Matchbox 1/72 Brewster Buffalo (OOB)

It can be tough to go first. You can ask any stand-up comedian or elementary school student who ever had to do a speech or give a presentation in class about that. Generally going first means that everyone is paying strict attention to you, and you can sometimes be subjected to some unreasonable expectations. Of course, it also means that everybody can learn from your mistakes, putting you at something of a disadvantage.  The same is true in aeronautics. Radically new concepts, as applied to military aircraft, often result in planes that have “being first” as their one and only positive distinction. History is full of “Ground breakers” that just didn’t quite work out.

Think of the first jet planes… they weren’t good for anything but research, and the P-59 wasn’t even a match for the piston-and-prop best-of-the-day.  Early Naval jets like the Attacker and Pirate are so mediocre that they’re no more than footnotes. However, before the jet, there was another major aeronautical transition that had to be made; the transition from biplane to monoplane. This happened at different times in different places, but as the 1930’s progressed, it became apparent that  the whole “stacked wing thing” just wasn’t going to cut it forever. With an eye towards the future, then, the US Navy issued, in 1935, a specification for a new naval fighter. This would replace the then-current Grumman F3F fighter biplane.

The winner of that competition was the Brewster Buffalo. At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss the portly Buffalo as little more than a transitional airframe. It’s short, stumpy, hunchbacked and decidedly straddles the fence between the biplanes that came before and the WWII powerhouses that came after. However, in its day, it was a fairly high-tech piece of kit (that’s Kit, with a “K”, not what you might be thinking…). It had retractable undercarriage and was equipped with an arrestor hook and other essential naval equipment. It had an enclosed cockpit and was fairly nimble, despite its rather pulchritudinous dimensions. The fact that it was Brewster, and not the famous Grumman company, that had secured the Navy’s order for its first monoplane fighter was definitely a feather in the cap of Dayton T. Brown and his engineering staff. In fact, I’ve been told that in the front lobby of the Dayton T. Brown Inc. (they do engineering testing and other similar work today) building there is STILL a giant painting of a Buffalo.

Unfortunately, like other “firsts”, the Buffalo suffered by being at the bottom of the learning curve. It’s also not a platform that aged well. Some planes you can do almost anything to, and they still stay viable. Sadly, the Buffalo was not such a bird. As it was developed and things like armour and radio gear was added, its weight grew, leading to reduced speed and maneuverability. By the time the Second World War had broken out, the poor Buffalo was pretty much outclassed by nearly every other fighter in the world, and certainly by the excellent machines of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Apparently, the F2A-2 version was quite well liked and somewhat capable, but by the time the F2A-3 entered service, the machine had grown to have a weight commensurate with its porcine appearance.

Thus, to the unfortunate Marines and Navy pilots who had to face down Zeros during the Battle of Midway, the Buffalo was little more than a rather corpulent albatross around their necks. The plane had little success, and just like the first monoplane torpedo bomber of the US Navy (the TBD Devastator), the Buffalo had Midway as its American swansong. However, unlike the Devastator, the F2A actually DID have some success, both militarily and sales-wise overseas. Given the rather unimpressive demeanor and solidly pedestrian qualities of the plane, it found considerable love in terms of export sales. The British and Dutch both operated the Buffalo in South East Asia. The British machines were heavier and had less power than the American ones, and so had the same troubles as the Americans did with the Japanese A6Ms and Ki-43s. Of course, the results were no better. The Dutch had more luck, because their Buffalos were lighter, but even so, it was a losing battle. The Belgians also ordered some Buffalos, but the arrival of the Blitzkrieg put a stop to their delivery.

