Exclusively for Military Times, the following is the opening chapter from The Airfix Book of Scale Modelling by Jonathan Mock
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To begin at the beginning…
For most people Airfix invented the plastic model kit. This may be slightly disingenuous, although Airfix certainly popularized plastic modelling in the public consciousness to the point that the name has come to mean any plastic kit, regardless of manufacturer, just as Thermos, Hoover and Xerox are now synonymous with any vacuum flask, vacuum cleaner or photocopier, respectively. Tell people that you’re into scale modelling and they may get what you mean, tell them you make Airfix kits and they will know exactly what you mean.
The Airfix Book of Scale Modelling by Jonathan Mock
People started making replicas of tanks and aeroplanes from wood well before they became available as commercial models. One of the pioneers of the model kit was Skybirds in England who settled on a scale of 1:72 (we’ll look at scales a little later) for their range of aircraft. Their kits comprised of roughly shaped wooden parts – a genre that became known as ‘solids’ owing to the fact they were made from solid wood – and required sanding and shaping to get the basic outline, and then sealing to fill the wood grain before painting could start. Suffice to say that making even a basic single-engined aircraft would involve many hours or work before the model started to look the right shape. But Skybirds proved popular, and to some extent this could be ascribed to their decision to stick to 1:72, enabling modellers to build up a collection of aircraft that were all to a constant scale. The range expanded to include airfield accessories alongside a mix of biplanes and (the then emerging) monoplanes, both civilian and military.
But the invention of the plastic kit really belongs to another English manufacturer, FROG, who began life by making flying models in the early-1930s, hence the acronym Flies Right Off (the) Ground: F–R–O–G. In 1936 FROG started making a new line of plastic construction kits, a range marketed as ‘Penguin’ kits so as to distinguish them from the range of flying models. Why Penguin? Penguins don’t fly!
FROG also adopted the scale of 1:72 as pioneered by Skybirds, and the Penguin kits were very basic – the plastic used was a cellulose acetate butyrate, totally different to today’s high impact polystyrenes, but in their time a revelation when compared to the ‘solids’. Frog’s pre-moulded parts meant a Spitfire could be built, painted and flying sorties around the living room in a single evening! Like Skybirds, FROG also developed a range of accessories to complement their aircraft, even including a massive hangar kit.
By a peculiar twist of fate, the Second World War heralded great advancements in the manufacture of plastics and injection moulding technology, with Germany leading the way. FROG continued to make models for the War Office and these were used as recognition aids. Post-war the Penguin kits did return but by the mid-1950s they were discontinued in favour of a new range of kits made from polystyrene – but they were no longer the only game in town.
Founded in 1939 by Nicholas Hove, a Hungarian émigré, Airfix was the first company to bring injection moulding technology to Britain. Ironically, Airfix’s name was never derived from anything to do with aircraft or models, but rather a personal penchant of Kove who, according to Airfix historian Arthur Ward, liked words ending in ‘fix’ and wanted his company to begin with an ‘A’ so it would appear at the front of trade directories. Airfix’s first products were a diverse range of household items, mostly born out of Kove’s eye for a sales opportunity that made use of scant resources. At one point Airfix were the biggest manufacturers of plastic combs in the UK.
Airfix’s entry into the world of plastic models came about in 1949 following a commission for a promotional model of a tractor by its makers, Ferguson. Ever the pragmatist, Kove suggested selling the unassembled parts to the general public. Ferguson saw this as a publicity coup and the first Airfix kit was born. Encouraged by what Kove saw as a new business opportunity, Airfix released a model of the Golden Hind in 1952, which arguably could be considered the first fully commercial Airfix kit. When Kove struck a deal with Woolworth’s, one of the UK’s biggest retail chain stores at the time, to sell bagged copies of their kits for a few pence each, suddenly kits became readily available and cheap – the modern era of plastic modelling was truly born.
The Golden Hind was a huge success and Kove was initially resistant to appeals from his General Manager, John Grey, to diversify into aircraft. Eventually they did and their first aircraft kit, a Spitfire Mk.I subsequently known as ‘BTK’, due to the spurious squadron code letters included (and seemingly modelled after Aurora’s 1:48 kit) was released in 1953 (or 1955 – opinions vary!).
