On 22nd September a party of about thirty Members and friends took a
coach from Brooklands to Margate where the headquarters of Hornby
Hobbies Ltd is situated. On arrival at the Visitor Centre we had coffee
and biscuits before being ushered into the presentation theatre where
we were given talks by the marketing, design and research staff.
Darrell Burge, Airfix Marketing Manager, outlined the history of Airfix. In 1939 Nicholas Kove, a Jewish refugee from Hungary, founded a company to manufacture airbeds and inflatable toys, hence the ‘Air’ in Airfix. The name also ensured that in directories the company name came close to the beginning which meant the entry was read before the reader got tired of looking.
Injection moulding machines were introduced, the first in the UK, to
make plastic combs, of which Airfix became the largest British
manufacturer, and in the late ’40s moved into making toys from acetate.
In 1949 Harry Ferguson approached Airfix to manufacture a model of his tractor as a give-away promotional item. Airfix obtained the rights to market the model but it was found to be too expensive to assemble so it was sold as a kit of polystyrene components, with Woolworth’s as the main dealer.
Plastic model kits were taking off in America so, following a
suggestion from Woolworth’s buyers for lower priced kits, a model of
Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind was launched in 1952. To keep the price
down to Woolworth’s two shilling limit the kits were bagged in
polythene with an illustrated stapled-on paper header displaying the
name with instructions on the back. This very recognisable packaging
was used for the next twenty years.
The instantly successful Hind was followed by further ship kits and eventually, in 1955, by the first aircraft, a not terribly accurate 1/72 scale Spitfire, the first of many constant scale models. In 1957 Airfix became a public company, Kove sadly dying the following year. The Airfix magazine was launched in 1960 and the first catalogue in 1962.
By 1975 Airfix had become the largest toy company in the UK with a huge model range covering ships, aeroplanes, helicopters, spacecraft, military vehicles, cars, locomotives, rolling stock, trackside items, figurines, natural history, dioramas, and film and TV spin-offs, some with initial production runs of 100,000 units.
In 1971 Airfix bought Meccano and Dinky but unfortunately they had high production costs and a militant workforce threatening strikes over necessary job losses and changes in working practices. The costs to Airfix caused bankruptcy and receivership in 1981 and the closure of Meccano.
Airfix was bought by the US conglomerate General Mills who owned Palitoy, makers of Action Man. Kit production was transferred to Palitoy’s French factory, all tools being moved there. Production under the Airfix brand continued until 1985 when it was sold to Borden who owned the French kit firm Heller and Humbrol paints. The Airfix tools now went to the Heller factory where there was little investment in new kits, Heller models appearing in Airfix boxes, until the 1990s when new models started appearing.
In 1995 Airfix/Humbrol was sold to Allen & McGuire, an Irish investment company who cooperated with Heller but took the profits from Airfix for new companies and did not invest in new tooling. In 2006 Heller went into administration taking Airfix/Humbrol with it but fortunately it was bought by Hornby who recognised the need to invest heavily in tooling for new kits of higher quality and brought the original tools back from France, allowing reissue of classic kits.
Manufacture was moved to China and India. A re-branding exercise brought dramatically restyled boxes in eye-catching red with digital art illustrations and a modernised logo. Under Hornby the company has been rejuvenated with dedicated staff and a big design team willing to take sensible risks.
Airfix-Humbrol is part of the Hornby group which also includes
Scalextric and Superslot slot cars, Corgi die cast models, and Hornby,
Jouef, Arnold, Lima, Elecrofen, Heico, Basset-Lowke and Riverossi
trains. UK Airfix sales are 20% up in spite of the recession making it
the fastest growing brand in the group.
Martin Ridge, Chief Designer, introduced his team: researcher Simon Owen and designers Scott Elsey, Matthew Whiting, Sam Townshend and Jordan Jenkins who all addressed us.
The process starts with market research via questionnaires, surveys and forums which results in the choice of subject, the scale, the variants and colour schemes. Reference material is researched: books, drawings, visits to experts, and measuring any existing examples. From this a CAD programme is used to create a three dimensional digital base model which can then be used to determine the parts breakdown and design all the components. When completed a design review is carried out, corrections made and prototype creation by a subcontractor authorised using stereo lithography techniques employing two ultra violet (UV) laser beams and UV curable liquid polymer. Positioned by the CAD model, parts are built up layer by layer, the polymer solidifying only where the two laser beams cross.
The parts are then hand assembled and any corrections made. The CAD
data is then passed to the subcontractor toolmakers who produce tool
drawings for approval. When approved sample tools are machined using
computer numerically controlled (CNC) electrical discharge machining
(EDM). These are reviewed, corrected and approved then used to produce
a test model kit, the assembly and approval of which is the final
In parallel the instruction booklet is generated using the CAD data and a drawing programme Arbortext Iso Draw which allows the user to create exact images which can be rotated, exploded or hidden to find the best way of explaining assembly. Decals are chosen for multiple releases and at an early stage a specific aircraft is chosen with artwork prepared by external graphic designers who are sent an information pack. The box artwork is prepared by an external digital illustrator who used the CAD data to create 3D shapes. Various concepts are prepared and colour added. The subject can be reoriented and lighting and livery changes can be made to arrive at the final approved design.
After an excellent sandwich lunch with our many hosts, Ryan Maxwell, Assistant Airfix Marketing Manager and Dale Luckhurst, Humbrol Marketing Manager, conducted us on a tour of the Visitor Centre where we saw the new Olympic Licence items including Hornby train sets, a slot cycling velodrome, a range of Corgi taxis and a Concorde. Next was the Catalogue Room where every item in the current catalogues of all the Hornby brands is displayed - ‘schoolboy’ heaven (we spent a lot of time there!). Besides all the kits and static models there were functioning digitally controlled model railways and slot racing layouts. Then onto the warehouses with stacks of all the products and the website warehouse for on-line customers; interestingly there are no discounts here as this would be unfair on the retailers. Finally we went to the shop, which incorporates a museum where we could see the original Ferguson tractor and the first Spitfire as well as many models we remembered from our childhoods, including pre-war O gauge clockwork Hornby trains and post-war Hornby Dublo three-rail electrics. After tea in the excellent and inexpensive café we got on our coach back to Brooklands. It had been a long but fascinating day thoroughly enjoyed by all the party, thanks to the original suggestion from Frank Rainsbobough.