Meccano was founded in Liverpool by Frank Hornby in 1901 and was to become one of Britain’s most important toy-makers in the 20th Century.
Initially called ‘Mechanics Made Easy’, the early pre-World War I construction sets (known as ‘outfits’) were made of simple, unpainted steel strips, followed by a nickel-plated version in 1908, which could be constructed into a variety of models.
By 1910, after a name change to the more snappy Meccano, Hornby’s system was well-established and toy shops were able to offer a range of seven kits.
Starting at a modest three shillings and sixpence, sets went up to a princely six guineas – a month’s wages for many working-class folk. Components became more sophisticated too, with angle girders and polished brass wheels in addition to the nickel-plated strips.
The guiding principle behind Meccano was that a boy would progress from one set to the next by purchasing ‘accessory outfits’. Thus, a boy who started with Set No. 3 could then buy Set No. 3A – which converted his set into a No. 4, and so on.
It is a system that has remained unchanged throughout Meccano’s hundred-plus-year history.
In 1926 the first sets in red and green were produced. During the 1930s the range of outfits was extended to include car and aeroplane sets. From 1934 to 1940 the early type red and green finish was replaced by blue and gold.
The quality of Meccano construction outfits was very high and care was taken to include all the necessary tools and equipment in each set.
Up and down the British Isles, boys gathered in ‘Meccano clubs’ constructing vast models of awesome complexity. We’re talking major erections (oo-er missus!), like models of Jodrell Bank Radio Telescope.
While ‘strip down and rebuild’ universality was one of Meccano’s main selling points, some of the constructions were so magnificent that many boys wanted to keep and show off the models they’d made. Those who chose to display rather than dismantle could find plenty of accessories with which to customise their creations.
For the Meccano cruise liner, for instance, toyshops could offer an astonishing array of funnels, all decked out in the colours of P&O, Blue Star, Cunard, Ellerman, Holland-Afrika – or any of 23 other Merchant Navy liveries.
By the time of Frank Hornby’s death in September 1936, Meccano had developed from a one-man business in a tiny home workshop into a huge international company. The Meccano Boy – “so happy, so infectious that all boys love me and smile with sheer joy when they see me” – had become an icon of childhood and his praises were sung by a succession of copywriters.
Production came to a standstill during World War II when the manufacturing of metal toys was banned by the British government and the Meccano factory was turned over to war duties. Products held in stock were sold until 1943 after which the sale of all metal toys was prohibited.
After the war, the production of Meccano slowly returned to normal with the winners of model building competitions now receiving the grand sum of £1,000. But by the late 1950s, other popular toys were providing stiff competition for Meccano.
Lines Brothers – also the manufacturers of Tri-ang Toys – took over Meccano in 1964 and seven years later, ownership switched once again, this time to the Airfix Group. Unfortunately, the recession hit the British toy industry hard in the 1970s, eventually forcing Meccano into receivership in 1979, ending 78 years of Meccano production in Liverpool.
In 1981, Airfix products was purchased by the General Mills Toy Group (USA) who already owned Meccano France. Production was continued at a factory in Calais where Meccano is still made today – with some production also taking place in China.