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The Other Side Of Airfix: Sixty Years of Toys, Games & Crafts

The Other Side Of Airfix: Sixty Years of Toys, Games & Crafts

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The Other Side Of Airfix: Sixty Years of Toys, Games & Crafts

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Lançado em:
Feb 18, 2013


Airfix is synonymous with plastic model kits. The brand name has virtually become a noun, occupying a special place in that lexicon of trade names alongside Hoover, Sellotape, Perspex and Aqua-Lung.Throughout the war years Airfix survived on government contracts for a whole range of plastic items and by virtue of Kove's tenancious apetitie for business and doing a deal. By the war's end Airfix was the market leader in plastic injection moulded combs in Britain. By the time Airfix had released its first proper construction kit, a tiny model of Drake's flagship Golden Hind, in 1952, the firm was well established as a leading toy brand. Indeed throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s Airfix invested heavily in developing new toys or manufacturing them under license for large US toy companies such as Hasbro. Very soon Airfix extended its activities beyond toys into games and arts and crafts and in short time famous names.Indeed so successful was Airfix at diversifying that by the 1970s the company had grown to such an extent that it had acquired other famous toy brands including Dinky Toys, Tri-ang, Meccano, and Romper Room. With its subsidiary Crayonne Airfix even harnessed the design talents of the then Terence Conranne in attempt to elevate plastic products to the rarified atmosphere of designer chic.So there's a lot more to Airfix than many might think and this book is the first attempt to document the myriad successful lines, outside of plastic kits, which contributed to the company's dramatic growth before a combination of factors forced it into brief liquidation in 1981. Written by someone with a lifetime's fascination for Airfix and who has written other books about the better known construction kit side of the business, The Other Airfix is a nostalgic trip down memory lane.
Lançado em:
Feb 18, 2013

Sobre o autor

Arthur was only six years old when he moved with his family from the UK to Hong Kong, where his father, a soldier in the British Army, was posted. Whilst overseas Arthur was introduced to GI Joe (its British counterpart, Action Man, had yet to debut in the UK). The toy was a revelation. The author's love of action figures can be traced back to this moment. After graduating from art college and commencing a career in design and marketing, Arthur's early love of both action figures and plastic kits refused to diminish and he began to collect early examples of both, writing books about Airfix and 'TV generation' toys along the way. An inveterate collector and co-founder with the later Peter Donaldson, 'the voice of Radio 4', of Collectingfriends.com, he secured a Guinness World Record for the Spitfix! model-making marathon. Arthur has also appeared on TV on programmes such as Collector's Lot and James May's Toy Stories.

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The Other Side Of Airfix - Arthur Ward



Sixty Years of Airfix Toys, Games, Arts & Crafts

Most famous for its plastic construction kits and with a trade mark that to many suggests ‘fixing’ or ‘assembling’ aircraft, Airfix is generally associated with model Spitfires and Messerschmitts. This is hardly surprising considering that at its peak in the late 1960s, Airfix produced 350,000 miniature Spitfires, 80,000 Hurricanes and almost 60,000 Lancaster bombers each and every year. Added to this, thousands of other aircraft types and enormous quantities of cars, ships, tanks, trains and figure models conspired to create a total of twenty million kits sold each year – seventy-five per cent of the UK market.

While there’s no doubt the brand owes its good fortune to more than half a century of being a leading kit manufacturer, for decades Airfix was also the name behind some of the most successful toys, games and craft products in Britain.

Today, Airfix enjoys a place in that pantheon of company names that have really become nouns. We do an Airfix – make a plastic model – like we do the Hoovering. Everyone of a certain age knows that.

Sadly, however, the company’s towering achievements in the world of toys, model railways, electric slot cars, Painting by Numbers, board games, pre-school playthings, homewares and even shoes are now largely forgotten.

With this book I intend to redress this imbalance, reminding people that not so long ago Airfix wasn’t only famous for polystyrene fighter planes but was also the home of other equally famous names such as Dinky Toys, Triang, Meccano, Romper Room, Crayonne, Pedigree Prams and the company that brought us Weebles, New Artist, Flight Deck and even Cascade plastic audio cassette cases.

