04 February 2009
Pat Hammond looks at the birth and history of Airfix Railways. ...
The name Airfix tends to be associated with plastic construction kits but in the mid 1970s, Airfix decided to extend its toy range by buying from the American Bachmann company a Wild West adventure train set. This was made by Kader in Hong Kong. To complement it, it added an in-house concept – a Dr X mystery set which was made for them by Sanda Kan, also in Hong Kong. It was based on British prototype models consisting of a Class 31 diesel, ‘Lowmac’ machine wagons and an ex-GWR brake van.
When test shots of these models arrived it was realised that they were so well detailed that they would appeal to serious railway modellers. Thus, Airfix saw the potential in expanding the system with some additional models and Airfix Railways was born.
So it was in 1975 that Airfix announced its intention of entering the ready-to-run model railway market. Unfortunately, the American-backed Palitoy toy company had also seen a gap in the British market for better quality 00 gauge railway models and decided to fill it. Thus, in the mid-1970s, two new model railway systems of similar quality arrived.
In the early 1970s, the Hong Kong Trade Development Commission had been looking for business for local factories and this had resulted in the Hong Kong companies, Sanda Kan and Cheong Tak, producing models for Airfix. The Stanier coaches were made at Cheong Tak who also produced the ‘Royal Scot’, 4F and were working on the projected ‘Compound’ to be followed by a ‘Crab’, ‘Black 5’ or 8F. Most of the other models were made by Sanda Kan.
It was intended to display the first samples at the Harrogate and Brighton toy fairs in 1976 but they were not ready in time and the cobbled together display organised at the last minute, failed to impress. The models, when they arrived, were nicely moulded but the locos were not very good mechanically.
In 1977, Airfix drew up an overall programme that was to give a balanced range. There were to be five groups: Midland, Western, Southern, Eastern and BR. Each group was going to have an express passenger, mixed traffic, goods and both large and small tank engines. In addition, both main line and suburban coaches would be produced for each group.
Other planned models were the N2, ‘Dean Goods’, ‘Schools’ and B1 but production delays, due to Hong Kong factories not adhering to Airfix’s increasing design requirements, were now affecting future plans. It was becoming more apparent that communication with Hong Kong and control of the finished product were not very good. In contrast, UK production, although more expensive, would deliver as good a product, on time and to Airfix’s specifications, without the problems of long distance communication and hidden costs. The company, therefore, produced some wagons themselves in the UK and the success of these proved this point and would have ultimately lead to the phasing out of overseas production. This change was in 1979 and the name of the product was altered to ‘GMR’ which stood for Great Model Railways.
The GMR production was at Charlton (South East London) and the ‘Dean Goods’, its first locomotive product – 5-plank and 7-pank wagons – had been made there since 1978 and the ‘Syphons’ since 1979. As the ‘Dean Goods’ was about to go into production in mid 1980, the Airfix empire was crumbling. Other parts of the company were being closed down, moved or sold off. £7M was spent in an attempt to save Meccano Ltd and when this failed Airfix went into receivership.
Airfix/GMR exhibited for the last time at the 1981 toy fairs but shortly after this they ceased production. The Airfix model railway interests were acquired by its rival – Palitoy, the makers of Mainline Railways – who used the tooling to extend its own range. When Palitoy closed down three years later the Airfix tooling was acquired by Dapol and, in 1996, sold to Hornby who now make the models.
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