26 March 2019
The history of Hornby-Dublo
The history of Hornby-Dublo
It took quite a long time for the stringent restrictions of the war to release their grip on toy production. When production restarted in 1948, preference was given to the overseas markets as they generated hard currency. Meccano initially focused on manufacturing more components for its famous construction toy; after all, it was the easiest product to manufacture, and had always provided the foundation and income to develop new lines.
The most noticeable change in the Dublo range, apart from the completely redesigned couplings, was the disappearance of the clockwork locos, which did not reappear after the war. Another significant change was the nationalisation of the big four railway companies. British Railways came into being in 1948, but it took until April 1953 to convert the Dublo range into the new liveries. This mirrored the real railway, which took a similar time to rationalise and repaint its rolling stock. However the reason Meccano’s plans were delayed was because in March 1951, the fragile economy was suddenly back to a war footing due to the UK’s commitment with the UN in the Korean War. Severe shortages, especially of brass, copper and nickel, but also some grades of steel, meant that new production had to be seriously curtailed, to the extent that Meccano had to close down a brand new factory for 18 months. However this did enable Dublo stocks in the old liveries to be run down systematically and without waste.
By 1953, the Hornby Dublo system was now 15-years-old. Although its development had been much delayed by world events, a wealth of manufacturing and operating experience had been acquired. As soon as the Korean War shortages were overcome, the revision and expansion of the range took place at breakneck speed. This was a period of new-found prosperity and confidence in the UK, and Meccano Limited did its very best to meet the pent up demand for new introductions, not only in Dublo but in all its other product lines as well.
All prewar plans went into production, including a level crossing, large radius curves and electrically operated uncoupling rails (remote uncoupling had always been a holy grail, which necessitated the change in coupling design). The next five years saw Meccano and its Hornby-Dublo range in an unassailable position.
A trio of superb Hornby-Dublo locos
By 1954 the need for a new locomotive was obvious. Meccano did not disappoint, coming up with one of the most iconic locos, both in real life and model form; the BR Standard Class 4 2-6-4 tank loco. Once again the loco was particularly well proportioned, full of interest, with lots of wheels and a satisfying valve gear, all of which still look good today. They look right running forwards or backwards, and they look right hauling passenger or freight trains. Variations of of the 2-6-4 tanks have, of course, been produced by other manufacturers since but the Dublo version has something special. As a result many non-Dublo train collectors make an exception and include this loco in their collection.
Three years later the major release of 1957 was the GWR 4-6-0 ‘Bristol Castle’ which, like the 2-6-4 tank, set a standard for diecast loco bodies that has never been bettered. Again the proportions were excellent, and the rivet detail gives the model a businesslike presence. It was met with universal acclaim, both as a toy and as a scale model. The following year saw the release of the 8F 2-8-0, an ambitious model that, again, captured the imagination and attention of men and boys across the land.
The Hornby-Dublo range expands
The Dublo tinplate coach range was adequate, although not particularly extensive or inspiring. The aged Gresley coaches had received BR livery in 1953 but had only printed windows: in mid 1956 these were withdrawn altogether while the suburban coaches were upgraded with pierced windows, promptly appearing in new sets. March 1957 saw the introduction of an operating mail coach; this was one of Meccano’s rare forays into train models with added ‘play value’. Carrying a heavy solenoid motor within its tinplate body, and requiring electrical wiring and a special track section to operate, this was typical of Meccano’s attention to detail. It was over engineered compared with Tri-ang’s simpler unpowered design, which worked off a raising ramp with mechanical plastic levers. This difference in approach typified the different philosophies of the two companies, which was to end with one subsuming the other.
Another coach of note was the tinplate Restaurant Car that was available in three liveries. This was a significant model as it was the first to use plastic wheels, meaning it would be compatible with two-rail track. As such it was a harbinger of the doomed move to 2-rail.
New items appeared regularly up to 1957, culminating in the announcement of a new series of Super Detail wagons and coaches making more use of plastic construction. Even then, the coaches were to retain an element of tinplate, resulting in models that look lovely today, while being completely out of step with the tastes of the time. Locos including diesels with more detailed, plastic bodies were also announced. The wagon range in itself makes a worthy collecting goal; during this period Meccano chose a representative selection of the freight stock on the British Railways network of the day, including four wheeled open, closed, flat and tank wagons; brake vans from all regions, long wheelbase and bogie wagons.
Two rail, or not two rail, that is the question
Until 1958, Meccano had stuck with 3-rail, despite being fully aware of the encroaching 2-rail revolution. When toy trains were toys, realistic track was not a requirement; the main features of the track were that it should be strong (to be put together, trod on and pulled apart regularly) and reliable (so trains did not stall or derail). With its solid pressed tin base, Hornby-Dublo 3-rail track met these needs admirably. At this stage the Dublo system held a commanding lead over all its rivals. Tri-ang still only had a restricted range of fairly poor quality models, with most items being moulded in cellulose acetate. By comparison, the Dublo system was long established, thoroughly modernised, and virtually complete in the important aspects of track system, loco power and full ranges of both rolling stock and lineside accessories.
Meccano may well have thought its lead was unassailable, but what it clearly should have thought about now from a position of strength was the 2/3-rail debate. Reviewing the contemporary model press, there was nothing but praise for Dublo’s accurate scale locomotives, and generally only muted criticism of the tinprinted bodies and crude underframes. But every retailer was offering 2-rail conversions. It’s clear that the simple introduction of plastic wheelsets, with 2-rail loco options at this stage could well have maintained Dublo sales against encroachment in the near future by Tri-ang and then Playcraft. Eventually, this is just what it was obliged to do.
In reality, many Dublo users would have been quite happy to continue with 3-rail. It was really only the scale modeller who led the 2-rail argument. Unfortunately, his bias against Dublo counted even more when Tri-ang started to introduce a wider range of locomotives all ready to run in 2-rail.
It’s easy to criticise from the comfort of hindsight, but what happened when Meccano attempted to repair the breech makes for fascinating analysis. The decision to move to 2-rail was to prove catastrophic. From that moment, the company that had dominated the OO trains market for 20 years, and the constructional toy market for over 40 years, was about to be brought to its knees within a short five years.