11 January 2023
Concluding our survey of collectable military vehicles
The W. Britain brand name needs no introduction from me, as this manufacturing giant began production way back in 1893. To put that into perspective, Queen Victoria (with the so-called bun head on coinage) was still on the throne and Britain was involved in the Mahdist War in the Sudan. Over time, the company’s output has been prodigious and setting aside all its hollowcast figurines, there is still a huge amount to collect in military terms.
Where to start is the difficulty. You could restrict yourself to the products that predated World War Two and which were continued just after the hostilities. In this genre fall items such as an ambulance (Austin-based, I think), the Underslung Lorry, a Beetle lorry and a Tipping truck, to name but four. Collecting the differing types will take a while – and the ambulance, in particular, is often missing a rear door or even its occupants.
Alternatively, move on a few years and you’ll run into to some seriously offensive machinery. The Centurion Tank, a British Army mainstay, has huge presence and weight (and came in green as well as sand). Then again there are the artillery pieces proper. Here, W. Britain took the trouble to make them operable without spoiling their realistic looks. Readily available is the 4.7inch Naval Gun (the real thing was taken from British warships during the Boer War and fitted with makeshift carriages for use in South Africa); but more exciting, if only because of the sequential loading and firing steps that have to be undertaken, is the Heavy Howitzer. This had a very long production run and underwent colour changes: most desirable, perhaps, is the early gunmetal finish. That example could fling a heavy lead shell with a lot of force. A Fortress Cannon (the 18inch Heavy Howitzer) is the companion piece, but harder to find. And don’t forget the World War Two US 155mm Long Tom model, which again functions: this is regularly sighted at swapmeets.
You can carry on from there, through the 1970s and beyond. The earliest vehicles command the highest prices and have a charm of their own, whilst the later production remains inexpensive, and readily available.
If, as seems so often the case these days, space is at a premium when it comes to housing your collection, then I’d commend the Lesney/Matchbox series of military vehicles to you. There are plenty of good reasons to seek out these models. For starters, the range is strictly delineated and, unless you are given to wearing an anorak when attending swapmeets, you don’t need to agonise too much over wheel variations or colour. Yes, there are wheel variations – but life’s a bit short, in the final analysis, right?
Matchbox’s range is well known, dates from 1958 and remains readily available and, unlike some of the other 1-75 vehicles in the range, won’t break the bank. There’s a good mixture of soft skinned and more serious hardware; wheeled and tracked vehicles; and there’s the bonus of the Matchbox Major Thornycroft Antar Tank Transporter with its Centurion load, which will make a lovely centrepiece in your collection. This is only eclipsed by the Sentry Box version; whilst the tank sadly runs on rollers, the trailer is enlivened by flip down ramps for authenticity.
Forget the subsequent Matchbox Battle Kings – these were too toy-like in my estimation, although admittedly they were rather more adventurous and included foot figures. As for the Superfast military production... No, for me, it’s all about the first run of models, a dozen in all, that look the part and have enough detail to satisfy the most discerning.
One or two of the Lesney production stand out: the RAF Refueller will spoil your line-up of olive drab since it was released, appropriately enough, in sea blue, but it’s a lovely model nonetheless. The other product to track down is G5, which was the Military Vehicles Set. Comprising seven models in all on a stepped plinth within the packaging, it’s worth seeking out, although it won’t come cheap. However, it does at least give any buyer of an incomplete or less than mint set the possibility of upgrading it in the fullness of time.
The French connection
It would be impossible to write about military toys and not bring Solido into the mix. Its 200 series ushered in military vehicles, initially soft-skinned: the US Combat Car and the Renault 4x4 Tout Terrain were early releases in 1961, although teasingly, several had been featured in the 1960 catalogue. But 1961 proved to be the pivotal year, since that was when articulated tracks were introduced to the market, these first appearing on the Patton M47 tank.
As a marketing ploy, these beat the opposition hands down. However, it didn’t overly worry homegrown makers, I think, because Solido models were rare on these shores in the 1960s. Solido continued to build up the 200 series, with World War Two models as well as those used in later conflicts. American, French, Russian, German and even Japanese military models were covered – but strangely, the British are absent. So much for the entente cordiale.
The quality and finish of Solido has endeared the range to collectors, I suspect, in much the same way that French Dinky has huge appeal. Today, the first (200) series remains readily available and stars like the Berliet Tank Transporter and the Pluton Rocket Launcher tank are not difficult to find. Harder are the boxed sets such as the Groupement Blindé de Reconnaissance (GBR) with its figurines, the Tactic Force and the Brigade d’Intervention Rapide. There are also sets allowing the customer to build tanks as well as artillery. The icing on the cake has to be the Jagdpanther in desert colours and the Patton tank, both in remote control format: these tanks can be steered like the real thing through astute use of track operation.
Solido celebrated D-Day in 1984 with two sets of four vehicles; and an Overlord series of 12 models was issued in 1989, to keep the interest going. Since the noughties it has simply added and added to the range, so that today there is no small number of models to collect. However, production costs seem to have dictated that articulated tracks are no longer viable, which is a great pity.