29 May 2009
Few brands survive for more than a generation or two. It’s only really large international motor companies like Ford, Volkswagen, Mitsubishi and Land Rover that generally survive longer, and some of these are now under new, foreign ownership. Semi-nationalised aircraft builders such as Boeing, Shorts, Dassault and Mikoyan (MiG) have also survived the long haul. But, on the whole, brand names come and go. Especially in the toy industry. ...
Once proud names like Tri-ang, Rovex, Dinky Toys, FROG, Lone Star and Palitoy have long gone. Fortunately, Airfix, one of the veteran giants, is still very much with us. What’s more, the famous name is now part of Hornby plc, Britain’s largest and most dynamic toy company and home to other iconic British brands including Hornby, Scalextric and Corgi.
This year Airfix celebrates its 70th birthday. And what a year it proves to be. Together with the company’s own exciting plans to commemorate this milestone – most sensational of which, for me at least, is the release of a massive new 1:24th scale RAF Mosquito – yours truly has written a new book about the kit manufacturer and I will be appearing on an Airfix special in James May’s new series, Toy Stories, due to be broadcast this Christmas.
Airfix is very much ‘top of the pops’ right now. Certainly stories about the famous firm attract the most attention on my enthusiasts’ community, Collectingfriends.com
Indeed the story about Hornby’s dramatic rescue of Airfix in 2006 is currently the most popular article on the site.
I’ve no doubt that Nicholas Kove, who founded Airfix in 1939, would be enormously proud of the achievements of his creation. Sadly, due to ill-health, Kove died in 1958, only a year after Airfix become a public company. However, Kove, a Hungarian émigré, certainly lived life to the full up until then. The story of Kove’s early life and the period when he established what is arguably the world’s most famous kit manufacturer is an important element within my new work, The Boys’ Book of Airfix, published by Ebury this September.
An entrepreneur to the core, Kove seemed to pack several life experiences into his relatively short life. Born in 1891, during WWI he served as a cavalry officer in the Austro-Hungarian army fighting on the Russian front where he was captured after taking part in a cavalry charge against enemy lines. Imprisoned in Siberia, Kove soon escaped and amazingly managed to walk all the way back to his home near the Carpathian mountains.
After the war Kove was a minor minister in the fledgling Communist government but when this was overthrown began a somewhat nomadic life as a businessman all over Europe. One of the companies he founded, Interfix, a patented collar stiffening material, is the first example of his predilection for brand names ending in ‘ix’.
Moving to England in the late 1930s his next big step was founding Airfix. The name has nothing to do with fixing aircraft, as many suppose. In fact Airfix made air-filled toys and other products like Lilos, all mostly made out of rubber. The company’s name began with an ‘A’ so that it would appear at the front of trade directories.
Shortage of rubber following the Japanese conquests in the Far East and the fact that Kove, ironically a Jew, was interned as an enemy alien, put a temporary halt to Airfix’s activities. One of the reasons he had fled the Continent was because of the mounting persecution of the Jewish people that, of course, culminated in the horrors of the Holocaust.
However, recognising the inequity of imprisoning so-called enemy aliens, along with most of the internees on the Isle of Man, Kove was released within a year or two.
After WWII Airfix became a pioneer in the new technique of polystyrene injection moulding, at first cornering the market in combs, but soon producing a range of toys and novelties. In 1949 a commercial contract required the company to injection mould and pre-assemble a series of miniature replicas of the new Ferguson T20 tractor, providing them as a sales promotion for the company. Appreciating the opportunities in similar injection moulded products but in kit form – a huge number of which were flooding the British market from America and Kove was determined to get a piece of the domestic action – Airfix released its first proper kit, a miniature of Drake’s flagship, Golden Hind in 1952, its first 1:72nd scale Spitfire arriving in 1955. Not surprisingly Kove obtained Harry Fergusson’s permission to sell a construction kit version of the tractor and for a while in the early 1950s this too was available as a kit in Airfix’s iconic poly-bag.
One of the keys to Airfix’s early success was FW Woolworth, the retailer in fact striking a deal which forced Airfix to package its kits in cheap bags rather than boxes to meet the retailer’s purchase point. Woolies sold millions and millions of Airfix bagged kits. And the rest is history. Sadly as we now know, part of that history has seen the demise of Woolworth, after almost 100 years on the high street.
Well, Airfix is three quarters of the way to a similar milestone and I’m confident that with the release of some exciting new kits this year, a prime slot in James May’s new TV series and, doing its bit, I hope: The Boys’ Book of Airfix, the great construction kit company might hit a century and beyond.
Happy Birthday Airfix!