The only people who had success with, and in fact liked, the Buffalo were the Finnish. They had a lighter of the early F2A-1, and once they put in 4x .50 Cal machine guns, they found the long(ish) range and stability of the Buffalo a major plus against the Soviets. Despite being massively outnumbered, the Finnish Buffalos made the Russians pay dearly, and Finnish Buffalo pilots ended up with an unbelievable kill ratio of around 33:1. (Note, sources vary slightly, but you get the point…) The fact that the last Buffalo combat sorties were in late 1944 (albeit against the Luftwaffe) and that they continued to fly until 1948 says a lot about the apparently sound basic design of the aircraft.

Despite the Finnish success, though, the Buffalo was really not a “winner” in the normal sense. It wasn’t around long, and was usually on the receiving end of beatings. Given this, then, it is something of a surprise that the Buffalo has been served so well by plastic kit makers! There is what really amounts to a huge number of choices for your Buffalo modelling in 1/72, and there are even some kits in 1/144! Of course, there’s also the Tamiya 1/48,  and Special Hobby 1/32 (!) if you like your Buffalos bigger. For me though, despite owning the Farpro Buffalo and an ancient Revell one, the most desirable kit of the Buffalo is (no surprise) the Matchbox offering.

So, I like old Buffalo(e)s, okay? Don’t judge me! Here you can see the Matchbox’s competition… as if there’s anything better than a Matchbox!

I’ve wanted this kit for a long time, and despite having built up a considerable stash of Matchbox kits over the last decade or so, I’ve never seen a Buffalo. In fact, until just recently, I’d only ever seen one – and that was a model my brother bought as a present for a friend’s birthday, back when he was 8!! So, in the last three decades or so, I’ve been searching for my own Mbox Buffalo. It wasn’t until HeritageCon 13 that I managed to snag one.  Since it seems that there are a lot of people out there (well, 9 of you at least) that wanted to see this little guy reviewed, and since I was eager to do so myself, let’s dive into this classic and see what we can see!

The Box:

The boxing that I have is the oldest version, I believe, with the white border and the full-artwork. It also has the window on the back so you can see the parts through it. However, we’ll get to that in a bit. Sadly, my box seems to have been on the bottom of a stack of much larger kits, because it was badly squashed and in not so good shape. However, even being an “elephant’s step stool” can’t diminish the awesomeness that is old Matchbox box art. If you’ve ever read an OOB review of a Matchbox by me, you know that I’m pretty much a sucker for all of their old box art. This one is no exception.

Let’s face it; it’s tough making the portly, stumpy and almost clumsy Buffalo look dynamic. However, that’s exactly what this box art does! Front and center is a British-marked Buffalo with all four guns blazing. Right away you get a feel for just how oddly proportioned the plane is; it’s like an Egg Plane, but for real. (Actually, an Egg Plane Buffalo would likely be almost the same as the real thing… interesting.) On one hand, it looks powerful, like a GeeBee racer, being mostly engine. However, it also looks odd, and this isn’t helped by the fact that for such a big engine, there’s only one tiny exhaust pipe visible.

This is the most dynamic the Buffalo is likely to ever look. Sadly, the box is crumpled, but it still shows the frenetic dogfight to good effect!

Adding to the slight sense of the surreal is the fact that while they are indeed “blazing”, the guns don’t seem to be creating a very big impression. This is a very good visual way of making the rotund fighter look like it’s trying hard, but coming up short. While nicely rendered in typical period style, the real action on this box art is in the background. Behind the main illustration all kinds of stuff is happening! There’s another Buffalo pursuing what is likely a Zero, again with meagre weapons ablaze. This time, though, the victim is in-frame, and he’s already trailing smoke. So, you get the impression that maybe, despite the oddity of design, the battle isn’t going to be all against the Buffalo.

Below the main plane is another Zero, that appears to be breaking away, and plummeting downwards is a dark shape trailing smoke. Closer inspection shows this to be a Buffalo, and thus the scales are evened. The frantic furball of this dogfight is accentuated by the horizon line, which seems to be at about 45 degrees, and the trails of smoke and whispy clouds that help to break up the sky. Below, there are fields and a river, and maybe some islands, too, looking just below the Matchbox writing.  One thing that really jumps out is the “one white, one black” wing undersides on the Buffalo; this is similar to how RAF planes were painted in the early part of the war in Europe, before the evacuation at Dunkirk. It’s a weird scheme to see on a model, so to see it “in action” adds a lot of visual interest to an already dynamic and involving piece of art.

