By continuing to use this site, you agree to our use of cookies. Find out more

Airfix GMR - A Brief History

A World of Kits

When compared with other great names in the British model industry, Airfix is a comparatively new one. Like many smaller and now forgotten firms, it took off immediate after Second World War although it had actually been founded by Ralph Ehrmann and John Gray in 1939. The first plastic kit, a Ferguson tractor, was released in 1949 and to any boygrowing up in Britain in the 1950s, plastic kits meant Airfix. Indeed, at the time, there was scarcely a boy to be found who had not at one time or another built one of the very attractive kits from the fast growing Airfix range.

New models flowed sometimes at a rate of one per month and play value was constantly improved with new ideas for working parts. The company expanded into moulded household goods as well as other plastic moulded toys including military vehicles, Betta Builder and other construction kits and even published a monthly magazine for modellers. With the break up of the Tri-ang group in 1971 Airfix purchased Meccano Ltd, continuing the development of the Dinky Toy and Meccano ranges until their own demise ten years later.

Move Into Model Railway
It is interesting to think that in acquiring Meccano Ltd, Airfix also acquired the remainder of the former Hornby Dublo tools which had not been sold to Wrenn. However, they had no wish to put these back into production themselves and disposed of them.

The company's first ventured into railway modelling had come as early as 1957 when they launched five building kits in 00 scale. These were a signal box, country inn, bungalow, general store and a detached house. Eleven more kits followed the next year and eight the year after that. 1960 saw the release of the railbus kit and wagon kits arrived in 1961.

Since 1959, Rosebud Kitmaster had also been making 00 scale plastic kits of railway models, concentrating on locomotives and a few coaches. These were initially very successful but the company over committed themselves and found that capital spent on tooling was not being replaced by income sufficiently quickly. In urgent need of money, Rosebud Kitmaster sold their railway kit tools to Airfix who then reintroduced several of the British locomotive kits under their own name.

In 1975, Airfix announced their further interest in the 00 model railway business but this time their plan was to introduce a ready-to-run range of models. For the last ten years Tri-ang Hornby virtually had the British market to themselves but there was a feeling amongst modellers and retailers that the Tri-ang Hornby models lacked the scale accuracy required by modellers. Airfix were interested in filling this gap but unbeknown to them the American backed Palitoy toy company, had come to the same conclusion and made similar plans. As a result the Airfix Railway System, as it was initially called, found itself in direct competition with Palitoy's Mainline Railways which was launched at the same time. To add to the problem, the long delay between Airfix and Palitoy announcing their intentions gave Hornby the time they needed to meet the challenge. Hornby threw themselves into a frantic programme of upgrading.

Adventure Sets
Airfix had little experience or expertise in model railway production and so initially had to buy in this from professional designers or overseas companies. This resulted in the Wild West Adventure Train Set which made use of existing H0 model of Central Pacific Rail Road 4-4-0 'Jupiter' from the Bachmann range together with matching gimmick coaches and lineside features. It was accompanied by Bachmann's Wild West Freight Train Set which included Union Pacific 4-4-0 No.119 with two box cars and a caboose. Both locos and the rolling stock could be bought separately packaged in Airfix boxes.

Airfix also designed an adventure set of their own. This was called the Dr. X Adventure Train Set and contained a Class 31 diesel locomotive, a Mk2 Inter-City coach, a ventilated van and a Lowmac with a container lorry. In addition you received an articulated road van and pickup crane truck, a level crossing and an action tunnel. Dr X used the tunnel for his secret laboratory which contained a radar scanner and a rocket launcher. There was also a devise to automatically transfer the rocket from the container to the van.

Considering that Airfix had their eye on the better quality market, many have asked why they went down the adventure train set path. The answer we may never know but it has been suggested that it was because of customer loyalty in the model railway market. The general public always worry about whether the products of one manufacturer will operate successfully with those of another; a throwback to the days of non- standard track and couplings. To make their new railway system pay, Airfix needed to widen the market and that meant capturing some of the first time buyers business from Hornby. Sets with high play value were seen as the answer. There is little evidence that this worked and, indeed, the adventure sets faded into the background and were dropped after two years.

