Unique Selling Point
When it came to choosing subjects for their aircraft kits, Matchbox seems to have followed a policy of backing two horses. On the one hand, they followed the other major manufacturers in creating kits of the most well-known and popular aircraft but on the other, they also modelled some very unusual subjects.
A Spitfire kit was a safe bet. Everyone loves a Spitfire and sales are more or less guaranteed. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a major kit manufacturer being taken seriously without having at least one in their catalogue. The downside is, competition is strong. If you can get a Spitfire from many sources, why choose Matchbox?
Obscure aircraft, however, are more risky subjects because customer interest is likely to be less. So why bother with them? There are several answers to this. There may not be another kit of the subject on the market, so anyone who wants a model of it will perforce have to choose Matchbox. Despite its relative obscurity, the aircraft may nevertheless be a fascinating subject, one that perhaps can attract attention simply by the visual appeal of the box art. And of course, there will always be those ‘serious’ modellers who have already built every version of Spitfire they will ever want, and are desperately seeking a new challenge.
Let’s take a look at a kit of a less familiar subject, and see where it takes us.
A Forgotten Bomber
We’ll discover more about the aircraft later in this story, but for now let’s just note that the Handley Page Heyford was an extremely odd-looking biplane bomber produced in fairly small peacetime numbers, with modest performance and which (thankfully) saw virtually no active service before the events of the Second World War unfolded. Who would have thought of producing a kit of such an unpromising subject?
Matchbox Aircraft Kits PK-605 H.P.Heyford
Year first produced: 1980
L330 x W260 x D58 (box), Plastic 413g, Scale 1:72, Parts 146, Features 4
The Heyford was one of the largest aircraft modelled by Matchbox in 1:72 scale, being one of six kits in the ‘brown’ series created 1979-1981. The box is a two-part lift-off type, with illustrated lid and undecorated base.
The parts of these kits occupied four sprues plus the usual transparent sprue (although, as we shall see, the Heyford had relatively little glass compared to later bombers). As with all Matchbox kits, the sprues were produced in different colours. Thankfully, Matchbox decided to cap the number of different colours per kit at three, so we have two sprues in green containing the fuselage and upper wing surfaces, a sprue in brown for the lower wing surfaces, and a black sprue with the wheels, bombload and other details.
In addition, there was the transparent sprue, a sheet of decals, an instruction sheet for the build, and a separate leaflet for the painting guide (necessary as the box base which would normally carry the colour schemes was plain).
Three decal options were provided in these bigger kits. In this instance, you could build one of each mark of Heyford:
- Mk I – 99 Squadron RAF, 1934
- Mk II – 7(B) Squadron RAF, 1935
- Mk III – 102(B) Squadron RAF, 1938
Handley Page Heyford
The Heyford was designed in response to an Air Ministry specification of 1927, and first flew in 1930. It was soon introduced into RAF service and served as a night bomber until just before the outbreak of World War Two (though continuing in use until 1940 as a trainer). At its height in 1936 it was in use by 9 squadrons, and formed the backbone of the bomber force at that time; but by that time – 10 years after it was specified – it was becoming obsolete. Overall, 125 were built.
The Heyford was the last RAF biplane bomber, being replaced in service by the monoplane Armstrong Whitworth Whitley and Vickers Wellington. It was unusual in that the fuselage was attached to the upper, not lower, wing. It was powered by two engines, carried a crew of four, and a bombload held in the strengthened middle section of the lower wing between the wheels.
Despite its ungainly look, the Heyford was strongly constructed and with the lift provided by the biplane configuration, was a very placid and manoeuvrable aircraft, even capable of being looped. However, the enormous drag of the design and the limited power of the engines kept the top speed low at only 142 mph, with a modest ceiling of 21,000ft and a range of 800-900 miles depending on bombload, just sufficient to reach potential targets in central Europe.
The Heyford could carry a respectable bombload for the early 1930s of c2,500lbs (more could be carried but if so, the range was dramatically reduced). Moreover, Handley Page claimed that the Heyford could be readied for a new bombing mission within 30 minutes of landing, an extremely fast turn round for the time. The physical distance between the propellers (carried high up on the top wing) and the bombload (held near the ground below the lower wing) meant that ground crew could work on replacing the bombs even while the engines were running, and furthermore the bombs themselves were held in a swappable module which could be prepared in advance and swiftly installed.
Minor improvements were made to the Heyford during its lifetime, the main being the installation of more powerful engines (operating at partial power in the Mark II, and full power in the Mark III) and the replacement of the two-bladed propellers with four-bladed ones. The kit provides parts for all three marks.
The Heyford carried a 4-man crew. The sole pilot was in command of the aircraft. They had a good field of view in flight, but poor downwards vision, which was a handicap when landing such a high aircraft. In fact, both the pilot’s position and those of the air gunners were open to the elements, so cold was another problem for the aircrew.
The remaining crew of three were each expected to man one of the defensive machine-gun positions if attacked by enemy fighters. These were at the front and upper-middle of the fuselage, plus a novel retracting ‘dustbin’ ventral turret was installed which could be lowered from the fuselage to protect against attack from below. The gunners had good fields of fire, though the firepower of the single machine guns installed would certainly have proven insufficient in combat.
For most of the time, however, the upper gunners would be employed on other duties inside the fuselage. The front gunner was also the navigator and bomb aimer, while the mid upper gunner was the wireless operator. Such multi-tasking was a feature of most aircraft of the period and was never entirely done away with, despite the problems it could pose in terms of readiness and efficiency. In the diagram above, the bomb aimer and wireless operator are seen at their normal stations, while the ventral gunner mans his cramped turret.
Most interwar aircraft designs can be seen as transitional between the rudimentary biplanes of the Great War and the monoplane powerhouses of the Second World War. Once rearmament began in earnest in the 1930s, the aircraft deemed satisfactory by the sleepier requirements of the 1920s were soon eclipsed and replaced, to fade into oblivion.
Imagined in the context of an RAF airshow of the 1930s, however, the Heyford must have been an impressive sight. Even today it retains a charm derived I think from its very individual oddness and obscurity. I’m thankful that Matchbox decided to model it. After all, even today, if you want to build a model of this glorious beast, you have only once choice of kit – PK-605.
In the 1990s, the Matchbox moulds were passed to Revell Germany, Several other unusual RAF subjects which served during the 1930s have been modelled by Matchbox including the diminutive PK-25 Armstrong Whitworth Siskin biplane fighter; the ‘big-wing’ PK-123 Vickers Wellesley Mk.I; and the magnificent PK-601 Supermarine Stranraer, a biplane flying boat also, like the Heyford, from the brown series of large kits.