Of course the old hands felt this plastic revolution wasn’t ‘real modelling’; there was no skill needed with these moulded things and that it was a fad that would never catch on – but catch on it did and by the end of the 1950s plastic kits were appearing in force around the world and the days of the ‘solids’ were numbered.
Like Skybirds and FROG before them, Airfix settled on 1:72 as the preferred scale for model aircraft, 1:76 (or OO) for military vehicles and figures, 1:600 for ships, 1:32 for cars and larger model soliders and 1:144 for airliners. They strongly promoted the ‘constant scale’ aspect of their products at a time when many of their rivals were scaling their kits to fit the size of the packaging. With constant scale you could build up a collection of aircraft, ships and tanks with all the fascination in comparing sizes and shapes that it entails – by placing a Tiger Moth next to a Lancaster, HMS Ajax next to the Admiral Graf Spee or a Bren Carrier next to a Tiger Tank. For youngsters the availability, cheap retail price and easy construction made for great playthings, enabling the Battle of Britain or D-Day to be restaged in-between the football results and teatime on a Saturday afternoon.
To complement the kits Airfix also created its own range of oil based paints, initially sold in bottles before switching to tins (or tinlets) similar to those used by Humbrol. The colours were split between matt and gloss and older kits have references to paint codessuch as M3, M6 or G8; fairly meaningless these days, but in their day most model and toy shops in the UK carried the range of Airfix paints and so the colours were (relatively) easy to figure out!
At its peak, the scope and range of the Airfix catalogue encompassed a variety of subjects for almost all modelling tastes: military 1:72 aircraft dominated, followed by ships, armoured fighting vehicles, cars, motorbikes, buildings, soldiers, trains, rockets, science fiction subjects, birds, historical figures and diorama play sets. Popular and well-known subjects like the Spitfire and Lancaster were represented in the range, but also lesser-known and unusual types like the experimental SR.53 rocket fighter and the SRN-1 hovercraft. If a Hawk jet trainer wasn’t your cup of tea, a 1:1 Robin (Erithacus Rubecula) may well have been. Similarly, you could make either a 1:12 Queen Elizabeth I (the monarch) or a 1:600 RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 (the ship). Modellers could pick between an F-15 Eagle fighter or an Eagle Transporter (from the TV series Space: 1999).
Airfix consolidated their popularity in the 1960s when they released one of the first magazines aimed at plastic modellers called – naturally enough – Airfix Magazine. Running (on and off) right up until the early 1990s, the magazine introduced such famous names as Alan W Hall, Chris Ellis and Bruce Quarrie as editors, and contributors like J.D.R. Rawlings, Alan Butler and Gerald Scarborough. As plastic modelling really took off there was a rich period of new kits running from the 1960s through to the mid-1970s and Airfix were releasing new models on a near-monthly basis, with the larger kits usually arriving just in time for Christmas. Airfix also consolidated its publishing ventures with an Airfix annual, its own series of modelling guides that covered diverse subjects from armoured cars and Luftwaffe camouflage to Napoleonic wargaming and armies of the English Civil War. Larger books catered for more complex kits like the 1:24 Spitfire or HMS Victory. Airfix also formed its own ‘Modellers’ Club’, and comic books of the 1970s memorably featured advertisements endorsed by the then club president Dick Emery, who was one of the most popular TV comic actors of that era.
For further reading on the history of Airfix, various books can be highly recommended; The Boys’ Book of Airfix by Arthur Ward, Conway’s The Airfix Handbook and Airfix Kits by Trevor Peak.
The boom years
Plastic modelling arrived at just the right time, both technologically and socially. Improvements in plastics meant that products could be moulded with more stability and durability, while manufacturers looking for inspiration had not only the Second World War to draw from, the heroics of which were still fresh in the minds of those who lived through it, but also advances in aircraft design (both military and civil), automobiles, ships and the new frontier – space.
While post-war Britain and much of Europe was still emerging from the shadows of rationing and reconstruction, in America there was a new optimism and affluence, especially amongst the younger generation, and plastic modelling equally gained new ground. Companies like Aurora, AMT, Hawk, Jo-Han, Lindberg, MPC, Monogram, Pyro, Lifelike and Revell became household names in the USA.
