Revell Germany (Matchbox) 1/76 Renault FT.17 and Char B.1 bis (Out of Box)

When one thinks of the word “Blitzkrieg”, or the armoured juggernaut of Nazi Germany, most people usually think of tanks as we think of them now. Big, powerful, heavily armed and armoured machines that combine mobility, firepower and protection in an awe-inspiring package of battlefield supremacy. The word Blitzkrieg conjures up images of Tigers and Panthers blasting their way through helpless and hapless foes, with screaming Stukas and mechanized infantry sweeping in to annihilate any stragglers that managed to survive the tanks’ initial assaults.

However, that’s not really how it all went, now is it? We tend to forget that the tanks at the end of WWII, which are really very modern in all facets, weren’t the machines took part in the conquest of Poland, the Low Countries and France. In fact, the tanks used in those first savagely successful assaults were really rather crappy. Panzer IIs were hardly anything to write home about, and the only really modern tank the Germans had was the Pz.Kpfw.35(t). The “T” stands for “tscheckish”, meaning Czechoslovakian. Yes, the best tank the Germans had was one they boosted from the Czechs during pre-war annexation!

Compared to the Tigers and Panthers we normally think of, these early tanks were just toys, and not very good ones. They were like GoBots when compared to a Transformer; they look kinda the same, but the guts just aren’t there. So, then, how did such puny tanks ever conquer so much of Europe? Well, planning, combined arms operations, lots of infantry support and terrible Allied utilization of their own armour helped. The funny thing is, compared to the German tanks, British tanks were nearly invincible, and there were many cases where the German panzer units just went around the British tanks and left them for the Stukas and infantry to deal with.

But then… then there were the French Tanks. French tank doctrine hadn’t done a lot of evolving since WWI, and the French never deployed their tanks en masse. This worked to their detriment. Furthering the weakness of the French tank force was the fact that their designs weren’t that great. A lot of the French tanks were Renault FT.17s, essentially leftovers from the end of WWI. These tiny, two-man tanks mounted either a machine gun or a low-pressure 37mm gun. Granted, they were the first tank to use the now-established “body + turreted weapon” design. But first doesn’t mean finest, and by the late ‘30s, the poor FT was looking beyond long in the tooth. It was probably an even match for the Panzer IIs it came up against on paper, but in the field, with such poor maneuverability, It was sorely outclassed.

Another French tank of the period was the Char B.1 bis. This was a much heavier tank, but it, like so many others of the ‘20s and ‘30s, hadn’t really been able to predict the final form of the tank. Like the American M3 Lee/Grant, it had its main heavy armament in a hull-mounted sponson; in this case, it was a 75mm howitzer. The turret mounted a 47mm gun to deal with enemy tanks. If this sounds odd, its because it today’s world, it is.

 It’s important to remember that, at this time, the theory was that there would be two kinds of tanks and guns to do the two main jobs of tanks. The first was an infantry support tank; this was an assault gun, designed to bust up enemy machine gun nests, fortifications and the like. Large-calibre, low-pressure howitzers were considered best for this. The second was an anti-armour tank; these used higher-pressure, but smaller-calibre, guns. This gave the anti-tank rounds higher kinetic energy. By combining both of these ideas into one tank, the Char B.1 was already a compromise. Not only that, but it was massively armoured (as a tank rushing enemy fortifications would have to be) and was more than able to shrug off the measly tick-bites of a Panzer II’s measly 20mm gun. However, it was never designed for speed, and since the 75mm gun was all-but useless in maneuver warfare, it was just dead weight.

So, while the B.1 and its later, improved “bis” form, were more than capable of standing up to the German machines, they were also expensive, heavy, had high fuel consumption and were mechanically complex. In shorty, they simply couldn’t keep up, and were surrounded and overcome, like boulders trying to fight a tidal wave.

The fact that the French tanks were so ineffective is not entirely the fault of the tanks, nor their crews. Poor planning and a lack of understanding of maneuver warfare let them down. That the French could not adequately support them from the air, due to the Luftwaffe’s air superiority only made things that much harder for the poor French soldiers trying desperately to stem the German advance.

