Thursday, 25 May 2017

A Fair Cop

As regular readers may have noticed, I've recently had to take an enforced break from building and blogging - my apologies. I'm pleased to report that things are slowly returning to normal, however, so regular service can hopefully now be resumed. Anyway, it's around this time of year that the summer wave of sets starts to appear in stores, and I did initially consider picking up a random summer release and running the rule over it. Given the wall-to-wall coverage of new releases on other sites, however, I decided instead to take a trip back in time and take a close look at an older set. I ended up choosing Set 588 Police Headquarters from 1979, not least because I picked up a copy of it in reasonable condition a while back and still hadn't gotten around to building it yet.

When it comes to LEGO, I have to admit that there are few things that give me more pleasure than a boxed copy of an older set in decent condition. The front of the box features a shot of the finished build that leaves little to the imagination - boxes these days generally embellish the subject matter with CGI wizardry which undoubtedly ramps up the excitement but also makes it harder to get a sense of the actual build inside the box; no such problems here. The set number, 6+ age recommendation and parts count also make an appearance on the front of the box, while the back of the box shows a youngster enjoying the finished build and also showcases a number of alternative builds, something that I wish could be resurrected on modern set boxes.

I think most LEGO fans would probably agree that there's been steady progress over time when it comes to set design, but one area where I think older sets continue to reign supreme is in their packaging and 588 is no exception. The front and back of the box are in fact part of a sleeve which slides smoothly off to reveal an inner tray. In the picture below I've removed the set's 360 elements from the cardboard tray but I've left the instruction booklet and a couple of promotional leaflets in place.

The instruction booklet is actually a fold-out double-sided instruction sheet measuring 40 cm x 54 cm. The instructions break the build down into a surprisingly small number of steps by modern standards, highlighting the absurd degree of hand-holding that builders of more recent sets have to contend with. In addition to the building instructions and a photograph of the completed build (below) there's also a panel highlighting the same alternative builds that are shown on the back of the box.

My copy of the set came complete with a pair of promotional leaflets. These were both unfortunately folded in half at some point, either by LEGO themselves during the original packing process or more likely by the previous owner of the set. The first leaflet contains 16 pages and has a cover consisting of a large LEGO logo. The content (example page below) is a fantastic trip down memory lane for LEGO fans of a certain age, and also serves as a reminder for younger builders of how the design of sets has changed over the years. Interestingly, the leaflet contains advertising for Set 585, a previous Police Headquarters set released in 1976, so it's possible that this leaflet may have found its way into my copy of Set 588 by accident.

The second promo leaflet has a cover featuring various LEGO elements and minifigures superimposed with a LEGO logo. It's the same size and length as the first booklet, and while there's some overlap of content it also features a selection of newer sets including Set 588. There's a 'LEGOLAND Town' section in the booklet which includes the nice little diorama below, and there's also a delicious 2-page Classic Space spread.

The set includes four 'modern-style' minifigures with articulating arms and legs. Modern minifigures started to appear in sets in 1978 so would still have been something of a novelty in 1979 when Set 588 was released. Two of the minifigures are identical policemen with helmets (below) who ride the motorbike and fly the helicopter.  The torso print features a white police badge, a diagonal zip pattern running from shoulder to the opposite hip, and a zip pocket. I had initially assumed that the white helmet was of the same type that appears in the much-loved Classic Space minifigs, but according to Bricklink the police helmets in this set are different by virtue of their thick chinstraps. The yellow minifig heads have solid studs and carry the standard grin pattern, while the black legs are unprinted.

From the rear (below) the minifigs are predictably unremarkable, with their heads, torsos and legs all plain and unprinted.

Next we have the policeman who drives the car. His torso, featuring a suit with police badge and breast pocket over a white collared shirt, graced a total of seven minifigs and 29 sets between 1979 and 2003. His head features the classic LEGO standard grin pattern and his black legs are unprinted. According to Bricklink his white police cap has appeared in a total of 172 sets, most recently in 2016.

Once again the rear view (below) is unremarkable given the absence of head or torso back-printing.

