Matchbox PK-601 1/72 Supermarine Stranraer (OOB)

Old habits die hard, and you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. These two sayings definitely sound like they’re conveying the same thing. Namely, that it is difficult to make changes even when it’s possible to see that the time for change has come. However, the first saying implies this is due to a dogged adherence to established behaviours on the part of the “changee”, while the second indicates more of a failure to drive any change due to certain assumptions about the target of the change on the part of the “changer”.

Why is this important?

Military history is full of examples of technological breakthroughs completely rewriting established rules and methods of warfare. Time and again, it has been demonstrated that the side that embraces new technology and doctrine can prevail in the face of a superior enemy. The longbow, the crossbow, the rifle and the machine gun are all examples of this. So, too, is the airplane.

However, for some reason, there are even more examples throughout history of new innovations being shunned by the military “establishments” that decide on doctrine and weapons procurement. How many times has a weapon been considered “too radical” or “interesting but unnecessary”, only later to prove that, had it been adopted earlier, it could have made a significant difference? I’m sure we can all think of a lot of them, like the German slowness to adopt the jet engine despite a great lead on its enemies in WWII.

Another good example, although broader, deals with the changing shape and nature of aircraft between the two World Wars. While fabric and wooden bi- and triplanes ended the Great War, it would be metal monoplanes that typified air combat only 20 years later. Most nations actually got on board with this change, but it wasn’t adopted uniformly across all services of all air arms. Indeed, the Royal Air Force of the mid-‘30s typified this bi-polar aircraft procurement model.

On one hand, by 1935, the monoplane Hawker Hurricane had flown, and by 1937 this aircraft would begin entering squadron service with Fighter Command. While not as “new” as the more famous Spitfire, the Hurricane would be the workhorse of the RAF in the early war years, and would serve well against more modern types through a variety of theatres. On the other hand, in 1935, a new anti-submarine flying boat also took to the air, and would be entering service at the same time. No, I’m not talking about Consolidated’s famous PBY Catalina (although I could be, since the timelines match). I’m talking about the Supermarine Stranraer.

In contrast to the much more modern Hurricane, and indeed its American equivalent the PBY, the Stranraer looks like it’s from another era. The PBY was at least a monoplane and had retracting wing floats and was clean and rigging-free. The Stranraer, though, was a biplane, with fabric covered wings and tail surfaces, open gun turrets and more rigging than an 18th century schooner. With all this extra “stuff” came performance penalties, and while the Stranraer was shown to be capable of impressive feats of time and range, it’s lack of “get up and go” would be a serious detriment.

It was a private venture, based largely on the earlier Scapa. It’s hard to believe, looking at this, that the same company that made the legendary Spitfire had a hand in it, but it’s true. That such a cumbersome and antiquated-looking machine could still be accepted at that point in history tells a tale of unwillingness to change that is impossible to ignore. “Tried and true” was preferred, it seems, for patrol work. Indeed, a reluctance to embrace aeronautical change and advancement seems to be the calling card of the Stranraer.

It seems that the Stranraers were not all that popular with their crews. They were considered to be no more than marginally powerful enough, while their slow speed would certainly not endear them to their crews come wartime. There weren’t a large number made, but they did serve throughout the war, being withdrawn from frontline service by RAF units by early 1941, but serving the Royal Canadian Airforce (RCAF) until 1946. Canada even made Stranraers!

Note: For an excellent review of Canadian Coastal Patrol during WWII, and lots of stuff about Stranraers, check out this excellent article:

https://clarencesimonsen745590793.wordpress.com/2018/09/25/rcaf-supermarine-vickers-armstrong-stranraer/

It certainly never made the headlines like other flying boats (PBY, Sunderland, H8K “Emily”), nor did it have much to recommend it to its crews. It was apparently very good on the water, but then again, it’s supposed to be an airplane, so great seaworthiness is only of some comfort. Slow and noisy (especially if the toilet was used) the Stranraer was never destined to catch the public’s eye.

