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Saturday, February 23, 2013

Roy Cross and his Airfix Dogfight Doubles

Roy Cross and his Airfix Dogfight Doubles
by Jeremy Briggs

In the mid-1970s the plastic kits manufactured by British firm Airfix were omnipresent in toyshops, newsagents and corner shops around the country with their dramatic box illustrations making them stand out on the shelves. At that time Airfix had a 75% share of the United Kingdom plastic kit market and the company was selling some 20 million kits annually, the vast majority of which had illustrations on their boxes painted by one man – Roy Cross.

Born in Southwark in London in 1924, Cross had attended the Camberwell School of Art before moving into the aviation industry as a technical illustrator during WWII. After the war he began producing commercial advertising artwork, wrote and illustrated books, produced cutaway images for adults in Flight magazine and children in Eagle comic and, by the early 1960s, he was painting covers for both Eagle and its sibling comic Swift and signing them with his distinctive “- CROSS -” signature.

In 1964 he began his decade long association with Airfix by painting the box illustration for their kit of the Dornier Do-217 WWII bomber. His Airfix artwork covered a wide range of subjects including cars, tanks, ships, aircraft and spacecraft and continued through to 1974 at which time he moved into painting maritime and aviation fine art.

The Airfix company was set up in 1939 by Hungarian businessman Nicholas Kove to manufacture rubber inflatable toys. Moving into producing injection moulded plastic items in 1947, their first plastic kit was the Ferguson TE20 tractor which was manufactured in 1949 as promotional give-away followed in 1952 by the Golden Hind and in 1953 by the first of many versions of the Supermarine Spitfire, the popularity of which led the company to begin the range of plastic kits that they became famous for. These kits ranged in price and complexity from the small and relatively simple Series 1 kits, originally packaged in a simple plastic bag with a header card, up to the large and complex Series 12 and upwards “superkits”.

In 1966 the company hit on a method of repackaging its older 1/72 scale aircraft kits by taking two Series 1 kits and packaging them together in a single Series 2 box with a special A-shaped, two position stand to allow the pair to be positioned together in an action pose. Airfix released three sets of these Series 2 pairings under the title “Dog Fight Series” in 1966, all of which featured WWI aircraft – a Royal Flying Corps Sopwith Camel vs a German Albatros DIII, a RFC Bristol F2B Brisfit vs a German Red Baron-style Fokker DR1 Dreidecker, and a German Roland C11 vs a RFC Royal Aircraft Factory RE8.

In 1967 the series was expanded to cover WWII subjects, with a Series 1 and a Series 2 kit repackaged in a Series 3 box and the overall series, including the previous WWI sets, retitled to the snappier “Dog Fight Doubles”. These three WWII sets were all RAF vs Luftwaffe with a Bristol Beaufighter vs a Messerschmitt Bf109 G6, a Supermarine Spitfire IX vs a Messerschmitt Bf110, and a De Havilland Mosquito vs a Messerschmitt Me262.

Between 1968 and 1971 a further three sets were released from a mixture of conflicts that brought the series up to the then contemporary Vietnam War. These were the WWII Soviet Air Force Illusyhin Il-2 Stormovik vs a Luftwaffe Focke-Wulf FW190, an Arab/Israeli Six Day War theme of an Israeli Air Force Dassault Mirage IIIC vs an Egyptian Air Force Mikoyan-Gurevitch MiG-15, and finally the rather uneven pairing of a propeller United States Air Force Cessna O-2 Skymaster vs a jet North Vietnamese Air Force Mikoyan-Gurevitch MiG-21. With the change of box styles around 1973 from the “red stripe” to the “circular logo”, the series title was subtly changed to “Dogfight Doubles”.

Despite having already painted box illustrations for many of the individual aircraft that made up this series, Roy Cross would paint new artwork for each of the nine Dogfight Doubles boxes. For these he would initially produce one or more pencil roughs for the kit box top framed within the standard Airfix box outline of the period. This format forced Cross, and all the company’s other artists over the years, to design virtually every Airfix painting for a long rectangular landscape format box, bar the odd space rocket, tall sailing ship and some human figures when only a vertical portrait format would work.