The fourth and final minifigure (below) has only ever appeared in four sets including this one, although none of the individual components are rare. The torso print features a collared shirt with six buttons and has appeared as a part of 21 minifigures and 53 sets over the years. Again the head is printed with a standard grin pattern and the legs are unprinted. The old brown hair, which first started appearing in sets back in 1979, has since appeared in almost 250 sets according to Bricklink, most recently in 2004.

Consistent with the other minifigures in the set there's no back-printing on the torso or the head.

The build commences with a trio of vehicles. First up is a classic 4-wide Police car which, like so many such vehicles of its day, is constructed on a vehicle base.  LEGO fans of a certain vintage will also immediately recognise the wheel archessteering wheel and windscreen which were ubiquitous in small vehicles back in the day. Less common are the white 1 x 3 x 1 printed doors which only appeared in a total of ten sets in this this colour between 1979 and 1991. There's room inside for a driver plus a passenger seated behind. I was surprised that LEGO didn't incorporate a printed radiator grille into the design since these were a common inclusion in 4-wide cars of old.

Next up is a helicopter. The fuselage, which can only accommodate a single minifig, sits on a pair of old grey skids represented by 1 x 8 plates. The white printed 1 x 3 x 1 doors seen in the police car make a repeat appearance. Immediately beneath the windscreen is a trans-clear 2 x 4 plate. I had quite a few of these in my childhood LEGO collection, but they haven't been available outside a LEGOLAND model shop since 1986. The main rotor is made up of an old light grey four blade propeller to which four 1 x 8 plates are attached; this attaches to a black modified 2 x 3 plate with helicopter rotor holder on the roof of the fuselage. There's also a smaller tail rotor made up of an old light grey two blade propeller attached to a modified 2 x 2 plate with helicopter tail rotor holder.

The final vehicle is a simple motorcycle. It incorporates a couple of printed 1 x 2 bricks as panniers; these printed bricks have only ever appeared in seven sets, most recently in a Service Pack back in 1991.

With the three vehicles completed it's time to get cracking on the Police Station itself. Older iterations such as 370 Police Headquarters typically included a custom baseplate, but 588 is built on a standard road plate. For the purposes of the build it could be argued that a custom baseplate might have been better, but I could never get enough road plates when I was a kid and suspect that I would have been absolutely delighted to add another section of straight road to my childhood collection.... The Police Headquarters straddles the road, with through access being controlled by two pairs of trans-clear 1 x 4 x 6 doors. The walls of the building include a number of white 1 x 3 bricks; 1 x 3 bricks didn't appear in sets until 1978 so this set would have been one of the first to include these now-common elements. The walls on the ground floor and first floor incorporate yellow window frames, each of which accommodates a pair of black windows. Although lacking glass, these windows can at least be opened, and have only ever appeared in three sets so are pretty uncommon. In addition to the attachment points for the windows, the window frames also have additional tabs to which pairs of green shutters are attached. Access to the front of the building is via a door on the left side of the building. The door is flanked by a pair of trans-dark blue 1 x 1 round bricks with open stud. A printed 'POLICE' sign sits on the ground floor roof; this printed white 1 x 6  brick appeared in a total of eight sets between 1979 and 1991. The first floor roof is decorated with various structures including an old light grey antenna with 8 side spokes. This element only ever appeared in ten sets in this colour, and it can be tricky to find one with all the spokes intact which no doubt accounts for its high price on Bricklink where intact examples cost in excess of £8/$10 each plus shipping. I assume that the right side of the building contains the police cells given that the windows consist of yellow 1 x 4 x 2 fence elements which presumably represent barred windows. Resourceful prisoners can however try to escape via a back door....

Both the ground floor and first floor offices feature rudimentary interiors containing a simple desk and telephone made up of a red 2 x 1 45 degree slope with white rotary phone print topped with a red 1 x 2 tile. This printed slope element appeared for the first time in this set and only subsequently graced five more sets in this colour. There's a helipad on the roof of the cell block. This is marked out with yellow plates and more trans-dark blue 1 x 1 round bricks. A section of flat roof spans the road and connects the cell block and helipad with the office block. A path utilising yellow 1 x 4 x 1 fence elements is marked out across the top of the flat roof.

