Of all the campaigns and theatres in WWII, one of the most fluid was the Desert War that raged in Africa from the Italian declaration of war on June 10, 1940 until the surrender of Italian and German forces in Tunisia in May, 1943. Given that this is almost three years (half of the war’s duration) of continuous, hard fighting in some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet, it’s not difficult to see how this long-running fight would become a major point in military history. Everyone who knows history knows the names of men like Rommel and Montgomery, as well as places like El-Alamein and Sidi Barrani. Two of the most famous outfits in the history armoured warfare, the Afrika Korps and the Desert Rats, clashed in the western deserts.
One of the perhaps lesser known, and certainly less sexy-sounding outfits that also operated in the trackless North African wastes was the LRDG – the Long Range Desert Group. This was not an armoured group, but rather an intelligence-gathering, reconnaissance and harassment(raiding) unit. Using light and medium wheeled vehicles, the LRDG seldom went to battle with any artillery heavier than a heavy machine gun mounted on their Jeeps or trucks. However, this apparent deficiency in weight of fire belied the cunning, guile, tenacity and sheer talent for camouflage and subterfuge that the unit possessed.
The LRDG operated deep behind enemy lines, cutoff from most forms of support, and could rely only on their own abilities to get to where they needed to be. They were experts of open-desert navigation techniques, as well as innovators in dynamic camouflage. Their importance to the Allied (largely British) victory in the desert cannot be overstated; information sent back by the LRDG to Allied commanders allowed them to outmaneuver the Afrika Korps. In addition, the LRDG often acted as guides for other divisions or ferried special forces across the desert where no-one else could.
Because their exploits are the very best stuff of British Boy’s Adventure Annuals, the LRDG and their vehicles have been something that many post-war children grew up reading about. The sheer adventurousness, ingenuity, and balls-out, iron-willed courage possessed by each of these desert raiders is as inspirational now as it was then. The Herculean deeds of a small, elite group alone in an unforgiving environment has “epic tales” written all over it. Especially in the British Commonwealth, I’m sure there are many who still thrill to their historical record today.
It’s no surprise, then, that model makers have been producing models of the LRDG’s Jeeps and trucks for decades. The dusty, tarped and equipment-burdened forms of these mechanical camels have long held a fascination for modellers all across the world. It’s also no surprise that Matchbox, a quintessentially British company, would make a model of this quintessentially British outfit. Of course, Matchbox approached the subject in their usual, slightly unorthodox way.
As you know, I have a big, BIG thing for Matchbox Armour, and I go gaga every time I have the chance to pick up one of these oddly-scaled, old-school goodies. One thing I have recently been anticipating is which of the Orange-range kits Revell will reissue next. Thanks to them, I’ve managed to acquire a number of the larger Matchbox kits. However, I still would rather have an original. Then, wouldn’t you know it, my friend Alan sent me a Care Package of awesome sprue in the mail, and there it was, an original LRDG!
So, let’s check it out, and see how the masters did it before Revell reissued it in 2007.
If you know me, then you know I’m going to be all over this sweet, sweet box art like polio vaccine on a sugar cube. You know I hold Matchbox box art in the highest regard, and that, for some reason, I find their box illustrations have a magic hold on me that just make me buy the kit. This is truest of all on their armour kits. Heck, I never wanted to build much armour or collect it until I hit that flea market with all the old Matchbox armour. Sadly, I didn’t buy them all, but I got a good chunk of them!
Well, this box continues that tradition of gritty realism, and great hand-painted level of attention to detail that only old-school art seems to have. It’s warm (not the least because of the desert tones) and rich and full and just projects an aura of impending danger and adventure. No CGI, no matter how well-detailed will ever match this. It just can’t.
The box shows both subjects, the Willys Jeep and Chevy 1.5 Ton truck powering their way through a very sun-bleached tract of desert. The sky in the background is white, the colours muted, almost washed out; it makes you think you should put on sunglasses just to look at it. It conveys that overexposed harshness of the climate very well. In the background there’s a hazy hill/mountain-thing, and to left end of the box is a stand of palm (or palm-like) trees. The two vehicles are clearly in motion, kicking up dust as they go.
