As history has shown, war is one of the great drivers of technological change. The great leaps forward made by all forms of weaponry during WWI are actually astounding, and aircraft were arguably the type of weapon most improved during the conflict. From the early days of barely-adequately powered, unarmed observation platforms, aircraft evolved into a myriad of specialist roles, and performance and design were advanced without stop. By the end of the war, high powered (for the day) biplane fighters and (again, for the day) huge multi-engined bombers were in service with many air arms.
However, the end of the war saw this rapid advance in design slow. During peacetime, there was no urgent need for new types and the funds available to drive the “state-of-the-art” were far less free-flowing. Also, the lessons of the air war had to be digested. During the 1930’s, though, new designs, like the Polikarpov I-16 and Messerschmitt Bf-109 started to show the way forward. It seemed as though the day of the fabric covered biplane was over, and that future wars would be fought with these newer, sleeker, heavier machines.
However, the transition from fabric-covered biplane to metal-covered monoplane didn’t just happen overnight. Indeed, several countries were loath to give up their front-line biplanes, with Italy and Britain being chief among them. In addition, there were a number of roles in which the use of an all-metal monoplane was thought to be an unnecessary complication. One such role was the ship-launched spotter/recon plane. Being kept light meant that it would need less power, use less fuel and be easier to catapult launch.
Since these types were already going to be sporting pontoons, and thus would be fairly draggy to start, the biplane configuration with its attendant extra lift was considered a good design. With this in mind, the Fairey Company’s Seafox was chosen by the Air Ministry in 1936 to satisfy the need for this kind of airplane. Entering service in 1937, only 66 airframes were produced, with just over half of these being in service at the time World War II broke out.
The Seafox was, on one hand, utterly conventional, and yet, on another, had some interesting features. It was a traditional two-bay biplane with heavy bracing, and it carried two large pontoons, also quite sturdily attached to the fuselage. It had a monocoque fuselage of metal, and the wings were metal-framed, but had fabric coverings (except for the solid leading edges). The pilot was “treated” to good-old-fashioned open-air flying, having only a small windscreen to protect him from the elements. However, the observer/radio operator/gunner (aka “other guy”) had an enclosed cockpit which could be tilted forwards to allow the gun to be deployed. For armament, there was only a single .303 machine gun with a drum magazine, although later models apparently could carry small (20lb!) bombs or flares.
Another unique feature of the Seafox was its engine. The Napier Rapier VI engine was a 16 cylinder “H”-type engine. While this may sound huge and powerful, don’t get too excited! It was a small, air-cooled engine, and it only made 395 hp for its 8.8L of displacement. (Note: The Seafox was the most numerous user of this powerplant, although not the most famous. That honour goes to the Short S.20 Mercury, the “top half” of the Short Mayo float plane composite that set the world seaplane distance record in October 1938.) The small size and simple, air-cooled design of the Rapier made it a logical choice for the Seafox. It was able to push the rather unrefined little plane to about 125 mph maximum, while it cruised, somewhat sedately, at 100-odd mph. It had a range of about 440 miles, give or take (depending on weather, headwinds, etc.). The Seafox was NOT a high altitude beast, and it couldn’t get much higher than 9,700 feet. Clearly no speed demon, it took over 15 minutes just to reach 5,000 feet! It’s like the EXP of airplanes!
The Seafox soldiered on, despite its pedestrian performance and somewhat troublesome engine, until 1943. It was used in the Atlantic and Mediterranean theatres, and its most famous moment was likely when a Seafox was used in the hunt for the Graf Spee. This action eventually led to the scuttling of the German ship, so you can chalk that up as a win for the Seafox. Well, kind of, at least. You can think of the Seafox as the water boy for the winning team in this case…
Given its utterly outdated design concept, low performance and somewhat anonymous career, it’s not really a surprise that we modellers are not awash in an ocean of Seafox replicas. In fact, it’s something of a miracle that there’s one at all. Who would care enough to make a kit of such a milquetoast flying machine? Who else?! Matchbox, that’s who! As with so many subjects, Matchbox jumped off the deep end and swam as far from the bandwagon as possible in the early ‘80s to give the modelling public what they didn’t even know they wanted: a 1/72 injection-moulded mainline kit of the Fairey Seafox!