The area in front of the Police Headquarters is furnished with exterior decoration in the form of a classic large 4 x 4 x 6 2/3 pine tree, a lamp post and what appears to be an emergency telephone; the latter features a white 1 x 2 brick printed with a telephone pattern that has only ever appeared in a total of four sets, most recently in 1979. You can see the finished Police Headquarters complete with all vehicles and minifigures in the picture below.

It turns out that there are actually two versions of this set which appear to be identical apart from minor differences in the box art. Set 588, which is the version I own, is in fact the US variant, while the version sold in Europe, Australia and Canada was Set 381 Police Headquarters. For some reason a used, boxed copy of set 588 ended up for sale on eBay's UK site back in 2010 and I picked it up for around £25 including shipping. There are currently a number of copies of 588 and 381 for sale on Bricklink; a boxed example in similar condition to mine will set you back about double what I paid including shipping which seems pretty reasonable for a set that's nearly 40 years old now.

Overall, this is a nice example of a classic LEGO police station, although for me it doesn't quite hit the heights of my all-time favourite police station, Set 370 Police Headquarters from 1976.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Red Five Standing By

Like many AFOLs I seem to spend an inordinate amount of my time sorting and resorting my LEGO collection, and it was during a recent sortfest that I stumbled across the little fellow below. It reminded me that I'd long intended to share the rambling tale of how he came into my possession, and in so doing say a public "thank you" to the US-based AFOL and all-round good guy who has tracked down all manner of US-exclusive LEGO-related items for me over the years including Yoda.

Back in May 2013 there was a disturbance in the force, with the unveiling in New York's Times Square of what was at the time claimed to be the world's largest ever LEGO model - a 1:1 replica of an X-wing Starfighter - to celebrate the impending premiere of The Yoda Chronicles animated series. Based on Set 9493 X-wing-Starfighter, this huge build was 42 times the size of the retail set and apparently took 32 builders at LEGO's Kladno Model Shop in the Czech Republic over 3 months to build from 5.3 million bricks. As you can see from the picture below (courtesy of it caused quite a stir....

To further promote the Yoda Chronicles series, the nearby Times Square branch of Toys R Us ran a promotion from May 23rd to 25th 2013 whereby purchasers of specially-marked copies of Set 9493 would receive a limited edition "NY I Love" Yoda minifigure. Apparently 1,000 of these minifigs were made and handed out during the 3-day promotion, and as a big Star Wars fan and LEGO collector I was obviously really keen to get hold of one. Thankfully, help was at hand in the form of US-based Brickset admin Roland a.k.a. Rocao, and to cut a very long story short he was able to secure a limited edition Yoda minifigure for me. The plan was initially for Roland to package Yoda up with a bunch of other items that he had collected together for me and for other folks and ship the whole lot over to the UK for me to distribute. For various reasons, however, Yoda didn't make it into the consignment and was left stranded in the US.

Jumping forward a couple of years to August 2015, a delegation of Brickset Forum members headed by Brickset head honcho Huw and myself journeyed to the LEGO mothership in Billund, Denmark. Thirty three of us in total travelled over at the invitation of LEGO's Community, Events and Engagement Team for a one-day visit which included a tour of the fabled vault housing copies of pretty much every LEGO retail set every released, the LEGO factory at Kornmarken, and the site of the work-in-progress LEGO House and visitor centre (above). There was also a visit to the LEGO employee store for a spot of shopping, and a presentation by LEGO designer Mike Psiaki who's the man behind 10248 Ferrari F40 amongst other sets. As good fortune would have it, one of the 33 Bricksetters to make the trip to Billund was Roland, who travelled over to Denmark from California. Aside from the fact that it was absolutely brilliant to finally get to meet him in person and hang out after literally years of chatting online, Roland had stashed the promised Yoda minifig in his luggage and so I was finally able to take delivery.