At the bottom of the picture is the classic educational caption. I love this about old Matchbox kits. You’d learn something about the subject just from this one or two line description. In this case, it describes the action as being Jan 12, 1942. Apparently, this was the first engagement by the RNZAF No. 488 squadron. It occurred over Singapore, and they lost 2 Buffalos with a further 5 damaged, against 27  Japanese fighters. Interesting. It’s very nice to have some context, especially on a somewhat less well known subject like the Buffalo.

On the side of the box is a cross sell for other Matchboxes. I’m afraid to say none of them really entice me, but that’s because they’re all “famous” subjects.  On the other side of the box is a multilingual writeup about the kit, and a small picture of a red and white Buffalo. It turns out that red and white are the two colours that the kit comes moulded in! I have read in some old (about 1978) Matchbox kit catalogues that they moulded their kits in two colours so that you could, as an inexperienced builder, get a result that was passable and dynamic even without painting. This is many decades before Bandai started doing the same thing with Gundams, so you have to give Matchbox credit where it’s due. However, in this case, I think the colours are entirely awful, and totally ridiculous. I mean, brown and green, or blue and grey (for a USN machine) or even green and white, sure. But RED and white? WTF? Where is there a RED Buffalo? Nowhere. Even silver and yellow (like prewar USN Buffaloes) might have been acceptable. But RED?? No.

Here we can see how the kit turns out if you don’t paint it. It looks almost cartoonishly sunburnt!

On the back of the box is the usual full-colour paint plan, with full callouts as to what the markings represent. Like all Purple Range kits, the Buffalo comes with two sets of markings. One is for the 448 Sqn. RNZAF as seen on the cover. The other is for Group V of the Dutch forces, as stationed in the Dutch East Indies in 1941. Bogh are green/brown cammo on top, with the Dutch machine having a grey underside, while the RNZAF one has the curious “half and half” of black and what appears to be light blue, or British Sky. (Don’t get me started on why British Sky is some kind of dull grey green. Is that what British skies are like?) there’s a window to the right of the illustrations, and sure enough, you can see some red plastic and some light grey-green plastic as well as one of those old stands. It’s at this point I realized that the illustration on the side wasn’t quite accurate, and at least the sky colour looks appropriate as a military colour. Still…. RED??

Here’s the back of the box. You can see that the two colours in the box don’t really fit with the full-colour paint plans. RED??

The Kit:

As to be expected, there’s not a lot in the Buffalo’s box. For one reason, it’s a Matchbox kit; they’re not known for their ludicrously high part count. Also, it’s a BUFFALO; there’s not much TO a Buffalo in the first place! Even knowing that, though, I was amazed at how small the thing was. It really does look more like an Egg Plane, or some other SD kind of thing. The wings are so small, and the body’s so short. My comparison earlier to the GeeBee series really struck me as correct once I had this guy loose from his carton.

In the box there are two sprues of coloured plastic. As advertised, and seen through the window box, they are indeed red and some sky-ish grey/green/cream/seasick-face colour. There’s an old (and small) stand, and the canopy, both in clear. The instruction book on my example is very war-weary, being dingy, ripped and curled. Still, it smells like musty basement, and that makes me happy! (Note: Your love of mildew-y old magazines and books may not be the same as mine. Your mileage may thus vary…) There’s also a decal sheet. It’s hurt, but it’s there, and I’m amazed it’s as intact as it is. I did peel the “tissue paper” off of it, which was an adventure. That was more welded to the decal than I imagine the decals are to their backing paper!

Here’s what you get! there’s not a lot, but it promises to be big on, well, Matchbox-ness! If the red doesn’t scare you, the trenches and iffy raised lines ought to!

