The ESCI Story

Images and text Copyright © 2009 by David Hutton

       ESCI was an Italian plastic scale model manufacturer, and most long time modelers will have heard the name. But, few know anything of the company itself, or the vast scope of its quality offerings. In it’s heyday, ESCI's offerings spanned at least seven modeling genres. In three of these genres, they were untouchable and remain so. Few makers, then or now, can say that. Even today, ESCI’s products are never far from the scale modelers’ view, in the form of re-issues under other labels. And yet, for all that, the company known as ESCI today is long out of business. I have built more than a few ESCI model kits over the years and have always found them to be pretty good. So I became curious as to what happened to ESCI, et al, and did some research…
       ESCI started manufacturing aircraft, military vehicle, car kits and scale figures under their own name in the late '70s, and continued to do so into the 1980’s. Most of their kits were quite good, for the time, given official recognition in the form of awards (Modell Fan magazine) for their accuracy and smoothness. Compared to today’ C.A.D. designed “wonder kits,” the ESCI models show their age - although in some cases, they are still the best thing going!
       ESCI, along with Hasegawa, were pioneers of the now commonplace engraved panel lines and ultra fine details seen on modern injection molded kits. As I suggested above, this was long before high tech manufacturing methods like C.N.C. machining and copper alloy injection molds had appeared. When you hold an old ESCI-molded kit in your hands, take a closer look. You are looking at genuine, old-world Italian craftsmanship.
       By the way, the name, “ESCI,” is actually an acronym, like RADAR or SCUBA. It is pronounced “esh-she,” although just what the letters E.S.C.I. stands for is still anybody‘s guess. If anyone knows, myself and a few other devotees would sure like to hear about it! (Editor's note; The acronym ESCI stands for Ente Scambi Coloniali Internazionali which translates as Company for International Colonial Trade.)

       ESCI was initially known for their offerings in the very popular 1/72 scale. This was the first constant scale known in plastic modeling, originating with the English Skybirds and Frog "Penguin" aircraft model lines, as far back as the 1930s. It was later used for the well known aircraft recognition models used by the Allies in World War II. In 1958, Airfix began producing 1/72 scale plastic soldiers to add to these scale offerings. To this day, 1/72 scale is widespread in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and is extremely popular in the UK, its birthplace. These efforts by FROG, Skybird and Airfix paved the way for the ESCI models to come.
       In parallel with these early 1/72 scale kits, other makers produced models in many scales, mostly designed to fit into a particular sized box. Consistent scale fidelity across a model range wasn't as important as sizing the kit boxes to fit on dime store shelves. These “box-scale” kits became popular more as a sales tool, than for adherence to a particular scale. Their popularity peaked in the mid-1950’s and started to fade in the early 1960's.
      Where the ESCI scale models differed from earlier efforts in 1/72 was in their detail. They were extremely accurate in outline and scale, and possessed a level of fine detail previously unseen at the time. They remain of high quality even today, many years after their initial manufacture.
       Most notable in this early aircraft lineup were the Dassault Breguet Mirage F.1, Lockheed F-104, McDonnell Douglas F-15, North American F-100, Northrop F-5 and BAe Sea Harrier kit. The F-104 and F-15 Eagle kits were later superseded by other competitors like Hasegawa, but ESCI's 1/72 scale F-5, F-100D/F, and Sea Harrier are arguably among the best scale replicas ever produced in injection molded plastic.
       The ESCI 1/72 kits are all the more exceptional because they have continued to be re-released under license by other familiar model brands. In fact, if there is one constant among the ESCI kits, it is this re-emergence time and again under other labels. Their 1/72 Sea Harrier, as one example, has been boxed under names like Italeri, Revell and even Fujimi.
       ESCI gained some notoriety for releasing 1/72 scale models of top-secret Soviet supersonic bombers such as the Tu-22 and the Tu-26 during the height of the Cold War era. This was despite the difficult subject matter, which lacked hard information or references at the time. These were large and imposing models and today command some rather high prices in the after market.
       ESCI also released a huge number of 1/72 figures for the war gaming and diorama enthusiast. These ran the gamut from ancient warriors to modern infantry. The rarest of these is considered to be the original Napoleonic Artillery, set 219. This had one sprue each of British and French Artillery. There were also unique ESCI oddities like the Italian Alpini (now in an Italeri box), Crimean War Hussars, and WWII British Commonwealth Infantry, which are, today, highly desirable. In the 1990’s this part of the business was moved to China and as far as I know, it still resides there. These small figures alone would consume serious effort and resources, over many years, to build a complete collection.