The range of kits on offer to the American modeller was more diverse, and perhaps less conservative, than their British counterparts. A classic example of this is Aurora, whose range of kits, though primarily dominated by more traditional subjects (cars, aircraft, and ships) are perhaps best remembered for their historical knights and movie/television tie-ins, featuring hardware from TV shows like Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Batman. Aurora also produced kits of famous comic book figures like Superman, Superboy and Dick Tracy and of movie monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, King Kong and Godzilla. They even created a memorable range of dinosaur kits including their ‘Prehistoric Scenes’ series that came with diorama bases that could interlink to create one large scene – considerable palaeontological license was involved in mixing the various prehistoric eras with cavemen, although it is doubtful that many younger modellers either noticed nor cared!
Unsurprisingly, a lot of US kit manufacturers’ ranges were dominated by car models – the automobile industry in America was experiencing a boom period and many companies were only too happy to assist model manufacturers with what they saw as an excellent opportunity for free publicity. The model car market catered for everything from coupes, saloons and station wagons past and present to racing cars, hot rods and dragsters, haulage trucks, fire engines and pick-up trucks.
While AMT, Revell and Monogram all had healthy selections of automobiles in their catalogues, Revell were amongst the first US companies to develop a large range of 1:72 aircraft that featured stalwarts like the Spitfire and Messerschmitt Bf109, complemented by the more unusual Fiat CR.42 Falco biplane and the PZL P.11C parasol-winged fighter. Monogram’s 1:48 aircraft became known for their detail and completeness, and sometimes their size, though it was their 1:72 B-36 Peacemaker that was at one stage known as ‘the largest plastic kit in the world’. AMT were the first kit company to release Star Trek related models starting with a kit of the USS Enterprise (AMT kits of the starship Enterprise subsequently featured in the TV series), an association that continued right through to the Star Trek movies and The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine TV shows.
Europe was also developing its own kit culture, Italy being able to boast three brands with ESCI, Italaerei (now Italeri) and Supermodel. ESCI’s line encompassed some notable kits, namely their 1:9 Kubelwagen and BMW R-75 motorbike, but it was their huge 1:72 military range for which they became best known. Italeri were amongst the pioneers of 1:35 scale armour and figures, but they also developed some fine 1:72 aircraft kits including WWII gliders like the Horsa, WACO Hadrian, Gotha 242 and the mammoth Messerschmitt Me 323 Gigant. Supermodel is best remembered for their 1:72 range of Italian fighter, bomber and floatplane aircraft, not to mention the sleek Blohm and Voss BV138 flying boat.
But it was in Japan that plastic kits really took off, not only in terms of popularity but also in terms of technological innovation, with Tamiya and Hasegawa leading the way, along with Nitto, Fujimi, ARII, Otaki, Bandai and Marusan. These days the likes of Hasegawa and Tamiya are considered benchmarks of excellence, a position attained through generations of family ownership that has ensured a continuity of culture and investment, but in the early days of plastic modelling kits from Japan tended to be dismissed as ‘toy-like’ or ‘not up to western standards’ – the Japanese manufacturers learned fast!
Like their western counterparts, the Japanese kit companies also developed varied ranges, mainly built around aircraft, cars, ships and military subjects. And while Tamiya and Hasegawa have aspects of their ranges that overlap, notably with their 1:24 cars, 1:48 aircraft and 1:350 and 1:700 ships, Hasegawa have rarely ventured into 1:35 military subjects while Tamiya’s 1:72 aircraft line is modest and mostly limited to WWII subjects. In fact, Tamiya’s range is mostly known for their 1:35 military vehicles and figures – their German 88mm gun is reputed to be one of their best selling kits of all time – but they are also dominant in the radio-controlled car market and have a sideline in educational and scientific models. Always looking to improve and innovate, one of Tamiya’s most impressive moulding feats in recent years has been their 1:48 Fieseler Storch, which featured the fuselage and side-canopies moulded as a single tan-coloured and clear plastic piece.
Hasegawa on the other hand have tended to concentrate more on 1:72 and 1:48 aircraft, along with 1:72 military subjects (an area Tamiya have rarely ventured into, if ever). Perhaps one of Hasegawa’s more famous, certainly most impressive, ranges is their ‘Museum Series’ of kits like the 1:16 Wright Brothers Kittyhawk or 1:8 Sopwith Camel, Fokker Triplane and SE5A, massive replicas that are constructed from separate rips and spars just like the originals and designed to be left uncovered to show off all the detail.
