What a flight! The refugee who remodelled Airfix dies

Ralph Ehrmann, who fled Hitler's Germany as a young boy, helped take firm from a small manufacturer to a giant in toy industry


For thousands of teenagers in decades past, who spent happy weekends fiddling with Humbrol glue and tiny pots of paint with awkward lids, Airfix models were more than just a toy. They were an obsession that lasted long beyond childhood.

One explanation for the stunning popularity of the Airfix plane and boat kits — which sold in their hundreds of thousands a year at their peak — is that they were a key means for children to imagine the war experienced by their parents and grandparents.

Appropriately, it was a Jewish refugee from Germany turned RAF navigator whose understanding of that demand helped take Airfix from small, struggling manufacturer to a company that transformed the British toy industry.

Ralph Ehrmann, who died on 10 January aged 97, moved to the UK from Leipzig, Germany, in 1933 after Adolf Hitler became chancellor.

After studying at Leeds Technical College and Reading University, in 1943, aged just 18, he volunteered for the RAF where he trained as a navigator and bomb aimer in Canada.

After the war, while studying business part-time at the London School of Economics, he trained as a plastic manufacturer in Essex and worked for several toy firms before entering Airfix’s offices in the early 1950s, eventually being promoted to chairman in 1959.

Mr Ehrmann was responsible for encouraging the firm to use US-imported plastic polystyrene, which proved a huge success and was used in bestseller Airfix kits including the Golden Hind and Santa Maria ships in 1952 and the Spitfires in 1953.
Airfix also bought out construction kit rivals Meccano-Triang under his stewardship.

The company, founded in 1939 by another Jewish refugee, Hungary-born Nicholas Kove, has become synonymous with injection-moulded plastic scale model kits, regardless of their official brand. It sold its first kit, a 1:20 scale replica of a Ferguson tractor, in 1949, following it up with a 40-part construction kit the next year.

Mr Ehrmann later quipped: “[We] decided that because the assembled tractor was so fiddly and regularly fell to bits it was perhaps a good idea to actually sell it as a kit of parts and let someone else have the headache of assembling it!”

The models were a phenomenon with young boys and Airfix sold 350,000 model Spitfires, 80,000 Hurricanes and 60,000 Lancasters a year during its 1960s peak.

Airfix’s demise came in the 1970s after the 1976 sterling crisis exacerbated the already growing competition from foreign imports to British-made toys.

By 1980 the company was in dire straits and at the 1981 Earls Court Toy Fair announced that it would cease to trade. The brand was purchased by Hornby plc in 2006.
In 1955 Mr Ehrmann married Inge Landecker, who died in 2022. The couple are survived by their daughter Alexandra and son Philip.

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