Despite their failure in combat, both of these vehicles, the FT.17 and the Char B.1 bis, have been the subject of numerous model kits over the years. Of course, when it comes to armour, you know I have the hots for the old 1/76 Matchbox armour kits! Sadly, I have not been able to acquire any of the larger, multi-kit “Orange Range” sets in their original issues, except for the LRDG that my friend Alan so graciously sent me! Lucky for me, Revell Germany has it in its heart to reissue these kits with some limited regularity. It seems we see one or two Purple Range and one Orange Range every year. Well, just last year it seems it was the time for the old Char B.1 bis + FT.17 to get reissued!

So, while it may not be quite as much of a “pocket money kit” as the original, and even though we’re missing the multi-colour moulding, I was very excited when I saw this on my local shop’s shelves! They only had one copy, and I don’t know how long it sat there before I got to it. However, get to it I did, and now we can all see how Matchbox rendered these stalwart, if not ineffective, defenders of “La Gloire”!

The Box:

It’s no secret that I love Matchbox box art. It’s no secret that I’ll buy a Matchbox kit just to get the art. It’s also no secret that, for some reason (likely copyright or some other legal BS), Revell Germany doesn’t re-use the old Matchbox art. It’s a shame, because in this world where “retro modelling” is a thing, you’d think that reusing the old Matchbox boxes and art would be a sure-fire way to draw some attention and make some coin on the backs of the rose-tinted glasses brigade. (I say that with said glasses firmly in place, by the way).

However, they haven’t, or don’t, or can’t. Regardless, the Revell Germany boxings of Matchbox kits usually have newer box art. As you can see from the box on the PaK-40/Sd.Kfz.11, the Revell art department is lacking something. However, the last issue of the FT.17/Char B.1 bis, from around 2006, had the two tanks just sitting in a field. It was boring, but I figured that’s what they’d go with again. I’m not buying it for the box art if it’s a Revell, I just want the kit.

Well, Revell surprised me. They did new box art! Sadly, all I could say when I picked up the kit was… “What in the #@!$% kind of half-arsed Photoshop BS is this??” That’s a quote. I likely used more than the one expletive, though. I swear, this iteration of the kit has some of the very worst, most lifeless box art I have ever, ever seen.

You get a picture of the two tanks, in colour, parked on a street. The buildings in the background are in flames, and are somewhat greyed-out, except for the fire, which is full-colour. There’s rubble, and flaming bits on the street, and you’d think there is some hardcore, full-on battle action going on! But, it isn’t! It’s just two tanks, sitting there. I know that they made the tanks in colour to draw attention to them. However, because they’re not photorealistic renderings, they just look cartoony. They seem detached from the background. It’s like some child’s sticker book, where you can just put the tanks on wherever you want. I guess I should be glad they’re not upside down on the top of the building, or popping inappropriate wheelies in the devastated streets!

What the… Okay, who’s been photoshopping my WoT Beta skins again??? Man, it’s like a bad high school computer project in here!

Mind you, that would have been better, because at least there’d be some sense of action. At least the box on the PaK-40 was artistically consistent from foreground to background, and something seemed like it was happening. This is just like two crew parked their tanks to go take a leak at the Dunkin’ Donuts (sic) that’s just “off screen” to the artwork. The fact that the Char B.1 has the turret somewhat pointed towards the building gives it an air of incredible stupidity. It’s like it’s looking at the building going “Man, what’s with this fire and rubble? Is this supposed to be like this? Weird!”

Making it worse is the fact that the FT-17’s shadow goes under its tracks. So, then, it’s hovering? How the hell did France not beat Germany if it had Hovertanks? With an anti-gravity drive, France should have kicked Germany’s backside! Oh, wait, it’s not hovering? Right… just more bad Photoshop. Given the apparent action shown in the background, the total clinical cleanliness of both the vehicles and the background buildings is jarring and unprofessional. There’s fire but no smoke. There’s no dirt, ash, mud or brick dust on the tanks. It’s literally like someone just plopped them there off the back of a covered truck!

This is really among the worst box art I’ve seen. I mean, ever. The mid ‘90s Mongrams and Revells, with lame photos of the kits on weird angles are better than this! The total misrepresentation of the X-Fighter is better than this, especially artistically. This is just laziness. This is a job they gave the boss’ cousin’s kid who was interning there because he was too useless to fill in watering plants at the cemetery. This is the artistic equivalent to baby food peas – just a godawful mess that no one wants and no one should have to suffer.

