Restoring AMT-Ertl's U.S.S. Enterprise Kit

   Star Trek premiered in 1966. With episodes written by some of the prominent sci-fi writers of the day, the show introduced TV viewers to a Future History in which humans and aliens traveled among the stars in spaceships unlike any seen before in TV or movies.

   Star Trek's heroes explored the galaxy aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, a spaceship nearly a thousand feet long and carrying a crew of over 400. The look of the Enterprise was inspired by the flying saucer mythos of the 1950s, the rocket boosters of America's nascent space program and the streamlined look of '60s car design.
    By mid 1967, the show had been on TV for a full season. Though viewership wasn't high, its fan base was loyal and growing. That same year, AMT (Aluminum Model Toys) released what would become their most popular model kit and possibly the best selling model kit, ever.
Whether or not AMT's Enterprise is the best selling model kit ever is conjectural. Accurate sales records weren't kept until the 1980s when computers became a standard tool of the manufacturing industry for keeping records of production, inventory and sales.
    AMT's Star Trek U.S.S. Enterprise model kit was BIG. The few space or sci-fi kits available in the day built up into models less than 10 inches long and usually sold for under a couple of dollars. This one was a massive 18" Long Assembled, included lights and sold for a whopping $4.25!

   The kit sold too, not without the help of myself and a few of my friends. We all wanted to see who would be the first to have a finished model of the Enterprise.

    It was a fun, easy kit to build, even for an 11 year old kid. Without much in the way of modeling skills, I managed to slap the model together, lay down the decals and successfully wire up the lights for the clear domes on the top and bottom of the saucer. What little painting I did was guided entirely by the box art since my knowledge of the Enterprise would be based on seeing Star Trek on a 17 inch black and white TV. (The show was in syndication by the time I finally saw it on a color TV set in a local department store.)

   I proudly hung the finished model from my bedroom ceiling and couldn't wait to talk about it with my friends. Of course, I was the weird one. Everyone else got bored with the kit before finishing it, relegating it either to a closet or the trash. I was the nerdy kid who thought building and painting scale models was fun and went on to build many more.

    A few years later I discovered that male rite of passage, July Fourth fireworks. It was only natural that I would eventually combine this new interest with my other hobby and blow up many of the models I had so carefully assembled and painted, including the Enterprise. (Did you know that an "Ash-Can" was a perfect fit inside a warp engine nacelle? I'll bet you do!)

    In 1974, I was an 18 year old college freshman who hadn't built any models since the seventh grade. Scale Modeling was ignored as interests shifted to girls, cars and guitar playing. Star Trek was canceled five years earlier but was more popular than ever thanks to syndication and reruns.

   A friend from college was an avid fan of the show who had built the AMT kit but left it unpainted. I suggested that the model could look better with some color and offered to paint it. I took it home, purchased a paint brush and a few of the little square bottles of Testors enamel paint and spent a couple of evenings painting some details onto the model. I had a some fun with it and was pretty happy with the way it came out. My friend was pleased enough that I was rewarded with an Enterprise kit of my own.

  Using what little modeling skills I had at the time and whatever resources were available or even known to me, I did my best to build and paint a Trek-worthy Enterprise, one more refined than my first build.

   The kit was identical to the one I built eight years earlier. The only changes were that it came in a different box, no longer included lights and the price was now $7.99.

   References were few, limited to the book The Making of Star Trek by Stephen E. Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry and, again, the box art which now had a photo of a painted model. Reruns of the show were viewed, this time on a color TV set. It took only a couple of weeks to finish the model.

    The model which came to be known as the Star Drek Enterprise is mostly un-painted white plastic. Paint was brushed on by hand and colors were chosen not because they were accurate but because I thought they looked good. Decals were applied directly to bare plastic without any overcoat, leading them to inevitably peel off. Extra windows and markings were applied freehand and were painted or penciled on with a minimal attempt at accuracy. Seams and gaps in the plastic were not filled or blended and show themselves proudly.

   Not a Best in Show but given my skill level at the time and the resources that were available, I was really pleased with the way it looked. Years after building it, I still proudly display it alongside more recently built models.

   Building the Enterprise again re-kindled my interest in scale modeling. Over time, I was able to develop, expand and improve my modeling skills. By 1986, I was fortunate enough to have turned those hobby skills into job skills.

    With dreams of building models for a Hollywood special-effects house, I worked as a professional Model Maker using my skills to build prototypes for a manufacturer of retail store displays. Not glamorous but it was a steady, full-time job in a well equipped industrial-level model shop where I gained experience working with a wide selection of tools and materials. I had access to assorted plastic forming equipment along with a woodworking shop, a machine shop and a sheetmetal shop.  I also had the good fortune to work alongside some very talented Model Makers who generously shared tips, techniques and ideas.

    My work environment motivated me to take on a variety of scale modeling projects and to experiment beyond building model kits out of the box. I'd thought about building another Enterprise using the skills I had acquired on the job and the resources that were available but was hesitant, knowing what I wanted to do if I got my hands on the AMT kit again. It was sure to turn into a bigger project than I wanted to take on.

    At the November, 1988 exhibition of the Long Island Historical Miniatures Collectors' Society in Freeport, New York, I met Ed Dietrich. Ed brought photos of his model, the U.S.S. Lucifer, a modified AMT-Ertl  Enterprise. (In the early 1970s, AMT was bought by the Ertl company which continued to sell most of AMT's kits under the AMT-Ertl label.)

   Trekkies, Trekkers and Tech-Trekkies (or is it Trek-techies?) will recognize the Lucifer as the "Destroyer Type" variant on the design which had come to be known as the Constitution Class Starship, seen in Franz Joseph's book the Starfleet Technical Manual. (The name, Lucifer and registration number NCC-521 are also from the "Tech Manual.") Ed did a "conversion" on the kit by relocating, replacing and modifying parts and added scratch-built details and custom made markings to create a great looking, one-of-a-kind starship.

Starship U.S.S. Lucifer photos used with permission

   The Lucifer was a perfect illustration of how the AMT Enterprise could be built up into a really good looking model. I was inspired by Ed's excellent work and wanted to see what I could do with the kit.

   The project I wasn't ready to take on now seemed do-able. I wanted to re-work the kit to build a more accurate Enterprise and also add lights to it. All I had to do was get my hands on a kit (easy) and come up with a plan for how I was going to modify it, light it up and paint it (not so easy).

   To first get a good idea of what I wanted my Enterprise to look like, I went looking for whatever research and references were available at the time. This would include a road trip to Washington DC.

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chapter 4
chapter 5
chapter 6
chapter 7
chapter 8
chapter 9
chapter 10