Not surprisingly, there are some obvious issues right out of the box. One is that detail… well, it’s not great, shall we say. The “Matchbox Trencher” has been at work on the wings; panel lines there are less than delicate, but they are recessed. Thankfully the “Airfix Riveter” was nowhere to be seen, so there’s not a worry about a million cabbage-head-sized rivets festooning the aircraft! Oddly, the detail on the fuselage is all raised, but is EXTREMELY fine. Matchbox kits often do have this weird dichotomy; it’s no surprise to see it here on the Buffalo!

It’s hard to see here, but the detail on the fuselage is very fine, but raised. It’s amazing how short this thing is!

The cockpit of the plane is largely… not there. There’s a typically uncomfortable-looking seat and a pilot figure. That’s it. No instrument panel, no control stick, no floor, no nothing. When you’re as awesome as the Matchbox Buffalo (or a Farpro), you don’t need that ‘extra stuff’. Lots of cockpit detailing is fiddly and expensive to produce, and it’s no surprise that the Matchbox Buffalo, being from the early ‘70s, eschews such things entirely. Still, given that the canopy is half framing anyway, I don’t know that this is a big deal. Sure, if you like open cockpits it’s going to suck, but then, why would you be building a Matchbox? If you want to superdetail, you can go to town. You don’t have much choice but to do it from scratch. If you just want a fun and simple kit, well… you’re not going to get a case of Advanced Modeller Syndrome here.

(Note: AMS is a crippling condition for some modellers. They become too deeply invested in a kit and the minutea of making a perfect replica. The cure is to just walk away, and build something cheap and dirty, like a Matchbox kit!)

Oddly, there is a bit of detail in the canopy: there’s a tube behind the headrest. I don’t know what it is; maybe a life raft? Whatever it is, it will show up through the canopy, and it’s a nice bit of visible detail that might help distract from the utter lack of it elsewhere! On that note, an area that Matchbox never excelled at is landing gear bays. They are usually just boxed in holes in the wings; no detail of any kind is usually given, and sometimes, they’re not even the right depth for the wheels to be in should anyone ever try! However, the Buffalo has a landing gear bay that does have some detail in it. This is good because of how the gear bay is really a big chunk of the lower forward fuselage!

There’s a bit of detail in the gear bay, seen here. The simple “posts on triangles” to the left are the main gear. No… not great…

The rest of the landing gear aren’t very well detailed, again as per Matchbox’s usual approach to things. Keeping tradition alive as well is the very nice, actually excellent, treatment of the fabric control surfaces. The elevators and ailerons, as well as the rudder, are fabric on the real plane. Matchbox simulates this with a very convincing level of “sag” that seems to outdo many modern kits in terms of scale accuracy and believability. Just as on the Wellesley, the fabric on the Buffalo will likely look great with a bit of pastel shading.

Here you can see the fine fabric “sag”, typically well done on Matchboxes. You can also make out the heavy “trenched” recessed lines!

Oddly, the cowling’s in three pieces, which will make it a bit of a pain. There are large injector pin sink marks on one of the cowl’s “ring” parts. Also, the exhaust are, unsurprisingly, not drilled. Strangely, though, there are no apertures in the cowling for the two machine guns. There are also no wing holes for guns. If you’ve got a pin vise, you can fix this. If you don’t… get one! As expected, the engine on the Buffalo is not great. It’s kind of a radial engine-looking thing on a big background plate. This isn’t all bad, because you can paint it black, or firewall colour and it will look okay with a wash. The cooling fins are nicely rendered, but that’s all you get. Exhausts and wires are all up to you. Or not; again, your choice.

