Thunderbirds by Corgi

Mike Pigott looks at Corgi’s models from 2003 and 2016 that were based on Gerry Anderson’s classic Thunderbirds series.During the 1960s, Corgi Toys was the leader in TV-related diecast vehicles. In 1965 Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds was the top-rating children’s TV show, and Corgi was so confident of obtaining the franchise that a working prototype of FAB-1 was developed even before a contract was signed. In a surprise move, the Thunderbirds franchise was awarded to rival Dinky Toys of Liverpool, a company that had no history of licensed products. It wasn’t until 2003 when Corgi finally acquired the Thunderbirds license, with two models produced that year and a further two after quite a long gap, in 2016.

Dinky produced two models based on the show; Lady Penelope’s futuristic, six-wheeled Rolls-Royce FAB-1, and the big green transporter Thunderbird 2. Actually, there were three Dinky models, as a second version of Thunderbird 2 was released in the 1970s; this was slightly larger, with a plastic base and sturdier legs, but was painted metallic blue for some reason. Both versions included a plastic Thunderbird 4 in the removable cargo pod.

When Thunderbirds was re-run on British television in 1991, Matchbox obtained the franchise for the series, and produced a wider range of models. These included a large Thunderbird 2 model, that was largely similar to the earlier Dinky Toy, although in bright green and containing a metal Thunderbird 4. Also included in the range was a small FAB-1 that about the same size as a Matchbox Superfast miniature, and small models of Thunderbirds 1 and 3.

In a real case of ‘better late than never’, Corgi finally acquired the rights to Thunderbirds in 2003, which was 37 years after it had originally lost out to Dinky! However, Corgi did not really go to town with the franchise; initially only two models were produced, and these were pretty much the same ones as Dinky had made back in the ‘60s. While the Corgi models were well-made, there was a certain lack of original thinking and they really just aped the older Dinky Toys. During the 1990s, Corgi had re-released a number of its older character toy castings in new packaging. These had proved popular with collectors who wanted to get their hands on rare models like James Bond’s Aston Martin or the Green Hornet’s Black Beauty without paying for high-priced originals. Corgi’s Thunderbirds models appeared to be reproductions of the Dinky Toys, rather than new interpretations. They even had the same working features.

FAB-1Corgi’s version of FAB-1 was around the same size as the Dinky version, but was slightly longer and noticeably taller. It had a diecast body and base, but the front and rear bumpers were in chromed plastic. The finish was generally good, as the car was finished in the correct shade of powder-pink and had a black metal base. The interior was in a more suitable shade of dark grey, and the figures of Lady Penelope and Parker were almost identical to the old Dinky ones. Penelope was now wearing an orange dress and coat, while Parker was wearing a two-tone grey livery instead of the correct maroon. Both figures were extremely well painted. The wheel hubs were in chrome plastic but were of an inaccurate five-slot design. The styling strips along the sides were finished in silver, and the triple headlights had clear lenses.

The action features were simply copied from the old Dinky FAB-1. The front grille was plastic with a separate chrome Rolls-Royce mascot. It hinged downwards and could be loaded with a plastic missile, which was fired by pushing down on the front axle. The rear panel could be loaded with harpoons, and these were fired by pressing down on the rear axle. Even the two types of missiles were similar to the original Dinky ones, but were now grey with red tips. The canopy could slide open and the rails were touched in with pink paint.

Despite the high quality of the Corgi model, it wasn’t a very accurate rendition of FAB-1. It was too big and bulky in appearance, and the canopy was too tall and bulbous. It really lacked the fast, sleek, streamlined appearance of the old Dinky Toy.

FAB-1 was packaged in a large window box with a big Thunderbirds logo. There was also a limited edition variant in metallic pink that was exclusive to certain retailers.

THUNDERBIRD 2Unsurprisingly, Corgi also released a model of Thunderbird 2. While meant to evoke memories of the original green Dinky version, this was almost a straight copy of the inferior Matchbox model. It was clearly not the same casting, as it had a lot less casting lines engraved on the body, but it carried the same inaccuracies such as the air intakes and the jet exhausts. Even the buttons to release the legs and lower the pod were the same as the Matchbox TB2, although the buttons and legs were in light grey plastic. The pod was metal with plastic base and rollers,

However, the Corgi TB2 was an improvement over the Matchbox one in a few areas. For a start, it was in the correct dark green shade. The windows and intakes were painted, and the exhausts had black and yellow lining. Another plus point was the little model of Thunderbird 4. It was now a two-piece metal casting with a proper underside. It featured red trim and black windows.Corgi’s TB2 was presented in a clever double window box that had a skeletal TB2 on one side, and the pod with TB4 on the other. Although the Corgi models were of reasonable quality, there was a feeling that Corgi failed to bring anything original to the table, and at first they were slow sellers. However, in recent years they have become more sought-after and sell for much higher prices, particularly in the case of FAB-1.

NEW MODELSTo commemorate the 50th anniversary of the original Thunderbirds TV show in 2016 Corgi re-released Thunderbird 2 and FAB-1 in a new style of packaging. In addition, a further Thunderbirds item was introduced – or rather two items, as it comprised two models in the same box. They were the International Rescue craft not previously modelled by Corgi, namely Thunderbirds 1 and 3. Given that Corgi’s previous models were large, substantial items, collectors may have been expecting solid, newly-tooled items, but unfortunately this wasn’t the case. The two new Thunderbirds were much smaller, and were little more than straight reproductions of the Matchbox toys from 1991.

THUNDERBIRD 1The casting for Thunderbird 1 was almost identical to the earlier Matchbox model, and measured around 9 cm in length. Like the Matchbox toy, it had working swing wings that were centrally geared, so that if one wing was opened, the other would too. The fuselage was metal and cast in two halves, and the engines were a separate diecast part. The wings were plastic, as were the the blue lower skirting, exhausts and fins. The nose cone was made from soft red rubber. The one area where the Corgi was an improvement over the Matchbox model was the finish, which was much more accurate. The Matchbox toy had been finished in gunmetal grey, with incorrect blue wings and minimal tampo printing. The Corgi Thunderbird 1 was painted silver-grey, with matching wings. There was blue trim on the wings and fins, and a pair of black stripes around the front of the fuselage. Printed white decals reading ‘THUNDERBIRD’ and ‘TB1’ were accurately applied.

THUNDERBIRD 3International Rescue’s spacecraft was also a copy of a 1990s Matchbox toy. Corgi’s model was slightly taller than TB1, measuring 10 cm tall, but by rights should have been about three times its length. This model had a lot of plastic in its construction. Only the base section, including the three chemical engines, and the upper fuselage between the nose cone and white docking ring were diecast; the rest was plastic, except for the nose cone itself which was soft rubber. While most of the decoration was accurate, there was a glaring error with the cooling fins in the centre of the fusealge. These were left in red body colour with the edges painted silver; they should have been dark blue.

PACKAGINGThe two craft were packaged in a wide window box with a diagonal red / blue finish. There were details of the ‘real’ Thunderbirds and their pilots Scott and Alan Tracy on the back. Both models were held in place on a card insert with a clear vac-formed cover.

The Corgi Thunderbirds 1 and 3 were not bad models, but could have been much better. They were greatly inferior to the smaller models produced by Japanese companies Aoshima and Tomica. Again Corgi merely copied older models from other manufacturers instead of coming up with new, original thinking. Fortunately, Corgi did a much better job with its excellent quality Captain Scarlet models.


This article first appeared in the October 2015 and May 2021 issues of Diecast Collector magazine.

Text and photos (c) Mike Pigott 2021.

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