Airfix: Best of British

04 February 2019
Examining the history of some of Britain’s great toy makers - Airfix

Examining the history of some of Britain’s great toy makers - Airfix

I can’t think of many toys that I remember buying as a kid that are still on sale in toy shops today. Hardly surprising I suppose, as I’m no spring chicken, being a child who cut his teeth on the fabulous Dinky, Corgi, Spot-On and Matchbox toys of the late 1950s and 1960s. As tastes changed and toys developed many of those once famous names slipped slowly into oblivion… except Airfix. Airfix kits have stood the test of time and the fact that some of those old kits, released half a century ago, are still on sale today is lasting proof that this great British toy institution simply refused to die.

My Airfix modelling days began in the early 1960s with a messy attempt at a Morris Cowley followed by an equally glue laden effort at a British Railways Railbus similar to the ones operating on our local coastal branch line along the Exe Estuary. Both of these kits were bought from the local newsagent with pocket money, along with the powerfully odorous glue and those ubiquitous enamel paints. While kit building was great fun the smell of that glue permeated all over the house, much to the dislike of my sister, and the blobs of clear adhesive that dripped on mum’s dining table and removed the varnish were not at all appreciated! I soon discovered that kit building was not that easy for my small infant fingers so in stepped dad, often tired from a hard day’s work but always happy to help me to improve my kit building skills – actually I think he loved building Airfix kits more than I did in the end! With his help we built a tiger tank with moving tracks and a revolving turret! And dad was also a dab hand with the paintbrush. Everything went pear shaped, however, when my father was working away for a while and I enlisted the help of mum to conquer that awesome new Scammell Pioneer Tank Transporter c1962. For almost a week each evening after school we were lost in a sea of wheels and axles and as there was homework to do, we finally had to concede defeat and wait for dad to return. The Scammell actually became one of my all-time favourite Airfix kits and when, much later in life, my interest turned towards 4mm fairground modelling I built dozens of the tractor units as non-military conversions.

Talking about conversions I also remember my mate Tony being a dab hand at converting Airfix cars to run on his slot racing layout. The best of these was a very smart Sunbeam Rapier built using a special conversion kit. Seeing that car speeding around our night-lit circuit was certainly a sight to behold.

So how did a small company, which began life by making simple air filled rubber dolls, plastic pocket combs and baby rattles, get into the world of plastic kits? It happened by accident as the result of the popularity of a Ferguson tractor produced as a one-off promotional order. The little Fergie TE20 had been developed by Harry Ferguson with its revolutionary implement lifting system and was a welcome new concept for British farmers during the post-war years. Keen to promote his new tractor to the market, Ferguson commissioned Airfix to make a small quantity of plastic scale models for his reps to give away. They were made on an injection moulding machine using scrap cellulose acetate, hand assembled and then boxed.

Airfix founder Nicholas Cove realised that it was impossible to carry on meeting these orders for hand assembled models due to the labour costs so the tractor was marketed as a self-construction kit, boxed with all the parts sitting in a cardboard tray. Being an expert marketeer, Cove pushed this model further than was first envisaged by selling it in Woolworth’s stores and when Woolworth’s squeezed him on the wholesale price he responded by doing away with the box and bagging the kit in a plastic bag with a paper header card. Thus saw the launch of the great range of Airfix bagged kits.

There’s little doubt that during the 1950s Airfix’s close working relationship with F.W. Woolworth was the key to its success. Following a change from the use of acetate to polystyrene, a myriad of models appeared on the market including famous ships, fighter aircraft and HO/OO military and railway models.

A return to a small range of ready-made toys was made some years later with the launch of the initial HO/OO and later 1/32 scale boxed Military Series with snap-on wheels, which featured classics such as the Alvis Stalwart Bedford RL Truck and the Mighty Antar Tank Transporter to name just a few.

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Expansion during the early 1960s saw Airfix venture into the slot car racing market to rival Minimodels’ Scalextric and BETTA BUILDER plastic building blocks were launched to rival LEGO. Multipose figures would also become one of Airfix’s key brands through the 1960s and ‘70s with many modellers regarding the Airfix 1/32 range as some of the finest figures ever produced.

Troubled times in the 1980s saw Airfix taken over by Humbrol in 1986 and then face an almighty battle for survival in 2006 when Humbrol went out of business - I remember panic buying stocks of my favourite kits then – which incidentally are mostly still up in the attic waiting to be built!

My panic buying was premature, however, and Airfix was successfully rescued by Hornby Hobbies whose latest catalogue contains many of those timeless old favourites, including that super Scammell Tank Transporter that I remember so fondly as a six-year-old. 52 years on it now retails at £7.99 but still provides endless hours of pleasure to millions of kids and long may it continue to do so.

Despite its initial launch of a model tractor, Airfix did not venture any further into the production of agricultural models. Nor did it produce any earthmoving vehicles other than the JCB3 Excavator that accompanied the Lowmac railway freight wagon released in 1963. Commercial vehicles were largely limited to military offerings and buses were also avoided other than the London B-Type bus (recently re-issued) and Dennis Fire Engine.

Having converted endless Airfix military trucks into civilian models over the years I have always wondered why the range did not expand into these popular markets. Can you imagine such things as an Airfix Fordson Major tractor with a front loading shovel and cab, eight-wheeled ERF wagons and petrol tankers, Scammell dump trucks and Caterpillar bulldozers with scrapers? Dream on Brian I hear you say!

But all is not lost. Great fun can be had by creating your own Airfix code 3 models, although most will have to be based on military vehicle chassis. My next venture will be a lime spreader based on the Bedford QL with optional snow plough blade. In 1984 Airfix sold off a large number of moulds (mainly railway accessories) to DAPOL who re-marketed them, giving 4mm modellers easy access to the otherwise scarce JCB excavator and Scammell Scarab. With a little bit of imagination the possibilities are endless… happy gluing!

Airfix rarities to look out for

While the Ferguson tractor remains the rarest Airfix kit among collectors there are many other scarce and valuable Airfix products to look out for: The Airfix FN Rifle from the early 1960s is a sought after toy today especially in its original box as are the Ice Cream Tri-cycle and Harbour Master novelty toys sold in Woolworth’s during the 1950s. Motorised cars such as the 1/32 Jaguar E-Type are also highly prized by collectors. Rare promotional toys include The Shaw Saville SS Southern Cross Liner and a toy Electrolux Refrigerator (I regret selling mine). Collectable kits include: D.H. 88 Comet aircraft released as a Kellogg’s promotion; boxed sets of Aircraft and railway accessories sold by mail order catalogues; Supermarine Spitfire Mk1 1953 bagged version (the first Airfix plane); James Bond and Odd Job from 1965; 1/12 scale Boy Scout and HO scale civilian figures with original box… happy hunting.