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Matchbox Memories – Thunderbirds, Stingray and more!

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Most Gerry Anderson fans own at least one or two models, be they characters or vehicles. These products have come in many shapes and sizes over the years, from the 1950s to the present day. Today, Steven Walton guides us through some of the best loved products from the 1990s, including Matchbox Thunderbirds, Stingray and Vivid Imaginations Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons.

In the early 1990s as the popularity of Supermarionation began its first major revival, a selection of figures, die cast vehicles and play sets appeared in toy shops around the country. Matchbox, although definitely not the first toy company to produce a Thunderbirds related toy, would produce one of the definitive toys of the decade outside a video game.

Now owned by Mattel toys, the same company who own rival Hot Wheels, Matchbox (or “MATCHBOX” as the original logo states) was founded by Lesney Products in 1953. The original intention was actually founded on a condition of co-owner Jack Odell’s daughter’s school. If a child wishes to bring a toy into school it must fit into a matchbox. The idea was taken on and the brand named after the notion.

An example of a “Matchbox Fire Pumper” with original box. These models were occasionally seen in episodes of Thunderbirds.

Matchbox upheld its stakes into the next 3 decades but in June 1982 filed for bankruptcy and went into receivership. This wasn’t due to unpopularity but to UK economy at the time. The tools, casts and assets were sold off largely to Universal and David Yeh. Yeh re-organised the company and a slightly new name followed, Matchbox International LTD. The logo lost the speech marks and it was around this time that the namesake matchbox-style packaging was replaced by the blister packs supported by many rivals.

In the 1980s the production costs in the UK proved too high and a large percentage moved abroad. In 1985 the first range was released with CHINA marked on the base, a symbol to indicate ‘made in China’. Ten years after it bought the company, Universal was looking for a buyer and in May 1992 sold it to Tyco Toys.

The company hit gold when it released its Thunderbirds range, but it didn’t start off with high sales. The company hadn’t anticipated that the sales would be so high leading up to Christmas 1991. Stores sold out. The BBC had re-run the series and the toys were brought out to coincide, who would be interested in purchasing a toy for a show made 25 years ago?

After the company had learnt from its mistakes, the advertising and the stock produced was more in line with demand. It was one of the most successful lines of tie-in merchandising in the UK. Even though the amount of products made had significantly increased, The Tracy Island Play Set caused fights between shoppers when stocks ran out, it was even reported in the press.

Die cast models that fitted nicely with The Tracy Island Play Set were also released individually in the now standard blister packaging. Those that were released were Thunderbirds 1 to 4 and Fab 1. There was no sign of a Thunderbird 5 and it took quite a while for fans to get any version of this craft. Thunderbird 4 wasn’t released on its own but with a double pack with Thunderbird 2, it was scaled to fit inside the removable pod.

A selection of rescue vehicles was also released to fit inside the pod so children could re-enact their favourite scenes, however this set wasn’t as popular as the others. Two multi-packs became available, the first was marketed as a Rescue Pack, and this contained all of the individual die casts together with an illustrated box. It also included short paragraphs of information coupled with the relevant character illustration on the underside of the lid. The second pack was a commemorative Radio Times edition; this was essentially the same product but with altered packaging.

The reverse of the individual packaging came with bits of information on how fast the craft were and their sizes, the front came with a picture of the relevant character, such as Scott for Thunderbird 1, even though the Thunderbird 2 release included Thunderbird 4 only Virgil appeared on the card. As with the multi-packs the pictures were illustrated.

These were not the only versions of the Thunderbird craft produced. Large models of Thunderbirds 1 and 2 had electronic sounds, Thunderbird 1 had mechanised opening wings with a light that symbolised a cannon firing whilst Thunderbird 2 had enough room for two action figures and contained a miniature Thunderbird 4. Pull back versions of Thunderbirds 1, 2 and 4 were also produced but these were somehow chunky versions of the craft and didn’t quite fit in with the style of the die casts or other parts of the range.

Matchbox Tracy Island
Matchbox Tracy Island with Thunderbirds 1, 2 and 3, plus Konami Thunderbird 4 and FAB 1!

As mentioned the die cast craft fitted perfectly with Tracy Island, the island came with electronic sounds and spaces for all of the Thunderbird craft to be released from their respective places. The palm trees even moved out of the way for Thunderbird 2! This toy was the cause of many parents anguish and many children’s disappointment that Christmas. As time went on, Blue Peter famously showed viewers how to make their own Tracy Island, which included moving palm trees (of sorts!). The round house of the official Island came off weirdly; hopefully this was just so the manufacturer could create higher detail.

Once your Thunderbird craft had arrived to the rescue zone it was time for the figures to take over. All of the characters you could want to play with were released with only Tin-Tin, Kyrano and Grandma Tracy missing from the regular cast. Lady Penelope wore a pink suit and included a travel bag. Also supporting a bag, but one fitted with tools and other ‘criminal artifacts’ was Parker. Jeff Tracy carried a clip board listed as a rescue schedule, whilst Brains had a Hiramaster computer.

