Right, Let's Go!
Duncan Willis Scratch Builds A Jetmobile
Photos by Duncan Willis
The motivation for building a replica Jetmobile was purely to provide a nice way of displaying my full-scale replica Steve Zodiac puppet. I thought it would make a better display rather than having Colonel Zodiac propped against a wall, or held up in a doll stand. Since Gerry Anderson had devised all sorts of wonderful futuristic vehicles for his puppet characters to get over the difficulty of making them walk in convincing way, I reasoned that I could take no better inspiration than to use an idea from the master himself.
Having built, painted and attached hair, eyes and eyebrows to my replica Steve Zodiac, I duly dispatched him to a specialist doll-maker to have his uniform made (a task that I knew was way beyond my own capabilities). The job was going to take several weeks, so, with my favourite pub closed for re-building (it was one hell of a party!) I had the perfect opportunity to spend some time making a Jetmobile.
I had never attempted to make a serious scratch-built model before. My experience was limited to little more than assembling plastic kits, so I went to a specialist model shop for materials and advice, and then set-to, pretty much making it all up as I went along.
My sources of reference for the Jetmobile were Mick Imrie’s plans and Robin Day’s 3D models, both found on the Internet, oh, and lots of watching of my Fireball XL5 DVD box set, freeze-framing regularly in order to get a better idea of the design and scale of the model (I scaled up from the known dimensions of my puppet replica after measuring those same dimensions of the real puppet sitting on his Jetmobile on the TV screen - crude, but effective). Some details were not consistent between the three main sources, and even within the show itself it was clear that Zodiac’s steed had at least one variation (the gun at the front lower leading edge of the Jetmobile, which is evident in the title sequence and in some scenes, but not there in others, even within episodes where the gun was used in the story). In the end I decided to omit the gun because I preferred the clean line of the Jetmobile nose without it - sorry if that offends the purists.
I bought poly foam with which to make the main body of the Jetmobile, the undersides of the “wings” and the viewscreen pod. The upper side of the wings I made from balsa wood, also using balsa for the base of the running boards and for the two mini canard wings. The engine grill was made from thin plastic card, an aerial designed for radio controlled boats was used for the rear aerial, whilst the ends of metal kebab skewers served for the four small antennae on the canard wings. I used 7/32nd” aluminium tubing, bent to shape by hand for the handlebars, with 5/32nd” tubing for the control knob stalks. This same tubing was used to attach the wings, achieved by drilling right through the Jetmobile body and passing the tubes through this and into the wings on each side, securing them with 2-part epoxy.
I roughly sawed out the shape of the main body of the Jetmobile from the block of poly foam, and then set-to with a mini hacksaw blade to get nearer to the true shape of the machine, cutting out the shape of the engine bay, the seat step and shaping the nose and neck of the front section. I formed the viewscreen pod from a separate block of poly foam, and when I was happy with the shape, attached it to the neck of the Jetmobile using a length of metal rod pushed into both pieces to give strength and support. Liberal amounts of 2-part epoxy held it all together.
I wanted the model to be as durable as possible, so I cut the shape of each wing from balsa and then formed the chamfered underside from poly foam, reasoning that balsa would give a cleaner, harder edge to the wings than would be possible with poly foam - an area of the model which over the years might get the occasional knock or be liable to damage in handling.
Had I been brave enough I would have attempted to make the whole thing in fibreglass, but I didn’t feel ready to use that medium for this project. Having never used fibreglass before I felt that it would have been too many firsts in one project, reasoning that I had a fair chance of making a satisfactory and durable model with the materials that I used and which I was comfortable with handling.
Once the basic shape of the Jetmobile was fixed there followed an awful lot of sanding, filling, spraying with filler/primer, more sanding, more filling and more spraying. Every time I thought I’d got to a stage where final painting and detailing was possible I came across further dings, pits, runs, damage and generally poor finish, so yet more filling, sanding and spraying with filler/primer ensued.