The vehicles themselves are crewed by two men apiece, and are bristling with guns and overburdened with cans, rolls, boxes and Lord-knows what other kids of stowage. Both vehicles have their windows folded down, and exhibit a skeletal toothlessness; the Jeep’s grille especially is missing most of its bars. The scene is one that conveys the lash-up nature of the equipment and speaks to the dynamic ingenuity and spirit of the crews. It’s a simple illustration that transports you immediately to an exotic, dangerous place, teeming with adventure and death at any and every misstep. This box really looks like the cover of an old “Warlord” annual or a similar WWII-based comic.
On one side of the box is a back view of the two vehicles, painted by the same artist, I suspect. From here, we get an even better idea of the “everything but the kitchen sink” cargo these vehicles are toting. The back of the jeep is entirely filled with Gerry Cans, and it has TWO spare tires! What other Jeeps carried two spares?? The skyward-pointed heavy machine gun frames the Jeep-gunner’s head, and here we see that there are additional forward-firing guns, likely Bren Guns. These, on second look, are in the main illustration, but they’re hard to see on the hood – the look like all the other junk strapped on there. The back of the Chevy shows another spare tire, and shows the pintle mount of the truck’s main armament to very good advantage. This is a nice bonus piece of art, and should be appreciated.
The other side of the box smacks you across the eyes with an in-your-face subtlety. Here is a drawing of how the kit looks assembled without paint. Since this is an orange-range kit, it is bigger and more deluxe, and in the world of Matchbox kits, that means THREE colours instead of two! As if to drive this home, the tri-colour GIANT 3 on the side of the box mirrors the colours of the kit. There are three shades of brown ranging from tan to an olive drab, with a brighter almost orangey-brown thrown in. This is one kit where the coloured plastic works well. Quite the opposite of the Buffalo, which is inappropriately red and cream, the LRDG’s three desert-toned colours work perfectly together. While we all know it’ll look several times better painted, this is one endeavour where a novice could assemble without painting and at least have something in the right part of the colour spectrum!
The back of the box is the usual full-colour paint plan, but with a twist. Instead of showing two schemes, only one, in what appears to be the “Canadian Sand” (See, we know more than just snow!), is shown. There are callouts for different vehicle names and markings, but that’s the only difference. The upper part of the box is another great illustration, albeit more cartoony than the box art. This shows the real star of the Matchbox orange range: the large diorama base. In most cases, these bigger bases are much more interesting and crammed with more detail than the smaller bases. Often there are structures, like in the PaK 40 kit and the Char B1/FT-17 kit. This one shows what appears to be a supply dump inside a ruined building. There are crates, and oil drums and broken masonry – it all looks awesome! We also get a good “top view” of the stowage in both vehicles, and it confirms that this is going to be a very “busy” set indeed!
Almost as an afterthought, the end caps of the box are yet another piece of art in the box-top style, showing a different aspect of the Jeep and truck. The Jeep is seen directly from the side, and once again you get a feel for just how much the poor thing is carrying. I love that this and the side art are completely original and different from the main box art. That’s a dedication to the subject that you never see in this day and age.
Of course, the kit was made to be built, so what’s inside is even more important. (Well, actually, on Matchboxes, they’re of roughly equal importance to me.) As expected, the kit comes on three sprues, one of each of the main colours. There is one small decal sheet and the instruction sheet, but since this kit consists of only wheeled vehicles, there are no rubber band tracks to be found. Unlike some other small-scale wheeled kits, the tires on these guys are plastic, not vinyl or rubber, and are moulded right onto the racks.
The biggest piece in the kit is, naturally, the diorama base. This takes up about half the ‘orange brown’ rack, and likely contains as much plastic as the rest of the kit! This base has both the foundation of the building and the “road” for the vehicles in front of it. Moulded into the base are some tire tracks that look suspiciously like they’d have been made in mud, or at least wet dirt. They look too sharp to be in dusty soil, but that’s a quibble for experts, and I’m not a landscape guy. The broken bricks and various crates are all moulded into the base, as is a crater and a pile of I-have-no-idea-what at the top right corner. I’m assuming it’s some collapsed part of the building, but it’s a bit up in the air.
Overall, I get the impression of edibility. This thing looks like the top of a pan of brownies. The colour and sheen are very similar, and I really just want to take a bite of it! The moulding is quite good, with no flash, and there’s a lot of cool texturing that begs for a bunch of washes and detailing. Painting all the moulded-in boxes and masonry looks like it will be fun – I love that kind of challenge! The walls, sign and twin oil drums are separate pieces, though, so there’s something of a break at least from all the “edge painting” if that’s not your thing.
