This is the first in a series of articles about the history of Airfix by hobbyDB Advisory Council member and life-long Airfix expert Arthur Ward. This one is an introduction to Peter Allen and an article by Peter called “A Question of Scale”.
I’ve known Peter Allen for nearly thirty-five years. We first met when I visited Palitoy, a subsidiary of General Mills, who had purchased Airfix from the receiver in 1981 Back then I’d just started on my first ever book, The Model World of Airfix.
Peter joined Airfix in the early nineteen-sixties, when it was of on the brink of two decades of phenomenal growth. Before that he was a toolmaker for Lines Bros, working in Tri-ang’s main tool room. Whilst there he was involved with Arkitex, a construction toy introduced as a response to Chad Valley’s Girder and Panel Building Set which was selling well since its launch in 1957. Later on, Peter worked on a lot of new product designs for Tri-ang’s Spot-On vehicle range.
After leaving Lines Bros he joined Airfix. “When I first joined Airfix we had only one pattern maker on site,” he told me. “I think he must have done an awful lot of overtime! The original Patterns for the kits were all done in brass which is not the easiest metal, although being soft it is reasonably easy to work, but if you’ve made a mistake this is really difficult to make it and you’ve got to remake it.”
Peter Allen (on the left) with Airfix legend Roy Cross. Designer and artists are in Mr Cross’s Kent studio, discussing Airfix kits they both worked on.
One of Peter’s many highlights whilst at Airfix was the design of the company’s 1:12 scale Bentley blower Superkit, released in 1971 and still in the range today.
He was also involved with some of the ex Hawk Weird-Ohs such as Freddy Flame-Out and Toilway Daddy, all distinctly American in character, released by Airfix under the Krazy Karacters label. Ton-Up Tony, a leather-clad café racer astride a bright red motorcycle was seen tearing a long a stretch of the then, relatively new M1 motorway, was Airfix’s own design and observant fans will recognise the Aerial Arrow the inconsiderate leather boy is riding is actually a famous Airfix kit which was available up until the late 1970s.
Alongside countless aircraft, military vehicles and conventional road cars, another unusual kit Peter designed was the 1:32 remote control Saladin Armoured Car toy, a now very rare collectable. However, amongst die-hard Airfix fans peter is perhaps best known for the 1:24 Harrier, like the Bentley another Superkit. Such was Airfix’s determination for scale accuracy that the young kit designer was packed off to No.1 (F) Squadron, Royal Air Force Wittering to study real full scale examples of operational versions of the Hawker Harrier GR Mk.1A prior to the kit’s release in 1974.
Now without further ado, please enjoy Peter Allen’s: A Question of Scale.
In 1955 Airfix announced the release of its first 1:32 scale kit of a model car, a 1911 Rolls Royce; the start of a range of historic vehicles. This range was expanded to seven vehicles by 1959. In 1961 the decision was made to include modern vehicles in the range, the first four being:- Austin Healey Sprite Mk1, Renault Dauphine, Sunbeam Rapier and the new Morris Mini Minor.
The first model car I designed was Vauxhall’s answer to the Mini, a 1964 Viva, my second being the 1902 De Dietrich and the third was the first of a new (proposed) range, a 1:24 scale ‘James Bond’ Toyota. At 1:24 scale we could introduce greater detail, i.e. opening bonnet showing engine detail and transmission.
Two years later this range was to be extended with the addition of a 1:24 scale 1930 4½ litre Bentley. John Edwards knew of my love of old cars and this became my next project. It was the year of W.O. Bentley’s 80th birthday and the Bentley Drivers (or was it Owners) Club arranged a private Bentley Meeting at Silverstone in W.O.’s honour. Somehow John obtained entry passes and Jack Armitage and I had a fantastic day out. To see these amazing cars hurtling around Silverstone before a limited audience was spectacular. The majority of historic Bentleys built that still existed were assembled there for the occasion.
