Novo Toys Ltd., Maxey, Peterborough, England PE69HQ
Few, if any other kit companies have been subjected to as much rumour spreading, speculation and ill-informed guesswork as Novo. Neither has any other company name been so misused, and perhaps it is best to start by putting this straight.
As can be seen above, Novo was a British company, and it always was. Although the company name itself was derived from Novoexport, their Soviet trade partner, Novo was never owned by the Russians. In recent years, Novo has been used as a collective name for any ex-Frog kits coming out of the USSR, but nothing could be more wrong or misleading. Only kits actually packed in Novo packaging should be called Novo kits. Anything else can only be described as kits by the Soviet factory in question (BFI, Krugozor, Tashigrushka etc.). If a collective name is really necessary, then one might perhaps use MLI (for the Soviet Ministry of Light Industry, who supervise most of these factories).
The events leading up to the creation of Novo have been covered in the Frog history section of this book and will not be repeated here. Suffice to say that a General Agreement was reached between Dunbee-Combex-Marx (the owner of both Novo and Rovex) and V/O Novoexport in August 1975. This agreement stipulated that DCM was to deliver moulds, tools and materials to Novoexport, who would pay for them by sending back finished goods from the same moulds. It must be pointed out that apart from model kits the agreement also covered a wide range of other toys. Novo Toys Ltd. was set up by DCM in 1975 to handle this business.
The finer details of the arrangement were set out in twelve contracts, three of which concerned the ex-Frog kits. A theoretical value (based on remaining production life and other factors) was set for each mould. These were totalled for each contract and a suitable mix of kits to the same amount was worked out, meaning that payment for a particular mould did not necessarily consist of kits from that very same mould only.
Once the agreed quantity of kits had been delivered by Novoexport, the moulds were considered their property and all future purchases by Novo had to be paid for in cash. In the event, no such follow-up orders were ever placed by Novo.
The first moulds were sent out to the USSR in early 1976 (i.e. almost a year before Frog production by Rovex finally ceased) and these were distributed among the several Soviet factories undertaking the actual production. With the exception of the Dennis Ambulance, Firefly Dinghy and the Axis aircraft sold to Revell, all Frog moulds still with Rovex in 1976 were shipped to the Soviet Union over the next year or so. Of these, the Britannia, R-100 and the car kits were considered to be of little interest to the Western market, and consequently no Novo numbers were ever assigned. Although not specifically mentioned in any contract, it is believed that the Soviets also took delivery of the old Drifter and Tug Boat moulds.
The Novo kit number incorporated the original projected year of release (e.g. 76001). Some kits were in fact delivered to Novo in 1976, but not until 1977 was a marketable range available and released. Due to this, no additional kits were planned for 1977, but instead delayed until 1978 and given numbers starting with 78. The many gaps in the sequence were partly filled by other Novo products.
Getting the Russians to keep up with the delivery schedule was the main Novo headache. From the very start and until the very end, Novoexport were constantly behind in their deliveries. The reasons were of course many, but a few of these warrant some comments.
Problems with production facilities and moulds were common. Although certain Soviet factories were fairly well-equipped, others had obsolete and unsuitable machinery. Staff competence and maintenance levels also sometimes left something to be desired. This not only slowed down production, but also led to some moulds being damaged. The Mirage mould, for example, was left out-doors one winter and was of course thoroughly rusty by spring! (It was later restored to usable condition.)
The mould for the old Typhoon, when returned to the UK for repairs, was found to be missing all six original locking bolts holding the two halves together. These had been replaced by four new ones of inferior material. Had these broken during operation (remembering that plastic was being injected with a pressure of over 500 p.s.i., or 35 kp/cm2), the mould would probably have been completely destroyed along with the injection machine and its unfortunate operator. The same mould had also been repaired by the Russians, using brass instead of toughened steel.
All in all, Novoexport complained about problems with some two dozen moulds. Of the eight subsequently repaired in the U.K., five had damage caused by the Russians.
But the main problem was the inferior plastic used in the USSR. All Frog moulds were tuned to use Shell SI73 polystyrene (or equivalent), having a Melt Flow Index of 35. Soviet polystyrene, on the other hand, was found to have an index of around 4! This meant that, in order to make the plastic fill the mould, the temperature had to be increased by some 50°C and the injection pressure up to 100%. Not only was this very damaging to the moulds (several subsequently had to be repaired), but also often led to sub-standard mouldings. This since the extreme pressure forced the mould halves apart, letting plastic overflow into the gaps and form flash.
Neither was the low MFI the only problem with the plastic. An independent evaluation carried out in 1978 reads like a catalogue of faults: "Izod (= impact strength) very low .. . abnormally low I.V. (= inherent viscosity) . .. colour is poor and contamination excessive ... poor surface finish and gloss ... extremely brittle and not very rigid .. . must make good colouring difficult and appearance of finished article to be doubtful quality."
The third major problem was politics. Soviet laws take a pretty grim view of anything "fascist", which was why all German, Italian and Japanese aircraft were sold to Revell instead of being sent to the USSR. But other problems were to come up.
The original boxes for the Tupolev SB-2 showed one Luftwaffe marking alternative. Novoexport refused point-blank to touch these and Novo eventually had to print a replacement batch of some 105,000 box bottoms. The Luftwaffe portion of the decals were also cut away.
Later on, the Soviet Ministry of Culture classed the Fokker D.XXI as a "fascist aircraft" since it had been used by the Finnish AF in WWII. The fact that the Finns also used e.g. M.S.406, P-40, Lysander, SB-2, Hurricane, Gladiator and Blenheim - all of which were also included in the Novo range - did not seem to bother them, however. Subsequent Novo attempts to get this decision changed were all in vain. It should be noted that Novo had replaced the original Finish AF marking alternative with a Danish one, to avoid this very problem.