Airfix Railway System Launched
In the early 1970s, the Hong Kong Trade Development Commission were looking for business for local factories and this resulted in the Hong Kong company, Sanda Kan, producing models for Airfix.

By the time of the Harrogate and Brighton Toy Fairs in 1976 Airfix had little to display but they cobbled together an exhibit in a hurry which bore little resemblance to what was to follow. It received a cool reception.

Chief Designer for Airfix, Michael Wightman, recalls: "By attending the toy fairs, Airfix were nailing their colours to the mast. Toy fairs are where sales are made, orders are taken, new products were shown and much valuable feed back received from customers. The cool reception was due in no small part to the poor quality and presentation of the models. In fairness, these models were only to illustrate what items were programmed, for the buyers. They were not for detailed inspection as they were not finished articles after all."

There was a badly assembled and painted Kitmaster Deltic kit, pre- production Mk2d coaches with black painted windows on plain plastic sides and a GWR Prairie tank which also had the windows and doors painted on in black paint. The only decent looking models were the two Bachmann 4-4-0s. As for the model of a Class 31 diesel, it seems that the Tri-ang model was used!

When the production models finally arrived the mouldings were good and brought much praise although they never gained much praise for their running qualities. The first Airfix originated locomotive released was the Class 31 of the 'Doctor X' set, which arrived in time for Christmas 1976 and was available in both BR green and blue liveries. There were also Mk2d 1st open and brake 2nd open coaches produced in Inter-City blue and grey with brown bogies and base unit. A Class 61XX Prairie tank was shown in the 1st edition catalogue which was to be available both in GWR green livery and BR lined black. To go with the tank there was a GWR suburban B brake and a Toad brake van. The Lowmac machine wagon with a crate and the ventilated van were also shown as being available separately.

There was little sense in Airfix manufacturing their own track and so they entered into an agreement with Peco for them to supply what they needed. Peco subcontracted the work to Garnet in Austria but specified steel rails on black sleepers which was not what Airfix understood they were getting. Airfix would not accept the track as they wanted nickel- silver rails and so Peco had to supply their own nickel-silver track and 'Streamline' points, made in their factory at Seaton in Devon.

Airfix did not offer ready made buildings but their railway catalogues illustrated their plastic kit range. In 1979 a series of card building kits was also introduced and some of these were added to the train sets.

Airfix needed to know where they were heading with new subjects to model and so, in 1977, they drew up a development plan that was to give a balanced range between Midland, Western, Southern, Eastern and BR. Each group was going to have an express passenger, mixed traffic, goods loco and a large and small tank engine - the emphasis clearly on the steam era. In addition, the coaches for each group were to include both corridor and non-corridor types. While initially this path appears to have been taken, the list of models planned at the end suggests that the programme was being abandoned in favour of filling obvious gaps in the market, especially in the LMS range.

Effectively, little of the Airfix range appeared in the shops until 1977 and this was largely the items announced in the previous year's catalogue. The only addition was an LMS brake van which was available in LMS grey or BR brown. Both the GWR and LMS brake vans had their own chassis.

It was in 1978 that we saw the first big expansion of the system with three new steam locomotives, three more coaches and an additional four wagon types as well as a good range of liveries. The new locomotives were the 14XX GWR 0-4-2 tank which was offered in GWR green and BR lined green, the 4F 0-6-0 in both LMS and BR plain black (the latter with small early decals) and a rebuilt Royal Scot which was in either LMS lined post-war black as 'Royal Scots Fusilier' or in BR green with early decals as 'Royal Scot'. New coaches were an push-pull autocoach for the 0-4-2 tank and Stanier corridor composite and brake end for the Royal Scot. LMS suburbans were also planned but did not arrive until 1979. Coaches were generally offered in both pre-Nationalisation and BR liveries. The new wagons were a 5-plank based on a GWR design, 7-plank (which was a compromise), Conflat with container and the Lowmac was now available with an ISO frame to take a 20' Sea Land Container.

Not all the models were made by Sanda Kan. Another Hong Kong company, Cheong Tak, made the 4F, Royal Scot and the Stanier mainline and suburban coaches.

