Wednesday, 11 July 2012


      Being an avid fan of Gerry Anderson TV series such as Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and Joe 90, among others, I have a virtual unlimited range of wonderful, futuristic designs in the shows to choose from for modelling inspiration. Many others select their favourite main vehicle, eg. Thunderbird 1, collect as much visual reference material as possible about it and proceed to re-create an exact and eye-catching replica that has people like me drooling from the corners of their mouths. With the recent addition of new books, dedicated websites and interactive forums where we can find out even the colour of Alan Tracy’s underwear, we fans have no excuses now to capture a little of that 60’s magic in model form. So much material is ‘out there’ now, compared to what was available in the past and the number of talented and artistic model makers who are able to make what they want to an incredible level of detail and accuracy is absolutely mind blowing.
      From a personal point of view, as much as the ‘hero’ vehicles were featured each week in the shows, for me it was always the ‘guest’ vehicles and aircraft that managed to capture my attention. Unless they were featured prominently in particular episodes, such as the Crablogger in Thunderbirds, the various transporter trucks in Captain Scarlet, or the HL Friendship hoverliner in Joe 90, to name just a couple, these models would flash by in a scene or two, never to be spotted again, unless they were revamped for another show. One minute you’d be watching FAB 1 motoring along the road and then, all of a sudden, it would overtake a fuel tanker that would be slowing down a potential rescue situation. Air-Sea Rescue jets would dramatically launch from a building, be shown for all of a few seconds and that’s all we would see of them. A damaged aircraft crashlands in a mountainous ball of flame and that’s the end of yet another visually striking model. These models were the ones that I wanted to see more of! There are literally hundreds of photos of the ‘hero’ models, but substantially fewer of the ‘guest’ models. Those are the ones that get my creative juices flowing. With hundreds of models of buildings, landscapes, aircraft, vehicles and miniature sets being built by talented artists for each new series, it’s quite understandable that the ‘hero’ models would be featured more prominently. After all, they were the stars of the shows. For me, it’s the models hiding in the corners, those that only fly or drive by in momentary scenes, that I have always held a deep fascination for.    

      So, where did the inspiration for this particular model come from? The aforementioned Crablogger and the Gray & Houseman roadmaking machines have always been favourites of mine – the realism in the episodes is exhilarating and just the logic of the vehicles’ designs is above reproach. I had absolutely no intention of creating a model of such mammoth proportions as the Crablogger itself – I have a decent sized model making area, but it’s not unlimited! On a trip to a local hobby shop, I happened to purchase a pair of M1A1 ABRAMS tank kits from Trumpeter in 1:35 scale. Quite by accident, I also spotted the exact same kit, also by Trumpeter but in 1:72 scale. For my photography interests in recreating the look of Derek Meddings’ miniature sets, I often have to make two models at the same time, one in the largest scale possible and then another in a smaller scale to provide perspective, that of larger objects in the foreground and the diminishing of scales toward the background. Matching structural details in two differing scales, a regular occurrence on the miniature sets of the original series, can be difficult to achieve, but the results give far more latitude when photographing the resulting models. So, it became a case of using four tank kits to make two models, one being half the size of the other. At this stage I had no idea of exactly what I was making or what its function was, logical functionality being a mainstay of the hundreds of designs appearing in the shows. It has to look right and appear to do what it was created to do, in order to be taken at face value. I knew I would be joining these two tanks rear end to rear end, but as to what it would actually become was of little concern at the moment. 
      One thing about land vehicle designs on a Gerry Anderson show – they have a certain look about them and they have a lot of wheels! Besides normal looking cars, I don’t believe that Derek Meddings and Mike Trim used anything with just four wheels! Before you ask – yes, I do have quite a collection of toy and plastic kit wheels of all sizes, so, on rummaging through the hundreds I have stashed away, I was lucky enough to come up with sixteen toy ones that I thought I could use. I originally had plans to use the kit wheels that came with the Abrams, however I quickly came to the conclusion that they looked far too small without the tracks being added and they wouldn’t be able to turn properly anyway. You see, I like to create functional models – models that can move – all the better to play with! I wanted turning wheels and I also wanted a suspension system that would provide some bounce to the completed model. I had plans to video the model in action on a miniature tabletop set, so careful thought was vital at this stage of the planning. What to use as axles? Brass tubing of course – 3mm in diameter.  A hobbyist drill press provided the accurate, vertical holes in the toy wheels for the axles to fit snugly into, while two strips of 1mm styrene glued to the outside of the lower hull gave extra support and strength. The kit’s wheel stubs were left off and the new positions for the axles marked and cut out. I made the holes for the axles vertically elongated so as to allow room for them to move up and down a distance of about 5mm. So, how to make a working suspension system? Through my contact with a certain Jim Millett, a friend, Gerry Anderson fan and talented model maker extraordinaire (He was responsible for the Cassini Designs recent SKY 1 kit – great model!), I have learned that Derek and the FX crew used simple sponge rubber and foam inserts to achieve suspension for their road vehicles. Filming these models in slow motion, Derek successfully showed the vehicle bouncing realistically in the scene. I had to copy that and Jim kindly let me know what had worked for him in the past. Firstly, I located some lengths of PVC plumber’s tubing, 16mm in diameter and cut sixteen of them at 23mm long. I then found the centre of the tube at one end and, using a sharp razor saw, cut a 5mm slot in each, about a third of the way down each tube on both sides. At this point, I was tempted to decrease the number of wheels I wanted to use! Finally they were done and then superglued, slot sides down, over the 3mm axles, so that the axles could move freely up and down for the full 5mm distance. So far, so good. Light foam was cut into narrow blocks, pushed into the plumbing tube and a square of styrene sheet capped off each of the independent suspension systems. Does it work, you ask? If it was good enough for Derek Meddings to use, then it’s good enough for me too! It worked beautifully. Each of the toy wheel hubs was pushed out from the tyres, primed and sprayed with chrome paint. I left the black toy wheels unpainted as they looked quite realistic enough without any additional painting.


