The packaging that a kit is supplied in fulfils a number of functions. Primarily it gathers and protects the contents of the kit from damage prior to sale, but of course it also has a role in both identifying the subject of the kit, and persuading you to buy it! In these latter regards, the most significant feature of the packaging is the colour illustration on the box top. Airfix blazed the way and are famous for the quality of their box art, especially the iconic images painted by Roy Cross. With this example in front of them, Matchbox had a lot to live up to, and live up to it they did!
Moreover, as with Airfix, the Matchbox packaging and box art changed over time. To explore this, I’ve chosen a helicopter as my subject. Let’s get familiar with it.
The Westland Lynx
The Lynx was designed and intended for service in various roles in both the British Army and the Royal Navy. From the start, therefore, it was designed to be a versatile maid-of-all-work, acting as a transport, attack, reconnaissance and evacuation helicopter. In the cockpit were the pilot and observer, while the general-purpose cabin behind could accommodate troops, casualties or stores. A third crewman in the cabin might operate a door gun or dipping sonar or act as winchman. For land use, skids were provided, while for landing on naval flight-decks wheels were used. Weapons attachment points below the cabin could carry a variety of ordnance, including missiles, torpedoes or depth charges.
Despite the utility nature of the aircraft, it has an impressive performance. With a top speed of just over 200mph, and superb agility, the Lynx can mount an impressive flying display. Entering service c1980, the Lynx saw action in both the Falklands and Gulf Wars, and has only recently retired.
The Matchbox Kit
Matchbox Aircraft Kits PK-108 Westland Lynx
Year first produced: 1974
L215 x W140 x D50 (box), Plastic 106g, Scale 1:72, Parts 70, Features 3
The Lynx kit consists of the usual components – sprues of parts, a stand, instruction leaflet and decals. As a slightly bigger aircraft, the Lynx was released as part of the ‘Orange’ series of kits, and so came in a larger box. This was necessary to accommodate the increased number of parts required which are spread across three sprues (plus a sprue of clear parts), each one produced in a different colour (white, light blue, and dark blue). Thus, unlike the entry-level ‘Purple’ series with two sprues, this is a ‘3 COLOUR KIT’.
The constructed model has two moveable features – the rotors spin, and the doors open. As usual, two models can be created from the kit. In this instance, the two models represent different variants of the Lynx:
- an Army transport variant
- a Royal Navy anti-submarine warfare variant
The two options seem strangely generic – no squadron numbers are mentioned, for example. This was because the kit was released in 1974/5, several years before the helicopters actually entered service! In fact, the kit is based on a prototype – one result of this is that the model has three windows in each cabin door, whereas the production machines combined them into one.
There are several visual differences between the two versions. The army helicopter (known as AH.1) has skids to land on, whereas the naval machine (HAS.2) uses a tricycle undercarriage, has an enlarged nose (housing a surface search radar) and carries two anti-submarine torpedoes. See my story about the Twin Otter for an exploration of multiple versions in another kit.
The Box Art
The wonderful picture on the top of the box was created by Roy Huxley, whose signature can be seen to the bottom right. Roy worked for Matchbox for almost 20 years and was responsible for most of the Matchbox kit box art. It shows the naval version of the helicopter flying low over the water, dropping the two torpedoes that it carries. The supporting text below the front of the helicopter explains “Ship-borne LYNX helicopters armed with MK 44 torpedoes demonstrate their strike capability”.
The picture dominates the box top. To the top left of the image is a block that concisely proclaims Matchbox, names the kit, indicates the scale, and shows an orange disc denoting the Orange series of kits. To the bottom left is the ‘3 COLOUR KIT’ logo. All of the rest of the space is taken up by the artwork portraying the Lynx.
The image is full of action. The foremost Lynx swoops low over the sea and drops both torpedoes, while a second helicopter follows close behind it. The first torpedo enters the sea with a splash seemingly just in front of the observer. The low view point adds drama as the helicopters bank overhead. In the near distance a flotilla of warships lit up by shafts of sunlight, race towards the viewer through the waves, while overhead a ragged sky suggests a windy day. The picture is colourful and expressive, with bold brushwork.