At the end of the event all the cars were lined up on display, the four ‘blown’ Bentleys of the Birkin team grouped together, Jack’s comment to me was “you’re doing the Kit, which one do you think and why?”
Of the four Birkin cars one was a single-seater and not recognisable as classic Bentley due to the body design. Another was the long wheelbase car we already had as our 1:32 scale model. This car was housed in the Beaulieu collection, although privately owned by a Mr. Rose. To me the car did not look authentic, the torsion bars under the chassis, along with the handbrake, had been chromed. This left us with two short wheelbase cars. My choice was based on condition and we sought out the owner, Neil Corner. The chosen car was No.4 of the Birkin team and had been financed by Lady Dorothy Padget, it was known as the Pau car as it had finished second in the 1930 French Grand Prix at Pau. The decision was made to use Neil’s car and John Edwards and I flew to Newcastle and drove down to County Durham to measure and photograph it. Neil Corner had an amazing collection of historic racing cars, all winners of impeccable pedigree, including a Le Mans Jaguar. The Bentley was eventually sold to the son of J C Banford (JCBs).
Several weeks into the design of the kit John Edwards was called to a meeting with John Gray. The outcome of the meeting was the directors were concerned about the 1:8 scale model cars being released by Japanese manufacturers. The question was what were the implications to change from 1:24 scale to 1:8 scale. John Edwards asked me to summarise our options. Experienced designers decided at what scale the master patterns were made. To achieve the level of detail required I was drawing at twice full size, i.e. 1:12 scale (master pattern size). To move to 1:8 scale and modify the drawings was not an option to recommend, far better to re-draw than try to modify the designs. The existing drawings were less than 1:8 scale, the moulding thickness would have to be changed. All drawing sheets were pre-printed with the legend DO NOT SCALE DRAWINGS and IF IN DOUBT ASK. However, if the toolmaker knew and trusted the designer, as a check they would measure the drawing. My recommendation for 1:12 scale was based on the fact the designs could be saved with minor drawing modifications (wall thickness). I felt that at 1:8 scale the kit could start to look more like a toy than a detailed model. Another factor was at 1:8 scale we would have to increase the number of components due to moulding thickness. The decision was made to produce at 1:12 scale.
The component design took an age to complete. We had never undertaken such a complex model and it soon became apparent that the photographs we had taken were insufficient for the detailing required for a 1:12 scale model. Neil Corner was contacted and we were given access to the car in the underground car park of the Dorchester Hotel – the car was to be the centrepiece at a ‘Bentley’ dinner.
The way we designed the kits was to draw, detail and dimension each component. John Edwards contacted Rolls Royce (who had taken over Bentley in the 1930s), to see what information could be supplied by them. Their reply was not good “due to the Rolls Royce factory being bombed in the Second World War, Rolls Royce are unable to supply any drawings”. If the drawings had existed in reality they would not have been of great assistance. What the new owner purchased from Marques such as Rolls Royce and Bentley was a motorised rolling chassis complete with dashboard, instruments and steering wheel. This was delivered to your selected coachbuilder. The motor manufacturers also gave maximum permissible body overhang dimensions and weight limitations, which if exceeded invalidated their liability.
From the measurements and photographs we had taken of Neil’s car I had to prepare full general arrangement drawings (master plans). In starting to break the kit down into components it soon became apparent that our ethos of one shot of the mould equals one product would not hold. Like Topsy the project just ‘grew and grew’. This Kit was going to be a major introduction to the modelling world. We did not have a moulding machine capable of taking a mould of that size. In fact I believe at that time no manufacturer produced moulding machines capable of taking a mould of the projected size. We had to run two main moulds. One advantage this gave us was we could mould in two colours (British Racing Green and Black), the main colours of the car. The black mould included the components to be chromed and aluminium plated. On a model this size we had to include a large third mould to produce realistic looking tyres. A fourth dedicated mould was necessary for the transparencies (windscreens, headlamp lenses, etc.) plus a fifth mould for the motorised gear train.