Bandai are not only arguably the biggest kit and toy company on the world, but they are also an entertainment giant, with subsidiaries involved in video games and anime (animated TV shows and films). And while in the past they have produced 1:24 aircraft and 1:48 armour and figure kits, Bandai are perhaps best known for their ‘Gundam’ range of science-fiction robot kits, toys and other licensed products. The total Gundam phenomenon is huge in Japan and as of 2008 was worth 50 billion yen (£370 million or US $500 million at 2010 rates). A notable innovation in the Gundam range is the ability to mould parts in different colours on the same sprue, meaning younger modellers can put together a kit with the minimum of fuss.
Coloured plastic was also a feature of the Matchbox company – famous for their die-cast car models – who launched a range of plastic kits in 1973 that came with the sprues moulded in different colours with ‘no painting required’, if you didn’t mind a Spitfire with a brown fuselage and green wings! Matchbox also offered alternative decal schemes as well as standard and even optional parts, their 1:72 Hawker Tempest scoring over the rival Revell and FROG kits by including the radial engined variant and Indian Air Force markings. Like Airfix they also created a range of polythene soldiers in both 1:76 and 1:32, while their 1:76 AFV range went one better by including a miniature diorama base. Though Matchbox made sure they had the usual ‘bankable’ subjects like Spitfires, Hurricanes, Me Bf109s, FW190s, P-51D Mustangs and Mitsubishi Zeros for the mass market, they also found time to make the more unusual – and hitherto never produced – subjects for the enthusiast like the Hawker Fury (their first kit), AW Siskin, Fairey Seafox and Percival Provost.
Consolidation and rebirth
Sadly, the oil crisis of the 1970s and world-wide recession of the 1980s saw raw materials and production costs rise, and coupled with shrinking markets many of those plastic pioneers faded from view; Aurora were amongst the biggest casualties in the USA while in the UK it was FROG who fell by the wayside, the tooling having been sent to Russia and the kits reborn as NOVO before they too ceased trading. Airfix also nearly disappeared, even though the kit side of the business was still making money (albeit down on the boom years), problems within Airfix Industries and other brands and products that it owned had caused so many major losses and shortfalls in cash flow that, in 1981, Airfix called in the receivers – luckily there were no end of buyers looking to take on the famous name and Airfix was sold on, first to Palitoy and then eventually to Humbrol Ltd.
The 1980s is generally seen as perhaps the quietest decade for the hobby as all the major kit manufacturers pared back their ranges and new kit releases slowed down against the rise of competition from computer games, Walkmans and video recorders. Despite a period of economic austerity there were still some quite notable kits being produced; the Avro Vulcan from Airfix and Handley Page Heyford and Victor from Matchbox, while Monogram released a full-stack version of their giant 1:72 Space Shuttle with fuel tank and solid rocket boosters. Revell went one better and brought out a massive 1:48 kit of the equally massive Rockwell B-1B bomber!
While the major companies rode out the economic storm, it was in the ‘cottage company’ or aftermarket accessory field where the real revolution was taking place, with small – often home-based – companies offering modellers detail or conversion parts in resin, white metal and photo-etched brass. Pioneers like PP Aeroparts and Aeroclub led the way for the incredible variety of products that now exist, offering almost any and every kind of accessory part for aircraft, ships, cars and military subjects.
Some companies, like Cerlin and Pegasus in the UK, went further and offered their own compete plastic kits – they were admittedly sometimes rather basic and aimed at the more experienced modeller, but as the technology improved and more companies started producing their own kits, the quality soon began to catch up with the mainstream manufacturers.
By the end of the 1980s the hobby seemed to catch a second wind, an impression reinforced by the emergence of some new companies, most notably Dragon from Hong Kong, Hobbycraft from Canada, Academy from South Korea and Trimaster and Fine Molds from Japan. The thawing of the Cold War in the 1990s saw many exciting new kit companies emerging from the former Czechoslovakia and USSR whilst the 21st century has seen China emerge as a force to be reckoned with in the modelling world. New names continue to join the ranks of Airfix, Revell, Hasegawa and Tamiya and include Eduard, ICM, Trumpeter, Tasca, Bronco, Great Wall and Hobbyboss, with still more companies emerging and offering high quality models.