All of the Tracy brothers came in International Rescue uniform with individually coloured sashes, Alan Tracy originally had a White one but it was re-released as off white/ cream, he also carried Astro Tanks. Virgil came with a Thunder Visor and was available in yellow and orange sash variants. Scott and Gordon came with a different gun each; Gordon had a Stun Gun whilst Scott carried a large Thunder Stun. Interestingly Gordon’s script on the reverse of the packaging stated he had spent 4 months in hospital after an underwater crash before joining International Rescue. John, who came with his intercom (technically the only part of Thunderbird 5 to be released), had an interesting back story on his packaging stating he had written four books on outer space. All of the accessories were made of grey plastic and had no painted detail.

Last but not least of the action figures was the Hood who was equipped with a sword, seen occasionally throughout the series hanging from his belt but never actually used in combat.

For bigger adventures, larger 10 inch dolls were produced of four Tracy Brothers, the background of the packaging matched the sash. John was missed out of this range, but was included in the similarly sized Bandai range in America.

Due to the success of this range, when the BBC re-ran Thunderbirds’ Supermarionation predecessor Stingray, Matchbox released a selection of toys based upon the characters and vehicles. The range was not as vast as the Thunderbirds range, but included two die cast models (Stingray and a Terror Fish) released individually and as a double pack and five action figures (Troy, Phones, Marina, Commander Shore and Titan). Troy and Commander Shore were equipped with standard WASP pistols, with Commander Shore sitting in his iconic hover chair (though rendered in blue rather than green). Marina was also armed with a slightly modified WASP pistol, though featured were little articulation due to most of her body being one one molded piece. Phones naturally came equipped with his hydrophones and Titan had a vicious looking Aquaphibian rifle.

As had been the case with Tracy Island, a Marineville Play Set was also released. This consisted of two WASP interceptor missiles that could be launched from their sliding gantries, an ocean door that the Stingray model could be launched through, raising security gate and public address speaker towers (usually the first thing to get lost!). Most impressive of all was the faithfully reproduced Control Tower, featuring an opening control room with sticker detail and it even had the ability lower into the ground to evade attack!

Vivid Imaginations released a Captain Scarlet figure and die cast range, and just as the original puppets were different in style to Thunderbirds and Stingray, the Vivid figures were different from the Matchbox versions, but charmingly felt like they were from the same set.

The vehicles line consisted of the Spectrum Patrol Car, Spectrum Jet Liner (or Spectrum Passenger Jet), Angel Interceptor (twin pack) and the mighty Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle (SPV) (with firing missile, moving tracks, antenna and ejector door). Like the Thunderbirds vehicles that preceded them, these vehicles were released in a box set dubbed the Spectrum Command Team.

And what would a good Command Team be without their command base? In this case, the Cloudbase Play Set was produced and featured storage for the die cast vehicles, raising flight ramp, discreet rolling wheels on the base and a hidden view into the control room from the back of the bridge.

Fans could also get their hands on Captain Scarlet (including Astronaut variant), Captain Blue, Captain Black (including Spy variant), Captain Magenta, Colonel White, Lieutenant Green, Destiny Angel and Harmony Angel. Large plastic Angel Interceptors and SPVs were produced in-scale with these figures, each with a host of special features.

Vivid imaginations also released vast ranges when the next revival of Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet happened in the early 2000s; these included updated ‘Soundtech’ vehicles and play sets for both series and proved to very popular with children of all ages.

The Matchbox toys were a huge success, the story of Tracy Island is still known today. It’s a shame that the range didn’t continue, for who knows, lined up next to Troy Tempest and the Hood could have been Steve Zodiac and Professor Beaker. Fireball XL5 would have looked amazing and it would have been nice to get an X20 figure to help Titan with his evil schemes…

This Article is dedicated to all of the Thunderbird stories that were not shown on TV, cinema or in books, but in the imaginations of children throughout the UK in their bedrooms, in living rooms and the garden. For all those Thunderbird, Stingray and Captain Scarlet mash ups that had your favourite character win the day.

Thanks to Steven for that highly nostalgic look back at some seriously FAB toys, it’s got us reaching for our vintage toy chest in the hopes of finding our Tracy Island (the one with all the palm trees still intact!) and having a few brand new adventures. If you’re looking for some more really FAB Thunderbirds models, check out the Tomica Mini range in the Gerry Anderson Store!

What’s your favourite product from the ranges that Steven has discussed? Let us know in the comments section!

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Andrew Clements

A writer, film maker and self confessed Gerry Anderson fanatic. Free to good home.
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  • Boy…does that bring back some of the best sort of memories playing with all of these toys with my young son! My wife had to enter into unarmed combat with other mothers to secure a Tracy Island at John Lewis. I’ll swear there was blood spilt! Gerry Anderson is a god. And many, many thanks for this wonderful article.

  • markee2010

    My favorite Gerry Anderson shows were Thunderbirds ,Captain Scarlet ,and UFO.Now i want to have a collection of all the Thunderbird Crafts and Captain Scarlet vehicles and have them displayed in my lounge like a mini museum.

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