Third Party Models
Most toy makers have embraced the concept of extending their range by the creation of variations to their basic mouldings. The most common way this is done is simply by finishing the models in different colour schemes. Sometimes, the physical models are varied by the addition or changing of ancillary (and often plastic) parts (see this story for an example of how Solido did this). Both of these approaches keep the costs low and make maximum use of the existing moulds.
However, perhaps the most interesting changes are those which involve the alteration or replacement of major metal components in order to make a new version of a vehicle. Conversions like this are costly for the manufacturer, as they involve the making of new moulds, while of course, many customers may not be sufficiently interested in a particular vehicle to want to buy models of different versions. This is especially so if the versions are obscure, or not well known to the core market, which in this case meant France. Not surprisingly, with a few exceptions (for example, the AMX-30) Solido avoided this.
However, there was a small market for such models amongst adult collectors, who could afford to pay higher prices if the models were attractive and accurate enough. In the late 1990s, Solido forged an arrangement with a British company to cater for this market, and one of the beneficial results of this alliance was that, at last, an armoured vehicle that saw service with the British army was added to the range. It’s time to meet the Firefly…
In late 1942 and 1943, the German army began switching to a new generation of well-protected and heavily-armed tanks, the famous Panther and Tiger. The Sherman and Churchill tanks then in service with the western Allies carried 75mm guns that were incapable of penetrating the frontal armour of these monsters at normal fighting ranges.
With the upcoming invasion of Europe in mind, the British saw an urgent need to develop a tank capable of dealing with these opponents. A suitable gun existed, the new 17-pounder, but the intended vehicle for carrying it, the A30 Challenger was delayed and beset with teething problems. The stop-gap alternative was to fit the gun into the existing Sherman tank.
The 17-pounder was much longer than the 75mm gun of the Sherman, and to fit it required extensive modifications both to the gun and to the Sherman turret, within which the larger breech posed a difficult problem. The recoil system of the gun was altered to take less room, and the breech was rotated 90 degrees sideways so that the loader could feed shells into it from the side rather than having to hoist shells above the breech where headroom was severely limited. The radios previously held inside the back of the turret would have been crushed by the gun’s recoil, so were moved outside into an armoured bustle, which also acted as a counterweight to the longer gun. An additional turret hatch was added so that the loader could exit the tank directly, without having to squeeze under the larger breech of the 17-pounder to access the commander’s hatch.
The upgrade was effective and achieved quickly. Over 2,000 of the upgraded Sherman, called the ‘Firefly’, were ordered in January 1944, and by the time of D-Day the first few hundred were allocated to units on the basis of one Firefly per troop of 4 tanks.
The Firefly was popular and proved effective as a destroyer of the German ‘Big Cats’ (though of course it retained the relatively thin armour of the Sherman), and served throughout the European campaign, before being retired as the new Centurion tank (itself initially armed with the 17-pounder) entered service from 1945.
Solido released a model of the M4 Sherman tank in 1972, and re-used the lower hull and running gear of the model in a series of other vehicles including the M3 Lee tank that historically preceded the Sherman, the M7 priest self-propelled howitzer and the M10 tank destroyer. However, Solido did not produce a model of the Firefly, or any of the other variants of the Sherman for that matter.
Into this gap stepped Stretton Models, a family-run business in the UK. Between 1997 and 2002, long after Solido ceased creating new military models, a new range of vehicles created by Stretton Models was released through the Verem brand (owned by Solido). Stretton Models usually reused Solido chassis and running gear, but cast new upper hulls and turrets in white metal or resin, and assembled and painted the models with new, sometimes more complex, colour schemes.
The Stretton Firefly
Stretton Models SM-29b or 33 Sherman Firefly
Year first produced:1997
L151xW58xH56, Metal 425g, Scale 1:50, Features: 3
Two things immediately mark out the Firefly as different to a standard Solido model: the paint finish is a matt green, and the tracks are dulled when compared to the bright silver of most Solido models. The hull of the model is assembled from Solido components and is identical to the Solido Sherman, except that several items of stowage have been added to the front glacis and the rear left on the upper hull, which gives it a slightly more ‘authentic’ cluttered look. The underside of the hull and the wheels are plastic, and the sides and upper hull are the usual hefty Mazak metal pieces. The wheels and tracks move freely in typical Solido style.
On the underside of the hull are to be found the following marks
“solido”, “MADE IN FRANCE” & “SHERMAN M4 A3”.
When Solido modelled the Sherman, they created the M4A3 version, the version most supplied to US forces, and used amongst others versions by the French army. Unfortunately, this mark of the tank was never used by the British and thus not converted to the Firefly. Most Fireflies were M4A4 tanks, which had a larger engine than the M4A3 and required a slightly elongated hull.
Now, the visual differences between marks of Sherman are fairly limited, and arguably dwarfed by differences between tanks of the same mark made by different manufacturers in different batches. As a result, there are only really two aspects of the hull that bother me. One of these is that Solido made the hull too wide (it scales out roughly to 1:45), which has the effect of making the turret look too small when seen from above. The other is that Stretton Models left the hull machine gun in place, whereas part of the Firefly conversion involved removing it to make room for ammunition stowage for the 17-pounder. It could so easily have been replaced with a flat plate, just like they did in real life!
So how about the turret? As far as I can tell, the turret and gun are metal. The long barrel of the 17-pounder stretches out in front of the hull as it should, the bustle has been added at the rear of the turret, and the new loader’s hatch has been added to the top. The turret turns and the gun elevates. It’s nicely done, but there are a couple of oddities: the bustle is a little small and the mantlet (the armour plate surrounding the gun) curves upward at the bottom, which is a feature I can’t see in any of my references.
As we have seen, there are some inaccuracies both in the inheritance from Solido and the new parts fashioned by Stretton Models. Nevertheless, overall, the model is clearly from the same Solido stable. What I think marks it out is the finish. I like the matt paint scheme, dulled tracks and additional stowage. The combined effect is to advertise a model that is intended more for display than play, and this marks it out from the original Solido models.
Nearly 50,000 Shermans were built during WW2, so it’s not surprising that there were many variants of the tank produced during the war. After the war, several countries updated their Shermans, usually by installing new guns. In 1992 Solido dipped a toe into this and created a curious hybrid, their 6078 Egyptian Sherman equipped with the diminutive turret from their AMX-13 model. The result looks extremely ungainly, but it was a real tank!
When it came to creating new components however, they mainly left it to Stretton Models.
Stretton produced many Solido conversions, including the following (but note that as these were hand-built in limited numbers they can be hard to find):
- SM17 Sherman M4A1 which had a rounded, cast hull
- SM32 The M4A1 variant of the Firefly
- SM39 An M4A1 with new turret holding a higher velocity 76mm gun
- SM40 The M4A3 equivalent of the above
- SM44 The M32 Armoured Recovery Vehicle, a Sherman hull equipped with a crane
- SM45 The M34 Prime Mover, an M32 stripped down to tow heavy artillery
The plethora of new models included some fairly obscure vehicles (for example, in the real world only 24 M34s were built), but the range was limited to those that could be based on the Solido hull and running gear. Many late and post-war Shermans including those used in the Korean War and by the Israelis in their many conflicts were based on the more effective HVSS suspension system, which looks completely different and would have required Stretton Models to build the new models from scratch. Ah well, you can’t have everything!