Product Design
In September 1976, Airfix had hired Mike Wightman as Design-Development Technician specialising in model railways and he was faced with the job of developing these new models.

The Class 31 had proved to be a powerful model and the body moulding was felt to be more accurate than that on the Hornby model that had just gone out of production (1976). The Prairie tank unfortunately had solid wheels which detracted from its otherwise good appearance. For both tank engines, diecast chassis and 5-pole motors were used while the 4F and Royal Scot had 3-pole tender mounted motors.

Airfix motors were noisy although they sometimes became quieter with use. The noise could be caused by the mechanically wound armatures not being balanced or the hollow plastic body resonating or the hard brushes, which Airfix insisted on for longer life, not being worn in. The motors were made to last and Airfix proudly boasted that one of their Royal Scot models had managed to clock up 450 hours non-stop running without lubrication.

Class 14XX Development
Traction tyres were fitted to all locomotives or motorised tenders and in most cases worked well. There were however problems with the Class 14XX. Electrical continuity was initially a problem due to a break in contact where a conducting plate met the live chassis. Maintaining this contact was the problem and this was eventually done with a bias phosphor bronze plate from the magnet screw to the top brush cup. The next problem, and a major one at that, was a warped chassis casting. This caused the front drivers to ride clear of the rails resulting in the pickup plungers being unable to handle the current and the springs melting. This was partly solved by raising the level of the rear drivers and trailing wheels so that the rear drivers rested lightly on the rails for traction.

A third difficulty with the Class 14XX was the trapped worm gear which was a good design but required accurate assembly to ensure that the gear was firmly enough held so that there was not side play that would cause an erratic performance and wear on the gear. The model remained an unsatisfactory performer until later modified by Hornby.

There is no doubt that the moulded plastic bodies and their detailing were excellent for the time and caused Hornby to upgrade many of their models to compete. Although generally good, there were spraying and printing errors including the badly positioned tender decals on the green Royal Scot, the red and white lining (instead of maroon and straw) on the LMS 'Royal Scot' and the absence of 'brass' edging to the splashers on the first batch of Castle models. But, we are jumping ahead of ourselves...

Castle Class Model
The big news in 1979 was the planned Castle Class model. The last ready to run model of this very popular class had been introduced in 1957 and, although still made by Wrenn in the late 1970s, a well detailed model with a moulded plastic body was bound to be a good seller. To go with the loco there was a pair of GWR Centenary coaches. 1979 also saw the arrival of the GWR steel mineral wagon, the 20 ton tanker and the SR box van. Other planned models were illustrated including a bogie bolster wagon.

The tank wagons were authentic and done from Railway Clearing House drawings. The liveries were, however, not authentic in that they did not necessarily belong to that particular style of wagon. The 20T wagon and 12' chassis were chosen because everyone else was doing tanks on a 10' chassis. To sell them Airfix had to put well known names on them.

Mike Weightman recalls that the first production Castle was fraught with problems. Drawings and photos were sent out to Hong Kong where the working drawings were prepared. These came to the UK where they were studied and required alterations were sent back to Hong Kong. Realising that the draughtsman in Hong Kong would not have seen a Castle Class loco, a made-up and painted Fulgurix brass kit of one was also sent out. When the first production models arrived, instead of their having been made from the revised working drawings, they were all clones of the Fulgurix model! 23 errors were identified most of which the Chinese had to put right and this delayed the release of the model by a year.

The story goes that when the first Cornish Rivera sets were opened it was discovered that none of the locomotives had the gold beading on the splashers. The job was quickly put in hand to print labels which a girl painstakingly had to apply to each splasher on each loco in each set before it could go out. Indeed, there is a picture in the 1980 catalogue which shows one of the Castles without the gold beading!

Change to UK Production
As early as 1977 it was becoming apparent that communication with Hong Kong and control of the finished product was not very good and was resulting in too many hidden costs. Minor problems took weeks or months to sort out and often involved unsatisfactory compromises which would ultimately be noticed by the customer.