In 2006 Airfix looked again to be facing oblivion in circumstances that almost mirrored those of 1980/81 – Airfix was profitable, but its parent company Humbrol suffered cash flow and supply problems and so Airfix was up for sale again. This time Hornby stepped in to add this famous brand to its own heritage and that of Scalextric, the well-known slot-car racing brand. In an ironic twist, the Airfix headquarters at Hornby’s facilities in Margate is also the site of the former FROG factory.
What’s in a box?
While many of those great names have passed into history, their products live on either as tooling that has been acquired by another company, or as a run of mouldings that are simply repackaged. In some markets there may be distribution or licensing deals that result in kits being reboxed; for example in Japan some Monogram kits have been sold as Hasegawa products in the past, and Italeri have a deal with Tamiya who rebox the Italian manufacturers’ kits as their own. Even for experienced modellers it can sometimes be hard to keep track of which kit is in what box!
FROG were amongst one of the first kit companies to expand their own range by either leasing tooling, or getting kits moulded for them, by other companies. The early FROG range included kits from Heller in France and Renwal in the USA. More famously FROG struck a deal with Hasegawa and the two companies traded kits for several years, along with some car kits by AMT. FROG kits then reappeared under the guise of NOVO in the late 1970s – essentially still FROG but relocated to Russia – but the Soviet authorities at the time took a dim view of what they saw as kits of ‘fascist powers’ (Germany, Italy and Japan) so most of this tooling ended up with Revell. Ironically, some FROG kits of Russian subjects (the MiG 3, Lagg 3, Yak 3 and Anatra DS) intended for the Russian market were never sent and ended up being issued by Red Star, a British company!
Revell have proved to be very adept over the years at reissuing other kits, having reboxed products from FROG, Heller, Lindberg, ESCI, Monogram, Italeri, Matchbox, Fujimi and Hasegawa to name but a few. Matchbox themselves incorporated chunks of the AMT range in the late 1970 when the two were part of the same group. Plus some old Otaki aircraft kits in the late 1980s – which in turn were also reissued by AMT.
Airfix reboxed some 1:35 Max military vehicle kits from Japan in the 1970s, which was picked up by Italeri who also rebox many ESCI kits as well as models by the American company Accurate Miniatures and MPM from the Czech Republic.
Airfix’s famous range of railway kits had their origins with another British manufacturer, Rosebud Kitmaster. Subsequently a lot of those railway tools ended up with Dapol. Airfix also reissued some MPC kits, mainly cars and Star Wars models in the 1980s – the Hawk and Eagle spacecraft from Space:1999 were originally MPC kits. In more recent years Airfix have incorporated kits by Heller, Italeri, Academy, Otaki, Trumpeter and MPM. Academy have reissued some models by Hobbycraft from Canada; Eduard and Bilek in the Czech Republic have also released some Airfix kits.
As you can see, it can sometimes be very confusing to keep tabs of just what kit you might get in a box, but help is at hand!
Clubs and organisations
There are several long running clubs and organisations that exist to help modellers, foremost of which is the International Plastic Modellers’ Society, formed in England in 1963, which now has branches worldwide, most of whom have regular meetings, organize shows and have their own national and local magazines and newsletters, websites and forums. The IPMS also has ‘Special Interest Groups’ or ‘SIGs’ that focus on specific subjects like the Harrier, F1 and Motorsport, Sci-Fi and Fantasy, Aircraft Carriers and Armour – there is even a SIG dedicated specifically to Airfix Modelling.
In the UK the IPMS Nationals show or ‘IPMS Nats’– now known as Scale Model World – is recognised as one of the world’s largest model shows, taking place over a weekend in the autumn of every year, and is complimented by many local IPMS branch shows, large and small, and several key (non-IPMS) model shows up and down the country, such as Southern Expo and Euro Militaire. This is also echoed around the world with the IPMS (USA) nationals and chapter shows, model shows in France, Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Russia and more … and huge extravaganzas in Japan, including the annual trade fair at Shizouka where kit companies from around the world come to announce and display new or forthcoming releases.
Other model organizations of note in the UK include the Miniature Armoured Fighting Vehicle Association (MAFVA) and the British Model Soldier Society (BMSS), while in the USA there is the Armor Modelling and Preservation Society (AMPS).
