Up, up and away!

14 November 2022
The sky's the limit with pocket money gliders
Up, up and away! Images

One of the most under-rated toys of all time must be the humble glider. Everyone must have flown one at some point in time, even if it was just a hand-made paper one from your school jotter book. Gliders go back a long way and may even have influenced the real flying machines.

Our story starts a little later, just after World War One. In that war, aircraft played an increasingly important role. This was the catalyst for a post-War boom in toy planes, with gliders being a part of that, many having rubber band powered propellers. They were easy to make and inexpensive, allowing everyone to take even a small part in the new era of human flight. Gliders have been made ever since and are still available in toy shops right now. There have been many types made over the years, let us have a look at some here.

Gliders came in several guises and materials. The very basic ones were paper or card. More expensive ones were elaborate and large toys that were mainly balsa wood construction kits. In between were very simple wooden ones and, in later years, plastic versions too. As mentioned, many often had a boost in the shape of the ‘wind it up and let it go’ propeller power. The field of the large construction kits, such as those made by Kiel-Kraft or Veron, needs an article to itself. Here we will concentrate on the more pocket money types.

The very earliest toy gliders are possibly lost to history now. The very nature of their construction being lightweight and flimsy meant most did not survive any rough play. The attrition rate must have been high as even very much later issues are increasingly difficult to find on today’s collectors’ circuit. Our story really begins with the first major producer of these types of toys being the British FROG brand, a branch of International Model Aircraft Company, which started to make real flying aircraft toys in the 1930s. Well-known for the world’s first plastic kits (FROG Penguins), they also made a series of up market gliders with rubber band powered propellers to give extra flying potential. These models therefore cross the barrier between true gliders and flying planes but were still pretty basic. FROG produced several powered versions not only in wood but metal too. All these had the patented ‘winder box’ which allowed the rubber band to be effortlessly wound up. As the price point was relatively high, FROG used their experience in making flying toys to introduce the true glider too, powered only by the hand. Made in balsa wood and of simple construction these types of toys stayed in the catalogue for decades in one guise or another.

Because of the ease of manufacture, many other companies joined in. World War Two stopped almost all toy production here in Britain, although in America, there were many free gift gliders made to replicate US combat planes. They were issued with early 1940s breakfast cereals but post-War, the way was clear to restart production in Britain, once rationing allowed. There was also the bonus of aircraft being very much in the public eye. Another factor was the return of the British comic free gift and later Britain also caught up with the American trend of giving toys away inside cereal boxes, which had to be relatively cheap to make. This lent itself to gliders which could easily be made from thin card as well as balsa wood or plastic.

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Another desirable factor for collectors is the rarity value of these items. This is particularly true of the comic free gift versions, as even if the same pattern was used for a different comic, the wording was inevitably changed too so many of these were therefore available for one week only. Coupled with this, some had an outer packet which was quickly discarded – hence unused examples command a premium price. Many gliders were fantasy issues but some sought to replicate real aeroplanes. The ones that depict commercial airliners thus appeal to aviation collectors as well as thematic airline ones too.

Gliders were offered as free gifts in several British comics of the 1930s. Often the body of the plane would be given one week then the other parts the next. Sometimes a rudimentary powered propeller would be given separately. Kellogg’s cereal gave away an entire booklet with eight different planes to make up plus an aeroplane game. Even Saxa salt had a giveaway plane kit to send away for and Cadbury Bournville Cocoa issued a lovely large cardboard plane too.  Post-War most of the planes came from cereal or comic promotions but the Mobil oil company gave away a lovely indoor flying glider which is exceptionally rare today. Sugar Puffs had a free “Sky King” glider in its cereal packets in 1958. A British company, David Halsall, made a series of gliders in plastic this time, in the early 1960s including the Lightning Glider. This model re-appeared in 1964 as a free gift in the Eagle comic. The Eagle’s companion comic, the Swift, had given a set of four free aircraft in 1962, one per week. These are now sought after as they were all airliner models in the correct liveries. Free gift gliders were popular with many manufacturers, both big and small. Croid’s glue had a free aircraft offering the 1950s and a much bigger set of commercial planes were available as a cut out on the back of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes packets about the same time too.

It wasn’t just planes that were given away, the glider theme, of sorts, was continued in other comics which had free string-controlled gliders in the shape of spacecraft such as the Red Rattler from Cheeky in 1977, which had been available earlier on but called the Red Racketty by the Dandy comic in 1971… all that changed was the printing. These were not so much free flight gliders but noise makers but the distinction is somewhat blurred. Similarly Shredded Wheat gave away a boomerang which is loosely a glider in the shape of its 1960 Zoomerang space themed gift. Even earlier, in 1956, Shredded Wheat had given away a set of 24 space themed models many of which were gliders, some in the guise of flying aliens, as packet back cut outs.

As we have seen, by the 1970s aeroplane shaped gliders appeared to have given way to the flying plastic disc, often with a space theme or in the shape of a TV character or vehicle, but now and again the newer style of glider made from polystyrene and often with a small plastic propeller popped up again taped to the front of a comic. These were made in China and are still available to buy on their own today. A glider, by its very nature, is great fun but it is not under any proper control once it has left your hand so one wonders if its days are now numbered by an eagle-eyed health and safety officer looking for the next hazard? Stock up now!