Already it was being felt that production of the models in the UK, although more expensive, would be much better controlled and so of a higher quality for the customer. It would also speed up the process of getting models out. To test this theory the 5-plank and 7-plank wagons were made in the UK and this proved successful. From then on it was intended to phase out production in Hong Kong.

Airfix GMR
This change happened in 1979 and, at the same time, the name of the product was altered to GMR, which stood for 'Great Model Railways', to better distinguish it from the Airfix kits. The assembly line for GMR was to be in South East London, at Charlton, and the Dean Goods was to be its first locomotive product.

The earlier Airfix Railway System packaging had been light blue but in 1979 it changed to brown with orange decoration and carried the new GMR logo.

Besides a change of name and packaging design, after considerable deliberation, it was decided to change the design of couplings which few people seemed to like. In fact the original Airfix couplings were of a very good design being small and inconspicuous and having the point of contact at the centre of the drawbar, thus eliminating 'crabbing'. They also left a smaller gap between the stock and this was part of the problem. When coupling Airfix wagons to those of other makes, only one hook engaged and the public did not like this. They wanted standard tension-lock couplings and so a compromise was struck which ensured that either could be fitted.

1980 also saw the arrival of the Centenary stock, two Siphons (on which the bogies were a compromise), a Mk2d 2nd Class open coach and a NE 21 ton hopper wagon. The 1980 catalogue also showed two more new locomotives: the Dean Goods 0-6-0 and an N2 Class 0-6-2 tank. There was also an LMS 12-wheel dining car, a Stanier Vestibule 3rd coach, a standard goods brake van and a 20 ton 9-plank mineral wagon. Of these it is probable that only the mineral wagon was sold in Airfix packaging. Drawings of the standard brake van had been prepared by a freelance draughtsman who also did work for Hornby and this would have had its own chassis. The picture in the catalogue was of a made up Airfix kit brake van.

The N2 was ready to go into production in mid 1980 but there was a problem with the new motor Sanda Kan produced to put in it. The motor was a plastic encased in-line design which, it was found, would only run for about 50 hours before its rear thrust bearing disintegrated. Steps were under way to improve the motor but it took time and cost would not allow Airfix to fit any other motor as it would involve retooling the chassis.

The Dean Goods was also to miss the boat. It was their first home produced loco. As they were finalising the drawings, details of the Airfix assembly line at the Charlton (East London) was being planned. The motor was to be the same unit as used in the Castle from Sanda Kan. All other fittings were to be UK sourced. There was no tool making capacity at Wandsworth and so, to prevent the project from slipping behind, Airfix turned to Heller in France to do the tooling. The quality of their tools was excellent and by the late summer of 1980 Airfix were ready for production; but the Airfix empire was crumbling.

The End
As we have seen, Airfix acquired Meccano Ltd in 1971 but they bought a company that was much in need of reinvestment. Its plant was old and the work force had not reduced sufficiently with the shrinkage of its product base. In an effort to save Meccano, Airfix pumped £7M into the company but it was throwing good money after bad. Other parts of the Airfix Group were being closed down, moved or sold off and Airfix slid into receivership.

Shortly after exhibiting at the toy fairs in 1981, Airfix ceased production. At the end the trains were the only profitable part of Airfix and a sense of unreality descended on the place. As the parts of the company were closed down their management were moved into central office at Wandsworth. The Receiver placed the various assets of the group up for sale and while the management were putting together plans for a management buyout the Receiver sold the plastic kits business to Humbrol and the railways to Palitoy who could easily absorb the GMR models into their Mainline range - which is what they did.

In consequence of this, the models lived on, first in the Mainline range and then, when Palitoy had to stop toy production, the tools were taken over by Dapol Ltd. The last stage of the story (so far) sees the Airfix tools purchased from Dapol by Hornby and so the company whose models they were planned to compete with now includes nearly all of the former Airfix models in its catalogue. It should be noted that improvements to the tooling have been made by subsequent owners and the GWR Prairie tank sold by Hornby today is vastly different from that produced by Airfix back in 1977. Coincidentally, Hornby also uses Sanda Kan in Hong Kong to make them.