Given this, it’s not a surprise that we haven’t been awash in Stranraer kits. It’s not like someone releases a new Stranraer every three years, or that there’s a “Keeping up with the Jonses” war of one-upmanship among model companies striving to create the “ultimate” example of this plane in increasingly large and unwieldly scales. In other words, the poor “Whistling Outhouse”, as it was known, just doesn’t have that certain cachet, that “salability” that others, like the Spitfire and Bf-109 definitely possess in spades.

However, this kind of obscurity was never something to daunt that most fearless of ‘70s model makers, those purveyors of “There’s a kit of that?”-type models, that provider of the odd and obscure, especially when the subject was British: my favourite maker – Matchbox! That’s right, other than a vac-form, if you want a model of this archaically designed, outdated and little-known patroller, the only game in town is, of course, from the intrepid crew at Lesney! While Airfix might have trumped Matchbox’s 1/72 Walrus with a new 1/48 edition, so far no one has dared to do the same with the Stranraer!

Recently, I was able to get my hands on a literal box full of Matchboxes, and in the poll as to which was the one you guys wanted me to cover first, the Stranraer came first by a surprising margin. I honestly almost didn’t buy the kit. It’s not a plane I know and I didn’t really care for it, but hey, it was a Matchbox I didn’t have, and I certainly didn’t have this subject in any other form, so I thought “Okay, what the heck.” Turns out that was a good thing!

So, let’s take a look at this piece of classic sprue, and see just how far down the obscurity rabbit hole Matchbox was willing to go.

The Box:

Sadly, my Stranraer’s box must have sat in a hobby shop window for some time, because the box is rather yellowed and sun-faded. Still, that kind of forgotten and disregarded look does befit a subject as relatively unknown and pedestrian as the Stranraer, so I’m not as upset about it as I thought I might be.

The box is big. It’s one of the biggest, if not THE biggest, Matchbox box I have. This means there’s lots of room for that traditionally gritty, realistic and engaging Matchbox art. Sadly, because the Stranraer kit is from 1978, it comes after the edict that banished “combat action” from British model boxes.  Thus, we don’t get to see the Stranraer swooping in on a target, all turrets blazing. Of course, since the Stranraer never really saw a whole lot of combat, we’re not missing as much as we might think.

The box shows a sunrise or sunset sky with the Stranraer just lifting out of a mildly wavy sea. The sun’s golden rays give the aircraft a more graceful look than it deserves, and water streaming behind it, coming off the hull, gives the impression of speed. This impression is very strong, but also very false. It makes it look as though Supermarine’s “cat’s cradle” has fairly leapt into the air, eager to get into the action. Given the Stranraer’s top speed of only 165 mph and a climb rate of 1000ft/min, though, you can quickly see through this façade.

Don’t let the speed lines and rakish angle fool you. The Stranraer was no speed demon!

Still, the box is a nice piece of art, and may be the best you’ll ever see the Stranraer looking. All decked out in its wartime cammo, the Stranraer’s draggy, bridge-like wing structure and stodgy, square-sided fuselage don’t look so bad. It’s interesting that, in later boxings, more of this art was used. On the “sunset stripe”-type box, almost the full wingspan of the plane is shown, meaning this original boxing actually is “zoomed in”.  

Unlike most Matchbox boxes, there is nothing on the back of the Stranraer’s box. This is because whereas most Matchbox kits come in end-opening boxes, this one comes in a typical top-opening box This was only done for the largest Matchbox kits; those in the “brown” series. My Halifax and my brother’s Privateer are the same way. However, this means that the paint schemes are presented on one of the long sides of the box. Since this is a big kit, you get decals for three schemes; one in cammo and two in the peace-time silver.  What’s really interesting is the armament differences among the three variants. The cammoed version has all guns out, including the nose position, which is not present on the silver machines. The middle plane, from the mid-‘30s only has a tail turret, and the one just before the war has toned-down roundels and a gun from the midships position. That means you can build three distinct variants, not just three different paint/marking schemes. Nice work, Matchbox.