One major thing that I would do differently another time would be the engine bay and grill. I made the grill from plastic card, cutting out the 36 slots with a craft knife after having made a paper template first. I didn’t attach the grill to the Jetmobile until late in the building process, my idea being that I would first paint the inside of the engine bay with a dark gunmetal finish and then attach the pre-painted grill afterwards. What happened as a result of this decision was that I ended with a ridge around the edge of the grill where it meets the body of the Jetmobile, and despite more filling and sanding I couldn’t completely hide this. I also lost the gunmetal paintwork inside the engine bay because I couldn’t devise a way to properly screen this area when I sprayed the grill-to-body joins, and overspray resulted in an engine bay the same colour as the body. Another time I wouldn’t worry about the engine bay colour, but would attach the grill early on in the build, making a recessed lip in the body, so that the grill would end up flush, giving cleaner lines and being more true to the appearance of the original model.
I used car spray paints for the final finish - Vauxhall Rembrandt Silver for the main body colour, with Rover Pageant Mid Blue for the feature colour, which I outlined with a coach line in Humbrol gloss white, all after several coats of grey primer. I then coated the lot with a standard clear lacquer spray. This all actually proved to be a mistake. My lack of experience with the materials and poor information from the supplier resulted in a reaction between the paints, the filler and possibly the poly foam, with slight crazing starting to appear after the final coat of lacquer had dried.
I am currently making a second Jetmobile and will be using only acrylic filler (designed for wood) and acrylic paints which should - I am assured by more than one source - result in a stable finish. The crazing effect is not too serious and is only really visible on close inspection, but nevertheless I will do everything possible to try to prevent it from happening on Jetmobile number 2.
The final details I made as follows: The small control knob base I made from balsa, with Milliput modelling clay for the semi-circular surround. The control knobs themselves (moulded directly on top of the aluminium tubing), the base of the rear aerial and the handlebar grips were also fashioned from Milliput. The view screen is pale blue textured card with a clear plastic overlay, the black surround being cut from a plain black tile in a piece of cushioned vinyl flooring, with matt black Humbrol enamel painted over the cut edges.
The raised running board surrounds were formed from thin balsa strips stuck on top of a balsa base shape. I cut and mitred the surround strips, sticking them to the edge of the base with pva, then filled the gaps with model filler to make the curves, the whole lot then being covered with kitchen foil to create the chrome metal effect seen in the show. The running board inserts were made from black textured vinyl upholstery fabric, epoxied into place, and the seat itself I made from a black leather-effect vinyl upholstery fabric - both seat and insert materials being obtained as off-cuts from an upholsterer’s shop.
Finally, I painted the detail work with Humbrol enamels - gunmetal for the handlebar grips and rear aerial base, matt black for the “openings” on the rear edges of the wings, gold for the hemisphere (light?) on top of the viewscreen cowling and red, green and yellow respectively for the control knobs. The gold seat surround is the foil surface from an underlay used for wood and laminate flooring. I stripped it away from the foam backing, applied the thin foil to double-sided carpet tape (I work in the flooring industry, so you may have noticed more than one flooring product in this build) and then cut it to the shape of a paper template that I had previously made before carefully peeling off the tape backing and applying it to the model. At the last minute I added thin strips of black insulating tape for the detailing on the outside of the viewscreen cowling - a feature I had seen only on Robin Day’s computer model until I noticed it by chance whilst watching one particular sequence in one of the Fireball XL5 episodes.
And that was that - one completed full-scale Jetmobile replica, straight out of the workshop and ready for its proud new owner on his return from the outfitters. The build had taken nearly seven weeks of evenings and weekends and one or two middle-of-the-night sessions when I couldn’t sleep. The result is far from perfect, and no doubt a professional model-maker would throw up his hands in horror at some of my techniques, materials and overall finish, but I am happy with my first-ever scratch-built model, and I certainly haven’t heard any complaints from Colonel Zodiac since he took delivery of his shiny new Jetmobile!