9 December 2020

Spoiler alert!!! I’ve just bought my nephew this for Christmas:

Image reference: Airfix model kit of a Supermarine Spitfire Mk.Ia.
Image credit: Katherine Pell

We love Airfix in our house: my husband has loads of kits relating to his interest in military history. We also love Airfix at MoDiP and I am pleased to say that we actually have a similar  model kit in the collection to the one I have just purchased, albeit a different scale and Mark. We often use it to demonstrate the manufacturing process of injection moulding. In the close-up image below, you can clearly see the frame around the parts of MoDiP’s model where the plastics material was injected into the mould. This is referred to as the runner and sprue (the smaller and larger channels respectively) and it is usually discarded after each individual part has been cut free. 

Image reference: AIBDC : 006986 MoDiP’s Supermarine Spitfire MkXII Airfix model kit
Image credit: MoDiP

There is a regular debate amongst modellers regarding what to do with this waste plastic and many have found ways to reuse it such as melting it down to use as filler, heat stretching it to make parts such as antennas and rigging or even using it for scratch building. Finding a new use for this material is reminiscent of Airfix’s early beginnings with plastics.

The company was founded in 1939 by Hungarian businessman Nicholas Kove. He began making rubber toys, the name Airfix being associated with the process of inflating air into his products. When rubber supplies were diverted for military use due to the war, Kove turned his attention to plastics and in 1947, he introduced a range of cellulose acetate combs, being the first UK manufacturer to operate an injection moulding machine. 

Airfix was then approached by the Ferguson Company to make a model of one of its tractors to be used as a promotional tool. The design team created this as a series of parts using waste cellulose acetate that was then hand assembled and boxed. By using scrap plastics in this way, some of the early tractors were multicoloured but they are now extremely rare and this image of an auctioned kit is the only example I have been able to find (if anyone has one they would like to donate to the museum, please let me know!). 

Image reference: An early, multi-coloured, cellulose acetate, Airfix Ferguson tractor model.
Image credit:  

Kove negotiated with Ferguson to allow him to sell the model tractor as a toy through the popular high street chain Woolworths. In order to meet the shop’s required retail price of two shillings, he had to replace the cellulose acetate with a more stable polystyrene and offer the toy as a self-construction kit sold disassembled in a polythene bag. 

By the early 1950s, increasing competition from other comb manufacturers led the company to end this side of their business, but whilst they were steadily expanding their range of model kits, they were still producing other general plastics products such as tea-sets and beach toys. In 1961 the company were advertising 100 different kits, which doubled over the next five years to cover 13 themes including planes, trains, cars as well as figures. By the late 1960s, 250 kits were being produced as the modelling hobby grew in popularity, and it was at this point that the Airfix brand had become synonymous with plastics scale-models.

Image reference: From artwork, to model, then mould and finally the finished kit.
Image credit:   

Katherine Pell, Collections Officer, MoDiP.