Brown-range kits always came with markings for three variants. Here you can see their difference is not only their markings, but also their defensive armament fit. Nice.

The other side of the box, of course, proclaims as largely has possible that this is a THREE COLOUR kit. That’s right… this is big-league stuff, son. If you pony-up the cash for a Matchbox this big, you’re darn tootin’ it comes in three colours. Of course, the worry then becomes “What are those three colours?” Let’s face it, we’ve seen some pretty odd choices, including red and white for the Buffalo and yellow and blue for the Siskin. Thankfully, though, Lesney reigned in the psychedelics for the Stranraer, and you get three subdued colours: green, grey and brown.  You also apparently get a beaching trolley setup, which is kind of neat.

Bigger kit, more colours! The choices for the Stranraer don’t quite match what’s shown on the “3”, but they’re close to the drawing of the kit.

The Kit:

Upon opening the box, one is, indeed, greeted by four sprues of plastic in three different colours. There are two sprues of grey plastic, mostly for the wings, engines and tailplanes. The green sprue has the fuselage, tails, floats and engine nacelles, and the brown sprue has the tailplane, flight deck (such as it is), bulkheads, props and wing braces.

There is also a clear rack, with the flight deck greenhouse, midships air deflector and a few windows. There’s no large “M-stand” with this one. For one thing, it would be ridiculously large, and for another, I doubt it would have the strength to support this behemoth. Those little ball joints the used just don’t have the muscle for a plane this weighty.

There aren’t a lot of parts for a kit this big, but the hallmarks of shiny, tough plastic and good fabric detail can be seen from this shot of the contents of the large-for-a-Matchbox box.

As expected, the plastic is thick. It’s heavy, but it’s not unrefinedly so. This isn’t the kind of soapstone-like plastic you get with some of the earlier A-Model releases. No, this is typical Matchbox plastic; shiny, stiff and solid. It’s not transparent/translucent or swirly. It’s almost like fine chocolate, actually. I find most Matchboxes are like this; almost good enough to eat! There is a little bit of flash in a couple of places, which is more or less what you should be expecting when you pop the top on an old Matchbox.

Now, if you bought this in its Revell Germany guise and were expecting the usual fineness of detail usually found within a “blue pinstripe” box, then you would be greatly disappointed. However, knowing it’s a Matchbox makes what you find pretty much expected. Firstly, the engines. They are, in the great Matchbox tradition… weak. Matchbox never really did go great engines. You get two 9-cylinder radial engines moulded into a disk. There are cooling fins and a line that could be a connecting rod. That’s it. If you want better, you’re going to have to go elsewhere to find some more suitable Pegasus X radials.

Sure, I guess we can go with these being Pegasus X radials. Why not?

Also not great are the defensive guns. These are supposed to be .303 Lewis guns, and you can almost tell that. They are actually a lot better than the guns on the Matchbox B-25 and other turreted bombers. They at least are gun-shaped and have the drum magazine moulded in. In today’s market, where you can get beautiful resin/PE defensive guns that are little kits unto themselves, these look pretty bad. However, for their day, over 40 years ago, they’re not the worst.

They’re more-or-less Lewis Gun-esque, right? I mean, they have drum mags…

Sadly, the flight deck cannot boast this. Even for me, the greatest of Matchbox apologists, this area falls savagely short of requirements. Matchbox never really did spend a lot of time on interiors. This was made manifestly clear in their Wellesley, but on a subject as big as the Stranraer, it really shows. On small, one-man cockpits a lack of detail is rarely visible through the semi-distorted canopy anyway. On a big, two-wide flight deck, it’s going to show a bit more. In this case, it will show a lot more, since all that’s given for a flight deck is a seat, a floor, a control column and a pilot. That’s it. No instrument panel, no wall or floor texture, no map tables, no nothing. Compared to the interior of the New Airfix Shackleton or Lancaster, the Stranraer’s flight deck is abysmal.