Clearly, since it’s: a.) weird, b.) a Matchbox and c.) a kit I’ve wanted but never seen before, when I got the chance to grab one of these at the HeritageCon show in 2019 I took it! So, let’s see what the good folks at Lesney have given us, shall we?
Amazingly, the Seafox has been issued several times, including a Revell Germany repop in the mid 2000’s and a later, ‘90s Matchbox issue. The first issue of this kit is the one I have.
Since this kit is from 1982, it is in the “newer” style of Matchbox “sunset” box. Unlike earlier boxes where the entire front of the box was the art, these have a black band at the bottom containing the name of the kit, and a very eye-catching, and oh-so-of-the-times, “sunset swoosh” that separates this band from the box art. The yellow/orange/red bands are very visually striking, but they do have the unfortunate tendency to make the area for the box art smaller, leading me to feel like I’m getting ripped off and am missing part of an otherwise typically striking piece of artwork.
The actual art on the Seafox box is, as with most Matchbox kits, a fine piece of work. Since the Seafox wasn’t really an exciting plane, there’s no sense of action to the art; it’s just the Seafox putting along over a rather non-distinct background. It’s likely supposed to be ocean (since that’s where the Seafox lived), but there’s something weird about it… it almost looks like farm land through the mist. Clearly, that makes no sense, but it adds a surreal touch to an otherwise fairly conventional illustration.
As always, though, the art is very nicely done, with that fabulous gritty Matchbox realism and that heavy, hand-painted look that Matchbox boxes so favoured. I don’t care what anyone says; great old-school art like this is far more engaging than a modern, CG-rendered image. There’s a visceral quality to this, and with all the dark colours, heavy wires and clumsiness of the actual design, the “weight” works on all levels. This little gem was painted by Roy Huxley, and I’m sure the Seafox has never looked better, I’m sure.
There’s no question as to the scale, as “1-72” appears boldly in the top left corner, and we are told that it is a 2-Colour kit. This is typical for Matchbox kits of this era. The box must be an international version, since below the “Fairey Seafox” writing there are several languages letting us know it’s a model kit. I don’t know what else people would think it was, but it never hurts to be sure, I suppose.
On one side of the box is a multilingual box spelling out copyright and basic product informational butt-covering. You know, the old “product and colours may vary” spiel? Yeah. Oh, and that it doesn’t come with cement and paint. What is interesting here is the “four-light” traffic signal look-alike scale at the right end of the box. This was a skill level meter, showing the Seafox to be a mid-level kit in terms of complexity. This predates the Monogram Skill 1-3 system that seems to have caught on and held the best (at least in North America). I find it surprising that Matchbox was doing this at this early a date. Impressive.
The other side of the box is the typical “two-colour” drawing that shows how the two colours are dispersed and what they are. This is where the “colours may vary” thing comes in. On the side of the box, the two colours one would expect to find in the kit are portrayed as a dark grey and dark olive drab. Not to be a spoiler here, but that’s not even close to what’s in the box. The drawing of the Seafox in those colours has a distinctly “army” air to it, which looks weird on a floatplane!
The back of the box shows the two different paint schemes that the Seafox can be done in. The top one matches the front art, and is a typically drab dark grey and green Fleet Air Arm scheme. I personally love this one, as I feel it makes the Seafox look considerably more potent than it is. Apparently this scheme is for a machine on the Asturias in 1942. The second scheme is for a Malta-based Seafox in 1939. This is in a much more conspicuous silver scheme, with red pontoon tips, and is likely an immediately pre-war paintjob.
There’s also that little “Matchbox peepshow” window that lets you see inside. My kit was repacked such that the instructions block this though, so it’s not much good. Also of note is that this kit also comes with one of the patented “M” stands! This kind of display stand is something that we don’t really see any more, but was a staple with kits at one time. Another thing I love is that the two ends of the box are different! This was the case on the Hunter as well, but it never ceases to amaze me that they went to this trouble!