So, let’s ask ourselves – what does the picture do? I think its main purpose is to enthuse the imagination of the viewer. How exciting it must be to see the Lynx in action, let alone to fly in it. It makes me want to hold the finished model in my hand and swoop it low over the bath water, while making suitable helicopter noises! I want that model!
Of course, it’s also important that the picture shows the subject of the kit as accurately as possible. A dramatic scene is one thing, but if the helicopter in the picture looks nothing like the real aircraft, then I may well be put off buying the kit. And if the box illustration does not represent the finished model, then I may be disappointed. Fear not, one of the skills of artists like Roy Huxley is that they did their research and were careful to depict the subject accurately. The helicopter in the picture carries the same weapons, colour scheme and markings of the naval machine included in the kit.
For me, it’s this combination of colourful drama and representational accuracy that makes illustrations like this so effective.
Changes to the Box Art
In 1979, the box art was changed.
The second type of box top, if anything, gave increased prominence to the box art. To the top left is the same combination of information carried on the first version, in modified form, but the rest of the space is given over to the Lynx illustration. So how does this image compare?
Well, after the briefest study you realise that the central image, that of the helicopter itself, is almost exactly the same painting as appeared on the first version. The Lynx has been tilted up slightly, and the torpedoes have been re-stowed, but apart from that it looks to be identical.
Everything else about the picture has changed though. We are now looking at the Lynx from mid-air, as a flotilla of warships sails serenely below us (note the Roy Huxley signature at the very bottom). To the left and above, the picture fades into white almost as though a blinding sun was bleaching it out. The whole scene is peaceful and uneventful. Even the colour saturation and contrast appear to have been reduced (though I accept this may be due to production and storage differences in the examples I have to hand).
These changes in style occurred across the Matchbox kit range at around this time, so what prompted them?
Broadly speaking, there seem to have been two changes. Firstly, the artwork was changed to fade to white in the upper part of the illustration, rather than being a full-colour, full-frame image. This may have been to highlight the informational area in the top left, and it also brings the central subject into stronger relief as it does not have to compete against a background.
Secondly, the images were reworked to remove all depictions of violence. Explosions and firing flashes and falling bombs (or torpedoes) were all erased. Some suggest that these changes came about owing to legislation (either from the EU or the US) against the depiction of violence on the packaging of toys. This may be correct, or perhaps partially correct since legislation usually reflects some underlying public sentiment and Matchbox would always have wanted to please their customers.
Whatever the reasons, the revised box art is functional but lacks the impact and excitement of the original. But if this was a retrograde step, hold fast because worse was to come. A few years later, the box art changed again.
In 1982, the Matchbox boxes underwent a complete revision. The dominant feature on the box became a strong graphical element: a black lower part topped by a three-coloured flash, which turns up at the right end. The artwork no longer spreads across the whole surface of the top, but is constrained to about half the area.
This time, the illustration is new. A naval Lynx hovers over the flight deck of a warship, seen as if viewed from the superstructure of the ship. Once again, the painting is signed by Roy Huxley, and once again it is a good representation of the helicopter and kit. Quite why it was necessary to paint a new scene at all is not clear, as the previous image would probably have fitted into the space available.
The new image is potentially more realistic than the earlier depictions, as it shows a Lynx doing something – hovering over the flight deck – that it must often have done in service, whereas the full-fledged naval exercise depicted on the earlier boxes would have been a rarity. Also, the style of the painting appears more precise, as though it were attempting to replicate a photograph. But, I find it all a bid staid. Does it have the dynamism and impact to capture the imagination of the prospective buyer? I doubt it.
Whatever the qualities of the image, it also looks cramped and overawed by the bold and garish graphical design. From a distance, the box is instantly recognisable as a Matchbox product courtesy of the graphics, and perhaps this was the intention behind the redesign. One feels that the illustration is no longer important as an inspirational tool, but just as a representation of what the kit could be built into. It’s a shame, but then perhaps I’m just a prisoner of nostalgia for the dramatic artwork of my youth. So be it!
Most of the early Matchbox kits have stunning box art. One of my favourites is that of the Wellington Mk.X caught by Flak during a night raid over Germany, but there are many more.
Matchbox made a number of helicopters of which two others saw service in the British armed forces. Take a look at PK133 Westland Wessex and PK413 Boeing Vertol Chinook.