That’s the flight deck floor, and the raised area is for the seat. Yeah… that’s basic.

There’s also no other interior detail at all. There are a few bulkheads with doors in them, but that’s it. This is one where you’re best to paint the insides black and hope nobody notices. Sadly, this will be very noticeable at the open gun turrets. But, hey, if you want to do some super-detailing and scratch building, then this is YOUR boat! You can do whatever you want! Also, since these things served as airliners for a while after the war, you can even do a civilian conversion with full-on passenger interior. (Note: Thunderbird decals did a set, 72-012, for the Pacific Western Stranraers.) Don’t think of the lack of detail as opportunity missed by Matchbox, think of it as a chance gained by you! (Or, you know, not… your choice).

One thing Matchbox usually does well is give you the impression of fabric. Considering how generally lacking in finesse their kits are, this is pretty impressive. The Stranraer does not disappoint on this front. The wings and tailplanes of this monster are all fabric covered (as one might expect), and the plastic does a good job of conveying this with built-in “sag” showing the wing ribs through the fabric. Sure, it might be a bit heavy-handed, but after some painting and gloss coating, a nice pastel wash or brushed application should really bring this out in an appropriate manner.

While it might be a bit pronounced, some careful paintwork will make this fabric “sag” look just right.
You can see the very fine rivets and raised panel detail the fuselage side. The other side has a door, but why leave it open?

There is very little surface detail on the kit itself. There’s next-to-nothing on the floats or engine nacelles. However, at least there’s a bit of glue-on detail; the intake scoops midway back on the engines and the rails on the lower part of the hull are separate pieces. The fuselage sides have some raised “plate” details that seems generally accurate, if not a bit soft. There are also some rivets here, but they’re quite small and faint, and will likely disappear under paint. You can pose the side door open, if you wish. But, unless you scratchbuild a full interior, I’d suggest against it. Let’s face it, a door to nowhere is not very inviting…

Instructions and Decals:

The instructions with this kit are huge. It makes sense, since the box is so big, that Matchbox would put a commensurately large instruction booklet with it. In fact, it’s not really a booklet at all. The instructions are a single piece of paper, folded in quarters. In typical Matchbox fashion, it is fairly clear and easy to follow, but that’s also a function of there not being all that many pieces in the kit. There should be on difficulty figuring out what goes where, although rigging may well prove to be something of an involved undertaking. There’s a lot of span that needs a lot of rigging. Whether you like EZ-Line, monofilament fishing line or stretched sprue, you’re going to have to figure out the rigging on your own, because there are no rigging diagrams.

You can see the simple (non-existent) interior and the general simplicity of the kit from these assembly steps. Big it may be, but it’s still a Matchbox…

There are only 13 steps, and the last three, unnumbered as they are, deal with the armament variations as seen on the side of the box. Of course, you’ll want to determine which of these you’re going to use before you start building, but be aware that Matchbox shows all the guns going on at the end. This is good; it means there’s no build-around, and that the installation of these relatively fragile pieces shouldn’t be difficult.

In fact, the hardest part will be to determine where the ladder goes! The instructions just show the ladder being pointed to between the wings. The box art of the plane in flight doesn’t show it. Thankfully, pics of the single surviving Stranraer in England show the ladder in place, going from the hull decking up to the engine. My guess is this was put in place only upon landing, or maybe even just when beached, to allow service to the engines. That’s likely why it’s shown in the same step as the beaching trolley.

Nothing too complicated here, except that ladder as shown in Option Step (!) 4.

