Sinclair’s Brontosaurus and its plastic compatriots are time capsules to a moment of zeitgeist in paleo pop-culture, and stand as charming testaments to the evolving nature of paleontology and memorabilia.
Brontosaurus is one of the quintessential icons of dinosaur pop-culture imagery. Described by the famous paleontologist Othniel Marsh, the “thunder lizard” became immortalized with the first skeletal mount at the American Museum of Natural history, and further entrenched by the likes of artists such as painter Charles R. Knight and animator Willis O’Brien. Even after being invalidated as a synonym of Apatosaurus, the moniker persists in popular paleo terminology, and was newly vindicated in 2015 with a study examining the diplodocid family; the results of which suggested that Brontosaurus is, indeed, a unique genus separate from Apatosaurus.
Long-time enthusiasts of dino-media and fans of the “Thunder Lizard” in particular may especially know and appreciate the name “Dino” and what it stands for. No, I’m not referring to a certain spotted purple Hanna-Barbera character, but an even older character harkening back to the 1930s. I am referring, as you may have guessed, to the big green mascot of the Sinclair Oil company. Sinclair first conceived the “Dino” character as a simple image to promote lubricants; however, in 1959 Dino became fully realized and officially named as a mascot character, becoming the staple trademark of the Sinclair brand which persists to this day. Dino – or rather, his species of origin – received some particularly spectacular publicity in 1964 and 1965, when Sinclair helped sponsor the New York World’s Fair with an elaborate dinosaur exhibit. “Dinoland” featured nine life-size, animatronic-and-fiberglass dinosaur statues, the most impressive of which was the mighty Brontosaurus itself.
Sinclair produced a variety of merchandise to promote the exhibit, some of which would outlast the exhibit and continue selling in gas stations for many years. This merchandise included a six-piece set of solid plastic figurines, superficially similar to Marx Toys’ successful line from the same period. The six figurines represented most of the life-size dinosaur replicas featured in the exhibit, which were built by sculptor L. Paul Jonas and based on contemporary artwork by Charles Knight. Back in June last year I began reviewing this small line here on the blog; so far I have reviewed five of these six dinosaurs. To mark what is my 50th review now for the Dinosaur Toy Blog, I have saved the last, but certainly not least, of this set of collectibles left to cover: the Brontosaurus itself, fittingly the largest toy in Sinclair’s Dinoland set.
The Dinoland Brontosaurus measures 8 inches (20 cm) long from nose to tail, equivalent in size to the Marx toy of the same genus from 1955. Right away when observing the figure, one can sense the great size and weight of the original creature being depicted. The limbs are short, but very stocky, barely lifting the enormous belly off the ground as the skin on the creature’s flanks stretches to its limits in constraining the gargantuan mass of gut and muscle. The bulging shoulders provide the base to the creature’s equally robust neck, sloping out and upwards but seemingly weighed down by its own size, culminating in the boxy, Camarasaurus-style skull, where large rounded eyes placidly observe the domain below. The small model closely follows the shape and form of its larger fiberglass counterpart, proudly carrying its Knightian influence while also bearing its own unique traits. Only the tail appears restrained in design, shortened in length and slender in shape, likely to ease the toy’s production process.
It’s interesting to note differences in design style between the Sinclair model and the more famous Marx model; although the two are sometimes mixed up by less experienced collectors, each model is entirely distinct from the other. Sinclair’s models had the advantage of time to refine their designs and produce more detailed, modern replicas; but the Marx classics weren’t all to be taken lightly. Despite being released a decade prior, the Marx Brontosaurus almost seems more up-to-date than the Sinclair in its interpretation, sculpted in a more dynamic walking pose with a slimmer belly, head high and tail curling up off the ground. The Sinclair, meanwhile, features a much more anatomically correct head, capturing the distinct shape seen in what was thought to be the skull of Brontosaurus at the time. The Sinclair model takes a more simplistic method to details as opposed to the Marx toy’s finer textured approach: large striations across the neck and body down to the tail indicate the stretching of skin and the flexing of the great musculature underneath. The two figures make good companions for each other, comparing and contrasting in style much like how a modern collector might enjoy a model by Safari alongside one by Battat or Collecta.
The model comes molded in solid plastic of the signature green color Sinclair’s mascot is known for. The dinosaur’s name and length are engraved on the left side underneath the neck. These traits can be important for discerning collectors, because Sinclair’s molds would eventually be obtained by a company called Dimensions for Children. DFC would recast figures from multiple brands to sell in new playsets, so distinguishing recasts from originals requires attention to detail. In the case of Sinclair’s Brontosaurus, the DFC recasts tend to lack the name & length engravings, and would be molded in an assortment of colors. While some of the other figures in the set were originally released in more than one color, original Brontosaurus figures are only known to have come in the signature green. A pair of mold circles on the right side of the model’s neck and tail are also discernible, which may vary in number and visibility on recasts.
When I first came into ownership of three vintage-looking models this past spring, I knew nothing of the history and legacy behind them. Identifying and researching these figures for this series of reviews, with the help of fellow blog & forum members, has been a delightful and informative excursion for me over the past year. It feels only fitting to pay tribute to this piece of nearly 50-year-old dinosaur memorabilia for my 50th review here on the Dinosaur Toy Blog. The Sinclair Brontosaurus and its plastic compatriots are time capsules to a moment of zeitgeist in paleo pop-culture, and stand as charming testaments to the evolving nature of paleontology and memorabilia. Although Sinclair figures are long out of production, you can find them occasionally popping up second/third/whatever-hand on eBay and eCrater, individually or in larger lots. Happy hunting!
I’d like to give special thanks to toy sculptor Doug Watson, who first identified my Sinclairs for me, and to Jeff Pfeiffer, whose publications and personal interchanges with me on the subject have been invaluable resources. Pfeiffer’s books on Marx and Vintage Dinosaur Toys are highly recommended for the aspiring dinosaur collector.