The art was so bad, in fact, I actually wondered if it WAS the Matchbox inside. I almost put it down because the art was that bad. However, when I flipped over the box, I was pleasantly surprised. I’m used to seeing cross sells on Revell Germany boxes, and that’s it. However, this time, there were actual pictures of the kit!! I could actually confirm from this that it was my beloved Matchbox, albeit stripped of colour and dressed in a dog’s-breakfast of offensively mundane box art. The pics on the back showed the two tanks and, of course, the awesome mini-diorama base just big enough to hold them! 

The box art sucks, but the back at least shows that it’s the Matchbox inside. Thank goodness for that!

With that assurance, I renewed my faith in the kit and purchased it straight away. It’s been sitting, bottom-up, in my stash ever since. So, let’s bust it out of that abortion of a box, and see what Revell has dug out of the past to appease the legions (?) of rabid Matchbox fans, shall we?

The Kit:

The greatest strength of Matchbox kits is consistency. Their planes sometimes have big trenches, sometimes fine lines, but usually both. You know the level of detail you’re going to get, and if you’re okay with that, then you buy the kit. If not, you put it down and let me buy it. Well, that level of consistency holds true for their armour kits too. However, I must say that the people who did Matchbox’s armour moulds were clearly a cut or two above those bashing out the airplanes!

This is what you get in the box. In the good old days, these sprues would have been a tealish-green, medium brown and dark brown, I think. At least the new decals are a colourful improvement.

In typical “Orange Range” fashion, the Char B.1/FT.17 kit comes on three racks of styrene. In the good old days, these would have each been a different colour, adding to the visual appeal of the kit upon opening it. Sadly, Revell Germany has eschewed this process and the three racks are all in a very modern-looking medium-grey styrene. There are no clear pieces, but there are two sprues of Matchbox’s trademark rubber-band tracks. As expected, they use the very interesting method of threading in a piece of track like a belt buckle, as opposed to the “melting pins” used on most other brands. Both sets of tracks are black. The detail isn’t up to resin, individual links by any means, but they’re lumpy in vaguely the right ways, and that’s enough for me.

This is the FT.17’s track. Its’ not very detailed, but then again, the real thing isn’t a paragon of greeblieness either.

The one rack contains most of the parts for the diorama that was Matchbox’s unique calling card in the armour modelling industry. In this case, the background is a large plate of dirt/mud, complete with track marks, and some awesome destroyed building behind it. Unlike the building on the box art, this is not a fine arts museum, but it is nicely detailed. There is cracked plaster/parging that has fallen off the outside, revealing the brick below. There are also a couple of shutters, and a wooden door made of thin slats that goes into an arched gateway.

This track-marked muddy tract is the base for the diorama. It’s not stunning, but it’s a neat addition. I do like the footprints added in there for a bit of differentiation.

It’s unfortunate that, unlike the LRDG’s diorama base, there’s really not much “going on” here. The base doesn’t have room for stuff to be moulded into it, like the case of the LRDG’s “destroyed house”, and the wall is just that, a wall. It’s not even a corner. Most of it will be hidden by the tanks. However, a bit of ground cover vegetation sprouting along the base of the wall could help liven things up, and some nice washes and detail painting should make this come alive even without a lot of ground clutter.

As for the tanks, they are moulded on the two other racks, although it’s not “one rack per tank” as you might think. Each rack has pieces of both tanks, and the parts are, by and large, fairly nicely detailed and surprisingly crisp. Given the age of the moulds, one might expect flash and slight distortion, as so often afflicts reissued car models (I’m looking at you, AMT Econoline). In this case, though, the parts are quite clean and the detail that’s there seems good. I will admit that the top of the B.1 looks a bit soft, but still, it’s not terrible!

This is the top of the B.1’s hull. It’s not as fine as a Fujimi, but miles better than a Matchbox plane!

One thing you might be surprised by, as I was, is the size of the vehicles. The B.1 is a very large tank, especially for the time period it was used in. However, the tininess, the abject toy-like nature, of the FT.17 is really driven home by this kit. The tracks are only about half as long as the B.1’s, and the parts of the FT.17 are very small, including the hull bottom and sides. You can easily see how even a Panzer II might make easy meat of this thing. Heck, it makes a Chi-Ha look like an Abrams in comparison!