      To join the pair of tank hulls together, rear end to rear end, I employed sections of sheet styrene and some strong car putty. I sawed off the front of one of the hulls at an angle as this would become the rear of the finished vehicle. A rectangular piece of styrene covered over the resulting area. Using some 1mm and 2mm styrene, I constructed a basic box shape on top of the joined hulls. This covered the whole of the rear half and about one quarter of the front hull as well.  Additional styrene provided bracing for the sides of the box. I wanted the ‘lid’ for this area to be removable and this was achieved with the use of six, small sections of wood, Araldited to the insides. The ‘lid’ itself was a section of 2mm styrene, braced with more styrene, secured to the box by six screws into these wooden studs. To disguise the join between the pair of hulls, I added another section of styrene to cover the centre area and to create a little more interesting surface detail. Instead of leaving the original straight mudguard along both sides, I carefully cut and trimmed an angled archway above each wheel to add some more interest and also to see the wheels themselves as they had become fairly hidden under the upper hull. 

      In the original TV shows, to show dust and debris billowing from beneath land vehicle models, Derek Meddings resorted to the use of small Jetex pellets which were placed inside the models just before a film take. This would create a blast of air which would disturb the layer of dust placed on the road surface. The best examples of this technique are present when the pod vehicles exit from Thunderbird 2 – dust thrown up everywhere. While I don’t have access to Jetex pellets, I wanted to achieve a similar effect with the use of a small fan used to cool computer interiors. This usually runs on 12 volts, but I was going to use a pair of 9 volt batteries in tandem to throw out as much air as possible to disturb layers of road dust beneath the completed model. I mounted the fan atop a styrene box, facing downwards, halfway along the model, where the two hulls were joined.   The lower hulls were trimmed to accept the ‘new arrival’, while small blocks of wood provided additional support to Araldite the fan into place.

