Look, no wheels! The awesome hovercraft will always have a place in my diecast collection

There is nothing fashionable, stylish or hype-worthy about collecting hovercraft. It’s been decades since a major toy brand produced a licensed hovercraft model. Collectors definitely aren’t lobbying Matchbox to bring back the generic Amphi Flyer (it’s the orange one in the picture below).

But when the day comes to dissolve my collection, the hovercraft models, fewer than 20 in all, will be just about the last thing to go. Cars and aeroplanes are my favourite things on the planet, but it’s the hovercraft that completes the transport podium for me.

I’m not sure why I became fascinated with these amphibious craft in particular, as opposed to ships or trains or motorcycles or anything else, but it definitely had something to do with moving to the Isle of Wight – just off the UK’s south coast and spiritual home of the hovercraft – when I was 13 years old. Besides, there’s something cool about a craft that can operate just as easily on land or on water, as witnessed by the enduring popularity of radio control hovercraft toys.

Over the years I’ve accumulated a small collection of hovercraft books, memorabilia and models, focused mostly on larger, passenger and cargo-carrying hovercraft, rather than the myriad smaller craft built for recreational use. I thought it would be fun to share some of those items here. If Gulf Squarebodies or LBWK Skylines are more your bag, feel free to look away now!

I had the idea for this article last summer, when I picked up this classic Matchbox Battle Kings K-105 Hover-Raider at the Gathering in Albuquerque. To be honest, it’s not the sort of model you see a lot of at the convention, which is dominated (like Matchbox collecting more generally, including my own) by smaller models from the ‘1-75’ miniatures range, old and new. I already had a couple of Hover-Raiders, but for a bargain $10 I couldn’t pass this boxed one up.

A quick disclaimer before we go any further: Lamley readers are brilliantly well informed, always ready to fill in the gaps in my own knowledge, but I’m guessing that most people reading this don’t know much about hovercraft. Forgive me if I pitch this at a lower level of assumed knowledge than my average Lamley article, but the history of hovercraft models is intertwined with the history of the hovercraft itself, and I thought you might find some of the historical context interesting. And fair warning: this is a long article!

In case you’re not sure of how a hovercraft hovers, here’s an awesome diagram from an old British Hovercraft Corporation brochure.

The hovercraft was not invented on the Isle of Wight – that famously involved Sir Christopher Cockerell, a hairdryer and some food tins – but the first experimental, full-sized hovercraft was built there by flying-boat and helicopter builder, Saunders-Roe. This small island off the south coast of England became the centre of the hovercraft world when sales of the SR.N6 took off in the 1960s. Even now, it remains home to the world’s longest continuously operating hovercraft passenger service – the Hovertravel route between Ryde on the Isle of Wight and Southsea (Portsmouth) on the mainland – while the descendant of its hovercraft manufacturing industry, Griffon Hoverwork, lives on just across the water in Southampton and Portchester.


This brings us to our first model, a beautiful 1962 Corgi in 1:76 scale of that pioneering hovercraft, the HDL SR-N1 (Saunders-Roe Nautical 1). This collaboration between Saunders-Roe and Hovercraft Development Ltd (a subsidiary of the UK’s then-National Research and Development Council (NRDC)) divided the wash from a ducted, skywards-pointing Alvis Leonides aero engine and propeller between the dual needs of lift and thrust. The latter was achieved by routing some of the resulting blown air along the sides of the craft.

In keeping with Corgi and Dinky models of the period, this is a big old chunk of metal. Bought loose and secondhand (I’m not that old!) it was a gift from my parents for passing my school exams one year and is much treasured, if a little faded. Underneath are three sprung metal balls to provide a simulated air-cushion effect. According to the essential New Great Book of Corgi by Marcel van Cleemput, only 76,000 were sold, a disappointment at a time when the most popular Corgis were selling more than one million units. Here are some more views of it, including with an old Airfix kit.

(find Corgi hovercraft on eBay)


The next large hovercraft built in the UK was also a one-off research prototype, although the SR.N2 did operate the world’s first passenger hovercraft services – including a first summer season running between Ryde and Southsea, in 1962. Next came a larger military trials prototype, the N3, which for the first time raised the cockpit above the main body of the craft.

I’m fortunate to possess a design office model from the British Hovercraft Corporation (BHC), as Saunders-Roe’s hovercraft business became known, of a craft from that experimental period that was never made, a sort of SR.N2.5. I spent a few years as an Air Cadet as a kid and one of our civilian instructors was a former BHC draughtsman. He gifted me this plastic model when I was a teenager and it’s been on display ever since – a small part of the Isle of Wight that lives on with me in Calgary.


