Matchbox Formula 1 grid walk, Part 2: 1970s-1990s

Welcome to Part 2 of my walkthrough of Matchbox’s Formula 1 cars. If you read the first part, thanks! If not, take a look here.

We’d reached 1978 and the demise of the Team Matchbox, a generic formula car that had been part of the Superfast range since 1973. That left the No.36 Formula 5000 as the only single-seater in the lineup, which we’ll include briefly in our survey because in real life, F1 chassis were raced in this 5-litre formula.

This model dates from 1975 and can be found mostly in orange or red with a few different sticker designs. The casting was modified in 1982 and stayed in the range as MB028 until the end of ’83, billed variously as the Formula Car or Formula Racing Car. My gold modified example was on a childhood birthday cake!

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[eBay link: Matchbox Formula 5000]

Just for fun, here are some models that show how F1 design was progressing: a Kyosho Tyrrell 008 (1978) and Lotus 91 (1982), with a 1:43-scale 1979 Williams FW07 by Western Models in the back.

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[eBay link: Kyosho Formula 1]

A new F1 car joined the Matchbox range in 1984. Officially the MB137 F 1 Racer (that space is unhelpful when using search functions!), the car appears to have been based on the Ferrari 126C2/3s of the previous year.

In rest-of-the-world (ROW – non-US) markets, the F 1 Racer spent the first few years of its life in the Ferrari paint scheme and formed part of a terrific Superkings Ferrari Racing Car Transporter set. It joined the US range in 1985 as the ‘Indy Racer’ in colours based on the Patrick Racing March – a taste of what was to come. The model would continue in the basic range for several years in various generic schemes and featured in 5-packs until 1995.

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[eBay link: Matchbox F1 Racer]

That’s far from the end of the story, however. Like the F1 cars that followed it, the F 1 Racer was dressed up to represent multiple different, real-life single-seater race cars over almost a decade. It was painted to represent Martin Donnelly’s F3 Ralt for a Mr Juicy promotion and Mark Larkham’s Mitre 10 Formula Brabham/Holden Reynard.

It also represented several Indy Cars, with the base name changed to Indy Racer, as part of the Indy-themed Matchbox models that appeared in 1992-93. It was later used as a promo in Canada for Agfa-sponsored driver, Ross Bentley.

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By that time the portly ex-Ferrari was no longer the only F1 car in Matchbox’s armoury. The generic MB203 Grand Prix Racer arrived in 1988 in an attractive white and blue deco with Shell sponsorship. For 1990 it was redecorated as Nigel Mansell’s #27 F1 Ferrari, although the model name was unchanged. Minor tampo tweaks aside, it would retain this look in the ROW range until 1996, also appearing as a Team Convoy with a DAF box truck and in a Motorcity Ferrari set.

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In the US, the car got a Tyco-tastic, blotchy blue, white and pink deco that’s best forgotten. More attractive were the XP Parcels promo version and a gold, 1997 ROW version based on the previous year’s Jordan. That one still eludes me.

Like the F 1 Racer, the Grand Prix Racer had a second life as an Indy Car. There were various authentic decos for the 1991-92 Indy issues, including the red Scotch/Target machine shown below (based on Eddie Cheever’s 1991 Lola), as well as some less appealing Indy-branded ones.

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It subsequently underwent plastic surgery and corresponding changes to the manufacturing number, receiving first a new, Indy-style rear wing in 1991 (MB228, original name retained) and later a low-downforce nose as well (MB247, renamed Indy Racer). The end came with an attractive deep purple version in a 1997 Racing 5-pack. The three stages are shown from left to right, below.

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[eBay link: Matchbox Grand Prix Racer]

The final Matchbox F1 car (so far) is also my favourite. In 1993, the MB246 Williams-Renault FW14B appeared as the centrepiece of Matchbox’s Nigel Mansell Collection license, which included Williams transporters, helicopter, Chevy van (some poetic license there) and even a broadcast TV tower.

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Mansell was a huge star in the UK at the time, having driven the FW14B to the 1992 F1 drivers’ championship, but had already left F1 for CART in the US by the time the model came out. Matchbox’s range of Nigel Mansell Collection products later extended to the Newman-Haas Lola he raced Stateside, using the aforementioned MB228 modified Grand Prix Racer. It’s seen here with a Kenworth transporter from a Mansell gift set and with Mansell’s F1 Williams and earlier Ferrari.

