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Building Plastic Models,
and a History of Airfix Models

by Murray Lundberg

Posted November 7, 2016

    When I was a youngster in the 1950s and early '60s, pretty well every boy I knew built plastic models of cars and aircraft, and some expanded into ships and military equipment. The largest manufacturer of plastic model kits in the early years was the British company Airfix, later joined by many other companies, most of them American, including Revell, Monogram, AMT, Aurora, and Hawk.

Model cars and trucks in my garage     Building these models was far more than just a casual hobby for many of us - it was very much educational. As well as learning about what was under the skin of the machines, putting them into a historical context was often part of the fun. That was usually just in a mental way, by reading about them, but many boys built dioramas for them - my next-older brother built the most elaborate ones I saw in those days.

    I use the term "boys" because I didn't know any girls who built models, and in fact have never heard of any, though I expect there were some.

    Most boys "grew out of" modelling, but some never did, and many maintained an interest even if not actively building. As well as all the model builders, one of my friends was an investor, filling a room with unopened kits. Space very quickly becomes a problem, and once you get the ceiling and every flat surface full of them, what do you do? No doubt most of the built models ended up in the garbage.

    I actually got back into building model cars when I started buying real cars, particularly when I started buying and working on Studebakers in 1975. I still have a few of the model cars I built some 40 years ago displayed in my garage (seen in the first photo, above - click on the photo to enlarge it), and I wouldn't be at all surprised if my brother still has every one he ever built even back into the '50s.

    The trigger for writing this article was the discovery in my files of a 72-page Airfix model catalogue from about 1968 (the cover of it is seen to the right). I really enjoyed going through the catalogue, recalling the ones that I had built, and even getting a history lesson on some of the now-obscure cars and aircraft that made into production. The catalogue has now been scanned and discarded as part of my multi-year cleanup of "stuff" - a high-resolution pdf of it (47.4 MB) can be seen and downloaded at our Public directory at Dropbox.

    The history of Airfix that follows is largely reprinted from the Airfix Web site.

    Airfix was founded in 1939 by Nicholas Kove, a refugee from Hungary who originally manufactured rubber inflated toys. The name Airfix was chosen because part of the process involved fixing air into products. Kove believed that all successful companies should have their names at the beginning of business directories and consequently the name Airfix was born. After the Second World War he switched to producing plastic combs, and was the first manufacturer in the UK to introduce an injection moulding machine.

    In the late 1940s Airfix was approached by tractor manufacturer Harry Ferguson to make a cheap model of one of his tractors that could be used by his sales team as a promotional tool. At first there were problems making the model, so it was decided to make it in a series of parts to be assembled by a team of skilled workers.

    This ready-built tractor proved to be popular and Ferguson allowed Airfix to produce them as toys and sell them under the Airfix name. It soon became obvious that more tractors could be sold if they were cheaper, and to achieve this they sold the kits unmade with instructions. This proved to be successful, and shortly after F.W. Woolworth approached Airfix suggesting that, by using a more stable polystyrene plastic and poly bags with a card header, it would meet the Woolworth's retail price of 2 shillings - just under 17 cents Canadian at current exchange rates. The small scale Golden Hind was launched in 1952. Woolworth's buyers then began to ask for more subjects, then soon after Airfix began to produce a wider range of polybagged model kits - the all famous Spitfire model first appearing in 1953.

    Airfix grew throughout the 1960s and '70s as the plastic kit modelling hobby became ever more popular. The range then expanded to include figures, trains, trackside accessories, military vehicles, engines, rockets, large classic ships, warships, liners, modern cars, vintage cars, motorcycles, spaceships and more.

    In the 1980s the plastic kit modelling hobby went into decline due to a number of factors such as the introduction of computer games, precision die-cast models becoming available, a rise in oil prices (which affected the price of plastic) and declining birth rates. Due to this, and heavy losses in Airfix's other toy businesses, the company was forced to declare bankruptcy, and was bought by General Mills. Four years later, General Mills decided to abandon toy production in Europe. That resulted in Airfix coming back onto the market, and the company was bought by the Hobby Products Group of Borden who also owned other brands such as Heller (the French based plastic kit manufacturer) and Humbrol (producer of modelling paints and accessories).

    In 1995, Borden then sold the Hobby Products group (which included Airfix) to an Irish holding company called Allen McGuire and continued to operate under the Humbrol name. In 2006, Humbrol went into administration resulting in Hornby Hobbies buying both the Airfix and Humbrol brands in November of that year.

    Since the beginning of 2007, a huge investment programme has been undertaken to rebuild the brand and bring some high quality models to the market. This strategy, along with a complete packaging and illustration update has proved to be just what the brand needed, and the response has been extremely positive.

    See Airfix.com for full information about their current products, and their active community for today's modellers of all ages.