SR.N5 with the UK’s Interservice Hovercraft Unit (Credit: Hovercraft Museum)

The first production Saunders-Roe/BHC craft was the SR.N5, a small, gas-turbine-powered machine that served in various roles around the world. In the USA, Bell built a version called the SK-5 that became the first hovercraft used by the US Navy (USN), including in Vietnam. Incidentally, Isle of Wight-built AP.1-88 hovercraft were sold years later to serve as pilot trainers for the USN’s LCACs (Landing Craft Air Cushion), which are now being superseded by the more modern LCAC-100s or SSCs (Ship-to-Shore Connectors).

Anyway, my only N5 is this fabulous Marx model, which is around 23cm (9in) long, so about 1:52 scale. Insert a couple of D batteries and it merrily skims across the room with flashing lights, although the electrics are sketchy these days after so long in storage. Time for an overhaul!

(find Marx hovercraft on eBay)

I also have the spurious ST. N5 (no, that’s not a typo), which was ‘Empire Made’ (in Hong Kong) by Telsada. Moulded entirely in plastic and measuring 13cm (5in) in length, this N5-inspired, twin-prop design has a friction motor so that it can whine slowly along the desk.


Vintage postcards of SR.N6s in Hovertravel orange. Note BHC’s Columbine Works in East Cowes, Isle of Wight, in the picture top left (author’s collection)

The real N5 was lengthened into the more practical SR.N6, which became a huge commercial success.

Well-deck SR.N6 in storage at Hoverwork in the 1990s. It’s now at the Hovercraft Museum (author)

It spawned what’s likely to be the most produced miniature hovercraft of all time, the Matchbox Superfast replica of the N6. Introduced in 1972 and made until 1978, it’s one of the least desirable and therefore easiest to find of all 1970s Superfast. I had one as a kid and have since added a few more to the collection. Some later versions don’t have glazing.

With a quick modification to include both model numbers – 2 & 72 – Lesney got an extra return on its investment in the plastic tooling for the skirt section by also producing the Rescue Hovercraft, a generic design launched in 1977 that fits perfectly into the fantasy car-dominated range of the time.

There are endless variations of this casting; my favourite is the flat green version that came out in one of the Adventure 2000 sets.

(find Matchbox Superfast hovercraft on eBay)

The second, larger Matchbox N6 was produced as a Superkings model (K-22) from 1974 to about 1981. It appeared in reasonably authentic colour schemes reflecting the two operators who had run hovercraft passenger services between the UK and France: government-owned Seaspeed, and Hoverlloyd. In model form, the Hoverlloyd is much harder to find.

Vintage Hoverlloyd postcard of cross-channel SR.N6 ‘Swift’ (author’s collection)

(find Superkings hovercraft on eBay)

From 1975 there was also the ‘Hover-Raider’ Battle Kings version (K-105), like the one I picked up at the Gathering. For military use, the Superkings N6 got a front spotlight and side-mounted ‘missile launchers’ that unfortunately were fixed in place. It appeared first in a less-than-stealthy metallic green, later in military green.

All of these models featured Rolamatics-style working features whereby the wheels powered a shaft drive that turned the radar scanner at the front and propeller at the rear. Awesome play value for the kids of the day, which didn’t quite include me, as I only acquired these models much later on.

(find Battle Kings hovercraft on eBay)

A rotating propeller was a feature of Dinky’s SR.N6, too, which first appeared as #290 in 1970. Unlike the Matchbox, this roughly 1:110-scale model had a more authentic rubber-like skirt instead of a rigid plastic one, plus the access door opens at the front. It’s a wonderful toy that appeared in a couple of shades of red and, from 1973, as the #281 ‘Military Hovercraft’ in army green with a real British military serial (XV614). Both had left the range by ’75.

My one is a later version with a modified roof section. On the military model, the change enables a gun to be fitted at the front instead of the auto-rotating radar, which was then moved further back.

(find Dinky hovercraft on eBay)


Vintage postcard of the first SR.N4 in trials off Dover (author’s collection)

In 1968, three years after the first SR.N6 had flown off the landing pad in front of the Columbine Hanger in East Cowes with its famous Union Jack-painted doors, the first of the huge SR.N4s took flight. These soon superseded the N6s used by Seaspeed and Hoverlloyd and, after the two operations had merged under the Hoverspeed banner in 1981, carried passengers across the Channel until 2000.

Postcard of four SR.N4s in Hoverspeed colours (author’s collection)

I finally got to ride on one of the cross-Channel craft in 1997. I was almost certainly the most excited person onboard! It was noisy and bumpy, and the spray made it hard to see out, but it was really, really fast, which was of course the whole point.

