When manufacturers release kits of contemporary subjects, they usually represent the version currently in service. Sometimes, in the haste to release a kit of a new subject then in development, they have to base their research on prototypes. This can pose a problem of accuracy if the subsequent production version differs to any great degree. But even an accurate kit can find itself left behind if the subject it models is upgraded and visually altered during its service lifetime, as often happens with successful aircraft. What does a manufacturer do in this situation?
Matchbox found itself in this situation more than once. Let’s take a look at how they responded by considering that exciting and iconic jet, the Harrier.
From Jump Jet to Harrier
In the early Cold War, the concept of a warplane capable of vertical take-off and landing was of interest for several reasons. Navies were interested because as warplanes grew in power so they required longer flight decks to operate from, which meant bigger – and more costly – ships. Vertical or short take-off and landing (V/STOL) aircraft would remove that issue, and potentially make it feasible to deploy sophisticated aircraft on quite small vessels.
Air forces were concerned with tactical flexibility – the need to deploy aircraft that were as independent of large fixed airbases with long runways as possible. A constant fear was that airfields might be made inoperable fairly easily by missile strikes or airborne attacks, especially if surprise and/or nuclear weapons were used. V/STOL aircraft on the other hand could be dispersed to small airstrips or clearings at short notice, and thus gain some immunity from such attacks.
By the early 1960s, in the UK, Hawker had built prototype aircraft to prove the concept. These used variable-thrust engines, in which the direction of thrust could be varied from downwards to enable vertical take-off, to backwards when forward flight was required. The aircraft first entered service in 1969 with the Royal Air Force, as the Harrier GR.1 (Ground attack/Reconnaissance), and shortly afterwards it was also acquired by the United States Marine Corps as the AV-8A (Attack V/STOL) Harrier. It was this aircraft that Matchbox first modelled.
The Matchbox Kit
Matchbox Aircraft Kits PK-16 H.S.Harrier Mk.I
Year first produced: 1973
L184 x W120 x D35 (box), Plastic 66g, Scale 1:72, Parts 54, Features 4
As usual for entry-level Matchbox kits, the box contains two sprues of plastic parts in different colours (in this case, red-brown for the fuselage and grey-brown for the wings), plus a clear plastic cockpit canopy and adjustable stand. The instruction leaflet sets out how to build the kit, which can be assembled with undercarriage up or down, and the all-important thrust nozzles are moveable to suit whether the model is hovering or flying. Under the wings, the aircraft carries a load of rocket pods and bombs.
Two sets of decals are provided, for aircraft in British and US service
- 3 Squadron RAF
- VMA-513 USMC
The box top shows a Harrier hovering in a woodland setting, the descriptive sentence identifying the scene thus: “A Harrier (the World’s first operational V/STOL strike aircraft) of the RAF No. 3 Squadron rises from a West German forest dispersal site near Wildenrath 1972”. At the time the kit was released, this was the way that the public imagined the Harrier – a versatile, go-anywhere hunter hidden away from enemy eyes in remote locations.
The real-life Harrier was soon upgraded. In 1976, the GR.3 version joined the RAF. Equipped with a more powerful engine, the main visible differences from the GR.1 were a slightly larger nose and altered fin. The former contained a new laser rangefinder and target seeker, while the latter carried a passive warning receiver to alert the pilot that the aircraft had been detected by enemy radar. From this point onwards, barely two years since the appearance of the kit, the Matchbox Harrier was out of date!
It took Matchbox 11 years to respond. In 1987, a new version of the kit was released, PK-45 BAe Harrier GR.3. This kit used the same sprue of parts for the wings, but a new sprue for the fuselage based on the original PK-16.
Updated decals and paint guides were provided for aircraft from
- 4 Squadron RAF
- 20 Squadron RAF
Let’s take a closer look at the changes. The Harrier fuselage was moulded in two halves, one containing the entire fin.
Several changes are visible in the GR.3 fuselage sprue. On the leading edge of the fin, we can see the housing for the passive receiver. In the left centre of the sprue, we can see the two halves of the new elongated nose cone, which have displaced several small parts to the right of the semi-circular engine intakes. Aside from this, the parts appear identical.
