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Last Updated: Friday, 7 December 2007, 09:44 GMT
Airfix - Britain's Next Top Model?
By Maria David
The Money Programme

Craig Cash as Malcolm in Mrs Merton and Malcolm. Malcolm is shown painting an Airfix plane.
Will today's youth fall for Airfix's retro appeal?

One of the most famous names in toys is back, after going bust.

Airfix has been bought by model train giant Hornby, which plans to rebuild the brand.

But will today's Playstation generation even notice?

Generations of school children grew up in the 50s and 60s gluing and painting Airfix model planes, from the iconic Spitfire and Lancaster to the Messerschmitt and Fokker - then hanging them from their bedroom ceilings to re-create the Battle of Britain.

Airfix was started in 1939 by Hungarian emigre Nicholas Kove.

It made air-filled toys, but really took off after World War II when it began manufacturing model kits of Spitfires.

"Children aspired to being fighter pilots," says toy historian Arthur Ward. "But if they couldn't be fighter pilots, they would make an Airfix kit of a Spitfire."

Same formula

By the early 1980s, computers and games consoles had begun to push Airfix out of the toy cupboard and onto the scrapheap.

1 - Spitfire Mk 1
2 - Hurricane Mk 1
3 - Lancaster
4 - Messerschmitt BF-109G
5 - Mosquito
6 - Sea King
7 - Landing Craft LCM3 & Sherman Tank joint kit
8 - Heinkel 111 Bomber
9 - 1911 Rolls-Royce
10 - Golden Hind, Classic Ships Range

Sales declined and the company went into receivership in 1981.

For the next 20 years it had a variety of owners and finally went into administration in 2006.

In November 2006, Margate-based model train firm Hornby bought the company.

"If we can apply the same lessons that we've learnt with Hornby to the Airfix business, really focus on what the needs of the enthusiasts are, but also to make the product more relevant to a new generation of collectors, then I think we'll succeed," says chief executive Frank Martin.

Younger fans

The box and kit for an Airfix Vanguard aircraft scale model
Is the notion of an Airfix kit just too engineering-led for Britain?

Half of Britain's children have a TV in their bedrooms, and two-thirds have a games console.

One of the first tasks facing Airfix is to attract a younger fan to modelling.

Mr Martin acknowledges that "the Airfix product range has a fairly military focus".

"We'll keep that, but also recognise that kids are interested in lots of other things," he says.

Licensing deal

So Airfix is looking to licensing deals - making models of popular TV and film characters - to grab the attention of today's youngsters.

1939 - Hungarian emigre Nicholas Kove starts Airfix in London
1947 - Airfix becomes the largest producer of injection moulded combs in Britain
1952 - First Airfix kit, the Golden Hind, Francis Drake's flagship, on sale in Woolworths, for two shillings
1953 -All-time Airfix best-seller released - the "two-bob" Spitfire kit- a 1/72 scale replica 21-part bagged model in light blue plastic, with instructions
1960-1970 - Range expands to include figures, trains, ships, cars and more. Sales run into millions
1980 - Computer games introduced. Modelling goes into decline
1981 - Airfix goes into receivership; Bought by General Mills
1985 - Sold to Hobby Products Group of Borden, who also owned Humbrol
1995 - Hobby Products Group, including Airfix, sold to Humbrol
Aug 2006 - Humbrol goes into administration
Nov 2006 - Hornby Hobbies Ltd buy Airfix and Humbrol

It has secured a tie-up with the BBC's hit show Doctor Who to produce a click-together kit with a Tardis, a background and two characters - the doctor, and assistant Martha.

Toy experts think it is a shrewd move.

"I think licensing deals are particularly important when you are targeting the younger generation," says John Baulch, publisher of leading toy trade magazine Toys'n'Playthings.

"Children are such avid media consumers these days that of course it means far more to them to create something from Doctor Who than a World War II aeroplane."

Hornby has also revamped Airfix's manufacturing base and moved production to China.

"Bluntly, if we hadn't made that move, the Hornby business would be bust by now," says Mr Martin.

"All of our competitors were already manufacturing in China, and basically you can't compete with the lower labour rates that are available there."

Some 60% of the world's toys are made in China.

Race against time

Airfix initially planned to get the first of its new Doctor Who kits on the shelves in time for the Christmas selling season.

It has only partially succeeded. The toy has made it to a leading London store, but the bulk of the 25,000 run will not be available until the New Year.

While it is pursuing younger fans, Airfix does not want to alienate its older fans either.

The company is working on a rejuvenated "classic" range for the traditional modelling enthusiast.

These will also be launched in the New Year.

Then observers will be able to tell if the revamped Airfix can really fly again.

Money Programme: Airfix - Britain's Next Top Model? is broadcast on BBC Two at 1900 GMT on Friday 7 December.

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