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Airfix is a UK manufacturer of plastic scale model kits of aircraft and other subjects. In Britain, the name Airfix is synonymous with the hobby, a plastic model of this type is often simply referred to as "an airfix kit" even if made by another manufacturer.
Airfix was founded in 1939 by a Hungarian businessman Nicholas Kove, initially manufacturing rubber inflatable toys. The brand name Airfix was selected to be the first alphabetically in any toy catalogue. In 1947, Airfix introduced injection moulding, initially producing pocket combs. In 1949, it was commissioned to create a promotional model of a Ferguson TE20 tractor. The model was initially moulded in cellulose acetate plastic and hand assembled for distribution to Ferguson sales representatives. To increase sales and lower productions costs, the model was sold in kit form by F. W. Woolworth's retail stores.
A few years later in 1954, Woolworth buyer Jim Russon suggested to Airfix that they produce a model kit of Sir Francis Drake's Golden Hind, then being sold in North America as a 'ship-in-a-bottle'. The kit would be made in the more stable polystyrene plastic. In order to meet Woolworth's retail price of 2 shillings, Airfix changed the packaging from a cardboard box to a plastic bag with a paper header which also included the instructions. It was a huge success and led the company to produce new kit designs. The first aircraft kit was released in 1955, a model of the Supermarine Spitfire, in 1⁄72 scale, developed by James Hay Stevens. This was a scaled down copy of the Aurora 1⁄48 Supermarine Spitfire kit. Kove initially refused to believe the product would sell and threatened to charge the cost of the tooling to the designers.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the company expanded greatly as the kit modelling hobby grew enormously. The Airfix range expanded to include vintage and modern cars, motorcycles, figures, trains, trackside accessories, military vehicles, large classic ships, warships, liners, engines, rockets and spaceships, as well as an ever-increasing range of aircraft. Most kits were created at the "standard" scale of 1⁄72 for small and military aircraft, and 1⁄144 scale for airliners.
The acquisition in late 1962 of the intellectual property and 35 moulds of Rosebud Kitmaster gave Airfix their first true models of railway locomotives in both OO and HO scales as well as their first motorcycle kit in 1⁄16 scale—the Ariel Arrow.
In the mid-1970s, larger scales were introduced, including the dramatic 1⁄24 scale models of the Spitfire, Bf 109, Hurricane and Harrier "jump-jet", which featured unusually extensive detailing at this scale. All the kits were manufactured using injection moulding of polystyrene. They were categorised into Series from 1 to 20 depending on their size and complexity and were priced accordingly. Series 20 was limited for several years to the 1972 1⁄12 scale kit of the 1930 Supercharged Bentley 4.5 Litre car with 272 parts and the option of a 3 volt motor. In 1979 four motorcycles in 1⁄8 scale were added to this prestigious series.
The mid-70s were a peak time for Airfix. Releasing as many as 17 new kits in one year, Airfix commanded 75% of the UK market (with 20 million kits per annum).
The growth of the hobby launched a number of competitors in the field, such as Matchbox, as well as introducing new manufacturers from Japan and the US to the UK. During this period the company Humbrol also grew, supplying the paints, brushes, glue and other accessories for the finishing of the kits.
In this period, apart from model kits, Airfix also produced a wide range of toys, games, dolls and art & craft products. It was still producing other plastic products such as homewares at this time. Airfix Industries acquired part of the failing Lines Brothers (Triang) which was in voluntary liquidation, giving them the Meccano and Dinky Toy businesses in 1971. This made Airfix Britain's largest toy company.
Airfix also launched a monthly modelling magazine, Airfix Magazine, which was produced by a variety of publishers from June 1960 to October 1993. During the 1970s, an Airfix Magazine Annual was also produced and Airfix books were published by Patrick Stephens Ltd on classic aircraft, classic ships and modelling techniques.
Decline, purchase by Humbrol
In the 1980s, the plastic kit modelling hobby went into a rapid decline. Some think this was due to the rise of video games, others that new manufacturing techniques such as precision diecasting took away the market for toys, where a person was less interested in the construction and finishing of a model, but simply wanted to play with the finished product, others the declining birth rates leading into smaller generations and declining numbers of potential enthusiasts. However, the decline may simply be a side effect of large increases in the retail price of plastic models following the oil crisis of the late '70s which led to high inflation as well as an increase in the price of plastics.[original research?] Or simply a combination of everything.