In addition to the tanks and wall/base, you get a few French soldiers figures too. There’s one that seated to be leaning out the back of the Char B.1’s turret, and two that appear to be trudging off to wherever you decide to send them. There’s also one guy leaning on his rifle like a walking stick. They’re not badly moulded, but Matchbox has never really been about the figures, and they’re not up to modern standards at all. For me, they’re just spares fodder, and I doubt they’ll ever get used. But, if you like figures, at least they’re in scale!

Here’s one of the figured that comes with the set. Not resin quality, but maybe with some hard work, he can look half-decent!

Instructions and Decals:

The instructions on Matchbox kits were always very compact, efficient affairs. For whatever reason, however, Revell Germany eschews this approach and instead includes an instruction book that is completely oversized for the job it is being asked to do. I mean, the Matchbox ones were just slips of paper with a few folds, really. The Revell ones are a gargantuan, multi-page booklet so large that it has to be folded in half to fit in the box. Since the kit is the same as it was nearly 40 years ago, I’m at a loss to explain the need for such a monumental set of assembly drawings!

That being said, there are a couple of benefits to Revell’s instructional gigantism. For one thing, the images in them are much larger than the typical Matchbox offerings, and much less is done in a given step. This means that there is less chance for confusion when it comes to putting on some of the smaller pieces (especially on the Char B.1’s back). This is welcome, but I still feel that the amount of “blue space” is rather excessive. There’s far too much paper used for the job, and I can’t help but feel that from an environmental standpoint, the instructions are somewhat irresponsible. Yes, that’s coming from me, the guy with two V-8 cars, one of which is an old Trans Am. Let that sink in.

They may be a bit clearer, but they are also a ridiculous size; far too large for what they do. Check how much blue ink they use, too!

“Wait, did you say ‘blue space’ just now?” you ask. Yes, yes I did. The reason is that the instructions are “in colour”. Actually, the assembly drawings are largely in black and white, although there are coloured colour call outs in some of the steps. However, most of the pages in the manual are a light blue background. Again, that’s a lot of ink to use for no good reason, and it’s just such an odd place to spend money on colour printing.  Overall, though, the instructions look good and easy to follow. At times, I wonder why they didn’t combine a few steps, but that’s just me. It’s just a shame they’re so darned big, because the will prove unruly around the modelling bench, I fear.

Of course, the good part of this is the painting instructions! Unlike the Matchbox, which only gave you a couple of options, the Revell reissue offers all kinds of ideas for colour schemes, including those for captured vehicles! This is a step above and beyond, and it is something I will applaud. More schemes also means more decals, and the decal sheet for this release is very nice looking indeed.

This is where the colour instructions pay off. You can really see how long the Char B.1 is, too. Not as far removed from WWI’s “landships” as you might have thought, eh?
Even the FT.17 gets some love! With three schemes for such a tiny tank, you are a bit spoiled for choice!

The decals are standard Revell Germany ones, though, so that means they’re matte and likely to be troublesome when it comes to silvering. That’s been my experience, at least. You do get nice colourful decals, though, and they are good in both saturation and register.

Here are the decals. My friend Pierre told me that “Fantasque” can mean “capricious”, “fanciful” or “erratic”. Neither of those really applies to a Char B.1, and don’t seem like fitting names for a war machine. Vive la difference!

Conclusions:

The French tanks of WWII might not have been bad machines, but they were employed so poorly that they never stood a chance against their far-better-prepared German adversaries. It’s nice to have these little renditions of those vehicles so that you can compare them to the more famous and deadly tanks that came after them.

These tanks are pure Matchbox love. They’re simple, by-and-large, and detailed enough that they’ll look good at the size they’re at. You could superdetail them if you wanted to, of course. However, if, like me, you just want an out of the box build, they’ll look good that way too. They’re not super-simple, like some Zvezda wargaming kits (man, those are SIMPLE), and they’re the better for it. They aren’t so complicated that someone who’s got some modelling chops, but has never built armour, can’t turn out a good model. Even beginners should be able to produce something to be proud of; that is what Matchbox was going for, after all!

With an opportunity to practice some diorama and groundcover skills, this little two-pack of models offers a great experience for a wide variety of builders.  Despite its abjectly abominable box art, this little set still shines brightly with the special charm that only Matchbox armour kits seem to radiate. If you like the losers, the oddballs and the often largely-forgotten, then this kit is definitely one for you. Grab it if you see it; it’ll be another decade and change before it comes back, I figure.

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