The modern version of the old Airfix Modellers’ Club is Club Airfix, where members receive a quarterly magazine, special offers and the chance to purchase exclusive (and collectible) kits made for club members only. Airfix also run the very popular make-and-take events at air displays and model shows where budding modellers get the chance to make and paint a model for free.
What makes a modeller?
Humans like to do things with their hands – be it painting, craft, gardening, playing music, writing, carving, woodworking or building … the instinct is strong and immediate. Even before basic languages and the written word had been developed, there was a desire to make things. The early cavemen developed skills to hunt, build, make fire in order to stay alive, but they also found time to make jewellery and art. The need to replicate objects in miniature also dates back thousands of years, from the face on a coin to a statue of a horse. Psychologists would say that our desire to create things in miniature is a controlling mechanism, a need to create order and make sense of our world – but it could also be because it is great fun.
As with any hobby where precision is required, modelling can help us learn and develop valuable skills that carry over into the rest of our daily lives, from hand-eye coordination to concentration, neatness, method and patience. With modelling we not only get the tactile satisfaction of creating something but also the artistic pleasure of painting it, whether this is a simple kit made straight from the box or a model heavily-modified or super-detailed. Researching the history of a subject and how it works not only expands our knowledge and understanding, but also hones our learning capabilities.
People also make models for different reasons; for some it is a simple diversion from the day job, for others it is the challenge of trying to recreate something in the most meticulous detail. Some people are drawn to particular subjects and build up collections based on a theme or era, i.e. US aircraft of the Vietnam War, or even the development of one subject like the Tiger tank and its many production variants and colour schemes. Others just like the variety of making a car one week, a ship the next. There is also the appeal of creating dioramas, models placed within a scenic setting that tell a story, whether it is an aircraft being refuelled between sorties or tanks entering a bombed-out street in Europe. You may spend a couple of evenings working on a project or several months.
Box art also plays a big part in shaping our choices on what we buy and build, which, after all, is the intention. The fabulous Airfix box-top paintings by Roy Cross are considered classics of their genre and inspired several generations to buy and make models based purely on the story being played out on the box lid, perhaps of subjects they may not have previously had an interest in – the sight of a lone Wellington bomber limping home on one engine, chased by Bf109s, or the Tirpitz engaged in battle with all guns blazing. These evocative scenes appeal to the imagination. Some modellers have even put their return to the hobby down to seeing the box art of their youth still going strong decades later – for example, such was the nostalgia and admiration of the famous painting of ‘G for George’, which shows an Avro Lancaster landing with one engine ablaze, that Airfix resurrected the box art for a special reissue of their Lancaster kit. This same artwork is also one of the most consistently popular images for other Airfix merchandise like greetings cards and coasters.
Like other hobbies, modelling also has its highly collectable aspects, either in forming a group of finished models that show fighters of the RAF, German ships of the Second World War, American ‘muscle’ cars or military vehicles of the Gulf War. A collection may be centred around just one subject, perhaps showing the development of the Spitfire from the original prototype K5054 to the Seafire 47, or perhaps the Seafang and Spiteful variants. Or maybe the history of the Messerschmitt Bf109, Focke Wulf 190, Sherman tank or Willys Jeep. Not only is there the satisfaction and fascination of the aesthetic differences in shapes, sizes and colours, but also there is the educational aspect of seeing how technology develops, from fabric-covered biplanes to metal-clad jet planes, or wooden galleons to nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.
Model soldier collections can be similarly vast and varied, with figures from different eras all representing a challenge in painting to bring them to life, or they may be focused on a single historical period or indeed campaign – like the Napoleonic wars, the Battle of the Somme or the Russian Front.
But you don’t have to make models to collect them, especially with kits that are either very rare or may never appear again, and many examples do end up preserved in their unmade form, historical snapshots not only of a company’s products from a given period, but also encapsulating the styles of the time. Amongst the most highly sought- after Airfix kits are the Ferguson tractor, the original ‘BTK’ Spitfire, the MV Free Enterprise ferry and the SAM2 missile. Their scarcity and resultant value typically results from circumstance – usually because the original moulds are either lost or no longer capable of being used. Sometimes a mould may be irrevocably modified and it is no longer possible to manufacture the original version – when Airfix retooled its RAF C-130 Hercules moulds to make the American AC-130 version, it meant that the original RAF kit could no longer be produced. Likewise the Airfix conversion of the BAC Canberra to the America B-57 version, or VC-10 airliner to the VC-10 K2 tanker. Some kits will never again see the light of day. One famous example are kits produced from a batch of Aurora moulds that had been purchased by Monogram Models in the USA. The moulds were damaged in a train derailment, rendered unuseable and thus were scrapped – subsequently the value of the ‘lost’ kits shot up on the collectors’ market. The classic Airfix B-17 and Wellington kits may well become collectible items for the future given that the tooling was retired due to the moulds being too worn for future production to be viable.