The rest of the kit is typical Matchbox, which means the detail isn’t great, but it’s acceptable for its size and age. There’s no real flash on any of the pieces; that’s impressive since this is one of the 1986 boxings. Still, if you know Matchboxes, then you know that this doesn’t mean the pieces are perfect. Most have pronounced mould lines or seams on them, and pretty much every part is going to require cleanup. It’s originally from 1979, so what did you expect? Still, the pieces seem well-formed enough to do the job.
One thing that struck me was how small everything was. I mean, I’ve built a couple of 1/76 Tanks, and they weren’t huge, but the vehicles in this kit are pretty darned small. The Jeep, in fact, is so small, I missed being able to identify some of the parts the first time I looked at the kit. The bulk of the two vehicles is on the tan rack, with the chassis and some stowage/weapons in other colours. The Jeep is so tiny that its body only consists of 12 pieces. Add in two-piece wheels and tires, and all the stowage, and the parts count goes up, but that’s not a fair measure. I do give Matchbox credit though; the Jeep and truck both have a full frame on them! There are leaf springs on both, and the Chevy even has a little driveshaft to go from its moulded-in engine (just the underside) to its little differential.
While Matchbox armour models are generally a bit better detailed that their aircraft, this still isn’t anywhere near the finesse level of something like a Fujimi; take the Chi-Ha as an example. Since both vehicles in this set are open-topped, I’d have expected there to be some simple dashboard in each of them. Well, I got my wish! Granted, the detail is extremely fine (I couldn’t get it to photograph well… sorry), but there is a tiny instrument or two and a glovebox on the Jeep dash, and the Chevy has even more detail. I find it interesting that the Jeep is left-hand drive, while the Chevy is right-hand. This adds a little bit more visual interest to the finished kit, I imagine, and is a neat thing for Matchbox to do.
The detail on the leaf springs (Or is that “leaves spring?) looks nice, and they should come up well with a wash. Another area sporting excellent, but tiny, detail are the wood components. Some of the parts in the Chevy are wooden, and there’s a full wood-grain pattern where it’s appropriate. Something else for the washes to bring to life, I guess. I was pleasantly surprised, too, by the little radiator in the Chevy, and the fact that the “grille” is hollow, so you can see right through to it! This is really impressive for what is, despite its larger size, still a “pocket money” kit.
One area that might annoy some people is that a number of “hollow” areas aren’t hollow at all. A perfect example is the Jeep’s grille. It’s shown to be nearly toothless, and the kit tries to recreate this all in one piece. It’s deceiving to see in photos; you have to believe that it looks better in real life. Still, painting the “knocked out” part black will help a lot with the illusion. If you were expecting there to be a hollow grille shell with a rad behind it, like on the larger Chevy, then you’ll be disappointed. Also, if you like your PSP (Pierced/Perforated Steel Plank) to have real holes in it, you’d better get ready for that to let you down. Make no mistake, though; the two unditching plates are quite finely detailed; they’re just not drilled out. You could do it, if you HAD to have the utmost in realism. For most of us, though, a light wash will do the same thing cheaper!
There are four figures with this set – two per vehicle. They’re passably well-made and well-cast; much more so than the guys that came with the M-16 halftrack! At least here, everyone’s got legs! One area in which Matchbox has always been inferior to many others makers is in the detail it puts into its weapons. On many turret-equipped Matchbox planes, the gun is basically a vague gun-shaped object, at worst a “box and tube”. In this kit, though, they’re a bit better. The machine guns are all distinct and have their own shapes. They’re good “two footers”; any closer and you’ll see that they’re a bit lacking in the fine detail, but from 2 feet or more away, they definitely look the part!
The horde of stowage is also nicely done. There are 14 Gerry Cans, two barrels, a number of bedrolls and some heavy canvas sacks. There are what seems like two packs as well as several kinds of wooden crate or box. Pretty much, if not all, of the stowage and cargo is in the orangey brown colour, and is surprisingly well-detailed. If you like this kind of thing, then you’re in for a treat with this model! Another area that shows surprising detail is the wheels. Both the truck and the Jeep wheels are quite detailed.
Instructions and Decals:
Because the kit is a larger orange-range model, the instructions are much larger than those found in the “normal” purple-range kits. The instructions came folded in four, and they are busy. They are well drawn, black-and-white line drawings. This is far before the use of the CAD 3-D models! As with most Matchbox instructions, they are very clear and should not be a barrier for even beginning modellers. The number callouts are all large and easy to read, and the parts are well-rendered.
