 3 and 4 figures still separated at the waists, I do exclude these later models from the category because that, and, like MPC, some weapons were the only individual pieces. Where that line gets drawn is subjective.

Another distinguishing feature of at least the first and second series was what can be described as very mechanical animation. Many of these early poses, such as the WWII figures shown, are unnatural looking. I have always guessed that the sculptor somehow thought this made the torsos and legs somehow more universally swoppable but I never decided how. Whatever the reason, this early animation detracts from the realism the molding technique was supposed to be creating.  This was largely corrected in the later series.

Timpo WWII Swoppets
Timpo’s “Series 1” had a handful of separate pieces molded in distinct and “realistic” colors that were assembled at the factory but, like Britains, they did not go paintless at first either and continued to rely on paint or overlook obvious elements that were not realistic. Most of the first series figures did not have ring hands and the weapons, as well as the hands, were part of the upper torso and consequently molded in whatever color it was. Not bad for Indians with red brown hands and spears but odd for cowboys in blue shirts and blue hands. Rifles/pistols tended to be painted and soon lost that paint. Boots tended to be the same color as the pants although some were painted. This resulted in a number of odd colors for these features but because the larger details, and particularly because the faces were in appropriate “flesh” colors with a separate piece for the hair or hat/helmet, I do consider them swoppets. Series #2 figures were generally ring-hands with the weapons molded in the appropriate colors, e.g. silver for pistols and brown for spears, etc., but the hands and boots remained part of the upper and lower torso molds and color. By series #3 these were replaced by fused, over-molded components and fallout of my swoppet category. Another day for a BLOG on these.

Timpo Series 1 Indian Swoppets
But what Britains and Timpo could take to the bank, so could many others and these are what I am still discovering today. So far I have discovered swoppet figures by at least eight, mostly European makers. I’ll pick these up in part II.
Tom Stark June 2017

DYK?
Tom contributes regular articles to Plastic Warrior and Playset magazines. 
SaveSave

No comments:

Post a Comment