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[eBay link: Matchbox Nigel Mansell]

Back to the Williams. The Matchbox version captured the shape of this Adrian Newey-designed racer pretty well. Here it is next to a 1:64 Aoshima version of the FW14B, with Riccardo Patrese’s #6 on the nose.

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[eBay link: Aoshima Williams]

An early version of the Matchbox model was given to attendees at a Variety Club charity dinner in June 1993, complete with commemorative box. I don’t have one, but here it is among memorabilia at the fabulous (but sadly now closed) Mansell Collection museum in Jersey, Channel Islands.

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For 1994, Matchbox went all-in on F1. The Williams casting was renamed ‘Formula 1’ and became the basis for a series of F1 machines in authentic decos that were sold in ROW markets. As well as a Williams – now renumbered as Damon Hill’s #0 car from Mansell’s red #5 – there was a Footwork, Ferrari and Sauber. A Lotus was shown in catalogues and on packaging, but I believe it only appeared later, in a different paint scheme.

The cars were usually sold in individual blisters. I found the three-pack F1 box shown below at a toy fair in the UK. It was old stock from Gamleys, a chain of toy shops in the south of England that I went to as a kid. I’m still not sure why the cars were packaged like this and I don’t know whether they were sold individually or together, but it’s one of my favourite Matchbox items.

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The F1 cars were also sold in a gift set and on the back of Kenworth car transporters.

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In 1995, the Williams and Ferrari got livery updates, the Lotus joined the range, the Footwork reverted to Arrows and a Jordan replaced the Sauber. Check out this page from a 1996 German catalogue.

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In 1996, the MB246 Formula 1 reached the US range with generic white MB Racing decoration. The car changed colour a couple of times and appeared in gold as part of the 1-75 Gold Challenge in 1997 (note ‘Formula Racer’ branding), before being dropped at the end of ’98.

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The authentic race liveries and a relatively limited number of standard issues make MB246 an attractive model to collect. Unfortunately, completists will struggle due to the myriad promotional versions. An all-white ASAP blank was produced in 1998 that was subsequently used for more than 150 different Code 2 designs, according to the comprehensive list compiled by Austrian collector, Christian Falkensteiner. Such is their scarcity that they often don’t come cheap.

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And that’s it. Thanks for staying with me through 40 years of Matchbox Formula 1 cars! It would be great to see a contemporary F1 machine back in the range one day. F1 has been poorly served by mass-market models since Matchbox stopped making theirs, due in part to F1’s marketing focus on an older, wealthier demographic under former boss, Bernie Ecclestone.

Spark currently makes a couple of F1 machines in its Sparky 1:64 line and Bburago did a Red Bull a few years ago, but with the formerly prolific Kyosho now seemingly out of the game, that’s about it. A pity, because I’m sure there’d be a market for a range of affordable F1 cars in 1:64. Formula E seems to think so, having recently licensed its Gen 2 car to both Hot Wheels and Majorette, while Greenlight continues to make modern IndyCars. With F1 now under more progressive management, perhaps we can hope for better times ahead.

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[eBay link: Spark Formula 1]

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Graham Heeps

6 thoughts on “Matchbox Formula 1 grid walk, Part 2: 1970s-1990s

  1. It was quite interesting back in the 70’s that Matchbox were able to get away – for a short period anyway – with replicating the Texaco Marlboro livery of James Hunt’s McLaren on the #36 Formula 5000 model before the offending cigarette brand logo was replaced by a sticker for Champion spark plugs.
    Due to the ban on cigarette and alcohol on model cars that followed, it’s a pity that so many wonderful liveries weren’t able to be properly represented in the 80’s and 90’s on the majority of releases from various manufacturers. However, few people have noticed that the Matchbox Formula 1 Lotus from the mid 90’s (which was pretty hard to find at the time to be fair), does feature Miller beer logo’s on the front wings. That detail clearly eluded those at the company who had to sign it off!

  2. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you. I’ve been a life long collector of 1/64 racing cars. I have many of the ones in your article but never knew much about the Matchbox history. My favorite is the shark nose Ferrari (I have the one from my childhood in my collection).

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