The next casualty was the Sea Fury. Due to a slip-up, the 1980 Novo catalogue described it as having shot down some MiG-15s during the Korean War. Novoexport were much upset by this and refused to deliver any more Sea Fury kits! Only a few kits from an earlier trial consignment ever reached the market. The same fate probably befell the Sea Venom, only this time the catalogue mentioned Egyptian MiGs destroyed in 1956. Only a small number of Sea Venoms were delivered, anyway.
Despite all difficulties, business was good for Novo and their kits sold well - mainly due to very competitive prices made possible by the unique set-up of the production. The downfall of Novo was thus not caused by economical problems as has often been suggested, at least not directly. However, Dunbee-Combex-Marx Ltd. fell into severe financial difficulties in 1979 and eventually had to go into receivership. Since DCM owned Novo, legal requirements forced Novo to do the same and the company passed into the hands of the receivers in February 1980. No buyer could be found in time and Novo Toys Ltd. was wound up later in the same year, although formal liquidation only took place five years later.
The last Soviet deliveries were made in mid-1980 and all kits had been sold out by early 1981. Remaining stocks of boxes, decals and instruction sheets (all printed in the UK) were handed over to Novoexport together with some original box artwork and other bits and pieces.
Box styles, artwork, decals and instructions were in general very similar to the late Frog issues. Indeed, early box mock-ups were almost identical to the Frog boxes except for the removal of the Frog logotype. Apart from the mock-ups, a small batch of similar test boxes were also printed before the style eventually used was finally agreed upon.
Although most Novo kits were boxed, it should be pointed out that kits 76001-76031 were packed in plastic bags with header cards.
Apart from box style, there were also some changes in artwork and decal sheets. Sixteen of the kits used completely new box top art and a few others had slightly changed versions of the Frog originals. In addition, five kits used art previously only utilised on Air Lines boxes.
The only all-new decals were those for the Dart Herald, F-82, Baltimore, VC10 and Boeing 707, although the first three probably had the new designs completed while still with Rovex. Either way, the design work was carried out by Dick Ward of Modeldecal. Apart from the previously mentioned Tupolev and Fokker, the only other known change was that the P-38 had its Chinese markings alternative replaced by a second USAAF one. Although the HMS Trafalgar box art showed the ship with the "RO9" pendant number of HMS Cadiz, the actual decals gave "D77" which was the post-war number of Trafalgar.
A great deal of speculation has taken place over the last few years as regards which kits Novo actually released. And this with some right, since it is indeed a very complex subject.
To begin with, a large number of kits were undeniably released. The kit listing which follows gives production quantities for these.
Secondly, certain kits belonging to the third phase of the third contract were definitely never released. They arc all marked "t" in the list, and for these kits no boxes, decals or instruction sheets were ever printed.
This leaves us with some twenty-three kits which were never officially released but nevertheless had all boxes etc. printed. In the list they all have the official production quantity zero. Regrettably, this does not represent the whole truth, and that for two reasons.
The first one is that trial consignments were often received by Novo and, although not included in the official production quantity, these kits were eventually sold by them. It is also possible that a few batches of slightly faulty and previously rejected kits were also sold out at a discount when Novo closed down. These consignments might number anything from a few dozen to several hundred kits, in some case perhaps more than a thousand.
In connection with this, the Boeing 707 is a special case worth mention. A batch of some 3,000 707s were received by Novo and quickly distributed. However, it was soon found that most kits suffered moulding defects and in the end all but a very few were recalled by Novo or returned to them by irate buyers.
The second reason is that when Novo closed down, Novoexport held enough "paper work" to produce another 2,750,000 Novo kits. It is a fact that some of this has since been used by the Russians. In many cases only the box has been used, omitting the decals and substituting the instruction sheet with a Russian one (or a photo-copy of the Novo original). But sometimes all three original items have been used and the only clue that these are "fake" Novo kits might be the somewhat odd plastic colour (Novo usually managed to avoid the more disgusting ones of the strange shades apparently beloved by Soviet plastic producers). However, in a few cases even this gives nothing away. Since these kits are produced in the same factories as before, using original Novo boxes, decals and instruction sheets, they are - for all practical purposes - Novo kits.
To give some (admittedly subjective) indication of the quantity known to exist of the "zero production" kits, one or two pluses have been added. Thus "0+ + " indicates that a reasonable quantity - perhaps a few hundred - has found its way on to the Western market. "0+" indicates that very-few, or none, have yet been seen. But this may of course change at any time; who knows when the Soviets decide to make use of their 46,000 sets of Twin Mustang packaging...
Finally, the four Russian aircraft - Anatra, MiG-3, LaGG-3 and Yak-3 - must also be mentioned. Produced by Rovcx in accordance with the 1975 DCM-Novoexport agreement, the moulds were kept with Novo in England for many years. But for various reasons they were never included in any of the actual contracts with Novoexport, nor were kit numbers assigned. When Novo closed down, the Russians were most interested in buying the moulds but lacked the hard currency needed. Later attempts by the receivers to sell them to other kit manufacturers - including Lindberg, Monogram, Revell and Starfix - all failed. Not until 1983 were they finally disposed of, to Red Star (which see).
Throughout the list, the Novo number has been given as kit number. But all the kits also carried the old Frog number on the box; indeed, on the 76xxx kits this was more prominently displayed than the Novo number.
| Lavochkin La-7
FROG model aircraft 1932-1976, R. Lines, L. Hellstrom