At the start of the 1980s, the Airfix Industries group was under financial pressure. There were losses in Airfix's other toy businesses and attempts to reduce cost were met with industrial action. The strong pound hit export sales by effectively doubling the purchase price. Though the model kit business was still profitable, the financial interdependency of the divisions of Airfix Industries meant it was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1981. The company was bought by General Mills (owner of US automobile kit-maker MPC) through its UK Palitoy subsidiary, with the kit moulds being quickly shipped to its factory in Calais, France. Later, Airfix aircraft kits were marketed in the United States under the MPC label. Likewise, some MPC auto kits were sold in the UK under the Airfix name (an example being the 1⁄25 scale vintage Stutz Bearcat kit originally produced as a tie-in to the Bearcats! television series). Likewise, Airfix released the MPC kits based on the Star Wars film series.
Airfix's market share reduced to 40% of the UK market (2.3 million kits) though it had 75% of the German market. In the US, where the automotive kit was more popular than aircraft, it was less than 2%.
Four years later, General Mills withdrew from the toy market to refocus its efforts on its core food manufacturing business. At one point it looked as if the Airfix range might die out, but eventually, in 1986, it was bought by the Hobby Products Group of Borden, Inc., who had tried to buy the range in 1981. Borden were also the owners of British model company Humbrol. The moulds remained in France but were relocated to the Group's existing kit manufacturer, Trun-based Heller SA. This was a logical acquisition, since Humbrol's paints and adhesives could be used to complete Airfix kits and the Heller factory was under-utilised. Humbrol had tried to purchase Airfix at the time of the General Mills purchase.
The Hobby Products Group was sold to an Irish investment company, Allen & McGuire, in 1994 and continued under the Humbrol name.
In 2003, Airfix celebrated the "50th" anniversary of its first aircraft kit, the Supermarine Spitfire. The celebration was two years early because of an incorrect 1953 date commonly accepted at the time. As the moulds for the original kit were long gone, Airfix reissued its 1⁄72 Supermarine Spitfire Mk.Ιa kit in blue plastic. The kit also included a large Series 5 stand (the moulds for the smaller Series 1 stand having been lost) and a copy of the original plastic bag packaging with paper header.
Demise of Humbrol and acquisition by Hornby
On 31 August 2006, parent company Humbrol went into administration, with 31 of 41 employees being made redundant. This was largely because of the collapse of Heller SA, who still manufactured most of Airfix's kits. On 10 November 2006, Hornby Hobbies Ltd. announced it was to acquire Airfix and other assets of Humbrol for £2.6 million, and relaunched the brands the following year. In 2008, Airfix's former factory in Hull was demolished.
In 1962 Airfix bought from Rosebud Kitmaster Ltd, their moulds and stock for the Kitmaster railway range. The models were adapted to be compatible with Airfix's rolling stock models produced from 1960 which went with Airfix's trackside accessories of a few years earlier. Only ten of the Kitmaster locomotives were released under Airfix.
From 1975 to 1981, Airfix also manufactured a line of ready-to-run (i.e. assembled) model railway stock in OO gauge (1⁄76.2 scale). These models were based on British prototypes and at the time of introduction, they represented a significant improvement in detailing and prototype accuracy compared to British outline model railway stock from other British ready-to-run manufacturers such as Hornby. The product range expanded fairly rapidly in the first few years. A model of a Great Western Railway (GWR) 0-4-2 autotank steam locomotive and GWR autocoach are amongst some of the many memorable and important product releases. Airfix also offered an analogue electronics-based multiple train control system (MTC) allowing independent control of multiple locomotives on the same track. Airfix produced a large number of plastic kits for both railway stock and scenic items. Some of these such as the footbridge and engine shed became instantly recognizable to almost every railway modeller in the UK.
The brand label was changed to Great Model Railways (GMR) in 1979, although the Airfix name was still included. However, Airfix left the model railway business in 1981. The models were sold to one of its main competitors Palitoy who produced the Mainline range of products. The former Airfix moulds together with the Palitoy designed 2P 4-4-0 and Class 56 diesel were later re-sold to Dapol Ltd and then subsequently to Hornby. Dapol provided new chassis for the 14xx and Castle. The remainder of the Mainline Railways had been produced for Palitoy by Kader Industries and ownership of those tools remained with Kader, being later used to form the basis of the Bachmann Branchline models. Dapol continues to produce (but not promote) most of the kits but as the moulds (some now over forty years old) wear out the kits are being discontinued. Hornby continues to make 4mm/ft scale models from the Airfix mouldings.
A monthly magazine, Model Trains, was published by Airfix from January 1980. The magazine included especially good articles aimed at newcomers to the hobby and also included many articles about modelling US and Continental European railways, as well British prototype railways. The publication of Model Trains continued for some years after Airfix ceased ownership in 1981. A change in the editorial team saw the original Model Trains editorial staff launch a new title as Scale Trains, in April 1982. A slight name change followed in April 1984, as Scale Model Trains following the final issue of Model Trains in December 1983. Scale Model Trains ran till June 1995, when a new publisher was found and the magazine was relaunched in 1995 as Model Trains International, the November/December issue being issue number 1. As of 2007, it continues to be published bi-monthly.