Neither Yoda's printed sand green head, which has a tuft of white hair at the rear, nor his short tan legs, are exclusive to this minifigure, although the head has only appeared in two other sets, 75002 AT-RT and a Yoda Clone Wars Watch Set. The torso, which doesn't have a back print, isn't exclusive to this minifigure either, having also appeared as a part of a 2013 New York Toy Fair giveaway. The minifig came sealed in a 7.5 cm x 13.5 cm soft plastic bag which also contained the printed white card that you can see in the picture above.

In addition to Yoda, Roland had also brought me the special cardboard sleeve which was placed around the otherwise standard copies of 9493 X-wing Starfighter to mark them out as being promotional items. The front of the sleeve (above) is focused on advertising the Yoda Chronicles premiere and also gives notice of the free Yoda minifig available with purchases of the set, while the back of the sleeve (below) provides photographs of the life-sized LEGO X-wing together with technical drawings and some facts and figures.

Talking of the X-wing, following its brief Times Square residency it was transported to LEGOLAND California in June 2013 where it went on show. Then, in March 2015, the X-wing crossed the Atlantic to LEGOLAND Billund where it formed the centerpiece of a Star Wars display. And so it was that by a quirk of fate the X-wing was on display at LEGOLAND Billund when I visited, and my Yoda minifigure was therefore, in a manner of speaking, reunited with the X-wing more than 2 years after the Times Square reveal. All of my pictures of the X-wing unfortunately came out appallingly badly, so I'm indebted to another US-based Bricksetter who came on the Billund trip, JusJeff from Iowa, for giving me permission (albeit about 18 months ago....) to use his picture below.

So thanks again Roland for all your efforts to track down juicy US LEGO exclusives for me and others on this side of the pond, and sorry it's taken so long to get this posted....

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Hit the Road

Some welcome time off over Christmas and New Year gave me a welcome opportunity to crack on with my LEGO city layout after a hiatus of over three months. Last time I posted an update I had started to significantly modify 10224 Town Hall with a view to creating a St Pancras-inspired station building for the layout, with the front of one 'wing' of the building completed (picture below).

Progress on the station subsequently stalled due to a lack of dark orange bricks, but during the run up to Christmas I was able to pick up 31050 Corner Deli from Amazon at a substantial discount; this set contains a selection of dark orange bricks including the ones I was missing, and while I'm generally loathe to buy brand new sets and immediately cannabalise them for parts, it seemed like an excellent opportunity to get what I needed to progress the build without the hassle of putting together a Bricklink order. Mirroring the modifications that I'd previously made to the Town Hall was fairly straightforward once I had the necessary elements, and I was soon able to complete the front of my station building as you can see in the picture below. The trickiest part of the build was figuring out how to fashion the number '1968' on the roof ballustrade in the same style as the '2016' (the year I started the station build) and the '1891' (from the original Town Hall set). It took some trial and error, but I got there in the end, utilising a variety of SNOT techniques to get it right.

The station is still far from complete, of course - I haven't even decided what the back and sides will look like yet, much less started to source parts - but with the footprint and front largely finalised I was at least now in a position to start figuring out how the building would fit into my layout. As a reminder, the station has been designed to occupy the area marked out by the light blue box below, with a canopy of some description protruding from the back of the building and overhanging the track.

Before placing the station into position on the layout there were a couple of things I wanted to do. First I filled the vacant space to the right of Cafe Corner with another of my venerable old Modular Buildings, 10211 Grand Emporium from 2010; as stated in a previous update I'm planning to eventually populate the layout with a mixture of modified 'official' sets and buildings of my own design, but for now the official, unmodified Modulars will do just fine. With the Grand Emporium in place my next job was to construct a few sections of brick-built road to run between the pair of Modulars and the station. As detailed in an earlier update I'd previously decided on the specifications for my brick-built roads in terms of their width and overall appearance, and I'd also figured out how to integrate the roads with the surrounding buildings and other structures. It was therefore a relatively simple task to build some new sections of road to those specifications and drop them into place on the layout as you can see in the picture below.

In addition to building a couple of full-sized road sections (32 studs in length) I also needed to fashion a smaller section to serve as a junction between the new road sections and the older section of road to the left of Cafe Corner. I also tiled the area between and around the railway tracks to the left of the road junction so as to create a level crossing; this will require a barrier of some description, but that's a job for another day....