All in all, this is a relatively small change, so why bother? Part of the answer is that at this time, Matchbox was under financial pressure. It was cheaper for them to release minor changes to existing kits, rather than creating entirely new toolings. Besides, when it came to updating the Harrier kit, they had already trodden this particular path once before…
During the 1960s and 70s, the Royal Navy had been evolving a design for a light aircraft carrier to bolster its anti-submarine groups, providing helicopter support and command and control facilities. Experiments had proven that V/STOL aircraft could operate from the decks of navy carriers, and once the Harrier was proven in service with the RAF, a requirement for a naval version to equip the new carriers was formalised. This was based on the GR.3.
The resulting variant, the Sea Harrier FRS.1 (Fighter-Reconnaissance-Strike), was conceived primarily as a defensive fighter which could protect the fleet against Soviet long-range aircraft, and first flew in 1978. It had an enlarged cockpit giving better vision, a new nose air-to-air radar to enable air combat, and could carry Sidewinder missiles.
The first of the light carriers entered service in 1980, and the first naval squadrons were formed in 1981. The rebirth of Britain’s naval air capability caused much excitement at the time, and Matchbox decided to capitalise on this by upgrading their Harrier kit, releasing the PK-37 Sea Harrier in 1982.
Although in retrospect the development of the Sea Harrier – and the release of Matchbox’s new kit – may have seemed unusually prescient, it actually came as a complete surprise when in the same year the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands propelled the Harriers into frontline combat. A naval taskforce was sent to retake the islands, carrying both Sea Harriers as a protective cover, and hastily-embarked RAF Harriers GR.3 to provide a strike capability. The success of the expedition made the Harrier famous, and guaranteed strong interest in the ‘new’ Matchbox kit.
As with the later GR.3 update, the FRS.1 re-used the wings sprue from PK-16 but introduced some changes to the fuselage. New decals and paint schemes were provided for
- 801 Naval Air Squadron, Fleet Air Arm, HMS Invincible 1981
- Unidentified aircraft, Indian Navy 1982
Once again, let’s take a closer look at the changes.
The Sea Harrier fuselage is slightly longer and the cockpit area enlarged. On the leading edge of the fin, we can see the housing for the passive receiver. In the left centre of the sprue, we can see the larger nose cone of the Sea Harrier. Two Sidewinder missiles have been added to the sprue, together with the underwing pylons to attach them to. Note also how the nosecones for the rocket pods, near the centre of the sprue, have been deleted since these were only appropriate for the GR.1/GR.3 ground attack role – and yet the pods themselves are still to be found on the wings sprue. They simply don’t get mentioned in the instructions!
As we have seen, Matchbox produced two revisions to their original PK-16 kit: a Sea Harrier in 1982; and the Harrier GR.3 in 1987. The Sea Harriers continued in service, receiving an upgrade in the 1980s, until decommissioned in 2006.
However, even as the GR.3 kit was released so the new GR.5 aircraft entered service with the RAF. The GR.5 was sufficiently different to warrant the term second-generation Harrier, or simply Harrier II. The most obvious difference was a new, larger wing, intended to carry more fuel and weapons, but the opportunity was also taken to significantly upgrade the electronics.
We have seen how Matchbox was prepared to carry out limited updates to their Harrier kit to provide them with new product releases. But to reproduce the Harrier II, Matchbox would have needed to replace the wings sprue as well as updating the fuselage – a costly enterprise. With the company nearing the end of their kit production, and without any great groundswell of public interest in the new aircraft, it’s perhaps not surprising that Matchbox did not produce a Harrier II.
In 1989, Matchbox released a new boxing of the Sea Harrier FRS.1. PK-52 was identical to the PK-37 kit, but with new decals and painting guides for
- 800 Naval Air Squadron, Fleet Air Arm, HMS Illustrious 1988
- 801 Naval Air Squadron, Fleet Air Arm, HMS Invincible 1981
Matchbox produced many Cold War jet aircraft, including several that they updated with new parts during the 1980s as with the Harrier. For example, PK-39 Northrop F-5B (a twin-seat trainer) replaced PK-12 Northrop F-5A (a single-seat interceptor), while on the other hand PK-46 BAe Hawk 200 (a single-seat fighter) replaced PK-27 Hawker Siddeley Hawk (a twin-seat trainer).