Airfix did a kit of the SR.N4 that I ought to track down sometime. Aside from a cardboard model, my only N4 – and my only truly amphibious small-scale hovercraft – was acquired right here in Alberta, some 4,280 miles (6,888km) from the old Hoverspeed terminal in Dover. No wheels here – thanks to an ingenious ‘brush’ element below the skirt, this one ‘hovers’ forward under battery power. Fit the submarine motor beneath and it’ll power across the bath, too, although I fear water got into the electrics on mine during its previous ownership. Another one for the rebuild table.

Only one full-size N4 survives, the lengthened ‘Super 4’ called The Princess Anne, at the awesome Hovercraft Museum in Lee-on-the-Solent, just across the water from the Isle of Wight. The above postcard from my collection shows her sister craft, formerly Hoverlloyd’s second Swift, arriving at the museum in 1994. It really gives a sense of how large the N4s were. Swift was broken up a decade later.

Unmade cardboard model of a Hoverspeed ‘Super 4’

The N4s were briefly joined in cross-channel operation by the French SEDAM N500 Naviplane. In my opinion it was one of the best-looking hovercraft built. In service with Seaspeed/SNCF it proved fast but unreliable, and failed to last into the Hoverspeed era. It’s featured on this old coaster from the Seaspeed days, pictured here with some other memorabilia from the cross-channel routes.

Tomica, Edocar and flights of fantasy

I’ve so far covered only British-made hovercraft but there are a couple of others in the collection, too. One is the beautiful, Made in Japan Tomica model of the Mitsui Zosen Hovercraft MV-PP5. It was first issued in the regular range as #93 in 1975.

(find Tomica hovercraft on eBay)

I also have an Edocar (Maisto) copy of the same casting. It was also sold under the Realtoy/Track Stars brand. I bought it new in about 1990, appropriately in the Sports & Model Shop in Ryde, which still survives as the Sports & Toymaster shop.

From the same store at about the same time came my Dragon kit of 1:700-scale Soviet Air-Cushion Landing Crafts. The Soviets made spectacular-looking hovercraft (and went to town on hydrofoils, too) but I know very little about them.

There are a few fantasy hovercraft castings around, too. I have a couple of colours of the Matchbox Amphi Flyer (MB890), which joined the basic range in 2013 and was last seen in 2016.

(find Matchbox Amphi Flyer on eBay)

Its looks are pretty cartoon-like, unlike the vaguely realistic Hovercraft (MB519, above), which first appeared in 2001 at the height of the Hero City-era and came in a dozen or so different liveries. There are definite echoes of a proposed but unmade ‘fast patrol’ variant of the AP.1-88 hovercraft in that design – take a look at the drawing below from a brochure in my collection as well as the Canadian Coast Guard half-cabin AP.1-88, Sipu Muin.

To finish, here are a few more plastic hovercraft: a random yellow one that came out of a Kinder egg, a full set of Kinder Luftkissenboote, an RNLI rescue hovercraft loosely based on a Griffon Hoverwork design, and a knock-off of the Battle Kings SR.N6 that came in a bag of plastic soldiers.

Matchbox, Hot Wheels, Mini GT and the rest have other priorities, but if anyone’s listening, the hovercraft I’d most like to see in miniature form is the aforementioned AP.1-88. This was the last model of hovercraft to be built by BHC in the historic Columbine Hanger before production moved across the Island to Hoverwork’s then-base in St Helens. AP.1-88s have served for many years on Hovertravel’s Ryde-Southsea route as well as in Russia, Sweden, Canada, the US and many other countries around the world.

Some Hovertravel AP.1-88 postcards and related items from my collection

It was an important design because it marked a transition from hovercraft being a kind of low-flying aeroplane – riveted aluminium hull, gas-turbine engines – to something more akin to a high-flying boat – welded hull, marine diesel engines. The resulting reduction in noise, operating costs and maintenance requirements gave commercial hovercraft operations a new lease of life. More than 20 were built and some are still in service, including here in Canada with the Coast Guard in British Columbia and Quebec.

AP.1-88 Freedom 90 approaching Lee-on-the-Solent, 2011 (author)

Speaking of Canada, Jackie Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx was filmed in Vancouver and he broke his ankle jumping onto an older Coast Guard SR.N6 during a chase sequence! And while we’re talking Hollywood hovercraft, look out for the 1:43 Universal model of the Osprey 5 flown by James Bond in Die Another Day.

(find James Bond hovercraft on eBay)

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief look at a mode of transport that’s been a staple of diecast toys for 60 years. I certainly don’t own examples of all the hovercraft models ever made, but it’s fun to pick one up when I see something interesting. And as always with our collections, it’s the items with sentimental value that mean the most. Happy collecting!

Griffon Hoverwork 12000TD ‘Island Flyer’ on the Hovertravel pad at Ryde with AP.1-88 ‘Island Express’, 2016

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