With the new road sections in place I carefully lowered the station building into position on the layout as you can see below. There's obviously still a lot of tidying up and landscaping to do around the edges, but it was nevertheless nice to see it in place. I was also relieved to discover that the station's considerable weight was adequately supported by the structures below such that the whole building didn't crash through to the lower level of the layout....

If you've been patiently following along with this project for a while now then you'll perhaps recall that the layout includes an underground track loop complete with an underground station platform (more details here if this is news to you). The underground platform sits directly beneath the station building, and the intent is to connect it with the surface via a pair of staircases which emerge from underneath the twin arches at the front of the station. You can just about see the staircases disappearing downwards beneath the arches in the picture below.

The image below, which is taken from behind the station building, shows one of the staircases starting to take shape. The plan is for both staircases to descend down to a common underground concourse featuring a ticket office and a number of ticket barriers, through which the minifigure population of my LEGO city can access the underground platform.

While the station undoubtedly looks imposing from the front, the rear view above provides a sobering reminder of how much work there is still to do on the left and right 'wings' of the building which are currently only half built. Even so, it feels good to have made some tangible progress and moved the project along a bit, as evidenced by the picture below.

I hope you enjoyed the update. Feel free to share any comments below, and I'll provide further updates in due course.

Previous MOC city layout update here.

Monday, 23 January 2017

"And the Gimme LEGO Readers' Choice Award for Best Set of 2016 goes to...."

....71040 Disney Castle.

2016 was an excellent year for licensed sets, and the Disney Castle was the best of the lot according to the Gimme LEGO readers. Unlike the previous year's poll where the Temple of Airjitzu quickly opened up an unassailable lead, the Disney Castle and Ghostbusters Firehouse Headquarters were pretty much neck and neck for most of the time, with the Castle ultimately prevailing.

Although I have to admit that I voted for the Firehouse Headquarters, if it wasn't for my enduring love of Ghostbusters I suspect that I would almost certainly have voted for the Disney Castle instead. While the sheer ambition and size of the set are impressive, as is the excellent overall design, it's the attention to detail that helps to elevate this set above its peers. There are just so many lovely little touches in the form of nods to a host of beloved Disney movies and cartoons, and you just know that the set was designed by someone with a genuine love for, and understanding of, the subject matter.

The final Readers' Choice rankings are shown below, together with the number of votes polled by each of the sets. The Disney Castle, with 22.6% of the overall vote, ended up pipping the Firehouse HQ to the post by just 12 votes, with the Brick Bank following up in a relatively distant third place with just 12.9% of the vote. The Spiderman Ultimate Bridge Battle set came in higher than I'd expected in 4th place, and I was delighted that the relatively unheralded Creator Vacation Getaways set polled enough votes to finish in 5th place and above more high profile sets such as the Technic Porsche 911 GT3 RS and Big Ben. The spread of votes was interesting - fewer than 1 in 4 voters chose the eventual winner - and I think this highlights the sheer number of quality offerings from LEGO in 2016 and the difficult choice facing voters. Thirty people rated a set which wasn't listed in the poll as their favourite of the year, with the likes of The Beatles Yellow Submarine and  the most recent version of the Star Wars AT-ST Walker getting some love from the Gimme LEGO readers.

Once again it's been great fun seeing which sets readers liked the most, with the only real disappointment being a decrease in the number of votes cast compared with previous years. The interesting thing is that the Gimme LEGO Awards posting asking people to vote was viewed approximately ten thousand times while the voting window was open, and yet those ten thousand views yielded fewer than 600 votes. It got me wondering whether the ever-increasing use of smartphones to browse the web might be a factor in this; the rudimentary polling plug-in provided by the Blogger platform doesn't work well with smartphones, often requiring readers to visit the web version of the site if they want to vote. This might have put off prospective voters - it would certainly have put me off.... I think therefore that unless I can find a better plug-in I might have to consider alternative ways of conducting future polls.

Many thanks to all those who voted, and thanks also to Brickset for publicising the 2016 Gimme LEGO Awards and Readers' Choice poll - much appreciated!