One thing that hasn’t been mentioned is the painting plan. Sure, there are small side views on the box side, but nothing showing decal placement or top views. That’s because on a kit this big, the paint plans are on their own separate sheet. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, this is not in colour. The three paint schemes, as well as the information about the plane, are included on a separate quarter-folded sheet the same size as the instructions. This shows all three schemes, each in five views. Decal placement is also called out. The strangest part of this, in my copy of the kit, is that the paint plan calls out the kit as PK-551, which is the number for the 1/72 Victor bomber. I’m not sure why this is – maybe there was a mix up and Matchbox changed the number right near the end? Regardless, I’d love to know if later kits have this discrepancy!

The paint plan continues on the other side with the other two schemes. The scribbles are notes from the original owner. No, I don’t know why the instructions say this is PK-551 when it’s clearly PK-601.

The decal sheet is relatively large for a Matchbox, but still only contains the basics. You get roundels, call letters and a couple of walk path decals. On a plane this big, a few more stencils would seem appropriate. However, a look at the few good wartime photos available online, and at the survivor in England, reveal that the Stranraer wasn’t really that festooned with stencils to start. Again, as with all Matchboxes, a few trips to the spares box for extra decals won’t hurt anyone, and You can use leftovers from other, newer, RAF heavies as a cure for what ails you./

The mottled appearance of the decals is the result of their sticking to the wax paper topsheet. Nothing a lot of Future can’t fix!

Conclusions:

The Stranraer was firmly conventional, almost “overly traditional” when it was designed. It certainly can’t be accused of pushing the boundaries of aeronautical design or breaking new ground. Sadly, by the same token, it didn’t push the RN to make any tactical or strategic advances in its thinking on the subjects of anti-submarine warfare and the way in which it could be persecuted. In the greatest British tradition, it was a solid, slightly conservative design that was as comfortably familiar as it was slightly behind the times.

In every way, this Matchbox kit of the Stranraer captures that same vibe. Like all Matchboxes, the Stranraer is not a showpiece for the advancement of the kit maker’s state-of-the-art. It is a solid, simple and sizeable kit that provides comfort through sound basic engineering while failing to do any boundary pushing. Still, this model has a lot going for it, if for no other reason than, as of 2021, it’s the only way to get a kit of the Stranraer in styrene!

This kit, like all Matchboxes, is a perfect kit for a beginner. Big, chunky pieces that will fit together okay, but need some work, are the hallmarks of all Lesney offerings. This kit is a great opportunity for someone who’s not got a lot of experience to cut their teeth on something bigger, while keeping things simple enough that frustration shouldn’t become a problem.

It’s also a great blank canvas for superdetailers, since there’s literally a whole plane’s-worth of empty space inside that you can go to town on! Not only that, but this thing promises to be a rigging exercise worthy of those with at least a brown belt in joining wings with wires. I’ll admit I’m a bit scared of the rigging, but I’ve never done it before, so I’ll have to cut my teeth on a couple of other kits first. That being said, the great size of this bird might make the rigging easier, so maybe it’s a good place to start? I guess time will tell.

By and large, the Stranraer isn’t the most impressive large flying boat kit out there. It’s basic and needs some care and attention to look more than just so-so, like all its Lesney brethren. Still, that doesn’t make it a bad kit. It will reinforce the basics, make builders focus on how to create an impression, rather than relying on the kit to do the “wowing” for you, and it’ll be fun. How do I know that? Because Matchboxes are always fun, I find. There’s an innocence and earnestness to them. They aren’t trying to be the best, most detailed or flashiest. They’re just an honest collection of bits that form an airplane.

Making something out of a model is a modeller’s job. This one will be a pretty good mirror of your honest intent and willingness to work. If you like shake and bake, you better look elsewhere. But, if you like to put some elbow grease into something and see what you can do with what your given, if you want a bit of a retro experience, or you just want to build something almost nobody else will, then the Matchbox Stranraer is going to be right up your alley!

For fans of “floaty” planes or the interwar development of heavy aircraft, RAF fans or RCAF fans, the Stranraer is a must have. It represents an interesting turning point in both the real world as well as in the modelling world. They say the world isn’t black and white, it’s grey. Well, this one is also green and brown. Dive in!

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