       ESCI was also well known for their 1/72 military vehicle line, being one of the first manufacturers to release an extensive and highly accurate series in that scale. The list of 1/72 armor produced by ESCI would fill seven or eight pages, it was that wide a range. Along with Hasegawa, ESCI was one of the premier companies delivering 1/72 scale armor kits to the market. In fact, for a long time, these two were the ONLY ones doing so. Only in the late 1990’s did the popularity of this scale rise, as more companies jumped on the 1/72 armor bandwagon.
       ESCI pretty much set the benchmark in 1/72 armor. By today’s standards they show their age, but even so, some of them are still the best thing going in the scale.
       Oddly, for all it’s success in 1/72 scale, ESCI's 1/48 aircraft line had below-average accuracy and detailing, in spite of the interesting themes (Mig-23, Mig-27) and enticing box art. The quarter scale range was extensive, and ESCI didn’t miss many marks in it's scope of offerings in this scale. But the kits are generally regarded as "klunky" and sub-standard by the modeling community today.
       However, there are always exceptions to every rule. In this case, ESCI offered two crisply molded WWII Luftwaffe models of Henschel ground attack aircraft, the Hs-123 and Hs-129. To this day, the ESCI HS-123 is the only model of this aircraft in the scale.
       Another of their 1/48 kits that stands out is the ESCI 1/48 SAAB Viggen. While it suffered from many of the same vices as the other ESCI 1/48 kits, it had one redeeming quality: It was, and still is, the only Viggen in the scale!
       The ESCI Viggen has been released by Airfix now and again, but either one, the ESCI or Airfix Viggen, are both hard to come by and command prices in excess of $50.
       It’s even more interesting to note that ESCI created no other WWII aircraft in any scale, except the two Henschel kits mentioned. While just about every maker had at least a few aircraft of the Second World War in their catalogue, ESCI had only those two. (Editor's note; The 1/48 B-26 which is often seen with the ESCI logo was actually an early 1970 AMT original release, for more on that kit see the ESCI/Ertl B-26) They made up for it, though, by offering their dizzying array of famous World War II armor kits in 1/72, several in 1/35, and the desirable 1/9 scale German motorbikes, the Zundapp and BMW kits.
       Another interesting couple of ESCI kits were the F-104 and F-16 cockpit models. These were in 1/12 scale and were highly detailed. Most aircraft modelers love to model the cockpits of their aircraft, so these offered the modeler a precise glimpse into the inner workings of “the office” They were, and still are, a double whammy for the scale aircraft modeler!
       ESCI also offered an array 1/24 car kits (street and motor sport) which were available with a high level of finish detail.

       But ESCI, as a company, was doomed to fade quickly into history. It is the enduring story of ESCI as a business which is just as interesting as their expansive kit selection. But, pay attention; the story gets somewhat twisted upon itself as it goes along!
       In the late 1980’s(1987) the Dyersville, Iowa based company, AMT/ERTL, purchased the rights to the ESCI line. Here's how a source within the industry at the time describes what went on...
       "ESCI was bought out by AMT/Ertl in the late 1980s (1987), being held as a separate entity in Italy, with the original Italian personnel remaining on board. However, in the early 1990’s, ESCI produced two kits that spelled their end: the Tu-22 Blinder and the Fokker F-27.
       Both kits were so bad, and sold so poorly, that AMT/ERTL canned the entire ESCI staff, except for a few marketing folks. For a short time the ESCI brand remained in Europe, but that went away quickly. These events essentially killed the old ESCI company and their kits."