This last point is more important than you might think. Because there are so many small pieces in this kit, having a pictorial representation that is clearly drawn allows you to get a better feel for what the pieces are and may help in deciding on how to paint them. Mind you, in typical Matchbox fashion, they already thought of that, and there are a number of mini paint plans on the back of the instruction sheet This also has the painting directions for both vehicles, but apparently the building is up to you!
I’ve always been a big fan of simple instructions, and while they’re a bit busy with arrows (thanks to all the crud heaped upon the poor things), the classic Matchbox approach seems ‘just right’ when it comes to balancing size/clarity and complexity. They are far easier to use, and far clearer, the mor modern kits that use black and white (or even colour) 3-D Cad models, fancy shading and other CG tricks. (Sadly, I’m talking about your instructions, Drift…) One other thing I love – the instructions are just on white paper, and it’s not glossy. This makes it easy to see if you post it on a wall, or leave it on a side table. Yes, I know this sounds obvious, because aren’t all instructions white? They used to be, but some of the Meng SD kits (like the Lexington) and the Furai models (like the aforementioned Drift) use dark backgrounds or frames on the instructions. This may look fancy, but just like the LRDG itself, fancy doesn’t get the job done; competent does!
There are very few decals in this kit, and that’s standard for an armour model. Sadly, the tissue paper that was designed to protect the decals did just the opposite, and after 30+ years, the paper welded to the decals. I tried to pull it off (this has happened before on other kits, sometimes it’ll come off) but only in a few cases did that work. I’m hopeful that once I put them in water, the tenacious tissue will go the way of the Dodo Bird. There are two options, both for New Zealand-operated vehicles. One is for “B Troop” of “R Patrol”, the other is for “C Group” of “T Patrol”. Both are from 1942.
If you can tell by now, I love this kit. It looks awesome! It’s a bit daunting with all that stowage and such a small scale, but man, it’s going to be a detail-painter’s heaven! The big Diorama Base will be lots of fun, I think, too.
This, like a lot of Matchbox Armour, is a very competent kit. It’s not Tamiya-level armour, and it might not be up to Takom’s standards, but it’s also an old kit. This model set wasn’t designed to satisfy experts, but to give more amateur modellers something fun to work at while still presenting a challenge. I think it will do just that, actually. On that note, there’s nothing too fiddly on this kit, although the guns and some of the small pieces are very small and delicate-looking, so some skills, and some fine cutting tools, are going to be required.
Overall, I think a modeller of some experience can handle this thing no problem. I don’t expect that there will be too many gross fit problems; usually Matchbox armour is pretty good in that department. It might be fun for a beginner, but I fear that some of the more repetitive parts (like sanding all the Gerry Cans and tires) might be off-putting for someone who’s not used to lots of small, picky work. This strikes me as a kit that will reward long-established and well-honed skills with an impressive if not overly complicated end result. Of course, you can go full hardcore and put on your own ground cover and stuff too, and that will only add to the final product.
I will admit that I, personally, am not sure I’m up to the challenge. I’m not very good at weathering, and I don’t much enjoy it. I definitely have no experience with people at this scale. However, I may leave the figures out (I don’t much like figures with model kits to start with). Despite my personal lack of experience with weathering, I think this model will make for a good place to practice the skills, and maybe it’ll help me get more comfortable with pastels and some new techniques.
The greatest thing about a kit like this is that it can be just that; a training aid that allows you to focus on what you want to learn, rather than forcing a tonne of unnecessarily picky detail on you just because it can. I, despite my trepidation, intend to use this kit as it was intended; for fun. If you can’t have fun building such a neat model with so many different things going on with it, then I fear that you’re missing the point. For me, this has been a “grail” kit for years, and I intend to enjoy every minute of it I can.
If you see this, or the unicolour Revell reissue, I suggest you grab it. As a nice diversion from the everyday, as a great thing to break a case of AMS (Advanced Modelling Syndrome – when modellers take things too seriously and suck the fun out of their own builds), or as a co-operative project as either the teacher or the learner, this little model just begs to be built. Just remember the spirit of the LRDG, to forge ahead despite the odds and to rely on yourself, and I don’t think you’ll go wrong with this one!