The rise, demise and
rise again of Meccano
Meccano, Hornby, Dinky … all names familiar to many men, and possibly women, too, from their childhood toy boxes.
The man behind these iconic names was Englishman Frank Hornby.
Today, many toys carrying these names from the early 20th Century are collectors’ items, selling for many hundreds of dollars.
In 2015, a collection of 3,000 toy cars, trucks and trains which was built up over 50 years sold at auction for £227,000 ($A 405,340).
Retired car dealer Raymond Hainsworth, 78, said he did not expect to make a fortune on the sale as he had paid top prices for the highest quality toys that included Dinky, Hornby and other famous brands that were not “play worn”.
In Australia rare Dinky toys in reasonable condition are selling on E-bay for anything up to about $800. Condition is the key and if there’s a mint condition box as well, the price goes higher.
Of course, back in the day when they went on sale many of the toys were just that – things meant to played with.
They were the brainchild of Frank Hornby, who as a youngster disliked school with a passion, played truant often and ultimately left school aged 16.
He died a wealthy man on 21 September 1936, aged 73. He was born in May 1863 at Copperas Hill, Liverpool, the only son of three children of John Oswald and Martha Hornby. When he left school, he went to work in his father’s provisions merchant business as a cashier.
Hornby had a home workshop and in 1899 be began creating toys for the amusement of his two sons. He had no formal training, but that wasn’t a bar to his innovative skills.
He used sheet metal to build trucks, bridges, cars and other items. He realised that if he could build interchangeable parts, one set of pieces could be used to build any number of toys. He made holes in the pieces to fit in the nuts and bolts to join the parts together, and these also served as an axle or pivot to arrange the pieces in any shape or form.
When his father died in 1899 the family business closed and Hornby became a bookkeeper in a meat importing business owned by David Elliott.
Historytoday.com tells how he began in the toy industry: “Hornby recalled that he had read Self-Help by Samuel Smiles over and over again and it inspired him, but for the moment he made little progress and after various clerking jobs he became a bookkeeper at a Liverpool meat importing firm.
“By the late 1890s Hornby was married with two small sons. He made toys for his boys at home in his garden shed. An inspired moment came when he thought of making them out of identical parts that could be fastened together with screws and nuts to assemble whichever model was wanted. The separate parts were metal strips half an inch wide with holes for the fastenings at regular half-inch intervals. They came in three standard lengths. The only tools a boy needed to assemble the models were spanners and a screwdriver. Early in 1901 Hornby took out a patent after borrowing £5 from his boss (Elliot) for the fee.”
Elliot encouraged Hornby to continue working on his ideas. Elliot even allowed Hornby to use the premises next to the office to set up a work space and eventually joined him in a partnership, Mechanics Made Easy, in 1902.
Their first sets went on sale at 7s 6d (equivalent to £30 or more today), each with an instruction leaflet explaining how to make 12 models. The first profit was achieved in 1906.
The trademark was registered in 1907 and the Meccano Ltd Company began operation in 1908.
Meccano sets were exported around the world. In 1920 the Hornby range of clockwork trains was introduced and by 1930 were outselling Meccano sets. Dinky Toys cars, trucks and buses were introduced in 1933.
Hornby himself did extremely well financially and owned a large mansion in Maghull outside Liverpool.
He was also Conservative MP for Everton for a brief period in the 1930s.
After receiving a positive endorsement from professor Henry Selby Hele-Shaw, then Head of the Engineering Department at Liverpool University for his construction toy, Hornby made contracts with outside manufacturers to supply parts and “Mechanics Made Easy” sets went on sale in 1902.
Each set had only 16 different parts with a leaflet detailing the construction of 12 models. In 1903, 1,500 sets were sold, although no profit was made. New parts were continually being introduced and in 1904, six sets, packed in tin boxes, with instruction manuals in French and English, became available. In 1905 two new sets were introduced and in 1906, for the first time, a small profit was made.
By 1907 Hornby’s part suppliers could not meet the demand. This prompted Hornby to quit working for Elliot and find suitable premises to begin manufacturing his own parts. He secured a three-year lease on a workshop in Duke Street, by Dukes Terrace in the Rope Walks area of Liverpool, and with the help of a loan granted to Hornby and Elliot for machinery and wages, they began manufacturing their own parts by June 1907.
Elliot decided not to join the Meccano company that was formed in 1908, leaving Hornby as the sole proprietor. The Meccano factory was relocated to West Derby Road in Liverpool. Meccano Ltd’s turnover for the 1910 financial year was £12,000.
Meccano was exported to many countries and in 1912, Hornby and his son, Roland, formed Meccano (France) Ltd in Paris to manufacture Meccano. An office was also opened in Berlin, Germany and Märklin manufactured Meccano under licence. Hornby also started importing clockwork motors from Märklin.
