Style vs Substance
Matchbox were keen that their models were attractive to young people, so attached a lot of importance to their visual attractiveness, and their ease of completion. But did this focus compromise the quality of their kits? Were they less accurate as a result? To check this out, I’m going to take a closer look at the Matchbox kit of the Hawker Hunter.
The Hunter was a ‘Second generation’ jet fighter, developed to replace the earliest jet warplanes in RAF service, the Armstrong-Whitworth Meteor and de Havilland Vampire. It first flew in 1951, and entered service as a fighter in 1954. It proved successful and was widely exported, serving with 21 overseas air forces. In total, nearly 2,000 were built.
The Hunter was, for its time, fast and manoeuvrable, achieving a speed of 715mph in level flight, and capable of operating up to 50,000ft. It marked a significant improvement over previous aircraft, and sported several innovations including powered controls, swept wings, and a gunnery radar. The main armament was four 30mm cannons in a removable pack in the lower front of the fuselage, but it also carried four hardpoints under the wings where additional weapons or fuel tanks could be attached.
In 1963, the fighter role was ceded to the new English Electric Lightning, a supersonic aircraft with a phenomenal rate of climb, designed to scramble from the ground to intercept aerial threats to the UK as far out as possible. The Hunter was redeployed as a ground attack aircraft, and served in this role through the 1960s until 1971.
The Matchbox Hunter
Matchbox Aircraft Kits PK-117 Hawker Hunter F.Mk.6/T.Mk.7
Year first produced: 1976
L215 x W140 x H0 (box), Plastic 119g, Scale 1:72, Parts 54, Features 4
The Matchbox kit of the Hunter contains the standard components of the series. In this case, there are three sprues of parts in different colours: blue for the wings, dark blue for the fuselage and green for the armament and undercarriage. A small transparent sprue holds two cockpit canopies (of which more anon). The other items are a poseable stand, the instruction leaflet and a decal sheet. Unusually, the decal sheet includes a transfer representing the cockpit instrument panel.
The box art of the kit shows two aircraft in flight above light clouds, but the eagle-eyed may notice that the jets are of slightly different types. The legend on the box explains what we are seeing: “A single seat Hunter Mk.F6 of No. 58 Squadron, armed with ‘Matra’ rocket pods follows through an instrument training flight programme with a T.Mk 7 aircraft from No. 45 Squadron, Wittering 1974”. The F6 is in the background, and the T7 is the nearer aircraft banking towards us.
The F6 version of the Hunter was a single-seat fighter which entered service over the winter of 1956/7. It had a new, more powerful engine, attachment points for fuel tanks under the wings which provided greater range for the aircraft, and widened wing tips (betrayed by a distinctive ‘dog-tooth’ on the leading edge of the wing outboard of the fuel tanks – in the box illustration this is more clearly visible on the T7). 384 F6 fighters were built.
The T7 was a two-seat training aircraft based on the F6, in which pilot and trainee sat side-by-side in a widened front fuselage section. 45 were built.
This Matchbox kit allows you to build either of the above two versions, by providing alternative front fuselage sections and cockpit canopies, and a choice of underwing stores (Matra rockets for the F6 or additional fuel tanks for the T7). Matchbox were good at offering modellers such choices where these could be accommodated.
Decals are provided for two aircraft:
- T7 45 Squadron RAF, 1974
- F6 58 Squadron RAF, 1974
At a scale of 1:72, the kit has the correct dimensions overall.
Is it correctly shaped? The Hawker Hunter is a curvaceous beast. Every surface is rounded to some extent, which makes it difficult to assess the correctness of the kit in terms of shape. In an ideal world, I would be able to 3D scan an assembled kit and get my computer to compare this to a 3D scan of the real aircraft, to identify areas where the shapes differ. Sadly, this is currently science fiction, so I have to fall back on the old Mark 1 eyeballs!
