Matchbox Skybusters – Scale

How Big is It?

Fitting the Box

Matchbox, like other manufacturers of the time, made their models to fit the box. This was convenient for the manufacturer and retailers, because they could handle a single size of product, but as a consequence meant that models in the same range were produced to varying scales. In fact, the scale of an individual model is not usually stated.

What does this mean for Skybusters models? Let’s examine the question by taking two aircraft of widely differing size.

Little and Large

Both of our subjects were designed in the 1960s, a period when air transport was growing rapidly, and both were primarily designed to carry passengers.

The Cessna 402 light transport aircraft.

The David of our story is the Cessna 402, a light aircraft with twin piston-engines, which first flew commercially in 1966. Typically, it could carry 9 passengers in a non-pressurised cabin, had a good range of almost 1,500 miles, and a maximum speed of 266mph. It measured just over 11 metres in length.

A 402 on the tarmac – note the nearby passengers can easily see over the wing.

The 402 was a relatively simple aircraft and cheap to operate, and more than 1,000 were built during the twenty years of its production. 

Our Goliath is the Boeing 747, which revolutionised long-distance mass air travel when it entered service in 1970. The Jumbo Jet, as it was called, represented a significant step up in capacity and performance compared to previous airliners.

An early 747 with undercarriage deployed.

The four underwing engines could drive the plane at a speed of 560mph and the aircraft carried fuel for a range of 5,300 miles. The wide-bodied fuselage could pack in 366 passengers, and a distinctive bulged top on the forward part of the hull allowed for a second floor, which was initially configured as a swanky lounge, but was later turned over to more seating. All of these capacities were progressively increased in successive upgrades, from the initial 747-100 through to the final 747-400 series. The 747 therefore provided powerful economies of scale, and the aircraft was very successful with more than 1,500 being built.

This publicity shot shows just how capacious the passenger accommodation is in the Jumbo Jet.

Both aircraft were successful in their niches, but as you can see, they were positioned at opposite ends of the air transport scale. As a simple yardstick to their difference in size, the 747 was over 70 metres in length, and thus approximately 6 and a half times longer than the Cessna.

Skybusters SB9 Cessna 402

Matchbox Skybusters SB9 Cessna 402

Year first produced:1973

L88xW103xH32, Metal 51g, Scale 1:128, Features: 2

The Cessna model is composed of the usual two diecast parts, one for the upper fuselage & tail, and the other with the lower fuselage and wings. They have been joined in the usual way, projecting spigots from the upper casting passing through holes in the lower, and then being flattened out to secure the join. Surface detail is light, with only the ailerons and elevators being marked out.

A clear plastic windscreen has been inserted into the front of the cabin (though the side windows of the cabin remain unglazed). Three-bladed propellers in black plastic are fixed to the front of the engine nascelles, where they spin freely.

On the underside of the model the undercarriage can be viewed. It is of the early, simple type used by Matchbox in the initial releases, consisting of shaped wire with black plastic wheels, one at the nose and one under each nascelle. As with the propellers, the wheels rotate.

The markings on the underside are copious:

“MATCHBOX ®”, “© 1974 LESNEY PROD. & Co. LTD.”, “PAT.APP.FOR.”, “S.P.9. CESSNA 402.” and “MADE IN ENGLAND.”.

It appears from early castings that Matchbox originally intended to number their system using an SP prefix, but very quickly switched to SB. Since SB presumably reflects the Skybuster name, perhaps this hints that they were originally to be named differently, e.g. Skypower or Skyplanes or something similar. Idle speculation, of course!

The underside of our model shows the early wire undercarriage legs.

The decoration is fairly simple. The castings will have been painted prior to assembly (hence the typically two-colour scheme of most Skybusters): the upper has been painted metallic green, while the lower is white. Stickers have been applied to the fin and the top of the nascelles.

The 402 is one of my favourite Skybusters, mainly because I have a soft spot for twin-engined propeller aircraft (I can’t tell you why, they just appeal to me!), but also for a reason which I will come back to when discussing the effects of scale later in this story. By the way, the scale of this model works out at approximately 1:128 based on its length & width.

Skybusters SB10 Boeing 747

Matchbox Skybusters SB9 Boeing 747

Year first produced:1973

L111xW93xH34, Metal 55g, Scale 1:639, Features: 1

As with the Cessna, so the Boeing is composed of two diecast metal parts. The upper fuselage & tailfin is one piece, and the other covers the lower fuselage with wings, engines and horizontal stabilisers. At the front of the upper fuselage the bulge over the upper cabin is visible; the flaps, ailerons and elevators are marked out on the wings; and the blades of the engine are visible inside the front of the engine.

The underside of the 747.