      At this stage in construction, as if I didn’t have enough to do on the model and was looking for a way to make construction even more complicated, I began work on a smaller version of the same vehicle. Using the 1:72 scale Trumpeter version, I managed to butcher it enough to resemble the larger vehicle, utilising sheet styrene any tiny kit parts. Not having any suitably sized toy wheels to use on this smaller version, I was forced to construct my own from sanded down 1:35 tank wheels. I had to cut thirty-two discs of .5mm styrene to cover the sixteen wheels on both sides and then drill a centre hole in each to affix to the axle hubs. The wheels were painted to match the colour of the larger versions. For the hubcaps, I sprayed some adhesive address labels in the same chrome as used for the larger wheels, then carefully cut out each circle and placed it in the centre of the wheel. Additional markings were added with permanent pen. From this point on, construction proceeded on both versions in tandem.
      I had plans to add some sort of cylindrical arrangement along each side of the vehicle. By now, the model was looking like it could become a kind of fuel tanker or something similar. I seem to have a fetish for models with tubes, domes and piping. It must have been watching all those Thunderbirds episodes many years ago. A friend of mine enjoys the occasional cigar and he kindly agreed to collect the clear plastic tubes that some cigars come in now. Back in the 60s, Gerry Anderson’s cigars came in silver metal cylinders. A pair of these, unpainted I might add, can be clearly seen at the base of the Sunprobe rocket gantry in Thunderbirds. At least I was going to paint mine! I sanded down four of these cylinders and glued them in pairs to a rectangle of 2mm styrene. Extra styrene and strips of Evergreen became details and short pieces of discarded sprue were added to each pair to represent piping, joining the rear ends of the tubes together. For the half sized versions of these, I found some plastic tubing which I cut to size, detailed with small tank wheels and added the corresponding size of styrene and Evergreen strips. The rounded domes at the front had to be extended with tiny wheels and putty shaped with sandpaper. 

      Now for the construction of the rear domed assembly, the part which convinced me that this model would become a fuel refinery of some sort, mobile in nature, and able to manufacture and transport fuel to different locations. The hemishperes for the larger model were a simple matter of locating some clear plastic Christmas baubles. Found in a variety shop many years ago, they were conveniently constructed to pull apart in order to put small toys inside. The larger one was 76mm in diameter, while the pair of smaller ones were 60mm wide each. A plastic box of the right size was also found and this became the base for the two smaller domes to sit on top of. The larger dome was glued directly to the styrene sheet after the plastic box and the other pair of domes. A section of thick sprue joined all three domes through drilled holes in the top of each. A short section of aluminium tubing was combined with the sprue to enable one of the vertical pipes to enter the larger dome. Finding smaller hemispheres in exactly half the size proved to be quite a hunt through many boxes of spare parts. Finally I found them – baubles that hang from Christmas trees. (Must be some kind of Christmas theme running through this model!) The baubles were very carefully cut in half. Being extremely thin plastic, this was a delicate operation. They were glued into position and very thin kit tubing became the piping on top. It was during the dome construction that I finally settled on a name for my machine – the Mobile Fuel Refinery, able to manufacture and transport at the same time. Totally practical or not, it seemed to be somewhat feasible and logical.

      Until now I had paid little attention as to what sort of cabin I wanted to add to both models. This indecision came to an end when I spied some widths of PVC plumbing pipe at my local shop. I bought two lengths, 50mm and 25mm in diameter. After cutting the appropriate lengths from both pieces, careful measuring enabled me to slice each tube down the middle using a razor saw and mitre box. The front section of each was angled back with the razor saw and this slope was going to become the window area itself, however I managed to locate a kit part that improved on this after a styrene cap was added to seal it off. A small piece of clear acrylic became the window and all this was carefully replicated on the smaller version using tiny pieces of sheet styrene. Originally I had intended the MFR to be in 1:35 scale, as were the original kits, but I changed my mind during cabin construction and the final result is in 1:72 scale instead. The smaller version, of course, is now in 1:144 scale. Being larger machines now, I figured I could use ‘HO’ and ‘N’ scale cars and people for future photography setups.

