26/03/2019
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Double 0 Heaven

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The history of Hornby-Dublo, part 4

We’ve seen how Meccano was the first UK toy company to launch a complete electric OO gauge model railway system in 1938. Let’s remind ourselves how important that was; clockwork power involved precision engineering, there was a lack of control over the engine once you set it running. Being able to control toy trains remotely, speeding up, slowing down and stopping was a big deal. Not to mention the indefatigable nature of small electric motors. In a country where mains electricity was still being rolled out nationally, being able to drive an electric train around your bedroom was, for many, an unattainable dream.

 

The north-south divide

So miniature electric trains were expensive and new, and Dublo led the field. But from the mid ‘50s a brash upstart was challenging Hornby’s dominance.

If Liverpool gave us Meccano and the Beatles, the south responded with Tri-ang and the Rolling Stones.

Part of the Lines Brothers organisation, Tri-ang started producing a cheaper range of trains incorporating more plastic and more interchangeable parts. As the range matured, it became a more serious threat to the dominance of Dublo. Unfortunately the two ranges were incompatible due to their couplings. Sooner or later there was going to be a showdown of epic proportions.

 

The end of the innocence

As a result of Meccano’s previous successes, here was a company with a strong sense of duty and a responsibility towards its customers. While this ethos was reflected in the quality of the products, they came with a huge price premium. Meccano’s inbuilt reluctance to compromise, combined with institutional inertia, meant that a perfect storm was brewing; a combination of over-production of new lines, declining turnover, rapid changes in the market, and new products and technologies emerging. In the end, the downfall was shockingly quick. Having previously bestrode the toy world the Meccano empire imploded in two short years. A tragic end to the story.

 

What went wrong?

On the commercial front, 1961/2 was the last good year for Meccano Limited: Dublo sales for that year had been £853,000, but for the ensuing year only £432,000; a disastrous halving of turnover just when so much had been invested in new products. For the first half of 1963 Dublo sales were running at less than a third of the previous year’s dismal figures.

By 1964, no amount of adjustments could realistically have saved the range. Desperate measures, like a deal to license and launch Play-Doh in the UK were too little, too late. On 14th February, with the company on the verge of bankruptcy, Lines Brothers bought the whole capital of Meccano Limited for £781,000. During January, 3 rail clearance bargain packs had already been promoted to all dealers, and the end of 3 rail was announced to the public in March. By late summer all the remaining 3 rail items had been purchased by Beatties, the very last few “proper” Dublo items had been released, and plans were in hand to lay the once proud range to rest. An “Amalgamation Leaflet” of May 1965 appeared to offer a marriage of the two systems, but apart from offering five locos and various accessories of which the greatest stocks remained, it was clear that Hornby would continue in name only with the adoption of the “Tri-ang Hornby” title. As a result of the takeover, the Hornby name survived, ironically attached to the Tri-ang trains that were instrumental in its downfall.

 

Unsold stock

The continuation of 3 rail, rather than its total replacement, is often cited as the straw that broke the camel’s back. But the continued support for 3 rail may also have been for pragmatic reasons; there were still huge stocks of unsold and now obsolete 3 rail models.

The amount of unsold stock inherited by the Lines Group produces some alarming figures. There were well over 100,000 coaches, and 126,000 wagons. Tri-ang did integrate as much as it could, although the choice of which Dublo models continued after the changeover was probably dictated by the numbers of models sitting in the warehouse, more than any genuine expectation that the models were needed to enhance Tri-ang’s range.

 

3 rail bundles

In an attempt to shift stock, job lots of models were offered to dealers at the end of 3 rail production. These bundles included many of the late period 3 rail locos that are worth hundreds of pounds at today’s prices. Given the chance, my choice would have been Selection D for £13-17-10 which included the 2-6-4 tank, Ludlow Castle, the 8F goods loco and City of Liverpool; an easy grand’s worth.

 

Merging with Tri-ang

There were lots of reasons why a merger with Tri-ang was going to be difficult. For a start, the four Tri-ang and two Dublo track systems were never compatible. Even worse, there was a massive difference between Tri-ang and Dublo couplings, which meant it was never going to be possible to amalgamate the two systems. The riveted fixing of both couplings made changing them very difficult, even for a keen hobbyist. The only solution was converter wagons, with different couplings at each end. But this was never going to be a desirable or permanent solution. Although the Hornby name was a great asset for Tri-ang to acquire, the rump of unsold Dublo stock was a problem rather than a benefit. Digesting Meccano could easily have caused Lines Brothers problems as well as benefits.

 

Collecting Dublo

The rarest and most valuable Hornby-Dublo items are early (pre-war) or late period (1963/4). The majority of Dublo products are long lived and in plentiful supply, particularly 3 rail from the golden age, and early 2 rail from 1958-62. 

Many of the locos introduced for 2 rail had updated or new 3 rail counterparts. These have different running numbers and command a high premium with collectors. For example, a 2 rail Denbigh Castle loco will be worth no more than £100, whereas its 3 rail counterpart Ludlow Castle could make £300-400. Dorchester is worth three times as much as Barnstaple, likewise City of Liverpool compared with City of London. 80059 trumps 80033, and 48074 beats 48073. The closing years of the Hornby-Dublo system left us some of Dublo’s most endearing eccentricities, all commanding higher prices than the more common products from Dublo’s golden age. Collectors speak in hushed tones about the 5015 plastic girder bridge and the green roof signal cabin; the elegant super detail 4071 Restaurant Car and the frankly ugly 4654 Rail Cleaning Wagon. Then there is the E3002 electric loco with working pantographs, but no overhead wires to go with it. Publicity shots used catenary supplied by Tri-ang.

 

Ode to the 6 wheel passenger brake

Is it a coach, is it a wagon? The six wheeled passenger brake van No. 4076 was the last Super Detail coach to be issued. It typifies the idiosyncratic choices which Hornby made during what would prove to be its twilight years. Using a mix of tinplate and plastic, the model has few common parts so most had to be moulded specially. The prototype was not common even in its day, and there was no obvious demand for a model of it, although it could run on both passenger and freight trains. The model had an unusual arrangement of six wheels and an odd coupling design. In other words it’s totally bonkers. But it has become one of my favourite Dublo creations, at the same time as being a symbol of its demise. There were over 2000 unsold at the time of the takeover.

 

 

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