Airfix: kit, model or toy?

Updated Monday 3rd December 2007

David Mayle considers whether the iconic British product can survive the changes taking place in British economy and culture.

Like Pete Waterman, I remember Airfix with a great deal of affection. My first, perhaps inevitably, was the Spitfire. 1:72-scale, duck egg blue, polystyrene parts that really did ‘almost fall together’, but in my case with a ‘crazed’ cockpit-canopy where I’d been a over-exuberant with the adhesive. Nevertheless, I was hooked; I worked my way through the range of military aircraft, with Dad on hand to help with the difficult (i.e. movable) bits. Parents are obviously a formative influence, and in the 1950s many would have at some time been involved making/flying/maintaining such aircraft and many more would have been working in engineering-based industries. Clearly, a toy that you could assemble yourself into something iconic chimed with the zeitgeist… Airfix Modellers Club badge At its height, Airfix ran a thriving club for modellers, under the presidency of comedian Dick Emery. It's largely assumed Emery held a purely ceremonial role.

Researching this piece, I was amazed to discover that the original product concept was not for a kit of parts but for a completed model – in the very first instance, of a Ferguson tractor. But although the injection-moulded parts were comparatively cheap, assembly added significantly to the costs, and so someone, somewhere, came up with what is now arguably the defining characteristic of an Airfix product – self-assembly from a kit of parts. Throughout the ’60s and ’70s the range grew, but the essential product remained unchanged. In the 1980s the company’s fortunes went into serious decline; if they are to be successfully revived then the market must be carefully researched. What is the product? Who are the customers?

So, is it a kit, a model or a toy? Does the enjoyment arise from making it, admiring the finished product, playing with it, or some combination of all three? Traditionally the attraction was largely based upon attention to detail (at the time, vastly superior to the competition), arguing towards the first two. The finished product was never noticeably robust, so the ‘playing’ bit inevitably involved suspending it from the ceiling with bits of cotton and required lots of imagination. And who’s going to buy it? There is certainly plenty of nostalgic goodwill out there, but by its nature that can’t last forever. A new generation of enthusiasts must be cultivated by appealing to something they find relevant. The Doctor Who link may be a risk – the programme is noticeably less hardware-oriented than say Star Wars, hence the focus in the programme on figures rather than machines, so does that change the nature of the beast? Is this the way to bring a new generation on board?

Airfix originally prospered at a time when World War II was recent memory and Britain still considered itself an engineering power. Times are now very different and engineering design and manufacture represent a steadily decreasing contribution to the domestic economy. Not only are today’s products manufactured in places like China, they are increasingly designed there too. Is the whole notion of an Airfix kit just too engineering-led for Britain in the 21st century?

Looking back, Airfix was certainly a factor in my subsequent career direction. How much do our toys influence our attitudes, and what then might be the economic consequences of the current vogue for computer games? Perhaps more importantly, will it help us to create wealth when everything we buy is Made in China?

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