Reviewers of the kit have in the past criticised the shape of the forward fuselage, finding it variously too long, too fat, and or the wrong shape. The curvature of the outer wings has also come in for some criticism. Comparing the kit parts against 1:72 plans for the aircraft, I can confirm that the dorsal spine for the T7 is too fat and boxy, the wing tips are slightly out of alignment, and the T7 canopy is a little wide.
There are some areas where the kit lacks detail. For example, there is no detailing inside the various orifices (engine exhaust, air intakes and wheel wells) of the aircraft. More of this below.
The engine exhaust has a lip at the top which is wrong for an F6, but correct for a T7. More disconcertingly, as there is no engine or internal detail, there is nothing blocking the view down the fuselage from the rear – it is of course usually in shadow, but it might have been better to model the exhaust area or provide a bulkhead.
The paint schemes and decals, and the weaponry and fuel tanks provided for the two aircraft, all seem accurate.
Most criticisms of the Matchbox kit relate to limitations rather than outright errors. ‘Serious’ adult modellers and reviews often identified several drawbacks, including:
- lack of detail
- exaggerated surface detail
- thickness of small pieces
- poor fit
- coloured plastic
Many of these are typical limitations of mass-market kits made during the Matchbox era, but let’s take a look at how they apply to our Hunter.
Matchbox kits certainly did not aspire to a high level of detail, where that detail would not be immediately obvious. Thus, the cockpit of our Hunter is relatively Spartan, with none of the complex clutter of equipment that the real aircraft has. In fact, the cockpit contains only seats and pilots, with a decal representing the instrumentation that can be fixed to the otherwise flat panel.
A similar story applies to the wheel-wells, which on the real aircraft are full of cables and equipment. On the kit, they are simply holes, without any interior detail. The same applies to the other orifices of the aircraft – the air intakes at the wing roots, and the engine nozzle.
A criticism often levelled at Matchbox is that they were fond of depicting panel lines on major surfaces with exaggerated depth and width. If we look at the upper surface of a wing, we can see the well-defined indented lines referred to. Each line is roughly half a millimetre wide and deep, which equates to a trench of 36mm (over an inch) on the full-size aircraft! In contrast, the ailerons carry a less obvious criss-cross pattern of raised lines.
Now, it is common for manufacturers to depict some details on models even when they have to be rendered larger than they should be, if their absence would be more jarring. For example, prominent riveting which would be impossible to represent in scale, is often shown by a small number of oversized rivets rather than being ignored altogether.
However, looking at photographs of Hunters, I am struck by just how utterly smooth the surfaces usually look. It is very difficult to confirm that any of the lines (indented or raised) depicted by Matchbox on the upper wing were visible on the actual aircraft, or even that they existed. Frequently, you can’t see any panel detail at all, except perhaps the outline of the ailerons, especially if the aircraft is banking. This is perhaps no surprise, since irregularities would have produced drag. Therefore, in this instance, the surface detail does seem heavy-handed.
Manufacturers find it difficult to produce very thin items, for the obvious reason that it would be difficult to ensure that the plastic could completely fill the mould, and the resulting pieces would be very fragile. This limitation is usually only a problem if the edge of the piece is visible. For example, the cockpit canopy is quite thick at roughly a millimetre.
Scaled up to life size, the canopy would be over 7cm (almost 3 inches) thick! But with the canopy secured in place, the thickness is not really obvious. More of a problem perhaps are the undercarriage doors, which if the model is constructed with wheels down, are just a bit too chunky. However, here Matchbox have stepped the thickness down at the edges of the doors, to try to give an impression that they are thinner.
Ensuring a good fit between kit components is always a challenge for a manufacturer. Faults in the kit design, warping of parts or poor assembly may all contribute to unsightly gaps. However, I don’t find Matchbox kits particularly prone to these problems.
Let’s consider for a moment the challenge of assembling the major components: attaching the wings to the fuselage. Remember – every surface on the Hunter is curved, so this is not going to be easy!