The motorisation of the car was a requirement of John Gray, this was something I argued against with John Edwards. The only place to hide the electric motor and gear train was in the engine block. The drive, as in a car, came out of the rear of the engine block into the clutch assembly, through the gearbox to a universal coupling with the transmission shaft angled down to the rear axle. In the rear axle housing was a gear and pinion, the latter being pushed onto a metal axle. This axle was splined in the centre to hold the pinion, also splined on both ends to secure the wheels. The motor ran at an incredible speed so the gear train had to be sophisticated to produce the required torque. Motorisation did not compromise the model as I included alternative components, i.e. the switch was via the handbrake. However with the weight of the assembled model plus the accuracy of the assembly I doubt if many achieved a working model. With all the mouldings available to me I only managed to build two models that laboured slowly and noisily along. My recommendation was to have two rear axle stands lifting the rear wheels so the motorised transmission could be displayed, this suggestion was rejected by John Gray.
The main Bentley tooling patterns were made at 2:1, i.e. 1:6 scale and for me the greatest news was the moulds were to be built on site. Moulds built in the Airfix Toolroom were always the best. The engineer (toolmaker) and I had worked together on a previous model; he had also been responsible for tooling one of John Edwards’ finest models, the Dennis Fire Engine. He was a superb craftsman.
With the number of components to be tooled and the physical size of the moulds the tooling, like the component design, took time to complete.
Our first mould tests were good and the weeks into production were not too drawn out.
The current buzz words with modern companies is ‘team work’; we were doing this in the 1960s. The drawing office commissioned the build of the patterns, this was also agreed with the toolroom. The mould design was agreed between the drawing office, tooling manager and the ‘mould shop’. These reviews taking place in the drawing office around the designer’s board.
Over the years as the higher series kits became larger the instruction leaflets had changed. With a model as complex as the Bentley we had to ensure our instructions were foolproof (hopefully idiot proof). The decision was made to produce a manual (booklet), as a series of large folded sheets would have looked overwhelming to the consumer.
Prior to the Bentley the largest and most complex kits in the range had been designed by John Edwards, my largest model being the JU 52. By the end of the Bentley component design I was saying please never again a project like that.
By the time the Bentley moulds were finished John had died. We did not have the benefit of his experience as we went into production.
Jack Armitage gave me a free hand on the instruction book. To ensure the modeller did not botch the final result I led them through a series of structured assemblies that allowed the glue to dry before these major components were built into a final structure, (the old fashioned written instructions with the phrase ‘set aside to dry’ never worked). To the instructions I added new symbols guiding the modeller to position completed sub-assemblies into a final construction. One area that caused deliberation was the dashboard. In the larger 1:72 scale aircraft it had long been the norm to print a cockpit display in the instruction leaflet for the modeller to cut out and glue to the panel. For me this was not an option at 1:12 scale. The transfers, (we had not started to use the strange American word decal in the 1960s), could not be applied to the front of the dashboard as some of the dials would be too small to accept them. After much thought my solution was to mould a clear instrument panel that fitted into the rear of the dashboard and apply transfers to the back of this panel, these being viewed from the front. A great idea but it was difficult to get the transfer manufacturers to understand what I wanted. We had to print in reverse. What the modeller slid off the sheet was a black transfer, when they turned the moulding over the dials were visible. We had to print a note on the second print run of the transfer sheet and the instruction booklet, “apply transfers as shown to reveal instruments” (if all else fails read the instructions).
The final decision to be made was how to package the model. I favoured a clean box showing the Bentley at full model size and mocked up a pack. The design was accepted with the same illustration being used on the Instruction Manual. The pack design was in production for several years before being replaced by an ‘action’ illustration.
The photo of the Bentley is a late catalogue illustration; the artworks are from the original Manual. The memo is from John Gray to Jack Armitage, the draughtsman referred to is myself.
An amazing story – thank you so much for writing it! It makes m every nostalgic even though I never built the kit!
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