It is not just the kits that are collectible, however; amassing and cataloguing all the variations of box art and packaging is a hobby in itself. In this area, everything from the actual box art painting to the colour of the packaging or shape of the logo can be of great importance to the keen collector. The realms of Airfix’s diverse packaging over the decades has evolved its own language, as people talk of a ‘type 1 header’ or a ‘box type 2’, with some kit boxes featuring almost imperceptible differences, even down to a minor change in typeface, but all very important to the keen collector. There are even groups like The Airfix Collectors Club, which publishes its own magazine called Constant Scale.
The very first mass-produced Airfix models started off in polythene bags – the famous ‘polybag’ kits – stapled to a header card featuring a basic line drawing reproduced in block colours, with the instructions printed inside. As four colour litho printing technology became cheaper and more accessible, the artwork eventually evolved into full colour paintings on both the polybag kits and the boxed ones. In the 1970s Airfix created the ‘blister pack’ for its Series 1 kits, an ingenious – and award winning – design, consisting of a single piece of card with the box art and colour scheme drawings printed on one side and assembly drawings on the reverse, the card being folded over with the kit parts sealed within a rigid moulded plastic cover.
By the end of the 1970s blister packs gave way to boxes. Box art was toned down – explosions and gunfire were removed due to changing social attitudes – before giving way to photographs of models in the 1980s. Many collectors and modellers consider this to be the low-point for Airfix, both historically and aesthetically – the drab packaging was a great comedown after the heights of the Roy Cross era, while the number of new releases had slowed to a crawl. When Humbrol acquired Airfix in 1986 it continued this type of photographic packaging before bringing back box art in 1988, initially with new artwork by, amongst others, James Golding and Terry Harrison, before reviving Roy Cross’s famous artwork in the 1990s along with new compositions by the late Gavin McLeod.
The current signature red boxes of the Airfix range now feature the computer-generated artwork of Adam Tooby, who has bought new levels of realism and excitement – not to mention a highly collectible aspect – to Airfix’s box art, and we’ll be looking at how these are created in Chapter 3.
The 21st Century
It is true that some kits today can seem prohibitively expensive and for the most part those that are tend to be highly detailed and often complex kits. Their retail prices reflect the incredible amounts of research and development that has gone into the production. Recent kits like the 1:24 Airfix Mosquito top the £100 mark – although, with 617 parts, it is clearly not a weekend kit for a beginner!
It is equally true, however, that the market for affordable models has also never been better. Airfix, Revell, Italeri and Hobbyboss all offer easy to build and good value entry-level kits. Even some of the Japanese kits that may seem expensive in other parts of the world are moderately priced in their home market – and the Japanese market for plastic kits is huge, almost every major city having the kinds of well- stocked model shops that many western modellers can only dream of.
Certainly when compared to some other hobbies and pastimes, modelling typically offers excellent value for money, with even the cheapest, simplest kits capable of providing hours of entertainment spread over a period of days, or even weeks and months, while the cost of the more expensive kits can equally be offset by the time invested to make them.
While it could be argued that the demise of many traditional model shops could – perhaps should – have been detrimental to the hobby, the rise of the Internet has opened up the hobby enormously. Rather than becoming inaccessible, the hobby has become more accessible than it has ever been, with a whole new generation of modellers coming through who have grown up with technology that has opened up the whole world of scale modelling, to the point that even modellers without a model shop within 100 or 1000 miles can now browse the world for the exact kit, accessory or product they need, all delivered to their doorstep.
It is perhaps no coincidence that as the internet has grown, and more and more modellers have found ways to communicate, and companies (both large and small) have discovered more effective and direct methods of marketing their goods – either via web sites or Facebook pages – the hobby has also grown in tandem to the point that now, in the second decade of the 21st century, it is enjoying what many consider to be a new ‘golden era’.