Upon opening the box and pulling out the contents, I was somewhat surprised to find that the kit is moulded in dark green and silver! This is not even close to the colours shown on the side of the box, and while less muddy in overall tone, is no more realistic than the advertised colours were! Like all Purple Range 1/72 model planes of this size, the Seafox comes on two sprues: one green and one silver. There’s also a clear sprue for the three transparencies and then there’s the stand. Oddly, this stand is moulded in clear blue. I can’t say I’ve ever seen that before, and other copies of the kit I’ve seen online only have clear stands. Now, this kit wasn’t sealed when I got it, so I don’t know if it’s from another kit, but I can’t see why it would be.
This kit is typical Matchbox, which means it’s a mixed bag with fairly low detail. What surprised me was that the panel lines on the fuselage are very fine. They are actually incredibly fine, and since the illustration on the box shows them as ribs, I’m wondering if maybe they should be left raised. I honestly can’t say for sure, because there are very few pictures I can find of the Seafox anywhere. However, I’ll likely rescribe them as is my tradition. There are a few things, like boarding step openings and cowling hatches that should be recessed, I think, and these are also raised. However, in the greatest of “WTF?” traditions, the lines surrounding these are thicker than the fuselage lines! That means that there’s definitely going to be some sanding going on, so I’m going to lose the raised fuselage lines regardless. Thanks, Matchbox. Well done as always.
Now, on that note, there’s always someone who goes on at length about the “Matchbox Trencher”. This is either a mystical man, or machine (or perhaps a blue ox shackled to a plow) that is responsible for putting recessed panel lines onto Matchbox kits. Clearly, as can be guessed, popular opinion is that Matchbox recessed lines are too wide, by far, to be realistic. This is entirely correct. Matchbox wouldn’t seem to know a fine panel line if it were garrotted with it. That having been said, it appears that the only place that there are recessed lines on this kit is at the control surfaces on the wings and tailplane. The rudder is a separate piece. So, for those inclined to grouse about the rolling valleys that are Matchbox panel lines, there’s nothing to see here.
One thing Matchbox does well, and that the Seafox also possesses, is “fabric sag”. Since a lot of Matchbox kits are of fabric covered (or at least partially so) aircraft, they got good, fast, at replicating this. In fact, the Hawker Fury, the first Matchbox kit to be released (PK-1) had this feature as well. The Seafox, of course, has fabric sag on the wings and tailplanes, as well as the rudder. Matchbox has done a great job of replicating the look of a metal frame below the skin, and you can sort of “see” the rounded square sections that would make up the frame “through” the fabric. They even got the solid leading edges right!
It will come as no surprise that this kit is NOT the paragon of fine detail and precise moulding that a lot of modellers have come to expect on airplanes, even of this size in this scale. No, this is a Matchbox, and as such it is a “cheap and cheerful” sort of kit that gleefully trades detail for simplicity. Don’t forget, Matchbox’s philosophy was to produce “pocket money” kits that boys could buy from newsagents and druggists with their week’s allowance. Thus, while there’s some detail, most of it is basic. Good examples are the exhaust shrouds and the little horn-shaped things on the side of the cowling. These are simple bumps, and while you can tell what they are, it’s something of a willing suspension of disbelief to really say they’re “details”.
The interior of the Seafox fares no better, consisting of pre-moulded in planks which pass for seats, and two pilot figures. That’s all. It’s almost as bad as a Farpro, but the difference is that the Matchbox is about 20 years newer. Is that good or bad? Well, it depends on what you want, expect and wish to do. You can superdetail it. You can lament it and resolve never to build Matchbox kits. You can paint it black and hope no one notices. I’m for the last choice, myself. What does look nice, though, are the transparencies. In the Matchbox tradition they seem a bit thick, but sturdy (the Hunter breaks that tradition, sadly…) and have excellent frames on them. Sure, the frames are a bit “tall”, but once painted, I bet you won’t even notice. The rear canopy can be positioned opened or closed, as can the machine gun bay. There is a drum-fed .303 with the kit, but it’s pretty basic. I’d suggest building it closed up.