The main fuselage is in two halves lengthways, and has a separate dorsal spine that fits on top. The forward part of the fuselage also comes in two halves. Each main wing is formed from an upper and lower half, and attaches to the fuselage by fitting over a shaped ridge at the wing root.
Each of the pieces involved is securely held on the runners that encompass the parts by at least four attachment points spaced around it. The whole thing feels quite carefully engineered, and Matchbox kits very seldom suffer from loose parts, warping or breakage in the box. The nose section of the fuselage has a rear wall that provides a secure ridge to fit the rear fuselage to, and the dorsal spine sits snugly on a ledge provided for it. The wing surfaces fit neatly together, helped by the moulding of the lower surface as an inset into the upper. All of these assemblies seem to be snug fits.
The most challenging connection is that between the fuselage and wings, for here the wings fit onto the projecting wing root. Ridges to guide the attachment are provided, but perhaps inevitably the wing opening flares slightly wider than the root. Nevertheless, with a bit of care, and applying a little pressure to pinch the wing opening together, it fits together for me.
As we know, Matchbox made a feature of their use of different coloured plastics in a single kit (see the Siskin story for a closer look at this). However, the copy of the kit that we are examining comes in a strange selection of blues that do not of course relate to the grey and green camouflage colour schemes of service aircraft. The result, if we left it unpainted would be a fantasy colour scheme!
Of course, any ‘serious’ modeller would paint the kit. Even here, though, the use of coloured plastic is an irritation, because the painter has to take extra care to prevent the underlying colour from showing through and affecting the final colour, especially where there is a transition between plastic colours that is not represented in the paint scheme. The painter may have to paint an extra coat, with the attendant risk of obscuring fine details. Then again, maybe this is not a problem given the gaping panel lines that need to be filled up! But for that ‘serious’ modeler, a mid-grey plastic overall would have been preferable.
The perfectionist may find it impossible to overlook the minor errors of shape, and the engraved panel lines are a problem if you find them distracting: having to fill them would be a chore. Other areas where the kit may fail to satisfy, are those that can be overcome with some skill and patience. Detailing can be added where it is lacking, and an extra coat of paint would ensure the garish plastic colours are masked.
My judgement however, as an occasional rainy-day kit maker of no great skill, is that the kit is simple, easy to assemble and acceptably accurate. In other words, style and substance are nicely balanced. The art of kit manufacture has certainly moved on since the 1970s when the Hunter was produced, but for a mass-market kit produced in that era, it still impresses me.
The Hunter was re-issued in 1985 in a new box with a new set of decals, commemorating the ‘Blue Diamonds’ RAF air display team during 1961/2.
Matchbox made quite a selection of early post-war jet fighters. These include the Swedish PK-33 Saab J-29F (‘Flying Barrel’), the US PK-124 Grumman F9F-4 Panther and the British PK-129 Armstrong Whitworth Meteor NF-11/12/14.
3 thoughts on “Matchbox Aircraft Kits – Accuracy”
The Hunter’s an odd aircraft in my opinion. I looked at pictures and models and thought, yuk! what an ugly aircraft, and then when I saw it fly at an airshow I totally changed my mind, it looked and sounded beautiful.
As for the kit – I think it’s a case of what you see is what you get – it’s a simple kit that, once painted, looks quite good so long as you don’t get too close. As a young lad I’d be happy to have had this hanging from my ceiling!
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I’d love to have seen the aircraft when they were used for formation display flying, but unfortunately my main memory is of being at the Shoreham show when one crashed. Very sad. As for the kit, I think the key thing is that it (in my humble opinion) knocked the spots of contemporary Airfix kits in terms of both attractiveness and engineering! But of course, it can’t stand comparison to modern kits.
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Yeah, it’s sad that they didn’t have a particularly good safety record, which finally put paid to them. I can’t remember where I saw one – possibly at the RAF’s 75th Anniversary airshow at Marham, but I have a feeling it was much later than that. I’ve been to so many they all merge into one!
Modern kits certainly have a lot more detail, but I still find they lack accuracy, which they shouldn’t do really.