27/02/2024
Norwich, GB 4 C
Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)

RALPH EHRMANN, aged 97

WE CAN FIX IT

Born in Leipzig to wealthy Jewish parents, his father was a fur trader and his mother had a PhD in German medieval literature.

In 1933, when Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, the family immediately emigrated to England. They lived in London. Ralph became a British citizen in 1939.

He was evacuated to Crowthorne in Berkshire and originally intended to become a gentleman farmer.

He went to Leeds Technical College and then to Reading University.

In 1943, aged just 18, Ralph volunteered for the RAF. He was sent to Canada to train as a bomb aimer and navigator. It didn’t go well. On his very last training flight, the plane crashed.

Ralph was demobbed in 1946. He went to work for ‘Town and Country’ magazine and then spent 6 months in Scandinavia.

Upon his return, he became a trainee at a plastics company in Essex. Whilst he was working there, Ralph studied (part-time) for a degree in Business Studies at the London School of Economics (LSE).

After that, Ralph joined Trix, a Northamptonshire based toy producing company, before moving to Airfix, who made combs and squeaky toys, primarily air-filled rubber dolls.

Airfix logo (courtesy Model Universe)

They had been founded in 1939, by Hungarian businessman Nicholas Kove. The company had been called ‘Airfix’ partially because their toys were filled with air, and partly to ensure they would be alphabetically near the top of any list for advertising purposes.

Kove was not a particularly good businessman and his company was soon in financial trouble. The bank asked Ralph to sort out the problems.

It was Ralph who changed everything. As Executive Director, he heard about American modelling kits which used new plastic, polystyrene material – and he decided to give it a try.

The first model Airfix made was in 1949. It was a Ferguson tractor replica – and came fully assembled. It was not a success.

Then, Ralph had two brainwaves. The first was to sell the kits unconstructed. “We decided that because the assembled tractor was so fiddly and regularly fell to bits, it was perhaps a good idea to sell it as a kit of parts and let someone else have the headache of assembling it.”

The second great idea came when he heard a boy asking his father about the war and Ralph thought instead of telling him, why not show him?

So, the second model made was a Spitfire. This was quickly followed by the Hurricane and the Lancaster. Ralph’s knowledge of planes during the war helped with the design process, and he worked closely with Chief Buyer, John Gray (from 1954 onwards).

“The aim was to enable children to imagine the wartime experiences of parents and grandparents.”

The planes were an instant success. They sold 350,000 Spitfires, 80,000 Hurricanes and 60,000 Lancasters in just one year. Ralph thought the company had the perfect name as people were ‘fixing’ aeroplanes.

Strangely, the other two models they had were Francis Drake’s ‘Golden Hind’ and Christopher Columbus’ ‘Santa Maria’.

They were originally sold through the shop Woolworths. The first advertising slogan was, ‘It only takes a pair of tiny hands to create a monster’.

Woolworths (courtesy Daily Record)

Soon, Airfix expanded into other types of military vehicles, cars, historical figures and even farm animals.

Ralph negotiated a deal with Humbrol Paints, to provide paint for each model.

Humbrol Paints (courtesy Britmodeller.com)

In 1955, Ralph had married Inge Landecker and they had 2 children, Philip and Alexandria.

Nicholas Kove died in 1958 and left the whole of the company to his daughter, Margaret. She was not a business woman either. Ralph ‘persuaded’ her to retire to the South of France where she became a socialite.

In 1959, Ralph became Chairman of Airfix, which then became a public company. The success just kept coming and making the models became a national hobby.

By the 1960s, Airfix were selling over 20 million kits a year. Each new design was tried out on Ralph’s son first – but never his daughter. She showed absolutely no interest in model making.

In 1972, the company branched out into tableware, before buying out rival toymakers Meccano – Triang.

Ralph worked exceptionally hard and at one point was commuting between Britain and the USA by Concorde.

Ralph built his own house in Corfu and the family would take their summer holidays there.

However, things were changing and by the mid-1970s, the toy market was being flooded with foreign imports. Ralph tried desperately to modernize the image of Meccano, to little avail.

By 1979, Meccano had been sold.

In 1986, Airfix was sold to Humbrol, but soon afterwards went into administration. It was at this point that Ralph decided it was time to retire.

Airfix was then bought by Hornby. Now, it is manufactured in India.

Ralph went on to become director of a bank, followed by Chairman of the company Clabir, who make ice cream and chocolate products.

He spent a lot of his retirement in Corfu. He was a strong swimmer and had a sea route he swam every single day – one mile out, one mile back.

As an elderly gentleman, Ralph said that Airfix would always have a place in his heart.

Inge predeceased Ralph in 2022.

RIP – Ralph Invents Past-time

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