Airfix Motor Racing
In 1963, the Airfix Motor Racing slot car racing system was introduced. While they produced specially made racing cars, with front-wheel Ackermann steering, they also later made conversion kits so that normal Airfix 1⁄32 kit cars such as the Ford Zodiac and the Sunbeam Rapier could be made to race. The first set had Ferrari and Cooper cars, an 11 foot figure-of-eight track, and cost 4 pounds 19 shillings and 11 pence.
Always in the shadow of the Scalextric range, the Airfix version attempted progress with the Model Road Racing Company (MRRC) higher-end range of cars and accessories, but eventually the venture was abandoned.
In 2000, EON Digital Entertainment released Airfix Dogfighter for Microsoft Windows. The game featured computer representation of Airfix's Second World War-era model aircraft with a total of over 15 playable aircraft, including the German Me262, and the American F6F Hellcat. The game featured 20 total missions, allowing players to play 10 missions as both the Axis and Allies. Players fought their way through the game's 1950s-era house, destroying enemy planes while trying to collect healing glue packets, new model kits, weapons schematics, and paint to customise their aircraft for on-line battles. Pilots would battle enemy model aircraft as well as U-boats, warships, tanks, flak guns, airships, and fortresses. Players could also design their own fighting emblem, call sign, and even their own battle maps based on the missions in the game. The whole game is an advertising venture, as the paints are Humbrol and the kit upgrades show actual pictures of Airfix packages.
In popular culture
The Airfix history has ensured that the company, its products and its brand has entered modern culture, especially in the Anglo-centric world, in its own right. In 2008, a TV advertisement for the Santander bank was produced, featuring a fictitious Lewis Hamilton Formula One car model. Demand for this model was such that Airfix later produced a real model kit using the tooling from a similar Scalextric slot car.
Model kit product ranges
Model subjects produced by Airfix over the years include:
- 1:24, 1:48, 1:72, 1:144 and 1:300 scales, covering aircraft from World War I to the present day. Perhaps the most well known range of Airfix models. (e.g. Supermarine Spitfire)
- Rockets and Spaceships
- 1:72 and 1:144 scales. A small range from the Lunar Module and Vostok, to the Saturn IB and Saturn V. Also some TV/film science fiction spacecraft, usually in odd scales, such as the Eagle Transporter from Space: 1999, and the Angel Interceptor from Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons.
- Famous Warships
- 1:400, 1:600 and 1:1200 scales. From World War I to modern. 1:1200 covered the ships of the "Bismarck chase"
- 1:72. A small range of World War II boats. (E-Boat, Vosper MTB and RAF Rescue Launch) and recently modern British lifeboat
- Civilian Ships
- 1:600. A range of 20th Century Liners including Mauretania, Queen Elizabeth, QE2, QM2, Canberra, France and the channel ferry Free Enterprise II
- Classic Historical Ships
- A number of 15th to 19th century ships in small scale (about 1:600) and large scale (from 1:96 to 1:180).
- 1:12, 1:24, 1:25, 1:32 and 1:43 scales. The range includes a series of Veteran and Modern cars e.g. 1930 Bentley Blower. TV and film tie-ins included the Monkeemobile and the Toyota 2000GT from the James Bond film You Only Live Twice - Airfix also kitted the Wallis WA-116 autogyro from the same film.
- 1:8, 1:12, 1:16 and 1:24 scales. Includes bikes from the 1960s to present day racing bikes.
- Trains and Trackside Accessories
- 1:76 scale. Includes a small number of ex-Kitmaster kits. The moulds for these kits were sold to Dapol in the 1980s.
- Military Vehicles
- 1:32, 1:35, 1:72 and 1:76 scales. Airfix was the first company to release small scale military vehicles in 1960 with the 1:72 Bristol Bloodhound. The following vehicles released were in 1:76 scale, also known as OO scale.
- Diorama sets
- HO/OO scale World War II scenes including the "Battlefront History" series. Also the "Rampaging Scorpion" and "Colossal Mantis" science fiction dioramas. A new series of Airfield Sets has recently been released, with Aircraft, Military Vehicles and Figures included in the box. Airfix also produce a range of Military Vehicles such as the RAF Refuelling Set, and the RAF Recovery Vehicle Set, and the Airfield Fire Rescue Set, to be used with Structures like the Airfield Control Tower.
