French super modern tank Giat Leclerc didn't have any opportunity to show its value on the real battlefield so far. It was introduced to service with the French Army in January 1992, a year too late to participate in Operation Daguet (French forces in Operation Desert Storm) and since then France did not participate in any major conflict. While some Leclerc tanks (Series 1) were sent to Kosovo as part of KFOR contingent, they never saw actual combat. Since their introduction the Leclerc tanks (named after the French General Jacques Philippe Leclerc, so common spelling "LeClerc" is definitely wrong) were constantly modernized and in 1998 "Series 2" variants entered production. Most noticeable external difference between Series 2 vehicles and earlier tanks is addition of air conditioning unit on turret top. From 2004 Series 2 was replaced on the production line by the Series XXI variant with new composite armor plating and advanced tactical data system. Leclerc tanks are also used by the army of United Arab Emirates, but this is a customized version, with several differences from their French Army cousins. For more information about Leclerc tanks visit these websites: http://www.army-technology.com/projects/leclerc/
Several months ago the announcement that Tamiya plan to release 1/35 scale model of Leclerc tanks was a big surprise to everyone. While it is definitely a very welcome addition to every modeler's collection of modern MBTs, it was still very unexpected decision to release a model of this not combat tested tank. Even bigger surprise was the fact that Tamiya decided to release Series 2 variant. The only Leclerc tanks that were at least close to combat were these in Kosovo and they were Series 1 types. It is also not the most modern variant, as currently the Series XXI is being manufactured. Series 2 tanks however are currently the core of French armored units, so this was probably the decisive factor.
Until now the only 1/35 plastic kit of Leclerc tank was the old model from Heller. It represented the prototype / pre-production version and was generally quite poor kit. While it was possible to build a nice replica from it, it required a lot of work, as the engineering of turret parts was very "unorthodox" causing numerous fit problems and to correctly depict production variant, even early one, some modifications were needed. Even quick glance at parts in new Tamiya kit shows that the new model is light years ahead of the old Heller product!
The kit comes in a Tamiya usual top opening box with nice box art illustration on the lid. Small note in the right bottom corner of the box lid informs us that the kit was released with the official approval from GIAT Industries - a sign of times I think, as discussions about licensing of military models are louder and louder recently... In the box we get five sprues of dark olive green styrene - individually bagged (except for suspension sprues that are two in one bag), separate lower hull tub, one small sprue of clear parts, glueable vinyl one-piece tracks and... the biggest surprise Tamiya has for modelers in this kit (well, not a surprise if you read any info about the kit before its release): the metal road wheels! These wheels are quite heavy - be careful if you plan to order this kit from Japan or HK as shipping costs may be more than you would normally expect for a single kit! We also get a rectangular piece of clear styrene sheet (not pre-cut!), two small sprues with poly caps, small decal sheet and of course instruction booklet in Tamiya usual style. On the very bottom of the box is a nice bonus: a four language leaflet with basic development history and technical information about Leclerc tanks and a few useful black and white detail photos.
Markings are included for three tanks in a French version of three-color NATO camouflage - all from 2nd Armored Brigade, 6th -12th Cuirassier Regiment; and for one tank in two color desert camouflage as used during tests / exercise in Qatar in 1998. Instructions suggest the use of Tamiya (obviously) NATO camouflage paints (spray cans or bottles), but this is not a good choice. French camouflage colors are significantly different from those used by other countries. French green in particular is much more bright, "grassy" compared to more subdued color used on German, Dutch or US tanks. Brown is more chocolate color than NATO brown. Even black on French tanks seems to be "more black" than usual NATO black as used by other countries.
Molding quality is excellent, as we come to expect from Tamiya. The details are crisp and very well defined. There are no sink marks and no flash. Most ejector pin marks are well hidden after assembly, but still there is quite a few which will require attention, like those on inner (but well visible) side of small bustle rack, on inner side of gunner's sight doors, on the back side of headlights, on the wind sensor etc. The quality of cast metal wheels is also perfect - details are just as crisp as on plastic parts and metal wheels come pre-painted with gray primer. The only difference in using these parts from conventional plastic parts is that it is necessary to use cyanoacrylate (CA) glue.
The hull construction is conventional with two main hull parts and separate rear panel. To the lower hull part attached are hydro-pneumatic suspension units, separate suspension arms, final drive covers, idler mount with track tension adjuster and shock absorbers. The suspension arms attachment pins are keyed, so they stay in neutral position once attached to the hull, but to make sure the arms alignment is exactly right Tamiya provided two plastic jigs. Wheels are attached to the suspension arm in Tamiya's usual way - with polyvinyl caps enclosed inside wheel halves. Sprocket wheels are well detailed with separate hubs and center rings.