I don’t intend to retell the story of Airfix’s inception because I’ve done this in depth in my other books about the company. But if the reader is unfamiliar with the most rudimentary details I should point out a few significant facts.

Firstly, the ‘Air’ in Airfix is just that and not an abbreviation of ‘aircraft’. The company began life in 1939 as a manufacturer of air-filled toys and novelties. They quickly went on to manufacture other rubber-based products, like rubber bricks and, most notably, inflatable lilos.

Airfix Junior Bagatelle from the early 1960s.

Nicholas Kove, an émigré Hungarian Jew, originally Miklos Klein, was born in 1891. His early life is almost as interesting as the nearly twenty years he spent with Airfix. A cavalry officer in Emperor Franz Josef’s army when the First World War broke out in 1914, he was quickly taken prisoner by Russian troops. The Tsar’s army was an enemy of Austro Hungary and on the Allied side. Amazingly, Kove escaped from captivity in Siberia, of all places, and walked – yes, walked – back to his Carpathian home.

Airfix founder Nicholas Kove. (Courtesy of his grandson, Jo May-Prussak)

Following this adventure, Kove embarked upon another, becoming an assistant minister in Béla Kun’s revolutionary post-war government. This was a short-lived appointment and the new Communist administration collapsed in 1919. When, in 1920, the government of right-wing conservative Miklós Horthy took over and began persecuting of all those who supported the preceding executive, especially the Jews amongst them, Kove wisely decided to leave Hungary.

By 1922, Kove, his wife and newborn daughter were living in Algiers. Just over a decade later, they were in Barcelona, where Kove established his first plastics factory. The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and Franco’s collaboration with Hitler and Nazi Germany encouraged the Kove family to leave Spain and, in August that year, they resettled in Italy. It was while based here, in Milan, that Kove patented a process for stiffening shirt collars. It was called Interfix and is the first evidence of Kove’s predilection for words ending in ‘ix’.

In the autumn of 1938 Kove moved his family from Milan to London, where he established his latest plastics business, Airfix Products. This time his new company was prefixed with ‘A’ because he realized that this was one sure way of putting it ahead of the competition in trade directories!

If the Koves had remained in Occupied Europe they might have perished in the Holocaust with the other millions from the Jewish diaspora. However, regardless of the fact they were émigrés in search of a more secure and safe life, after Britain declared war in 1939 they were classified as enemy aliens and were consequently interned on the Isle of Man. This apparent unfairness was compounded by the fact that Kove, a self-made businessman, was more likely to contribute to the war economy rather than be a burden on it. Confinement was hardly going to help the fledgling Airfix’s commercial future. But despite this impediment, Kove somehow managed to keep Airfix going – but only just – and upon his release in 1942 was able to give the business his full attention.

Kove’s energy and resourcefulness meant that Airfix quickly established itself. There’s no doubt that during the earliest days he was helped by his daughter, Margaret, who seemed to have inherited her father’s business acumen, and her new husband, Bernard Prussak, who despite never finding real favour with Nicholas Kove, was nevertheless in the beginning employed as works manager at Airfix.

Very soon Airfix won a few official contracts, producing buckles and other bits of military paraphernalia and allegedly using the offcuts and other remnants from these commissions to fashion babies’ rattles and penny toys, which they could sell on the side.

Airfix Rattles, 1950s.

The breakthrough for Airfix came when they secured their first plastic injection moulding machines. Such technology was state of the art. The wartime emergency meant that natural raw materials were in short supply and synthetic alternatives became a priority. Japanese conquests in the Far East had more or less curtailed the supply of rubber, making it essential that a substitute was found. By the early 1940s, developments in plastics had leapt forward from the pre-war days of unstable cellulose acetate, casein formaldehyde and Bakelite to the introduction of true, modern, petroleumbased materials like polystyrene and polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

Today polystyrene and Airfix are inextricably connected but during the Second World War their combination was revolutionary. Kove’s previous experience in the European plastics industry meant that he was ideally suited to exploit the potential of this new injection moulding process.