The cooling fins are well represented, but that’s about it for detail on the engine. Sigh…

The canopy is, like most Matchbox transparencies, clear but thick. There’s going to be a lot of distortion, and thank goodness for that! It will hide the cavernous pit that is the interior! There are nicely raised bars that should prove relatively easy to mask. The canopy looks a lot like an Ohmu from Miyazaki’s classic “Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind”, or a cross between an armadillo and a beetle. There’s no open cockpit option here; no loss, really.

That’s a lot of framing. Oh, and distortion too. Matchbox canopies are pretty much all like this. It’s thick and tough, though!

Other odd omissions include the tube-sight for the pilot and guns. The sight is something that doesn’t seem to be on most of the export versions of the Buffalo, but that is there on the US Navy ones. Sometimes. So, that’s up to you if you want it. As with most Matchboxes, you’re going to have to dig a bit more info out of your sources to make sure you’be got it right. More concerning is the fact that there are no gun holes in the wings or cowling for the fighter’s rather light weaponry. Get your pin vise read – you’ll need it if you want to be all “accurate” and stuff.

Instructions and Decals:

The instructions are on a typical sheet for a small, Purple-Range kit. It opens in three parts, and on one side are the instuctions, while on the other one finds colour call outs, the “mini paint plans” and other administrivia. There really isn’t anything too surprising if you’ve built a Matchbox before. If you haven’t built anything before, you’ll still find these instructions to be pretty easy to follow. At this size and level of kit, Matchbox didn’t go out of their way to be fancy.

So, you want to build a Buffalo, eh? Well… this is all it takes. Oh, and patience, and sanity. Still… it’s not going to be a tough kit to assemble!

The decals on my copy are likely shot. However, I still wouldn’t count them out of the fight. Matchbox decals are TOUGH, and at least back in their day, these would have been no exception. They may still work fine. If you get a well-kept copy of the Buffalo, you’ll find the markings for the RNZAF and a Dutch machine. The “sky” band is a bit too turquoise, I’d say, but “RAF Sky” is such an odd colour that it would be hard to match regardless.

Here are the decals. Not likely in great shape, they may still prove to be usable!

Conclusions:

I love the Buffalo. It’s such a loser plane that’s always looked down on, despite actually being having one of the most fearsome combat statistics of all times. It’s the inadequate fighter that massacred the Russians, and it’s a plane that produced a tonne of aces in a number of militaries around the world. It doesn’t seem fair to lump it in with other losers, but when it came down to it, it was largely outclassed everywhere it flew. I find this dichotomous existence fascinating, and have wanted to build a Buffalo for a long time.

Even with owning another two Buffaloes, I can tell you  I like the Matchbox best. The kit has a simple charm and s pocket-money-price mystique  that other brands can’t give you. Yes, the kit redefines basic, and yes it isn’t the most accurate. It has no interior and no guns. It doesn’t even have US Navy decals! However, it does have that simple ruggedness that both the real plane and all other Matchboxes have.

This is a kit intended to be mashed together fast and played with before the glue is quite dry. It’s wild colour scheme and complete lack of fiddly details make it well-suited to the “my first kit” crowd, which is more or less for whom the kit was built and to whom it was marketed. That means if you want to teach someone the basics of modelling, this (and most other) Matchboxes are perfect. The odd mix of raised and trenched panel lines is odd, but again, typically Matchbox and won’t be a deal breaker to someone who doesn’t now better.

If you’re a superdetailer or want a nice, up-to-date kit of the Buffalo, you should go elsewhere. It’s my gut feeling that, with some work, this kit can be made to look quite nice. It won’t be perfect, but no Matchbox ever is. Still, the nice fabric detail is surprisingly good, and the kit is a wonderful canvas upon which to unleash your art. It’ll take a lot of work, but you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment when you’re done!

Too often we get blinded by the “newest and best” thing. It’s easy to discount the old stuff and fall in love with the fruits of progress. Still, there’s a lot to be said for the classics. Just like the Finns found value in their Buffaloes, I think there’s a value to be found in this kit. I know I, for one, am very happy to have it in my collection. If you get a chance, you should pick one up too!

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