26 March 2019
The history of Hornby-Dublo
The history of Hornby-Dublo
Having thoroughly updated the Hornby-Dublo range between 1953 and 1958, Meccano Ltd should have been sitting pretty. It had the best designed OO gauge model railway system in the UK, along with decades of experience, a tightly managed dealer network and its own magazine. Good times!
Unfortunately it was also on the back foot. Its models were still highly dependent on metal and tinplate, which was expensive to source and work with. This made its toys strong and reliable, but the premium product came with a hefty price. Everything might still have been fine if it hadn’t been for those pesky Tri-ang kids with their plastic trains. Not only were they cheaper, they kept acquiring more detail as plastic injection moulding techniques continued to improve. Classy though the Dublo models were, it has to be said they were starting to look a bit old fashioned next to the plastic counterparts.
But the real elephant in the room, which with hindsight should have been addressed as soon as possible after the war, was two rail. The benefits of three rail are good electrical conductivity, combined with strength that rails need when being put together or pulled apart. Two rail track, being a web of plastic sleepers and a reduced number of rails for electrical conductivity, has always been flimsier and less reliable. But by heck, it sure looks more realistic. Even the most technically illiterate rail fan would notice that, apart from the London Underground, few lines have a great big rail running up the middle of the track.
Of course Meccano was aware of the arguments for two rail and could see its growing popularity, but it really didn’t want to do it. Consequently, when it did finally galvanise into action, it incurred huge costs by trying to catch up and launch a complete two rail system overnight. All that while loyally continuing to support its three rail customers.
Having reluctantly decided to run with two rail, Hornby naturally needed to update its models again to be more realistic. This led to another spurt of development between 1959 and 1962. New locos were introduced, with either diecast or plastic bodies. These were backed up with a new range of ‘Super Detail’ coaches and wagons. There was also a comprehensive makeover of buildings and accessories. Not to mention the new two rail track system. Ironically, this period was to produce yet another raft of superb products that have been delighting countless collectors ever since and to this day.
The Southern Railway’s West Country and Battle of Britain Pacifics were an obvious choice to produce. Their designer OVS Bulleid was a maverick. Not only had he managed to introduce a glamorous express loco while the country was on a war footing; he included so many new features in his locos that many of them had to be completely rebuilt in a more conventional guise. Surprisingly this had resulted in a very elegant loco in either form, which was popular with crew and enthusiasts. 34005 Barnstaple went on sale as the flagship loco at £5.15/- Its three rail counterpart was ‘Dorchester’. Both locos heavily featured the ring field motor, again protruding from the cab in both versions, and being one of Hornby-Dublo’s best running locos.
Another trip to the Southern was the Electric Multiple Unit (EMU). This was the sort of model that everyone wants, but nobody buys. They are effectively a pair of coaches with modified ends for the driver. Although they looked realistic, they were unable to be used with different coaches or wagons like any other loco. Hence their play value was lower. Now they are consistently one of the most sought after models in the Dublo lineup, with prices reflecting their popularity.
Hornby had some unusual failures with its diesel loco models, ironically aping the problems that British Railways was experiencing in the real world. Some of the Bo-Bo locos never ran right, and in the end the model was withdrawn. This does not seem to have caused a price premium, and Dublo Bo-Bos seem plentiful and not particularly expensive.
The diesel shunter is a superb model with attractive offset cranks faithfully reproduced. Unfortunately the model often suffered from overheating, with its giant ring field motor crammed in to a small body.
At the other extreme, the diecast representation of the Deltic diesel is crude, in every respect; too short, too high, virtually no body detailing and completely lacking in any underframe detail.
Super Detail coaches from Hornby-Dublo
With its final range of coaches, Meccano again came up with a paradox; a model with detailed plastic roof, underframe and ends, yet utilising tinplate for the body. While this produced a model with no moulded detail in the area the eye is naturally drawn to, it did achieve the holy grail of flush glazing for the windows. This bizarre mix of old and new is one of Dublo’s most endearing features. The coaches really do carry themselves like the real thing, light reflecting off the metal sides most convincingly. Anyone who has handled a Super Detail coach will understand it’s not a toy, but it’s not quite a model either.
Available in maroon, chocolate and cream (Western Region) and green (Southern Region) the maroon coaches included a full brake and a sleeping car, as well as open, corridor, composite and brake end versions. The number of different mouldings and printings for the coaches alone must have been a huge administrative burden for a company that was trying to reorganise and compete with its nearest rival.
Super Detail wagons
Any reservations about the coaches are blown away by the range of some 35 wagons that Meccano produced during its final period. It used a detailed metal chassis of pleasing proportions, which gave strength and the required heft to the model, with exquisite mouldings for the bodies. The wagon models have not been bettered since they were produced, and many have continued in production unchanged apart from livery variations under the Wrenn branding.
Now we come to the most vexing part of the two rail story: the track. Reliable, realistic and strong… pick any two. To this day, no one has managed to make two rail track that is realistic and strong enough to be put together and taken apart, i.e. played with. Hornby Dublo two rail track was as close to perfect as it got, with pleasingly spaced sleepers and nickel silver rails. Unfortunately, for idealistic reasons, the company decided to use an electrical system known as ‘live frog’ for the points (turnouts) as opposed to simpler self isolating points. Locos perform more reliably moving over live frogs, as opposed to stalling on plastic frogs. But the payback is fiendish complexity in the wiring, which has to be broken, fed, earthed and jumped in myriad ways requiring a degree in electrical engineering to do it full justice. Get it wrong and the loco stops dead. Not surprisingly, this was a bridge too far for the average enthusiast and his dad. Meccano was forced to rush out a subsequent series of conventional self isolating points with plastic frogs, stressing the already overstretched development costs even further.
Another problem with the track was the geometry; again for idealistic reasons, extra complexity meant that two or three different small sizes of track were needed to create a relatively simple geometric shape. It was an attempt to avoid limitations experienced with the three rail geometry, but with hindsight, Tri-ang probably got it right when it simply copied Mecanno’s three rail geometry using a two rail format. The upshot is that collectors using original Hornby Dublo track have a very good track system to work with, given the time to understand its idiosyncrasies. Such was its modernity, current trains will still run on Dublo two rail, and the track produced in 1960 can still be joined up to contemporary track without any bumps or the need for adapters. A remarkable, if irrelevant outcome.