As we have seen before on this website (for example, with Solido and Wiking), manufacturers love to release their models many times over, by changing the colour schemes and/or the accessories. Completist collectors can be driven to distraction by this practice – so many models with so many variations to find, and some of them exceedingly rare! Luckily, I don’t share this mania because some of the Skybuster range have many, many variants. But nonetheless, let’s take a look at the practice, using just a few of the most easily available models, to see what fun can be had.
A Skybusters Helicopter
The first Skybusters helicopter was SB20, released in 1977. It was described in the Matchbox catalogues simply as ‘Helicopter’. Two years later, a second helicopter appeared, SB25 entitled ‘Rescue Helicopter’. Neither of these releases were ever identified as being models of specific helicopters, and, moreover, they are obviously the same casting! So, we begin with something of an enigma. Let’s start our exploration by looking at one example of SB20.
Matchbox Skybusters SB20 Helicopter
Year first produced:1977
L105xW102xH35, Metal 36g, Scale 1:110?, Features: 2
Our model consists of the usual two-piece metal casting, a yellow lower fuselage attached to a white upper part including the tail. The castings are shaped but quite smooth, save for markings outlining the cabin doors. Three plastic mouldings are fitted to the upper casting; an off-white cabin interior with seats, a clear glazing piece and silver engines on the roof.
A four-bladed rotor is fitted, secured by a long round-headed pin that passes through the cabin and is secured at the bottom of the model. At the rear is a two-bladed tail rotor, secured through the tail with a short pin. Both rotors are made from flexible black plastic, and both spin freely.
Underneath the fuselage we can see the standard Skybuster undercarriage arrangement: two nose wheels, and two main wheels more widely spaced, on metal axles threaded through plastic fixings that themselves are gripped between the lower fuselage and protruding lugs from the plastic cabin moulding. The wheels rotate. As can be seen, the model is a slightly more complex assembly than other Skybusters, with a total of 17 pieces that I can identify.
The bottom of the model has the following markings:
“MATCHBOX®”, “© 1976”, “MADE IN ENGLAND”, “LESNEY PROD. & Co. Ltd” and “PAT.APP”.
Note that there is no model number on the underside, but on the plastic rear rotor we find “SB-20/1 2” marked.
The paint scheme for our model is simple: yellow on the lower casting, and white on the upper. There are no stickers or decals.
So, what does the model represent? As noted, Matchbox never claimed a real-world inspiration for this model. The type of helicopter is fairly clear: a twin-engined transport.
The cabin seems capable of accommodating, at a guess, 6-10, it has a four-blade rotor, distinctive deep scallops on the cabin roof for the engine intakes, fairings on the rear fuselage for a retractable undercarriage, and a simple tail shape.
The model was released in 1976, and Skybusters tended to focus on contemporary aircraft. Two likely helicopters of that era are the Bell 222 and the SA 365 Dauphin, but neither is a good match.
Sue Richardson (Diecast Toy Aircraft, New Cavendish 1997) labelled the model as a Bell 222, but I’m not sure why. The 222 is a medium transport twin-engined craft, but note the two-blade rotor, the raised profile of the cabin roof without scallops, and the prominent tail stabilisers either side of the tail. The cabin nose is suitably pointed, but the cabin windows are different and the undercarriage fairings are far larger. I can believe that Matchbox may have decided to omit the tail stabilisers for simplicity sake, and maybe they just liked a four-blade rotor more than two, but why change the shape of the fuselage?
Matchbox released the model in a giftset referencing the James Bond film Licence to Kill, in which an SA 365 Dauphin helicopter featured. The SA 365 is also a twin-engined transport craft of approximately the right size and look, and has a four-bladed rotor. However, as with the Bell, the cabin windows and the roof are wrong, and the tail stabilisers are missing. Also, the Dauphin lacks the undercarriage fairings, and has a very distinctive enclosed tail rotor. So our model really can’t be of this aircraft.
Having checked and rejected various other machines, I don’t think the model represents an actual helicopter, though it was probably inspired by craft such as the Bell or Dauphin. Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time that Matchbox have created fantasy aircraft. But, dear reader, if you know different then please leave a comment below!
Over the years, there were many variations of this model in the Skybusters range. Rather than try to follow them all chronologically, let’s just dive into a sample and feel the variety.
There are two main ways in which the various models vary. They have different paint and decals schemes, and there are differences in the rotors and undercarriage. Obviously, and this is the point from a commercial point of view, the metal castings remain the same. The new versions are all ways of generating fresh revenue to offset the research, design and toolmaking costs incurred in creating the original dies.
There is a good variety of colour schemes in the models shown: white, red or blue with white underside, and yellow, blue or green overall. Markings identify various services including the AF, US Army, police and air ambulance. Some of these schemes are broadly historical, for example the yellow RAF Rescue helicopter, the US army craft and the colours of the Shell transport, but most are imaginary.
The model has been released with wheels or skids, and also with either four or two-bladed main rotors. The initial models of SB20 all had wheels and a four-bladed rotor, while SB25 had skids and a two-bladed rotor. However, over time, as further releases of SB20 were made, this rigid distinction appears to have been dropped and so there are plenty of examples of SB20 with two-bladed rotors, and most (but not all) of these have skids. However, to be completely nerdy for a moment, I don’t think there has ever been an SB20/25 with skids and four-bladed rotor.
Even with the few examples I have illustrated, you can see that Skybusters come in all colours, and with variation in configuration. Whether this excites or annoys you, or just leaves you cold, will depend on how badly you have the collecting habit! And a word of warning: I haven’t even strayed into the dark area of unintended variations, where batches of models may be assembled with oddly coloured parts owing to mistakes or shortages or the using up of older stock; the factory models with prototype colour schemes that never entered production; and the models repainted with or without permission. Take care, it can be a minefield out there…
There are several helicopters in the Skybusters range, including:
- SB33 Bell Jet Ranger
- SB35 Mil Mi-24 Hind
- SB79 Robertson R44