Turn the plane over and you can immediately see that the undercarriage is of a different construction to that on the Cessna, a more robust form that was introduced soon after the initial releases. This tells us that our model is not from the very early years, when the 747 would have been fitted with the same wire undercarriage seen on our Cessna. Instead, at the front of the fuselage are a pair of black plastic wheels on a short metal axle, inserted through a leg, again made from black plastic. Further back is another pair, this time set on a longer axle threaded through a wider attachment.

The usual array of marks are visible:


Some of the markings – those referring to Matchbox International and Macau – are in raised cartouches, signifying that they were added to the mould some time after it was originally made. This makes sense if we consider that SB10 was originally released in 1973, when the models were made in England, but that Matchbox switched its production to Macau in 1983. Thus, our model dates from 1983 or later.

The upper casting is white and the lower light grey. Along the sides of the fuselage, it appears that pad printing has been used to apply British Caledonian markings, while the tailfin carries stickers with the British Caledonian lion. British Caledonian operated several 747s between 1982 and 1988, so this ties in nicely with the dating discussed above.

Based on the length and width of the model, it has been made at a scale of approximately 1:639.


As we have seen, the Cessna and the Boeing models are similarly sized, despite the former subject being far smaller than the latter. To achieve this, Matchbox reduced the 402 by a factor of 1:128, and the 747 by 1:639.

The two models side by side.

The benefits of having all of the models roughly the same size are obvious, and relate to convenience and controlling costs. Manufacturing could be geared to a single size of product; packaging could be standardised and shared across the range; retail displays could be tailored to that packaging.

However, without knowing the scale of the models (something Matchbox never stated), it would have been impossible for an owner to accurately determine the size of the aircraft that they represent without reference to books (remember, these models were produced in the pre-Internet Dark Ages). Of course, most owners would probably understand that a 747 was a larger aircraft than the 402, but by how much, and how big was each?

It isn’t easy to determine answers by examining the surface detail of the castings, which is sparse. Even where it does exist, many aircraft parts are simply bigger on bigger aircraft: hence the ailerons and elevators which are marked on both models are of roughly the same dimensions.

Furthermore, Matchbox standardised the wheels and undercarriage components of the Skybuster range, so both of our models have the same size wheels regardless of the dimensions of the originals. In fact, this practice disguises the bulk of the 747, which in real life had 16 wheels: two at the nose, as per the model, and four sets of four under the fuselage roughly where the model has two single wheels. If rendered to scale, these wheels would be tiny (a leg with 4 wheels would of roughly the same size as an engine), a strong visual clue that the aircraft is truly huge.

Note the overscale wheels at the nose of the 747 by comparing to the windows and doors on the hull transfer!

By contrast, the wheels on the model Cessna are only slightly oversized compared to those on the real aircraft. Because of this, the Cessna just ‘looks right’ when standing, and this is the other reason that I like the model.

Returning to the disparity of scale, a better approach is to compare something related to the human users of the craft. For example, the size of the passenger windows, which are minute on the transfers on the side of the 747, but quite large openings on the 402. Thus, the 402 must be a far smaller aircraft.

Nevertheless, I suspect that most owners would be surprised by just how tiny the real Cessna is compared to the 747. The photo below gives a rough idea of how the two models would look if they were to scale with each other.

The two models shown at roughly the same scale, courtesy of some simple Photoshop magic.

I guess it is a matter of opinion as to how much this issue of scale is a concern. Many children – the target audience for the range – will not have cared in the slightest as they played with the models. But to us adults, I think it is a drawback. The lack of stated scales, and the failure to adopt a single scale, or at least a limited number of scales, can mislead the unwary observer, and prevents comparative study. Furthermore, if Matchbox had adopted one or more of the ‘standard’ modelling scales, e.g. 1:144, it would have been possible to mix collections with other sources.

However, this is perhaps a little hard on Matchbox, who were, after all, making toys, not precision models. We should be thankful that the Skybusters are a source of broadly accurate, robust and cheap models of a variety of aircraft. After all, as we shall see in a further story, their competitors showed a similar disregard for scale…


In the late 1980s when Matchbox was owned by Mattel, they produced a new version of the Boeing 747, SB31 Boeing 747-400. This was made in China, has a plastic lower hull and wings, retaining metal only for the upper fuselage and tailfin. The 400 series was the final major upgrade to the 747, and can be recognised by the lengthened upper cabin bulge (introduced on the 300 series) and upturned wing tips.

The 747-400 model. Note the imaginary ‘MBX’ (Matchbox) livery on our example.

Other civilian aircraft in the Skybusters range include:

  • SB1 Learjet
  • SB19 Piper Comanche
  • SB28 Airbus A300

Author: hexeres

Amateur photographer, military toy enthusiast, footslogger, dog lover, history buff and ebay trader to mention just a few...

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