Oldies and Oddities: The Fifty-Cent Classic

Oldies and Oddities: The Fifty-Cent Classic

AS TOYS GO, THEY ARE unequivocally low-tech. No computer chips. No multiple functions. Just a few strips of balsa wood fitted together to form a fuselage, wings, and tail. The fancy versions have shiny red propellers with matching wheels. Sold by the millions, these ready-to-fly gliders and rubber-band-powered airplanes have captured the imaginations of generations of children (and plenty of adults). That thrill has kept the Guillow company of Wakefield, Massachusetts, in business for 75 years.

In 1926, Paul K. Guillow, a former U.S. Navy ensign and World War I pilot, created a line of kits for balsa models of World War I aircraft such as the Thomas Morse Scout, Fokker D.VII, and Sopwith Camel. Working out of his suburban Boston garage, Guillow sold the kits for 10 cents apiece. The following year, Charles Lindbergh made the first solo flight across the Atlantic, and Guillow’s  products were suddenly in demand.

Soon after, Guillow designed a line of balsa flying model construction kits—scale models built from a wood frame, then covered with light tissue stiffened with a substance called dope. These stick-and-tissue kits included pre-cut strips and blocks, detailed instructions, and pre-formed parts and decals. The modeler provided the tools, the dope, and the patience. When completed, the models were technically airworthy, able to be hand-launched or flown using a small gas engine or a rubber-band-powered propeller, but since one rough landing was likely to ruin as much as 40 hours of work, most ended up on a shelf.

The Guillow company added Spitfires, Messerschmitts, Zeros, Piper Cubs, and Cessnas. From Guillow’s garage, the company expanded to a more suitable building nearby. For years, Guillow was able to make a living by designing and producing such kits (most of which the company continues to make, despite a dwindling market for them), but it was the introduction of his ready-to-fly gliders and rubber-band-powered toy airplanes that made the business take off. Sold all over the world, they are now the company’s bread and butter, says president Al Smith. His father, Alson Earl Smith, started at Guillow’s in the 1930s as a model designer, eventually taking over the day-to-day running of the company after the death of Paul Guillow in 1951. Smith was named president in 1990.

Guillow’s now makes more than $5 million a year, Smith says, and has bought out its domestic competitors, Comet of Chicago and Tiger in Los Angeles. It has expanded its product line but never strayed from its core business: flying models and toys. The Guillow family still retains ownership, and the company retains the atmosphere of a mom-and-pop operation. Nestled in low-slung buildings in an industrial section of Wakefield, the company makes its products pretty much the way it always has. The balsa is shipped from farms in Ecuador, then milled and cut into small strips. Most of the manufacturing is still done with 1940s-era machinery. It’s labor-intensive, admits Smith, who oversees about 60 employees, many of whom have worked for the company for decades.

Because it is lightweight, balsa is perfect for flying, but it is also fragile, as many a disappointed youngster has learned. Take Robert Higgins, who wrote the company in 1959 after his Guillow airplane came to grief: “I have bought one of your fifty cent planes, and it broke as soon as it left the ground. If you don’t make your rotten fifty cent plane better, my friends & I won’t buy your planes anymore. I think you have the lousiest planes from the lousiest wood (please take this as an insult): drop dead.”

To Robert Higgins, wherever he is now, Smith answers that the company tried to address the durability issue. One employee tried shellacking the wings to temper them. The wings didn’t break, but the airplane didn’t fly—too heavy. The company has also experimented with Styrofoam and expanded polystyrene, and even looked at vacuum-formed kits. But these solutions added greatly to the cost, and the aircraft ended up breaking as often as balsa did.

Despite the frustrations of Higgins and others, despite the onslaught of video games, computers, and whatever the latest toy fad happens to be, Guillow’s airplanes have found a niche. As the company celebrated its 75th anniversary last year, Smith described the enduring appeal of these simple toys: “My father used to use the term ‘a yearning for flight.’ That feeling at an airport where you just stop by a window and pause to watch the planes take off. It’s just something inside you.”

—Tom LeCompte