       During the next few years, the new company, ESCI/ERTL, released most of the acquired kits initially created by ESCI, including the same box layout. The name ESCI/ERTL was prominently displayed on these boxings to identify them under the new banner. ESCI itself continued, but in a limited capacity, making decal sheets for the aircraft model after market. However, the ESCI/ERTL marriage was to be short lived and the kits, which were unchanged under the new label, didn’t last long.
       By the early '90s, production at ESCI/ERTL had stopped and their kits had completely disappeared from the market, for reasons that are still shrouded in mystery. During this time, about 1992, several of the kits were re-issued under yet another merged company, the ERTL/AMT concern. Most of these kits were intended for sale in the then burgeoning “discount superstores" most notably, K-Mart, Wal-Mart and Toys-R-Us. ERTL moved its production to Tijuana, Mexico, where it intended to re-schedule production of models in 1996. However, that never happened, again for reasons that are unclear. During the entire ERTL/AMT period, the old ESCI kits carried proprietary labeling, without the ESCI logo. Essentially, the ESCI line-up had dried up.
       Additionally, it is reported that during this time the ERTL/AMT outfit stored away the unused ESCI molds under less-than-pristine conditions, where at least some of them suffered irreparable damage. I’ve heard this myself over the years, rippling around the modeling community as a sort of scale plastic “urban legend. So far, I can’t ascertain the validity of this claim.
       In 1999, the ERTL/AMT company decided to divest itself of the scale plastic armor and aircraft business altogether. They sold this part of the business to another group, called Racing Champions, which then became AMT/Ertl Racing Champions Corporation. This firm itself was more interested in producing die-cast metal car models, which ERTL/AMT also held production rights to. It appears that in order to get the die-cast business, they had to take the plastic scale armor and aircraft molds as part of the deal. It was a welcome trade in the eyes of modelers, who hoped at last that they would see the re-emergence of the ESCI line under the new company. Again, here's how my source explained what was going on behind the scenes at the time:
       "Turnabout is fair play, as they say. AMT/Ertl themselves made some bone-headed moves in the 1990s that spelled their own demise as a plastic kit manufacturer. While the ESCI kits went on under the AMT/ERTL name for several years, AMT/ERTL's kits like the XB-70, the Northrop flying wings, and the B-52G/H were all big losers.
       The only real winners they had during that time were the P-40s and the hugely successful KC-135. In fact, they sold more '135s in the first three months than they'd projected for the first two years. But the bad outweighed the good and the Racing Champions merger finally killed off the original ESCI line as well as the AMT/ERTL aircraft kits."

       The New Racing Champions had no intent of resurrect the plastic model business and so the modelers of the world would have to wait a bit longer.
       In 2000, Racing Champions struck a deal to sell the plastic model business to Italeri, who finally resumed production using the old ESCI molds. They released many of the old ESCI kits in 1/72, 1/48 and 1/35 under their own name, with new box art and decals, starting in 2001. It seems they will continue to do so until the remaining molds either give out, or are sold yet again to someone else.
       Down through the decades, there has been persistent speculation as to the fate of at least some the original ESCI molds. The first of this chatter started in the 1990’s, when production of the kits was halted under ERTL. Rumors quickly spread in the hobby that the molds were lost at sea on the way to America, destroyed in a fire in Italy or ERTL’s factories in Iowa, etc. And as I mentioned already, there has been the unsubstantiated rumor that some of the molds were found rusting away in a storage yard behind a factory… somewhere.
       Much of this talk has been reinforced by the fact that, until recently, an entire block of 1/72 ESCI armor kits had not been seen since the original ESCI releases. Unlike most of the ESCI models, these particular issues had NEVER been re-released by anybody. However, that changed when Italeri issued at least one of these, the KV-1.
       So, when you consider the many releases by ERTL over the years, and now Italeri‘s own entries in the field, this at least suggests that most of the molds are, in fact, intact. Italeri isn’t talking and no one connected to the original ESCI company or ERTL has come forward to shed light on the matter, so we may never know for certain if anything was lost.
       While ESCI as a company was a flash in the proverbial pan, their output was gigantic and their legacy, far reaching. Some people will certainly doubt whether all this concern over the original ESCI products and the molds from which they sprang is justified. After all we have a whole new field of players in the business now, since ESCI went defunct.
       But, if one doubts just how cutting edge the ESCI offerings were, across the board, keep in mind the fact that they continue to appear a quarter century after the companies demise. Everyone from Italeri to Humbrol, from Tamiya to Revell has had at least one of the old ESCI moldings in their boxes.
       These continuing re-releases ensure ESCI's lasting contribution to the plastic modeling hobby even though the company itself is gone.
       Fellow modeler Graziano Marcat in Italy was able to provide us with these images of the Penguin from a 1979 ESCI catalog.

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