Airfix is a British plastic modelling company, founded in 1939 by a Hungarian immigrant called Nicholas Kove. Kove had left Hungary for France and then Spain in the early 1920s. After the outbreak of the Spanish civil war his family had moved to Italy, and then England, a contributing factor being that Kove was Jewish. Kove had a thing for inflatable rubber toys, and chose the name Airfix because it encapsulated his passion and was also close to the beginning of business directories. Airfix company trundled along through WW2, after which it took to producing plastic combs, with Britain's very first injection moulding
In 1948 the company was commissioned by Massey-Ferguson, the tractor manufacturer, to produce a promotional model of their new TE-20 tractor. The resulting plastic kit was a surprising commercial success, although it took until 1950 for the company to consider making more models. By this time Kove himself had taken a back seat (he died in 1957), leaving Airfix in the hands of John Grey and Ralph Ehrmann, a German fellow who saw huge potential in the toy market. They say that first-generation immigrants are often more patriotic than the natives, and it is perhaps for this reason that Airfix became some synonymous with icons of Britain's WW2 experience.
But the Spitfires and Harriers would have to wait. In 1952 the company released a kit of Sir Francis Drake's globetrotting Golden Hind. The four-mast sailing ship was made of plastic parts, and was cheaper, smaller and easier to complete than traditional wooden ship models. Over the next three years the company produced four more ships and a Rolls Royce, but its most popular model line would emerge in 1953, with the release of its first aeroplane.
In 1953 the Supermarine Spitfire was still in operational service around the world, and Britain's most famous fighter seemed exactly the kind of things that kids might want to play with. The company's 1:72 scale Spitfire MkI cost two shillings and was sold in a simple plastic bag. It was an immediate success, quickly justifing the expense involved in tooling the model's small, precisely-moulded plastic parts. The company's next aircraft was not released until 1955 (it was a Spitfire MkIX), but from 1956 onwards the range exploded. That year saw the first German aircraft, a Messerschmitt Me-109, whilst 1957 would see the first jet, a DeHavilland Comet airliner. 1958's foot-long Avro Lancaster was the best thing in the world if you were eight years old, whilst the first non-historical warplane would be the MiG-15 of 1958, although the company concentrated on WW2 aircraft for decades to come. In addition to small 1:72 scale, premium models were available in 1:48.
During the 1960s and early 1970s the company was the UK's leading toy manufacturer, their kits second only to Raleigh's bicycles in the hearts of children. Apart from aircraft, the company produced tanks (starting with models of a Sherman, Panther and Churchill in 1961), static figures (a Coldstream Guard in 1959, Oliver Cromwell in 1961, perhaps the most disappointing Christmas present of all time), trains and trackside buildings, slot cars, and little plastic soldiers. As time went on the company also took to space models, most famously an Orion clipper from 2001: A Space Odyssey and various Gerry Anderson tie-ins, such as the Eagle from Space: 1999, and the Angel Interceptor from Captain Scarlet. Some of these, particularly the Orion clipper, are highly collectable nowadays.
Throughout the 1960s the market for model kits had a similar consistency to that of home computers in the 1980s. It was buoyed by sales of magazines and third-party accessories, and there was a substantial micro-mainstream subculture of casual modelmakers, very different to the dark, hardcore obsession that is modelmaking today. Airfix was popular around the world, especially in Japan, where the company's products helped foster a fascination for kit-built toys which survives and thrives today.