The pontoon system is a curious mix of lots and none, when you’re talking detail. There’s a lot of detail on the plank that goes on top of the pontoons, where the crew would board, etc. There’s literally sweet nuttin’ on the floats themselves. If you wanted, you could use the Dymo tape method of rescribing to create your own lines, of course. As for the stand, I won’t use it here, but I do have a penchant for finding other uses for these little stands. With their gimbal and good stability, they’re amazingly useful for sci-fi stuff. Still don’t know what’s with the clear blue, though… Anybody out there got one like this? If so, let me know!
Instructions and Decals:
The instructions are very simple, and are printed on a single sheet of amazingly thin, cheap-feeling paper. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it looks more like a photocopy, but I don’t think a copier will run paper that feels this thin! The instructions are very simple, because the kit is very simple. I don’t agree with their build order, either, but they’re simple enough you can read them over and find out what you want to change, order-wise, and work from there. I’d put the lower wings on first, fair them in as cleanly as I could, then mount the upper wing at the end. Unlike the Zvezda Mig-29, this kit will allow you freedom to change things to suit your preference; that’s one advantage to a simple kit with no pretentions!
The instructions are, like most Matchbox ones, clear and concise. They’re a far cry from today’s CG and CAD modelled instructions, but they have a simplicity and charm all on their own. They don’t have to be too complicated, either, since the kit itself isn’t a raging storm of fine parts. The typical Matchbox layout of assembly plans with mini paint plan is well-adhered to here, and the decalling instructions are included with this section of the instructions.
The decals, like all Matchbox decals, are simple. You get national insignia and call numbers for the two variants, plus there are a few stencils and walk way decals that are common to both schemes. If you don’t like either of those schemes, I have found one other option on wingspallette, and that’s the Coastal Command type, with the grey/green topside, and the rest of the plane in white (like a Swordfish). However, there’s no strong citation for this (both artist and source unknown) and it says the plane is from the Arethusa in 1940. This is almost the same as the all silver scheme shown on the box, although that one is from ’39, so there’s some likelihood of it being repainted for the war.
The Decals look to be the usual for Matchbox: thick but strong. I hope they work, because I do love Matchbox decals. They always seem to work, regardless of their age, and they are tough and strong but settle down well. They’ll be great over the “fabric sag” on the wings. If you want more in terms of stencils and the like, you’ll have to pillage a Fleet Air Arm (FAA) kit from another maker that is more inclined to provide them.
The first thing I can say about this kit is that I was surprised at how small the Seafox is! On the box, it looks like it will be some huge, hulking beast. However, it’s amazingly petite, with a very thin fuselage and surprisingly small wings. Given the role of the plane, this only makes logical sense, but still, the impression was quite at odds with what I was expecting!
The kit is, as I’ve said, a typical Matchbox. It may seem fine for starting modellers, in terms of complexity, but beware! Because it’s a biplane, it will require some extra care. I’ve never built a biplane, and even I have some trepidation when I consider building this one. Since the wings AREN’T in halves, the often-used “drill holes in the bottom half of the wings and run lines through before gluing on the top half” trick for rigging won’t work. Thus, this kit is not really a suitable for as unseasoned a builder as it may first seem. Thus, I could only recommend it for people who have some modelling experience, including rigging, or those with a lot of experience whether they’ve rigged or not.
The kit will need a lot of work if you care about cockpit detail, but by and large it is a serviceable replica of a rather unknown type. Sure, it’s not oozing detail and I’m sure there are a number of things that might drive rivet-counters nuts, but that’s to be expected. Matchbox never intended to satisfy those who demand hyper-realism; they were made as a quick impulse buy.
Personally, I love this kit. The rigging scares me, but hey, you’ve got to learn some time, right? The fact that it’s such an oddball plane with such a weirdly shaped engine area and that bizarre rear cockpit only add to the charm. If you like FAA planes, or float planes, or are like me, and just love Matchbox weirdness, you’re not going to go wrong with this kit. Set your expectations appropriately low and enjoy something a bit different; you’ll be glad you did!