My days at Heller


In the mid 1960s, I landed a job as project engineer at the famous French model kit company. Heller had started in the late 1950s and I had owned and assembled some of their complex early kits, some of them featuring mechanical action that was to never be seen again. Their Mirage III and Etendard IV aircraft models had a working retractable landing gear that was controlled by nylon fishing line over coils. Pulling a lever would raise the gear that was then locked in place, and a spring action released it open again. It required high precision during the assembly and was simply too much for my young fingers... but it was so neat!


After a first series of large if somewhat imprecise models, Heller began a series of 1/72 scale WW2 French aircrafts, and I was the author of a half dozen of these, but my heart was with cars and bikes, so I pushed Leo Jahiel, the company president, to begin a series of 1/24 scale car kits representing models that were not being produced and that would prove popular. The only model of a car Heller had done until then was that of a 1/20 scale Renault R16, a very complex kit that sold rather poorly, so I had to do a lot of convincing. After lots of commitments on my part, I was given the green light.

I followed with a MATRA MS5 Formula 2, and that kit remains in my opinion, one of the most precise in the 1/24 scale that was ever created. It also sold very well. I was a guest of the MATRA organization that not only afforded me all the necessary information but also allowed me to drive one of the cars on the airport at Velizy. It was a lot of fun!



  The first kit I designed was that of an Alpine-Renault A210 Le Mans car.  I traveled to Dieppe to the Alpine factory and was able to take all the measurements, pictures and information as a personal guest of Alpine's founder  and president, Jean Redele. He also loaned me an Alpine A110 Berlinette 1300S, and I had great fun with it for several weeks. It actually pushed me to purchase one, that I raced until I smashed it comprehensively while trying to avoid an errant car. 
I tried to do a good job on the new model and introduced some new features that were not present in any available kit, such as separate rim sections for the racing wheels, real rubber safety belts and suspension springs made of steel wire that one could form over a nail, a trick I learned from a great model maker long passed away. I even tried to get a windshield rubber seal to work but it did not, and I had to revert to the standard method of gluing the windshield in place. The kit was well received in the period magazines and sold extremely well to a public welcoming a French racing car model, something that simply did not exist then.
  At my drawing table in 1966, at the Heller design department, rue d'Hauteville in Paris. The pictures on the wall are the telltale of my favorite machinery.


I was able to scan some of the prints I had kept, that constitute apparently the only surviving company archive as things were thrown about as the company changed hands several times.


Not much has survived of the Alpine A210, except for the assembly notice of which I drew the images, and assembled the old-fashioned way, by gluing the text blocks in place. Those were the days!  


  There were plenty of "firsts" in this kit, including that one had to make his own suspension springs wound over... a nail! The wire and nail were supplied in the kit. This system worked very well and was reconducted for most of the kits I designed for this company.




  All what survived of the MATRA MS5 documentation for the mold makers. This was the second kit after the Alpine A210.



  With my new Alpine-Renault 1300S in Paris, 1968, just before the turmoil that hit the country and caused a near revolution. A year and a half later,  was on my way to Los Angeles, California...

This car was destroyed when I hit a snowbank while the car was fitted with Dunlop racing tires for dry pavement.

In the MATRA MS5 at Velizy. This was Joe Schlesser' F2 car with the Cosworth FVA engine. Great and fast car!




I drew the original Brabham kit 3-view plan copying my own car, a BT15. This damaged print is the only surviving document along with a blown view to figure out the construction of the kit.
This was the third kit in the series and used a fabulous reproduction of the Hewland MK5, of which prints were sent to me by Mike Hewland.
The little 1-liter Cosworth was also faithfully reproduced.


  The beautiful kit box cover painted by Paul Lengelle.


The original drawing of the kit's parts. The engine and gearbox were the same as on the MATRA MS5 kit, so are not represented here.  


  I built the kit for use by Heller in trade shows in 1968, and these pictures were taken by a professional for Heller. Please note the suspension springs in steel wire wound around an ordinary nail, that make the model look so much more realistic than any of the period.


The only "bad" detail on the model is the Weber carburetor that is not only inaccurate but looks a bit stupid. But have a look at that Hewland MK9 transmission!  


  The chassis was assembled from molded flat sections and could almost pass for the real thing.




  The Porsche 907, that had just won a 1-2-3 in the 1966 Daytona 24-hour race was my next victim. I made this drawing strictly from pictures provided by my friend, the journalist Gerard Crombac, and a single wheelbase measurement. The kit was really nice, simple and easy to put together.