One product perfect for injection moulding was the plastic comb. These had traditionally been saw-cut, a more time-consuming process that demanded extensive finishing if the teeth weren’t to snag and tear the hair as it was combed. Airfix produced cheap, contoured polystyrene combs by the thousand and by 1945 was the leading manufacturer of such items in Britain. This is perhaps hardly surprising at a time when men wore their hair ‘short back and sides-style’, requiring neat partings in their brilliantine-slicked hair.

The coming of peace in 1945 resulted in a surplus of manufacturing capacity in Great Britain as industry shifted from a war footing and needed to find new markets to replace the lucrative war contracts that had encouraged so many companies to expand during the conflict. Airfix was not alone in seeking new customers and, although it continued to produce a range of children’s novelties and cheap utility items such as cigarette lighters, its future was by no means guaranteed. The uncertain future of the company concerned Airfix’s bankers, Warburg’s. Their vexation was exacerbated by the ill-health of Nicholas Kove, who was suffering from cancer.

There was light at the end of the tunnel, however. In 1949 Kove hired one John Gray, formerly an executive with Lines Bros Ltd. Better known as Tri-ang, Lines Bros was then the biggest toy company in Britain and Gray arrived at Airfix with a wealth of experience to assist him in his role as chief buyer.

Anonymously branded, close inspection of The Scout Fixed Focus Binoculars reveal Airfix to be their manufacturer. This is just another example of some of the contract work the company undertook to turn a buck in the early days.

The genial Ralph Ehrmann, mastermind of Airfix’s financial success, in his London home.

The following year, Warburg’s shoehorned in one of their own when Ralph Ehrmann was appointed Kove’s deputy. Ehrmann, a graduate in industrial administration, was currently seconded to the British arm of Bing, the famous German toy train manufacturer, so he understood the sector. During the war Ehrmann had flown ops in Bomber Command; Gray had worn khaki. Like so many men returning to Civvy Street after National Service, they had grown up fast.

When Ralph Ehrmann arrived at Airfix’s premises at 24-26 Hampstead Road, London NW1, he must have wondered what he had let himself in for.

‘It was nearly bankrupt and struggling to exist,’ he told me. ‘Five of the nine injection-moulding machines there were stripped for spares and the company was on the brink. Warburg’s were particularly worried about what would happen if Nicholas Kove fell seriously ill.’

Airfix had survived during the war making commercial items from any material it could get hold of – not just plastic. Indeed, it did especially well making die-stamped metal belt buckles from offcuts of sheet metal.

‘It survived mainly because of Kove’s sheer guts and determination,’ said Ralph Ehrmann. ‘He was courageous and very energetic, although he also possessed a violent temper.’

In 1950, Airfix’s sales amounted to just over £148,000, which produced a profit of £15,693. A quarter of a century later, in 1975, Ralph Ehrmann was still with Airfix but now he was chairman of the board. His long-time colleague John Gray was still there with him but by now he had moved from sales and, as chief executive of the company’s Toy Division, sat alongside Ehrmann in the boardroom. There had been other seismic changes, not least to Airfix’s balance sheet. The company’s 1975 accounts revealed sales of £24,452,000, with profits of £2,603,000.

On the cover of the August 1975 edition of Airfix News the legend beneath a bar chart contrasting sales and profits since 1950 simply read: How we have grown. Next to this piece, a short feature entitled ‘Top Toy Award for 4th Year’ read:

For the fourth year running, Airfix Products has been awarded the Top Toy Trophy by the magazine Toys International. The trophy is awarded on the votes received monthly from toy retailers throughout the country nominating the company that has the most consistent brand names sales record for the year.

Even though Airfix will always be associated with kits and during their heyday in the 1960s and 1970s were making money selling them hand over fist, Ralph Ehrmann could never be sure if they were just a fad. If the mores of the customers who bought them changed, there was always a perennial demand for toys to rely on – they were an assured constant.

‘We kept a toy range going because we thought nothing lasted forever and the kit market might decline,’ Ralph Ehrmann told me recently.

And what a toy range! Airfix brought Weebles, Micronauts, Betta Bilda, Flight Deck, Eagles, Junior Driver, Datamatic Cars, Air Traffic Control, Meccano Combat Multikits and a wide range of model railways and accessories, as well as countless numbers of tiny OO-HO and 1:32 scale polythene soldiers into the homes of British children. The toy range was substantial enough to warrant its own annual catalogue.