To the rear panel part attached are two clear headlight parts and one piece plastic tow cable. It looks very well, but of course metal cable would be even nicer. Clear parts are also provided for headlight lenses. The glass parts for periscopes in separate driver's hatch have to be cut from a square piece of clear styrene sheet with templates provided in instructions. Driver's hatch on real tank has rubber lip around it - it is not provided in the kit, but instructions show how to use photo-etched part that is a part of PE set sold separately. Throughout the instructions we find references to use of PE parts from that set, what is really annoying if we don't have it (it is additional expense of 1000 yen). Tamiya should really start adding these sets to their models, as other plastic kit manufacturers do these days, and not try to earn extra money selling them separately. Other parts included in the PE set (cat. No. 35280) are engine intake screens, bustle rack mesh, air conditioning unit screen, straps for external fuel tanks and a tank name plaque. The only detail that is available as PE part, but is also included in the kit is the rear mesh on the air conditioning unit - we get a plastic frame to use with PE part and alternative complete part with mesh texture molded on. All other PE parts don't have their plastic equivalents. External fuel tanks and their mounts are very nicely detailed, but without PE straps they just sit on brackets without anything holding them in place - it doesn't look good, so some scratchbuilt straps should be added even if you choose not to get Tamiya PE set. The fuel pipes going from the tank into the engine compartment are not provided in the kit.
The large one-piece side skits cover almost the whole suspension, what is actually a pity considering amount of details there. The dust flaps on the bottom of side skirts are molded integrally with them and have slightly wavy surface to realistically depict thick rubber.
The turret is made of two main parts - upper and lower, and to them we attach a few of additional panels, made separate to allow for adding more molded-on details on them, plus many other separate detail parts. Clear parts are provided for the commander's thermal viewer and for gunner's sight, but for periscopes we once again need to cut clear styrene sheet using templates in instructions. The air conditioning unit is molded integrally with the upper turret part what means that backdating the kit to Series 1 standard wouldn't be an easy task if anyone thought of doing it. The large gun barrel is molded conventionally in two vertically split halves with separate muzzle. Complex muzzle reference sensor is molded on the muzzle part. The gun barrel seems to be moveable in elevation after assembly with the pivot parts enclosed inside the turret and using the poly caps. But I'm not convinced if it actually works after attaching parts D25 and D26 which depict flexible sleeve that connects the mantlet to the turret. These parts are made of regular hard styrene and if they fit tightly between the mantlet and turret as they should, then they effectively block any gun movement. Both crew hatches can be positioned open or closed, but do not have movable hinges (what is a good thing, as such hinges in models are usually much over scale).
One full figure of a tank commander is provided with separate head and arms. The goggles are a separate clear plastic part. Figure is very nicely and realistically sculpted, but as most Tamiya figures looks rather slim and short, although not to the point where it could be considered out-of-scale.
I spent almost an hour today carefully examining kit parts and comparing them to photos of real Leclerc tank and I must admit that Tamiya did an excellent job replicating the features of this vehicle. It doesn't mean however that the model is perfectly accurate. There are some small details, like bolt heads, small holes, weld lines etc. missing in many places on hull and turret, but these are all things that can be very easily added by a modeler. The biggest missing part is a small sliding cover (coaxial gun compartment vent?) in front of commander's periscope. Generally all parts and details that are included in the kit seem to be very accurate. There are of course some minor simplifications, e.g. in the shape of muzzle reference sensor, but nothing that could be considered a serious flaw. Actually I found only one small, but noticeable undeniable inaccuracy: the shapes of openings for the rear smoke grenade launcher tubes are symmetrical in Tamiya kit. It would be correct for Series 1 tank, but Series 2 Leclercs have a larger opening for one launcher tube in the right rear corner of the turret. This inaccuracy is however also relatively simple to correct as the hole in plastic part can easily be enlarged to correct shape. The other thing that some may consider an inaccuracy, although it is rather a simplification forced by limitations of molding technology is the lack of lightening holes in the track guide horns, which are instead molded solid.
In fact there is one thing in available separately PE set that can also be called inaccuracy. The pattern of the mesh screens for engine deck is not correct. In real tank these meshes are extremely fine - I have never seen so thin and fine mesh used on any other tank. This means that PE parts, even though they are reasonably fine, are far from proper "in scale" pattern. It is impossible to replicate the correct mesh pattern in 1/35 scale, but I think that the PE meshes could be made at least a bit finer.
Hull and turret horizontal surfaces have nice non-slip coating texture molded on them and the pattern is quite accurate (with the exception of the small area immediately in front of the driver's hatch where there is a non-slip coating where it shouldn't be). But the coating is slightly too smooth - on the real tank it is extremely rough.
Even though Tamiya provided some clear plastic parts and metal wheels, the new kit still looks a bit basic compared to recent releases from some other manufacturers, particularly Dragon. This is even more noticeable when we compare the price of these kits - other obviously offer better value for money these days. Considering that, the new Leclerc kit is rather an expensive one, but it is very accurate, beautifully detailed, well molded and as in all new Tamiya kits the fit should be perfect and model should be very easy to assemble. I have no doubt that out of the box, even without the additional PE set, the kit will build into an excellent replica of current French main tank. There is really no comparison to old Heller kit - new Tamiya model is of completely different league. Some relatively simple scratchbuilding can make the Tamiya model even better and more accurate, so those modelers who like to add their own details to models still have some space to show their talents.
Review kit was purchased and received from Japan at light speed thanks to excellent service of RAINBOW TEN online store.