By Rob Morgan
“Ever heard of this?” the lady in the Oxfam shop asked, handing me a small A5 green binder, priced at only £1.99. Oh, yes, I had!
Airfix Magazine began publication in June 1960, when I was just 10 years old. I didn’t buy it, nor, as far as I’m aware did any of my friends or family. An odd thing, the early Airfix mag in my hand (yes, I bought it) was the first volume of 12 issues. Someone had looked after this, immaculate!
Like most wargamers of my generation, I began as a modeller of plastic kits. Airfix, of course, as everything else was imported from America and very expensive. Turning the pages of my new acquisition, I expected to find scores of articles on kit conversions, markings and, given the fact that World War II was less than two decades before, military, naval and air material in plenty. Strangely enough, the early magazine didn’t seem to know what it was. The first issue had a Sunderland flying boat on the cover, a good start, but had articles on cruise liners, model railways, the land speed record and stamps!
That month, June 1960, saw Airfix release a Bristol Bloodhound ground-to-air missile, and trailer, and a Land Rover, one of the most useful post-war softskins of all time (used by some 55 nations in military service, and still around today). Nothing on that at all. In fact, it took five years before a conversion article on the Land Rover appeared in the pages. Much, much later, this little vehicle became the backbone, along with a couple of Jeeps from Airfix, of my 1961 Congo Mercenary set up. If I recall, the only AFV I had in this bunch was a Matchbox turretless Ferret scout car.
Even the HO/OO range of figures (1/72nd to us now) began life as accessories to the railway enthusiasts, and a short piece on the “Dam Busters” in December 1960 was as close as it got to a wargame. Then, amazingly, in early 1961, two packs of infantry appeared — German and British of WWII. The beginning of the cheap (two shillings a packet) wargames era! By modern standards they were awful, but they were all we had, and the amazing 2.8cm Panzerbuchse 41 “squeeze-bore” anti-tank gun I bought with that pack — what 55 years ago? — is still serving in my OstFront set-up. There was a second issue of this gun in the Airfix Afrika Korps set a couple of years later on; a useful gun as there were almost 3,000 of them manufactured for use in most theatres of the war.
As 1961 went on, there were more of the same type of articles, and I can’t imagine any identifiable group, certainly not wargamers, rushing out to buy the magazine. Not until March of that year was the first conversion article to appear, on turning the Spitfire, said to be the most popular Airfix kit of all time, into a Seafire, the carrier version. That was it!
The first year’s issues of a new magazine fizzled out unimpressively. Yet it was a publication which went on, at least in the period between 1965 and 1972 or 1973 to be a valuable – no, an essential — read for the wargamer: superb conversion series on a vast range of AFVs from the Tiger to the Centurion and Sherman, as well as series on wargaming specific wars, the Zulu War, WWII, the Seven Weeks War of 1866, on the American Civil War and on the Western Desert, background articles, and a tremendous range of kits and figures, all avidly read by the wargamer. Looking back, it does appear that Airfix, as a company, was the backbone of wargaming, and in retrospect if they hadn’t provided the regular drip of figures and tanks, some still unchallenged in terms of value and subject, where would we have been?
Mind you, I still wouldn’t have bought it in 1960, even if it only cost a shilling.