Might Have Beens
Airfix had started work on a Schools Class locomotive but this was dropped when it became evident that Hornby were to release one. Work was also started on a B1 and a Compound followed by a Crab, Black 5 or 8F were also planned. The Compound development was well advanced when it was dropped because Hornby developed one. Incidentally, Hornby had, themselves, planned a Dean Goods but abandoned the idea.

Other locomotives planned by Airfix were a Lord Nelson, U Class Mogul, GWR Class 43XX Mogul, an Adams Class 02 tank, a J69 tank, a WD 2-8-0 and a London Underground train. Some of these were subsequently made by Bachmann. Discussions were also held with a model maker concerning production of a Southern 2-EPB EMU.

The underground train would have been sold as a set containing a four car unit together with platform and accessories. It was to have been powered by a specially adapted Mabbuchi motor and a testing model was produced which is now in a private collection.

There were also plans for more coaches which included, Gresley corridor and non-corridor stock, Bulleid and Birdcage coaches and a Stanier sleeping car. The LMS vestibule corridor 3rd, featured in the 1980 Airfix catalogue, did not see the light of day under Airfix but was redrawn by Palitoy as a one-piece shell that would clip into a new 57ft chassis. It was eventually made by Kader in Hong Kong but for Replica Railways as too was the Class B1.

The next stage with wagons after the standard brake van would have been a 9' chassis for scale length PO wagons based on a Gloucester wagon. These were due for release in 1981. Existing PO wagons in the Airfix range were on 10' chassis and the livery often had to be stretched to fit this.
Samples of the Bulleid coaches models had been mocked up from Pheonix kits and prices were being sought in August 1979 with a view to producing them in two liveries. Demand for them had come from retailers and conversations with customers at exhibitions. There were constant delays with this project and by January 1981 it was being claimed that the Bullied coaches showed more potential than any other model railway project that year. The coaches were eventually made by Bachmann.

There seems to have been a misunderstanding of the model railway business by the people at Airfix who authorised new production. It was not understood that new models sold well in the first year, slowed down for the second and fell flat after that. The Suburban B coach in BR livery was delayed because there was still stock of the one in GWR livery in the stores and the Mk2d open 2nd coach was delayed because there was already a 1st class coach in the range! When the 2nd class coach was finally produced it sold out very quickly. This lack of understanding did not help a company struggling to survive in a very competitive market.

Limited Edition Wagons
In 1980 Airfix had a large quantity of BR ventilated vans which were selling very slowly and Angus Lidster, who had joined Airfix from the food industry, came up with the idea of respraying them as 'fun' vans. Suitable names were chosen and the vans were sprayed and tampo printed in the Airfix factory at Charlton. Batches of 7,000 were done and the liveries included 'Spratt's', 'Persil', 'Tate & Lyle' and 'Tizer'; the artwork having been done by a studio in Maidstone.

Using initiative to increase sales, it was suggested to Ken Askwith, the production manager in the factory, that some models should be 'accidentally' sprayed with the wrong colour paint and released onto the market to generate interest in collecting Airfix wagons. It was intended to do about 10% of each batch this way which would have meant 700 of each limited edition. However, the message was misunderstood and only about 20 of each were done. Needless to say, these are very much sought after by collectors. The wagons include a 'Spratt's' van with red printing and a 'Stalybridge Corporation Gas Department' 7-plank in grey. Several others are thought to exist including: a 'Broadoak' 7-plank and a 'Highley Mining' 5-plank, both in grey, and 'Hales Fuels' in brown.

So, keep your eyes open!

It is a credit to those who developed the Airfix models that so many of them are still in production today. In the current Hornby catalogue you will find five former Airfix locomotives, six coaches and about a dozen wagons of Airfix parentage.

The author is indebted to Mike Wightman and Graham Smith-Thompson for some of the information used in this article.

Further Reading
A detailed listing of the Airfix and Mainline model railway systems was produced by the late Charles Manship in the 1980s but it is no longer available except second-hand. In addition, Graham Smith-Thompson wrote a series of six articles on the Airfix model range, published in the July-December 1998 issues of Model Railway Enthusiast magazine.

Shop by phone 9am - 4:30pm Mon - Fri
0844 543 8034 or 01332 912948 (UK)
+44 133 291 2948 (International)