Here’s a short tribute to what I regard as one of the finest Matchbox models. It’s the Land Rover 90 (originally Land Rover Ninety on the base), known in the real world from 1990 as the Defender.
Just like the real thing, it’s quite a survivor. By my reckoning there have been more than 40 main versions of this 1:62-scale model so far (not counting minor variations), spanning more than three decades, three different Matchbox brand ownerships, three production facilities, multiple base and casting updates and half a dozen wheel designs!
There has been a Land Rover in the Matchbox lineup for 65 years. It began with the Series I in 1955, which was followed by the Series II, Safari, Fire Truck, Freelander, Discovery, SVX and Defender 110. We’ve also had the Range Rover Sport, Evoque and Vogue SE, and most recently, another Series II Safari.
No other Matchbox Land Rover has had the staying power of the 90, however. It started out as MB180 in 1987 during the Universal era. That casting was updated to become MB721 some 20 years later, receiving a plastic base and two-rivet assembly in place of the tab-and-slot arrangement at the rear.
The most recent revision emerged for the six-part Land Rover series in 2016, when the hitherto separate roof became part of the body and a spin post appeared in the rear compartment to enable cheaper, drop-in assembly. The casting number reverted to MB180. The model subsequently returned to the basic range in a colour that evoked the Grasmere Green of the Heritage edition, one of the final Defender specials before production of the real thing ceased in 2015.
The Matchbox 90 has near-perfect proportions. In its original form it had working suspension and even in its current guise it’s a satisfyingly chunky lump of metal. It’s fun to collect because of the wide variety of versions available – many in authentic or licensed liveries. It needn’t break the bank, either, although there are some tough-to-find decos for the masochists out there, including a couple of promotionals.
In my collection I have around half of the all the versions made – you’ll see most of them lurking in the photos that I took for this article – but I’m going to focus on five of my favourites. Let’s get started!
1) Basic range blue (1987)
The original and possibly the best. Blue with a white roof (albeit not quite this bright) is a classic Land Rover colour scheme. MB180 launched with this look in 1987 and Matchbox subsequently used the same authentic tampo on an attractive green 90 that appeared in Farm packs in the early-90s. Matchbox used a similar scheme (with a more realistic, duller shade of blue) in the 2007 Classics 5-pack.
2) Commando Dagger Force (c.1989)
I like this one so much that I made up some artwork and had a T-shirt printed to wear to the Matchbox Gathering last year! I can’t quite put my finger on it but there’s something sinister about the black wheels that gives this one real presence. I don’t have as many of the Commando models as I’d like, but I fill a gap now and again when I find one at the right price.
3) Alitalia (1991)
Four different versions of MB180 appeared in airline gift sets. My favourite is the striking white and green one from a rare 1991 Alitalia set; similar KLM and SAS sets was also issued. More common is the British Airways one in the airline’s ‘Landor’ livery of the 1980s and 90s, from a set first issued in 1991. The Alitalia model is very similar to a promotional made for the 1992 Ebbw Vale Garden Festival of Wales.
4) Safari Park (1993)
The Land Rover 90 has appeared in many 5-packs, 10-packs, gift sets and other places down the years. There have been jungle, pirate, water-sports and dinosaur-themed models, among others. I love the tiger-striped car shown here, which was in an Off Road 5-pack in 1993. In a similar vein, Matchbox made an LR90 in a series of Crocodile Hunter-themed models with mud-spattered sides.
5) Metropolitan Police (2000)
This London police version was a UK-only release. I used to see Land Rovers just like this on British streets. It complements the London Fire Brigade Transit that was issued the same year and makes for a nice pair with the Discovery that appeared in the 2007 Best of British line.
Hope you enjoyed a brief look at this model, which I hope will endure for many more years to come. It would be great to see Matchbox make a version of the new Defender to continue the tradition!