The Crash and Burn of Model Airplanes

For a lot of young boys growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s building model replicas of World War II fighter airplanes was something to be proud of. There was a certain admiration and envy to be had when you could show of your latest creation – because you knew and your friends knew that you had spent hours gluing the pieces together, painting each part and then attaching the required decals and emblems. Building a model airplane was an art. A craft among youngsters no less important than building a go-cart out of spare parts found in your father’s garage.

So it was with heavy heart when I learned that one of the premier builders of model World War II fighter planes, ships and tanks decided to shut its doors in late August. You may not recognize the name “AirFix”, but it wouldn’t surprise me if you spent a few hours of your youth piecing together an AirFix model Spitfire or Hurricane, or any number of model tanks or aircraft carriers complete with miniature fighter planes on the runway. AirFix had a cool little logo always present in the upper left-hand corner of their model kits. The name AirFix was wedged in between what kind of looked like two bolts of red lightning placed in a circle. If you saw that name on a plastic model you knew you were going to get your money’s worth. AirFix models used to run about 2 or 3 dollars (back in the good ‘ol days) and it was a good investment for parents who knew that they were purchasing something that would occupy their kid’s time for several hours.

The story of AirFix (now referred to tragic-comically as “AirFiz” in some circles) is a real rags-to-riches Cinderella tale. In 1939, Hungarian immigrant Nicholas Kove moved himself and his family to England. At first, Kove devoted his time manufacturing inflatable toys – quite a novelty at the time. In 1940 he developed his first model kit of a tractor. Then the lightbulb went off: inspired by the tales of courage and determine of British fighter pilots, Kove developed model kits of vintage fighter aircraft and tanks being used to fight the Axis of terror. It was a hit with kids not only in Europe but in the United States as well. By the mid-1950’s Kove was mining a motherlode of plastic and glue: model kits of Spitfire fighter planes were selling in excess of 350 million a year, while the Lancaster Bomber and Hurricane models were selling over 60 million kits each.

This was the golden age of plastic models. AirFix wasn’t the only company producing plastic models, but was certainly one of the first and most successful. Right through the mid-to-late 1960’s, young boys were still deep into model airplanes. But there were cracks in the veneer of boyish pursuits. The times, they were a-changin’: post-war patriotism from WWII was wearing off and the logic behind the Korean War and Vietnam conflict was making a lot of folks scratch their heads. This whole war thing was becoming less and less cool.

And then the market for model airplanes seemingly got shot out of the sky.

Suddenly video games, special FX, and other electronic entertainment appeared on the scene and began to ride rough-shod over conventional model airplanes, comic books and other forms of youth-oriented fare. It marked the beginning of the end for AirFix and its fleet of model airplanes.

Psychologists say that today’s youth just don’t have the patience to sit for hours and piece together the many small components of a model airplane or model anything for that matter. And who can argue with that logic? Who ants AirFix when kids have play station, the internet and virtual realty to occupy their time and minds.

In the meantime, AirFix has ceased production. Item number one on their agenda is to move their considerable backlog of product. The market for kids and adults who enjoy building model plastic models isn’t entirely dead, but it’s already evolved into a niche market enjoyed more by nostalgic adults than fascinated young boys.

It’s normal I guess. No more AirFix. No more model airplanes. No more electric trains and race cars. All replaced by whatever happens to be the latest fad available in 200. Which in turn will be old hat in 2007.

And so it goes.

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