      Once the basic construction was completed on both versions, the laborious but very necessary addition of small details could be commenced. A few box-like parts were added to the lower hull at the front, but that was about all. Collecting appropriate kit parts for a model can be quite fun, however I needed to have two sizes of each. Knowing that I would never be able to match the kit parts exactly on the smaller version, I resorted to cutting out very tiny pieces of styrene in varying thicknesses. The idea was to match the larger version very generally and not be totally anal about every single little piece. Besides which, the 1:144 MFR would only be seen in the far background in photographs and wouldn’t need to precisely double the 1:72 version. Thousands of kit parts were sorted through until I had collected about fifty. An additional fifty or so were primer and sprayed the basic colours of the finished model. These would be added later to provide a contrast and a little extra colour. Evergreen strips and pieces of styrene added to overall look until I was satisfied a few days later. Where all the bits came from I couldn’t say, but the ones I chose seemed to fit in with the subject.

      A quick hunt through my local auto shop and I brought home three basic colours – Mandarin Red, Liquid Silver and Gunmetal. I had wanted to do a red machine for a long time and this colour was just what I was looking for, not too bright and with just a hint of orange. The silver colour almost matches Tamiya’s Flat Aluminium. The Gunmetal was for the underside. After spraying with a good quality auto primer and waiting for only an hour or two, I was ready to add the top coats. Since the larger version was in four sections – the upper hull, two lower hulls and the domed assembly for the rear, it was easy to go from one to the other and spray them. In a slip of the mind, I had glued the 1:144 MFR totally together and so some careful masking was necessary. After the primer followed the Gunmetal underside which was then masked off for the red colour, which itself was masked off to spray the silver on the rear dome assembly. And pretty fiddly it was too! The side tubes (fuel tanks?) were primed and sprayed in the silver as well. In retrospect, perhaps I should have chosen another colour for these, maybe yellow, however I am happy with the colour scheme as it is. More colours were added to some of the panels and kit parts, a combination of dark green, brown and red, all handpainted on with a small brush. Before I went any further, I secured some white, vinyl, stick-on lettering from my partner who is into Scrapbooking (and very good she is too) and these became the initials on the side of the cabin – MFR – Mobile Fuel Refinery. For the smaller MFR, after some thought, I borrowed a few more of the same letters and numbers, outlined each in black pen and photocopied them at 50% to reduce them down. Careful cutting out resulted in accurate lettering in 1:144 scale for ‘the little fella’. I changed the registration number from a ‘2’ to a ‘7’ on the starboard side so it could be recognised as a different vehicle in photos showing both versions together. The smaller MFR’s wheels were added at this stage, with Superglue securing them to the axles.

And indeed it did – just like a store-bought toy that children can play with. To change this toy into something I could be proud of involved quite a number of additions to make it seem more real. Here how it goes – black lines, pinstriping tape, decals, black wash, brown drybrushing, pencil graphite shading and clear, flat coats – in that order. Yes, it becomes quite tedious after a few days, however it means the difference between a toy and a realistic model under lights. Lately, I’ve become a little heavy handed with my weathering and ‘dirtying down’ on vehicles, however you can judge the photographs for yourselves and see of they look too overdone or not. To the naked eye, the model seems absolutely filthy and disgusting, but under the glare of a few hundred watts of light which tend to wash out the overdone weathering, it takes on a far more realistic look altogether. It may not win any prizes on close inspection at a model competition, but I feel it looks quite alright in the photos. After many hours squinting closely at two models, one half the size of the other, I finally sprayed on the last clear coat and took a break to get my eyes back in my head. The model’s final dimensions are – 410mm long by 147mm wide by 125mm high at the tallest point. The 1:144 scale MFR is approximately half of each of these measurements.

      I couldn’t wait to get some shots of this latest creation(s). The finished photos were taken on the very same day that I finished. Things dry pretty fast over here in Australia! I set up the model on a previously built board, added a very quick background and took a number of shots. In some, I placed the 1:144 scale version in the background to force the perspective a little. My trusty road and cliffside, also built for a previous project, provided me with an alternative setting for the MFR – perhaps similar to the Crablogger on the mountainside? The wheels and suspension work beautifully, so future plans include videoing the model at 100 frames per second to see if the interior fan will kick up enough dust to register in the scene. One slight problem with the model is that the rear is fairly heavy and this tends to raise up the front just enough for one of the wheels to lift off the ground a little. I’ll have to work on that little worry at a later date! Is the Mobile Fuel Refinery something that Derek Meddings and Mike Trim might have designed? Perhaps... Then again, they would have made a much, much bigger model!

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