The quality of the sculpting on Airfix figures, even of the cheap soft plastic soldiers such as these 1:32 8th Army figures, elevated them far above the realm of mere toys.

Airfix’s Betta Bilda toy wasn’t confined to buildings. Vehicles such as this delightful Teeny Truck were also available.

Airfix was always keen to explore new technology and on the threshold of the age of the PC, the firm released its Datamatic Cars, which when ‘programmed’ with a particular plastic disk (not floppy, about the size of a 10p piece, as seen in the photo) would follow a predetermined course and, hopefully, avoid a series of traffic cones.

Junior Driver is rare even in the more common bagged version (mine is shown on page 73), but this boxed example from the late 1950s, belonging to Graham Short, is rarer than hens’ teeth. Aficionados of health and safety will be disappointed to discover that the box art not only shows a child in the front seat, the keen-eyed will see that, heavens above … he is not even wearing a seat belt! Fortunately, enough of us survived these perilous times to write books like this.

It’s hard to recapture the excitement of full-size table football games on a plastic one with a pitch measuring little more than the size of magazine cover!

This book also considers the numerous games and arts and craft products such as Round House, Contex, Bounce Game, Waterloo Wargame, Fighter Command, New Artist Painting by Numbers, Cotton Craft, Velvet Choice, and Pin Pictures, which all helped Airfix secure such pre-eminence (for a while arts & crafts also had their own catalogue, as did model railways) and it will also reveal many of the other products that contributed to the enormous success of this famous British brand.

Cotton Craft – all the rage in the 1970s. No stylish lounge was complete without one.

Too often forgotten, Airfix toys are a significant part of the history of playthings. In partnership with retailers, especially F.W. Woolworth, with whom they had enjoyed a close relationship since the 1940s, Airfix didn’t only bring plastic construction kits, which required hours of patient assembly before they could be appreciated, into the homes of children everywhere, but also lots of great toys that could be enjoyed straight from the box.

Mint and boxed Woofy the Airfix Performing Sea Lion. Costing only 2s/3d when they were introduced in 1949 (12.5p), Woofy tossed a ball in the air and flapped his flippers when pulled along by the attached cord.

Back in the day, we spent a lot of time chucking our toys about – but at least we did this outside and experienced the real world, unlike today’s callow youth stuck indoors, glued to their Smartphones. When not launching aircraft we threw the Airfix Skydiver skywards and enjoyed about twenty seconds of fun as the plastic chute deployed and the daredevil descended back to earth. We then endured about an hour trying to retrieve the entire assembly from the branches of the tree in which it inevitably became entangled.

Another gem from Graham Short: the Airfix U-Control Skyliner – You Fly It! You Stunt It! It cost all of 3s/11d in the 1960s; that’s less than 20p in today’s money.

Mint and boxed Airfix Gyrobat.

Airfix Magic Ball Series Racemaster Horse Game. Airfix produced a variety of these delightful little toys in the 1950s. This example is from the collection of Graham Short. I have a similar Magic Ball – the Airfix Harbour Master – in my collection. They are, not surprisingly, very hard to find, especially mint and boxed.

The story of Airfix toys & games and arts & crafts has gone untold for too long. This book is intended to redress the balance.

Chapter 1

The Right Place at the Right Time

One of the earliest surviving advertisements showing the disparate range of items in the Airfix toy catalogue can be seen in the December 1947 edition of the Toy Trader & Exporter.

There were soothers (‘hygienic made completely from plastic except rubber teat’), Knife, Fork & Spoon – a Child’s Set and Dining Room Suite (‘for the dolls’ house’) – compete with Mounted Lifeguards (‘in the full splendour of their ceremonial dress – just as they did at the Royal Wedding’). About their new horse-borne soldiers, Airfix excitedly boasted, ‘they can dismount!’

Actually, despite the hyperbole, this was quite impressive stuff. Just how Airfix’s advertising manager managed to get copy mentioning the recent wedding between Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, into the December edition of a trade journal, when the royal nuptials had taken place only weeks before in November, remains to be seen.

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