Fantastic Plastic – Growing up with Airfix Kits

Ah Airfix kits – plastic balm to childhood woes, fantasy fuel and source of endless joy and fascination.  I first became addicted to Airfix model kits in 1969 when I used my hard-saved pocket money to buy a 1/72 kit of an Angel Interceptor featured in the television show Captain Scarlet from our local paper shop (this was also around the zenith of my Captain Scarlet obsession). I did this against the advice of my parents, who advised that it might be “too difficult“. 

However, some hours later I emerged from my bedroom triumphantly bearing something that looked not entirely unlike an Angel Interceptor.  I was excited and not a little proud to have transformed a pile of plastic bits into something which looked uncannily (to my somewhat biased ten-year old eyes) like the original.  For around the next five years, Airfix plastic model kits dominated a large part of my life to a probably unhealthy extent.

This is where it all started…

The fascination with model kits is a difficult thing to explain to a non-addict.  After all, what’s the point in buying a small pile of parts when you could just buy, say, a rather nice and ready-made Corgi die-cast model of the same thing?  For me at least, the answer is in two parts.  First, there’s a deep satisfaction to be had in actually creating something yourself (“This is my Angel Interceptor.  There are many like it, but this is mine…“).  I have spent a fair part of my adult life restoring old motorcycles.  And I’d guess that the satisfaction that comes from transforming several boxes of bits into a viable motorcycle comes from the same root.  A sort of 1/1 scale kit.  I certainly feel far more connection to a vehicle I have rebuilt myself than I ever do for something I just buy and ride.  And so it was with models. 

And then there was price.  Part of the genius of Airfix lay in producing a range of kits which were, at their lower levels, easily within pocket money range.  I could afford to buy an Airfix Angel Interceptor out of a single week’s pocket money.  Die cast models were much more expensive and would have required saving for several weeks, a gulf of time not to be lightly considered when you’re ten.

And I guess that there is yet another important reason why small children are attracted to model kits (and train sets, toy cars, tiny soldiers, doll’s houses and all the other miniature paraphernalia of childhood).  To a small child, the world can be a frightening and confusing place filled with endless rules, baffling conventions, potentially violent big boys and a vague apprehension that it will someday be necessary to enter the adult world and perform some useful (but probably spirit-crushingly dull) job.  And of course for boys, there are girls, who are especially confusing and irritating.  A miniature world is a domain over which an uncertain small boy can have absolute control.  A refuge which never surprises or confounds and conforms entirely to a boy’s views on the right and proper order and place of things.  In short, a safe source of imaginative escape.

Airfix kits certainly hit all the right buttons for me.  They were not only cheap, they were readily available from newsagents, Woolworths and most corner shops.  As were the requisite glue and paints.  And apart from the Angel Interceptor, Airfix produced a fine range of kits which modelled military hardware in encyclopaedic detail – my Captain Scarlet obsession wore off relatively quickly, but my interest in World War Two hardware still endures.  Initially, there seemed to be an inexhaustible supply of wonderful kits to build.  However, once the exciting Spitfire, Messerschmitt Bf109, Mustang, Tiger Tank, etc. had been completed it became necessary to provide a modelling fix via more mundane fare – I recall trying (without notable success) to muster enthusiasm for the Grumman Gosling.  A fine aircraft to be sure, but a tiny kit utterly devoid of guns or bombs, a major drawback as far as I was concerned at a time when the worth of most kits was judged on how many of each were included.

Artwork by Roy Cross for the Airfix 1/72 scale Airco DH.4

One of the best things (for me, anyway) about Airfix kits of the 1960s was the fantastic box-top art.  Each kit was illustrated with an exciting and vibrant painting showing the subject in action.  Some of these really are works of art, and I quickly decided that the illustrator involved was a genius.  It was only much later that I came to realise that the artwork for most of my favourites was produced by a man named Roy Cross, a talented commercial artist who worked for Airfix from the early 60s until 1974.  And that I was right about his being a genius.  The paintings he produced to enhance Airfix packaging are now rightly regarded as classics of aviation and maritime art and are highly collectable.  

I was horrified in the mid-1970s (though by that time I had lost most of my interest in kits) to note that this wonderful and dramatic artwork had been clumsily defaced to remove any hint of violence.  Subsequent kits featured basically the same pictures but sans gunfire, explosions, burning vehicles, crashing aircraft, etc.  The results look rather bland and uninteresting compared to the originals and hint at a complete lack of understanding of why small boys build model warplanes and tanks.  No wonder Airfix sales fell-off so badly in the late 70s and early 80s.

Airfix packaging for the P-40E Kittyhawk from around 1965 (top) and 1978 (bottom).  Note that the fleeing troops and burning armoured car and trucks have been removed from the later version of the illustration.

I found most Airfix kits surprisingly easy to construct, with the exception of bi-planes where it was fiendishly difficult to attain a satisfactory congruence between the upper lower wings.  I solved the problem by mainly building monoplanes.  However, it wasn’t long before I came to find the monochrome appearance of my kits troubling.  So, one week my pocket money was spent on two tins of Humbrol gloss enamel paint (one dark green the other dark brown) and a single small paintbrush.  On the day of my purchase, my mother went out for the evening leaving my father to “keep an eye” on me.  I knew from past experience that this would involve him happily spending the evening reading the newspaper and watching television providing I didn’t do anything loud enough to attract his attention.  Once he was settled, I quietly retired behind the sofa with the paint and a 1/72 Airfix Westland Lysander which I had completed some weeks earlier.