- 1:76, 1:72 and 1:32 scales. Sets of mostly military figures (approximately 14 to 30 per box for 1:32, 30 to 50 per box for 1:72), of subjects such as World War I, World War II and Modern Infantry, Waterloo, Arab Tribesmen, etc. These are made in polythene, a soft durable plastic. Some vehicles of simpler casting and detail than their polystyrene equivalents and buildings were also available and included in larger play sets, e.g., the Coastal Defence Assault Set which included polythene tanks and infantry for either side plus a polystyrene Coastal Defence Fort kit. Collectors of vintage toy soldiers have reported brittling and disintegration of Airfix 1⁄76 scale plastic figures, though not as an age related effect
- Multipose Figures
- 1:32 scale. A small range of World War II figures in polystyrene that could be assembled in different poses.
- Collector Series
- 54 mm. These were plastic kits of single foot and mounted figures from the Battle of Waterloo, War of American Independence, and English Civil War.
- Historical Figures
- 1:12 scale. Famous figures from history, mostly from England, e.g., Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn, Edward, the Black Prince, Henry VIII, Julius Caesar, and Oliver Cromwell. Also produced were a Bengal Lancer, a showjumper with horse (rumoured to have been based on the young Princess Anne), a 1:6 scale human skeleton, and a James Bond and Oddjob paired kit.
- Wildlife Series
- 1:1 scale. Models of British garden birds in a diorama form, e.g., two bullfinches on a branch.
- A small range of kits of pre-historic dinosaurs, e.g., Tyrannosaurus Rex.
- Museum Series
- A small range of motorised engines. Includes a Beam Engine, Paddle Engine, 1804 Trevithick Locomotive and Four Stroke Cycle Engine. The re-issue of the Beam Engine and Trevithick Locomotive during 2009 omitted the electric motor and gears
- science fiction wargaming models.
- Doctor Who
- models to tie in with the recent Doctor Who TV series including the TARDIS.* 11CAM
Airfix also produced a small number of Card Construction kits for use with the Airfix Railway System. These were included with some Airfix GMR Train Sets.
- Caddick, Peter (2006-09-01). "UK | Magazine | 'Airfix made me the man I am'". BBC News. Archived from the original on 4 November 2009. Retrieved 2009-11-05.
- Arthur Ward, The Boys' Book of Airfix: Who Says You Ever Have to Grow Up?, Publisher: Random House, 2009, ISBN 0-09-192898-2, ISBN 978-0-09-192898-8, 192 pages (page 49)
- Most of Airfix's older range of military vehicles though originally packaged as 1⁄72 are generally accepted as actually being OO or 1⁄76 scale. The recent introduction of a small number of true 1⁄72 vehicle kits to the Airfix range created confusion regarding the exact scale of the kits in this range. However, following Airfix's acquisition by Hornby, this has been clarified with new packaging showing either 1⁄72 or 1⁄76 as appropriate.
- Knight 1999, p. 7
- The Boys Book of Airfix p 134
- Ward 2009 p 135-6
- Iyer, Vik (August 31, 2006). "Airfix model firm goes into administration". Times Online. Retrieved 2010-06-08.
- "Acquires Assets of Airfix Humbrol — News & Events". Hornby. 2006-11-10. Retrieved 2009-11-05.
- "Airfix Related Items". Airfixrailways.co.uk. Retrieved 2010-06-08.
- "Airfix: kit, model or toy?". Open2.net. Archived from the original on 1 October 2009. Retrieved 2009-11-05.
- "Digital Arts". Digitalartsonline.co.uk. Retrieved 2009-11-05.
- Darley, Andy (2008-11-03). "Airfix Lewis Hamilton kit coming soon". www.britsonpole.com. Retrieved 24 December 2009.
- firstname.lastname@example.org (15 May 2008). "Brittling and Disintegration of Airfix's 1:76 Scale British Paratroops". IDL Software GmbH. Retrieved 2009-11-05.
- "The Airfix Kit Range". Pws.prserv.net. Retrieved 2009-11-05.
- "Scale Plastic Model Kits by Airfix". Airfix.com. 1963-11-23. Archived from the original on 11 November 2009. Retrieved 2009-11-05.
- "Roy Cross artwork". Collecting Airfix Kits. Retrieved 3 September 2010.
- Official website
-  Online resource and forum for Airfix models
- Vintage Airfix - All the Airfix Catalogues recorded online.
- Airfix Model Railways
- Airfix heads 2,400 years into future at BBC News, 4 October 2005
- Sticky future for kitmaker Airfix at BBC News, 31 August 2006
- Last flight of Airfix as model firm goes bust at thisismoney.co.uk, 31 August 2006
- Hornby press release on acquisition