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" even if made by another manufacturer.
Airfix was founded in 1939 by a Hungarian businessman called 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 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/-, 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. 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. However Airfix's range of military vehicles though packaged as 1/72 are generally accepted as actually being OO or 1/76 scale.
In the mid 1970s, larger scales were introduced, including the dramatic 1/24 scale models of the Spitfire and Hurricane and Harrier "jump-jet", which featured unusually extensive detailing at this scale. All the kits were manufactured using injection moulding of polystyrene. 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.
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.
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 computer 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 sticker price of plastic models following the oil crisis of the late '70's which led to high inflation as well as an increase in the price of plastics. This also may explain why the emphasis of the modelmaking hobby is today on adults rather than children.
Due to large losses in Airfix's other toy businesses, even though the model business was still profitable, Airfix was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1981. The company was bought by General Mills (owner of rival US kit-maker MPC) through its UK Palitoy subsidiary, with the kit moulds being quickly shipped to its factory in Calais, France.
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, 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.
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 due to 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.Ia 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 due to the collapse of Heller SA, who still manufactured most of Airfix's kits. On 10 November 2006, Hornby Railways announced it was to acquire Airfix and other assets of Humbrol for £2.6 million.
From 1975 to 1981, Airfix also manufactured a line of ready-to-run (i.e. non-kit) 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 editorial team saw the original 'Model Trains' being relaunced as 'Scale Trains', then as 'Scale Model Trains' following the demise fo 'Model Trains'. The magazine continues today as 'Model Trains International'.
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.
Construction kit product ranges
- Aircraft — 1:24, 1:48, 1:72, 1:144 and 1:300 scales, covering aircraft from WWI to the present day. Perhaps the most well known range of Airfix models.
- Rockets and Spaceships — 1:72 and 1:144 scales. A small range from the Lunar Module to the Saturn V. Also some TV/film science fiction spacecraft, usually in odd scales.
- Famous Warships — 1:400, 1:600 and 1:1200 scales. From WWI to modern.
- High Speed Boats — 1:72. A small range of mostly WWII boats.
- 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).
- Cars — 1:12, 1:24, 1:25, 1:32 and 1:43 scales. The range includes a series of Veteran and Modern cars.
- Motorcycles — 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 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 Bloodhound. The following vehicles were in 1:76 or OO scale.
- Diorama sets — HO/OO scale WWII scenes including the "Battlefront History" series. Also the "Rampaging Scorpion" and "Colossal Mantis" science fiction dioramas.
- Figures — 1:76, 1:72 and 1:32 scales. Sets of mostly military figures, 20 or 30 to a box, of subjects such as WWI, WWII 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 Defense Assault Set which included polythene tanks and infantry for either side plus a polystyrene Coastal Defence Fort kit.
- Multipose Figures — 1:32 scale. A small range of WWII figures in polystyrene that could be assembled in different poses.
- Collector Series — 54 mm. These were plastic kits of single figures, mostly from the Battle of Waterloo, American Civil War, and English Civil War. Some kits have a rider, e.g., George Washington, on a horse.
- Historical Figures — 1:12 scale. Famous figures from history, mostly from the British Isles, e.g., Anne Boleyn, Black Prince, and Oliver Cromwell. Also produced were a showjumper with horse (rumoured to have been based on the young Princess Anne), and a 1:6 scale human skeleton.
- Wildlife Series — 1:1 scale. Models of British garden birds in a diorama form, e.g., two bullfinches on a branch.
- Dinosaurs — A small range of kits of pre-historic dinosaurs, e.g., Tyrannosaurus Rex.
- Museum Series — A small range of motorised engines. Includes a Beam and Four Stroke Cycle Engine.
- Robogear: science fiction wargaming models.
Ward, Arthur, Airfix: Celebrating 50 Years of the Greatest Plastic Kits in the World, Ted Smart, London, 1999, ISBN 0-00-765782-X.
- The Airfix Tribute Forum
- The Airfix Collecting Forum
- The Exfix Forum
- The Unofficial Airfix Modellers Forum
- Airfix heads 2,400 years into future at BBC News, 4 October 2005
- Airfix Collector
- Collecting Airfix Kits
- Airfix MSN Group
- Airfix Box Art MSN Group
- A guide to collecting Airfix HO scale figures
- Airfix 1/32nd scale figures
- Plasticrush: Airfix toy soldiers
- Colin Gerrish Airfix 1/32 toy soldiers
2006 receivership in the news
- 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
- "Airfix made me the man I am" — BBC article on Airfix
- Hornby press release on acquisition