By 1957 the company had major competition from American manufacturer Revell, and during the late 1960s Japanese modelmaker Tamiya would start to gain ground. Nonetheless several other factors would cause Airfix to hit trouble in the 1970s. Airfix was not alone in this respect. Every British company hit trouble in the 1970s. It was a grim decade. Airfix tried to expand, but its purchase of Meccano in 1971 turned out to be a terrible mistake. Meccano's metal construction kits had once been huge business, but they were in terminal decline, thrashed in the marketplace by LEGO. The company's other notable purchase, die-cast toy car maker Dinky, found itself squeezed out of the market by Matchbox. The toy market became more diverse during the 1960s and 1970s, and there were more immediate, less fiddly toys for children to play with. By the end of the 1970s the few children with a model-making gene were more likely to beg their parents for a Sinclair ZX-81 than a model of an English Electric Lightning. Those children who enjoyed smelling Airfix glue did not need to buy Airfix models to get their fix. And Airfix had always been an impulse thing, a phase that certain children went through. The parts did not fit together as well as the box photos suggested. Many children made a few Airfix aeroplanes and gave up in frustration. For all that, the company's plastic models were quite cheap to make - the moulds quickly paid for themselves, and were reused for year after year - but like so many other British businesses during the 1970s the success of one division did not make up for the losses of all the other divisions.
Airfix went bust in 1981, although there was no shame in that. Lots of British businesses went bust in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Britain itself almost went bust. Airfix was bought by Palitoy, a division of General Mills, and production was moved to France, where one of General Mills' subsidiaries still made Meccano. General Mills pulled out of the toy market in 1986, and Airfix was sold off to Humbrol, who are based in Hull. As with Hornby, Scalextric and Raleigh, the company continues this day, albeit in diminished form*. It makes over two hundred model kits, of ships and cars and soldiers and so forth, although the majority are still military aircraft. There is strong competition from Revell and Tamiya, companies that generally produce a greater range of models, of a higher standard, and with a much more aggressive policy of introducing new lines. This is stereotypically the way of British industry in general. The foreigners treat business as total war, an endless manic tapdance with no let-up or pause, whereas British industry always seems content to rest for a while or bask in the light of sporadic flashes of genius.
There are still more pre-1945 aircraft than from any other period, although the Harrier jump jet was popular in the 1980s, as a consequence of the Falklands War. Airfix currently sells eight different versions of the Harrier, more than any other aircraft except for the Spitfire. Other popular models include various marks of DeHavilland Mosquito and Blackburn Buccaneer. The ratio of British to non-British aircraft has declined in direct relation to the decline of Britain's aerospace industry, although the company does not offer a Dassault Mirage or an F-14 Tomcat, for example. In the modern era of ultra-expensive jet fighters there are many fewer aircraft to model.
Critical consensus has it that Revell's kits are of superior quality. Many Airfix models use tooling that dates back to the 1970s, a consequence of the high cost of injection moulds, whilst the supplied instructions are cheaply photocopied sheets of paper. The boxes are flimsy cardboard affairs that belong to a bygone age. Airfix nonetheless generates a certain sentimental feeling amongst British men of a certain age. Every decade or so a certain type of person revisits Airfix, temporarily forgetting the crude workmanship, the mould lines, the ill-fitting parts and the frustration of having to decide whether to glue the undercarriage in the raised or lowered position. Airfix makes a wide range of models, although it has been a long time since they were on sale in great numbers in general toyshops; the internet has been handy for Airfix fans, and the company has a website.
The future for Airfix seems quite bleak, although there has been a small revival of interest in WW2 military equipment over the last few years. Even as late as the 1970s British children could generally reel off the names and manufacturers of most British fighter planes from the war, helped along by comics such as Warlord and Battle. Originally the company sold kits because it was cheaper than selling assembled models of equivalent complexity - Airfix could eliminate the cost of manufacture. How the economics of this work today I do not know.
* Although as of August 2006 Humbrol itself went bust, and laid of 31 of its 41 staff. The moulds for Airfix's models still exist, and the Airfix name is a pleasant one, although it is not really associated with unimpeachably high quality models. Perhaps the company will re-emerge as an internet business, making add-ons for Microsoft Flight Simulation.
This article is now Web 2.0 compliant. I consulted the following sources, as well as news coverage of the company's recent woes. There is disagreement over the years in which the company's first models were released. I have taken the position that the past is unknowable, and no-one will care in a thousand years:
http://www.immnet.com/ - home of 'Injection Moulding Magazine'!