Airfix was founded in 1939 by a Hungarian businessman 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 shillings, 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.
The 1963 acquisition of the intellectual property and 35 moulds of Rosebud Kitmaster gave Airfix their first true models of railway locomotives in both OO and HO scales as well as their first motorcycle kit in 1/16th scale - the Ariel Arrow.
Note: Most of Airfix's older range of military vehicles though originally packaged as 72 scale are generally accepted as actually being OO or 1/76 scale. The recent introduction of a small number of true 72 scale vehicle kits to the Airfix range meant that you couldn't be completely sure from just looking at the box what the true scale was. However, following Airfix's acquisition by Hornby this has been clarified as the kits are now being distributed in new packaging showing either 1/72 or 1/76 as appropriate.
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. They were categorised into Series from 1 to 20 depending on their size and complexity and were priced accordingly. The only Series 20 product was a 1/12 scale kit of the 1930 Supercharged Bentley 4.5 Litre car with 272 parts and the option of a 3 volt motor.
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 and Airfix books were published by Patrick Stephens Ltd on classic aircraft, classic ships and modelling techniques.
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, Inc., 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.
As of October 2008, Airfix's factory in Hull was undergoing demolition.
On September 12, 2007, Hornby relaunched the Airfix website and online store, giving consumers the option of buying direct from Airfix themselves online.
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 the editorial team saw the original Model Trains editorial staff launch a new title as Scale Trains, in April 1982. A slight name change followed in April 1984, as Scale Model Trains following the final issue of Model Trains in December 1983. Scale Model Trains ran till June 1995, when a new publisher was found and the magazine was relaunched in 1995 as Model Trains International, the November/December issue being issue number 1. As of 2007, it continues to be published bi-monthly. The magazine also has a website
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.
Airfix also produced a small number of Card Construction kits for use with the Airfix Railway System. These were included with some Airfix GMR Train Sets.
Ward, Arthur, Airfix: Celebrating 50 Years of the Greatest Plastic Kits in the World, Ted Smart, London, 1999, ISBN 0-00-765782-X.
Is This the End of Our Schoolboy Dreams? with the Future of Airfix in Doubt Jeremy Brook, of the Airfix Collectors Club, Looks at the Enduring Appeal of the Model Kits
Sep 01, 2006; Byline: Jeremy Brook In the late 1950s a young boy made his first plastic construction kit. Appropriately, it was a Spitfire...
MY AIRFIX-ATION; with Unashamed Nostalgia, One Writer Laments the End of the Firm That Gave Him a Model Childhood
Sep 01, 2006; Byline: GUY WALTERS SOME history books will tell you that the Battle of Britain, that epic airborne campaign that played as great...