The chosen pencil rough was then quickly painted or chalked in black and white to give a closer impression of the final image. Once that was also approved, Cross would paint a small colour rough of the final image before he moved on to painting the final full sized version that would be printed on thousands of Airfix boxes. Unfortunately very few of these final paintings have survived the passing of the years but some colour roughs have and, despite the name, they are so detailed and similar to the final printed versions that they are often mistaken for the final artwork.

Between 1963 and 1973 Airfix used a style of packaging that collectors refer to as the Type 3 box which had a distinctive diagonal red strip on the top and sides. As all the Dogfight Doubles were originally released during this period, the surviving pencil roughs for all of them show this diagonal as part of the frame of the image. As well as some approved pencil roughs, some other alternative takes on the Dogfight Doubles box art have survived that show what was initially offered to Airfix but was rejected.

As interesting as all these alternative roughs are, there is one which stands out from the rest as it shows a Dogfight Doubles pairing that was never released. Like the 1968 Mirage vs MiG-15 release that showed a French-built Dassault Mirage III of the Israeli Air Force firing rockets at Soviet-built Mikoyan-Gurevitch MiG-15s of the Egyptian Air Force that it had caught on the ground, this rough is also an Arab/Israeli Six Day War scene of the same Mirage III but this time it is tangling in the air with a MiG-21 of the Egyptian Air Force as smoke rises from what could be a recently attacked airfield in the background.

Airfix had released their Mirage III as a Series 2 kit in 1964 and their MiG-21, also as a Series 2 kit, in 1967, and so this combination would not have been the then standard Dogfight Doubles combination of a Series 1 kit with a Series 2 kit. Given his long association with aircraft at this point in his career, it is highly unlikely that Roy Cross would have mixed up a MiG-21 with a MiG-15 and so it is possible this image represents a pairing, perhaps planned to be released as a Series 4 set, that Airfix initially considered but then decided not to proceed with.

Roy Cross’ artwork on the Dogfight Doubles, and all the other boxes, proved so popular that Airfix reused it as they reworked their packaging over the years and, some forty years after it was painted, the rejuvenated company still uses it on some of their boxes today.

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The modern Airfix company released new pairings of Dogfight Doubles in the 2000s however the original batch of Dogfight Doubles that Roy Cross provided the box artwork for in the 1960s and 1970s were as follows –

Series 2 – Dog Fight Series
Camel and Albatross         (WWI – issued in 1966 as 02140-3)
F2B and Fokker DR1         (WWI – issued in 1966 as 02141-6)
Roland and RE8         (WWI – issued in 1966 as 02142-9)

Series 3 – Dogfight Doubles
Beaufighter and Bf109         (WWII – issued in 1967 as 03140-6)
Spitfire and Bf110         (WWII – issued in 1967 as 03141-9)
Mosquito and Me262         (WWII – issued in 1967 as 03142-3)
Mirage and MiG-15         (Six Day War – issued in 1968 as 03143-5)
Stormovik and FW190         (WWII – issued in 1969 as 03144-8)
Cessna O-2 and MiG-21     (Vietnam War – issued in 1971 as 03145-1)

The RAF Museum at Hendon in London is planning an exhibition about Airfix which is due include examples of Roy Cross’ artwork for the company. The exhibition is due to open in June 2013 and is planned to relocate to the RAF Museum at Cosford in Autumn 2014. Both RAF Museums are free.

There is a highly detailed account of Roy Cross’ career on the Hatfield Hertfordshire website. There is more general information on Airfix box artists by Airfix expert Arthur Ward on the Collecting Friends website. Details of all Airfix kits currently available are on the Airfix website.

(* The photo of Roy Cross, taken in 2011, was borrowed from the Airfix Facebook page.)

5 comments:

Kid said...

No wonder Airfix still uses his artwork - you can't improve on perfection.

Anonymous said...

Y'know, I'd forgotten all about the great artwork on Airfix kits; this brought it all back...thanks very much!


cheers
B Smith

Jerry Boucher said...

Another artist (although not Airfix) from a similar period is Brian Knight:

http://www.brianknightboxart.co.uk/

Brian Artillery said...

I hate to contradict you, but the Mirage/MiG 15 Dogfight Double set WAS released - I had it as an eighth birthday present in 1971. The set was available from 1968 to 1978. The Mirage Vs MiG 21 was never realised.

Jeremy Briggs said...

Brian, hope you enjoyed the the article which states that the Mirage III / MiG-15 pairing was released in 1968.