This was my first experience of enamel paint (all I had used before were the rather odd smelling poster paints provided at school) and I was immediately impressed with the density and easy coverage of both colours.  After an hour or so, I sat back and contemplated the finished result.  There was more paint on the canopy than was ideal, certainly, and the use of a single brush meant that the brown and green camouflage pattern wasn’t perhaps quite as clearly delineated as I would have liked, but overall, I was well satisfied. This was just so much better than the previously rather bland, grey Lysander.

However, I was a little perturbed to note that the paint didn’t seem to be showing any signs of drying and that my hands were liberally covered in brown and green paint.  Rubbing these on my trousers strangely transferred lots of paint to the fabric without seeming to noticeably lessen the stains on my hands.  I also became aware that the carpet in the vicinity of the kit was liberally spattered with blobs of paint.  Especially where it had dripped off the wheel spats, making interesting starburst patterns in brown and green on the mainly orange and red pattern (hey, it was the early seventies).  Spirited rubbing with the end of a sleeve only seemed to make these patches larger, though again copious quantities mysteriously adhered to my jumper.  Interesting stuff, this enamel paint. 

Another Roy Cross classic, this time for the 1/400 scale Tirpitz

I retired quietly to the bathroom to wash the paint off my hands, something I achieved easily at school with the paints provided there. However, quickly I discovered that a) the paint was impervious to water and b) my face also bore some impressive streaks of brown and green warpaint.  The paint on my face finally succumbed to the application of a nailbrush, with the loss of only a few layers of skin.  This was less successful on my hands, though it did leave the bristles of the nail brush an interesting shade of pale green. 

I also became aware that my hair sported a number of brown and green tufty clumps.  In my intense concentration, I had clearly been running my painty hands through my hair.  This had now partly dried and resisted the attentions of both nailbrush and flannel despite the fact that both seemed to attract vast quantities of paint. Hmmm…  However, I spotted a handy pair of nail scissors by the bath and shrewdly snipped off the offending clumps of hair and flushed them down the toilet.

I was sneaking back to the living room to retrieve the Lysander when my mother entered the house.  My father’s attention was finally attracted by her shrieks of dismay when she saw me.  I had imagined that the cunning repairs I had effected to my hair were invisible, but in retrospect her horrified reaction makes me think that it probably resembled the pelt of a mangy dog, with bald patches interspersed with the remaining painty streaks. 

Interestingly, during the following altercation between my parents it became apparent that in some way I didn’t fully understand, she clearly blamed my hapless father for this situation.  Sensing an advantage, I tearfully owned up to the paint spattered carpet and he was also comprehensively blamed for that.  An altogether satisfactory outcome from my point of view though I did learn to be wary of the tenacious qualities of enamel paint.  And the incident engendered a certain wary bitterness on the part of my father towards my model-making activities.

At around thirteen years old and at the height of my kit mania, I confidently announced my choice of future career path – I was going to be a writer for Airfix magazine.  My father helpfully pointed out that I was an idiot, and that I’d need a proper, regular job that paid real money and didn’t involve mucking about with glue and bits of plastic.  Somewhat chastened at this lack of enthusiasm, I came to realise that this was best kept as a secret ambition, not to be exposed to the scorn of unfeeling adults.  Like many of my ambitions.  Especially the ones involving Lady Penelope from Thunderbirds and Catwoman. 

I’m always amazed at how deeply unaware parents are of the secret inner lives of their children (or was that just my parents?).  As a child, you quickly learn that it’s necessary to share information on a strictly “need-to-know” basis with a clear classification of data.  Some harmless information may be shared freely with everyone (good school reports, successful cycle repairs, edited holiday highlights, etc.).  Some information is best shared only with acquaintances (interest in some movie or television programme with lots of gooshy bits, tough homework, etc.).  Some information must be restricted to close friends only (inappropriate career ambitions, crush on a girl/teacher, how to make a Molotov cocktail, etc).  And some information must remain forever unshared (essentially anything involving Catwoman or a burning desire to discover the location of Tracy Island as well as things like inadvertently breaking next door’s shed window during the testing of a home-made catapult, etc.).  I doubt that most parents really know more than about ten percent of what goes on inside their children’s heads.  Which, all things considered, is probably for the best.

Overall, my father was probably right.  After all, here I am still writing about Airfix model kits and still not getting paid for it.  I still don’t have a proper job and I haven’t yet managed to decide what I want to do when I grow up.  But nevertheless, Airfix kits in particular and model kits in general will always have a special place in my heart.  A glimpse of a Roy Cross box-top illustration brings such a jolt of nostalgic reminiscence that it’s almost painful.  Looking at pages from the 1969 Airfix catalogue has me cooing over old kits in the way rational people do over small children.  Airfix kits may not have been the most accurate, detailed or well-made but to me they were and always will be special. Though I still think that enamel paint was an invention of the Devil produced specifically to test the fortitude of small boys and the strained benevolence of parents.

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