Saturday, 5 January 2008

And now for something completely different...

Everything has a history

Nicholas Kove (born Klein Miklós) was a Hungarian Jew. After fighting in the First World War he served as a minister with Béla Kun's short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic, inder the name of Köves Miklós, and fled the White Terror that followed in fear of his life. He and his family went first to Germany, then France, Italy and Spain where he opened a plastics factory in Barcelona. With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War he took final refuge in England, as Nicholas Kove.

He started the company Airfix in 1939, making hollow air-filled acetate and rubber toys and other such items (hence the name ‘Airfix’), and 'invented' the Lilo inflatable bed, switching during the war to making combs. In 1947 he embraced the 'new' (i.e. ex-German!) plastic-injection technology and in 1948, almost by chance, produced his first plastic ship kit. He was a shrewd and imaginative entrepreneur and Messrs Woolworths’ determined cost-cutting was met by the notion of a poly-bagged ship kit sold as a ‘pocket money toy'. The first aircraft kit came out in 1953 and it was aircraft kits that went on to comprise the archetypal Airfix model.

Kove died in 1957 but from 1950 his partner and successor in the glory days of the company's great success was another Central European emigré, Ralph Ehrman from Leipzig. For a couple of generations Airfix kits, with the little tinlets of oil-enamel paint from the then wholly unconnected company of Humbrol, were a formative experience of many, many childhoods (at least, boyhoods). (Caddick-Adams, 2006). This happened not just in Britain but in many parts of Europe and the developed world, through a host of international business partnerships, sales and distribution agreements, and licensing agreements, and Airfix kits became internationally well known.

The world changed, not least through the arrival of videos and the early computer games in the nine-teen-seventies, and world economics were changing too. Airfix's domestic and export markets declined and in 1981 the company went into receivership and ceased trading.. It was bought up by the toy manufacturer Palitoy, a rescue of sorts, but things did not go too well and in 1986 it was taken over by its old paint-tinlet companion, Humbrol. There was a bit of a renaissance and Ward's (1996) fiftieth-anniversary celebration of the brand could conclude on an optimistic note. But social and economic changes were now proceeding with an earnest and in August last year the company, along with Humbrol, was in administration and production again ceased. It looked like the company established and developed by Kove and Ehrman had finally come to the end of the line.

In November Airfix was saved again, along with Humbrol, bought this time by Hornby.

'Hornby': there's another iconic British name, but Hornby is in fact now Hornby International Inc, an multi-national conglomerate. Never mind, Airfix is back on the market, with many of its old lines reintroduced, joined by Dr Who and Wallace and Gromit, its first twenty-first century products for a new generation of enthusiasts. Already by Christmas week a new joint Airfix and Humbrol website was launched (Airfix, 2007) to market these.

You couldn't get more 'British' than Airfix, and the first products of the relaunched company certainly maintain that image. Even though Kove and Ehrman were originally emigrés, their adopted country took their products unquestioningly to its heart, and later no one seemed to notice that with Palitoy's take-over kit-production had switched to France. Now, Airfix is even a nomination for recognition as an 'Icon of England'! (Icons of England, 2007)

So, a common enough company history today, though in this case life goes on (being widely loved plus a strong shot of nostalgia for lost youth, certainly seem to help the chances of commercial rescue). A quick glance at Airfix’s catalogue suggests that everything remains the same, but does it? We shall have to see. What was once the product of individual skills and enthusiasms again has an immediate future. A brand, a name has been saved from the dustbin of history, and continues to live a new life, as a commodity in the globalised economy.

Production has been switched to China.


Airfix (2007) Official site,

Caddick-Adams, P. (2007) ‘Airfix made me the man I am', BBC News Magazine, 26 September

Dungan, R. (2006) Airfix puts together Doctor Who deal, Toy News Online, 18 December,

Ward, A. (1999) Airfix: celebrating 50 years of the greatest plastic kits in the world. London: HarperCollins

Vote for your ‘Icon of England’

1 comment:

  1. Five years later, the story continues (2013:

    (and see the Comment there too)