Having made model cars and military vehicles for as long as anyone can remember, Matchbox began production of HO scale plastic soldiers in the early 1980s. Though of a slightly smaller scale than the figures from Airfix etc., the good quality of the first sets boded well for a fine and successful range. Sadly production ceased after only nine sets, all of which matched their range of mainly World War II tanks and vehicles, but what there is of it is well worth a look. As a British company, it is not surprising that they began with a set of WWII British infantry and tank crew.
The first thing to say about Matchbox sets is that you get an awful lot of poses for your money. 17 in this case - as good as or better than most of the output from Airfix. This means you can portray a wide range of weapons and activities while still having good numbers of regular riflemen. The poses here are pretty good and have been very well sculpted with plenty of action. There are no less than three officers - one in a coat and peaked cap and the other two wearing berets. Finally there is a member of the Tank Regiment holding binoculars and with his hand raised as if signalling.
Apart from the tank man and the senior officer, all the men wear standard British battledress that saw service throughout the War. For some reason the trousers are missing the large map pocket on the front left thigh and the smaller field-dressing pocket on the right side as well as any pockets on the rear. The blouse however is correctly sculpted. All the helmets are of the Mk I / Mk II pattern (there was little difference between them) that is most associated with the British infantryman during the War. Webbing is in all cases the 37 pattern, consisting mostly of the two front pouches and waterbottle and (very short) bayonet frog. Some also have the haversack or 'small pack' worn on the back, and a few have the entrenching tool.
There is a good range of weapons on these men. Most common is the rifle, but there are also examples of men using a Sten gun, a Bren gun, a flame-thrower and some sort of anti-tank device that resembles an American M1 bazooka. This last has been poorly done, with the weapon passing right through the right-hand half of the operator's head. This avoids any excess plastic but looks pretty silly and not a little painful! More to the point, the British seem rarely if ever to have used the US bazooka, preferring their own PIAT for anti-tank duties. Some examples were supplied by the Americans, but it is doubtful they were ever used in combat. A heavier machine gun is also included with an operator and a man feeding the ammo. We were not able to exactly identify this device, but it clearly is not being used in any case as there is no empty belt appearing from the other side of the barrel, and the gunner can be seen to be holding the crank handle! The most likely candidate for this weapon is of course the Vickers, since it has a water jacket, but if so then it is much simplified (it has no condenser and the tripod is very basic), so not a great model. Finally, two crew are feeding a mortar. The mortar is the standard Matchbox device, a crude and massively simplified piece that makes no attempt to accurately reflect any specific device used by the British or anyone else.
The sculpting of the figures was, right from the start, pretty good on this range. The clothing is well done with the right level of bagginess in the battledress, and the faces are nice and lively. There is generally a good level of detail on the weapons, apart from the comments made above, particularly the mortar, which is crude in the extreme. Many of the figures have a flat feel to them however, despite a fair amount of action in many of the poses, with some bodies rather too square to the mould, leaving an awkward pose. As with other Matchbox sets, where the bayonet is fixed to the rifle it is a short affair that barely looks capable of peeling fruit much less terrifying an opponent. Otherwise the general proportions are good, and on the examples we photographed there was almost no flash, but this does vary quite a bit between batches (as you might expect on a set of this age), and some have a fair amount of flash all round the seam.
All the figures are on very slender bases, which makes them less able to withstand jolts than those from other manufacturers (and contributes to the flat feel of some). However the overall impression from this set is positive. The mistakes and shortcuts that were taken are to be regretted, and like most manufacturers Matchbox were to improve their quality as further sets were developed.