I was always making sure that my "blown up" drawings would work, meaning that any part here could actually fit if all the parts were put together. Very few changes were made for the production kit.  













One of my favorites was this Ferrari 330P4 that was drawn strictly from pictures as I was never allowed to approach the actual car at the 1967 Le Mans race. The kit was good but the pattern maker made one mistake in the roof line.









I built this kit for the company, but used two sets of body parts so as to have the nose removable from the main body, which it is not possible in the actual kit.





After a minor dispute with Heller, I designed this Renault racer for a company called Verneuil. But Verneuil did not have the capability of production and I was offered a better deal at Heller and returned. So the kit was eventually produced by Heller.


Here is a kit I assembled for factory pictures and the 1969 catalog. I added some decals from an American slot car decal sheet.




The kit was simple and did not have opening doors, but had plenty of engine detail. The Delta Mics aluminum wheels were a typical upgrade from the stock steel wheels.




AMT negotiated with Heller for the distribution of the car kits, and issued 4 different "double" kits in 1971. The injections were packed in clear plastic bags and sent to the American company that repackaged them in large boxes with their own illustrations, that unfortunately paled compared to those of Paul Lengelle. Here, the MATRA F2 is racing the Brabham F3 in the rain.






1970 was a big year for me as I moved to the United States and brought my finished models as a business card to find job opportunities. The Heller models, that were by then distributed by AMT in an exchange deal with the French company, were appreciated by the Model Car Science magazine's editors and they ended on the front page of the February 1971 issue.





Another Ferrari kit drawn from pictures, the 512M of 1970. The actual kit turned out quite well.





By 1969, I decided to make 4 kits of Formula One cars, but only 3 were produced. Unfortunately and for reasons I do not know, the tooling for MATRA MS80 was not built. But the basic 3-view and parts-distribution drawings did survive in my files.





This was the Brabham BT26 car driven by Ickx, the first to use the Ford Cosworth DFV engine. I drew the engine only once for the Lotus 49 model, as the tooling was a separate mold for all three models.




I painted this for the 1970 catalog in less than 1 hour, because time was of the essence. It is done with China ink and water.




This kit could be built with or without the side tanks. Again, another drawn from pictures and not from the real car, but it is not that far off, is it?




This is the only surviving document of the kit's parts distribution. It was published in Champion, a French magazine, in 1969.


The McLaren drawing I rushed for the 1970 catalog.




The three drawings shown in the 1970 catalog as well as a built kit of the MATRA MS5 F2.



Another that was not issued in this form, I drew the car in 1969, but it was later modified in the "K" version and issued as such. I would actually have prefered this, the more brutal-looking 1969 model.



  Some of the built kits in the 1978 Heller catalog.

By that time, the Porsche 907 had been changed to a "908" that was all wrong because of its basic shape. The 917 was now the "Kurz" version, and the Brabham BT32 had earned its post-1970 low wing.







And this is so sad, that this kit was never issued. The car was the Formula One world champion in 1969.




I think what might be my best drawing and kit concept was that of this MATRA MS650. Drawn in 1968, this model was never issued for an unknown reason.


It would have made the most detailed, most fantastic kit ever issued in the 1/24 scale.



  The MATRA 650 as shown in the 1971 catalog. Why was it not produced remains a mystery to this day. Also shown are the Porsche 908, a revamped (and inaccurate) Porsche 907, and the Ferrari 512M that was issued that year.






This one also did not make it. The 911R was at the time, THE car to have if you wanted to win the GT class.




This is my finished drawing of the assembly instructions for the 1/72 scale model of the MS406. The kit had been designed by Jean-Michel Trochain, a really good guy in the R&D department at Heller and a WW2 aircraft expert.





This WW2 light-duty bomber was my first attempt at designing an aircraft model kit. I tried to introduce much detail in this 1/72 scale model, that included for the first time ever in a plastic model kit, inner cockpit detail such as decals for dashboards, accurate seating arrangement, radios...
The landing gear doors were fully functional, the modeler able to simply open them in the exacting correct position as the design was using flexible hinges from the very plastic they were molded from.



I also drew and organized the assembly instructions that show the cockpit detailing and the lower retractable machine gun station. The landing gear detail was also very accurate and this model drew very high marks from the specialized magazines when issued.



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