Demand continued growing and a new factory was built in Binns Road, Liverpool. By September 1914 the Binns Road Factory was in full production and became the company headquarters for more than 60 years.
In 1942 the production of toys stopped and the company, along with many others, switched to manufacturing to aid the war effort.
Despite the bombing of Liverpool during the war, the Binns Road factory was not damaged. The production of Meccano, Dinky Toys and Hornby Dublo resumed after the war in 1945, interrupted only when the supply of metal was restricted.
In 1960 Meccano Ltd purchased Bayko, a Bakelite building model construction toy, from Plimpton Engineering in Liverpool, and moved all its production to Meccano’s factory in Speke, Liverpool. The construction sets were updated, and polystyrene was used instead of Bakelite. Manufacture of Bayko continued until 1967. Meccano Ltd also manufactured Kemex (chemistry sets) and Elektron (electrical sets).
Financial problems beset the company in the early 1960s and Meccano Ltd was taken over by Lines Bros Ltd (owners of the Tri-ang brand) in 1964.
In 1971 the Lines Brothers Tri-ang group went into voluntary liquidation and Meccano-Tri-ang was eventually sold to Airfix industries in 1972, the company name reverting to Meccano Ltd. General Mills, a US toy manufacturer, bought out Meccano France, renaming it Miro-Meccano
The emergence of other toy manufacturers and television advertising saw Meccano’s market share reduced markedly.
Binns Rd factory
To cut their losses, Airfix closed Meccano Ltd’s flagship Binns Road factory in Liverpool in November 1979, ending three-quarters of a century of British toy making. The manufacture of Meccano, however, continued in France. Airfix was liquidated two years later and in 1981 General Mills purchased Meccano Ltd UK, giving it complete control of the Meccano franchise. It shifted all Meccano and Airfix operations to France and completely revamped the Miro-Meccano construction sets.
Meccano went through various French, American and Japanese ownerships in four decades and by 2010 was wholly owned by a French company, based at a factory in Calais set up by the original British company in 1959.
Meccano kits were updated to include radio-control, robotics, sound and lights. But French and Chinese-made Meccano kits retained the same metal shapes, and the same hole spacing and sizes, which Frank Hornby created in 1901.
Sales boomed in the early 21st Century.
“We lost out for a while during the computer-game boom,” said factory manager, Mattei Théodore. “But there seems, all over the world, to be a return to traditional values, and traditional kinds of toys.”
The first Meccano components were a metallic silver colour. They later became blue and gold and then red and green and then blue and yellow again. There are now more than 100 colour shades in the Meccano range.
Frank Hronby began with 0 scale clockwork model trains.
By powering models with electricity, he set in train the development of Hornby Dublo (00 scale) electric train sets.They were launched in 1938, after Frank Hornby’s death. They were a cheaper and smaller scale electric model railway than had previously been available in Britain.
The brand thrived again after the war but by 1964 the Meccano company was on its knees.
The Hornby railways brand name was taken over by Lines Brothers and despite various of business setbacks, Hornsby Railways is today based in Kent, now a wholly British company owned by Phoenix Asset Management (PAM), with much of its production in China.
Many of the company’s famous model locomotives were put on display at the Hornby Shop and Visitor Centre in Margate when it opened in 2010.
Hornby became the market leader in 00 scale model railways, however recent years haven’t been kind to the company’s fortunes, and a new management team was brought in in 2017.
There are more than 650 items in the Hornby product range.
Hornby subsidiary brands include Airfix, Fleischmann, Corgi Classics, Arnold, Lima, Jouef and Rivarossi.
An attempt to build the world’s longest model railway formed the final episode of James May’s Toy Stories. May, who had identified the train set as his “absolute favourite”, hoped that a train would run successfully along the length of the Tarka Trail, a disused 60 km railway line in North Devon.
Hornby was heavily involved, providing the track and the prototype of their OO gauge British Rail Class 395 Javelin train. The train which travels at only .6 km/h failed just short of Bideford station.
In April 2011 James May tried again, challenging a German team. All the trains reached their destinations and the British team won.
Today the Frank Hornby heritage centre in his home town of Maghull houses an impressive collection of Hornby models and Meccano, including the first Meccano set Frank Hornby made. There’s also a working model railway.
The brand’s appeal is ongoing. In 202, after more than 50 years, the Hornby Railway Collectors Association boasted thousands of members.
In early 1934 Meccano Ltd introduced Dinky Toys, a line of die-cast miniature model cars and trucks under the trade mark “Meccano Dinky Toys”.
The company also introduced a construction toy for younger children called Dinky Builder. It comprised rectangular and triangular hinged metal plates that could be easily assembled. The parts were painted jade green and salmon pink to try to attract girls into the otherwise boys-only toy market.
Rare examples of the original Dinky toys – ranging from cars to planes – today can command four-figure fees at auction. The brand is now owned by the American toy company Mattel but the name is rarely used.
Additional source: Wikipedia.