The History of Hornby: Tri-ang Hornby era

05 March 2019
lead-square-80980.jpg History of Hornby
A look back at the years that led to the takeover of Meccano Limited by Lines Bros in 1964.

By Sarah Jenkins

It could be said that the problems at Meccano Limited that led to the takeover by Lines Bros in 1964 had deep roots.

All was well in the 1930s when Meccano was still a magical name, when Hornby trains were in vogue, and Dinky Toys were becoming popular. At this time competition was practically non-existent, Meccano marketing was excellent, and the Hornby group could afford to dictate standards.

On the Death of Frank Hornby in 1936, his son Roland became Chairman of the company and George Jones became Managing Director. Jones had been the marketing man and understood the market. The introduction of Hornby Dublo was one of his successes, though interrupted by World War II. The War supplied plenty of work for Meccano, but after the war the lack of resources for toy manufacture caused difficulties. The Hornby-Dublo range could not be made in the immediate post-war period, and the company concentrated on making Dinky Toys and the smaller Meccano construction sets. Post-war developments, however, brought competition, something that Meccano had not previously known. Time and time again, they seemed to ignore the writing on the wall, then act belatedly only to find that they had lost their market.

When Jones died, Beardsley became Managing Director. He was formerly in charge of production and seemed not to have the same flair for marketing as Jones had.

While Hornby Dublo was effectively off the market other companies such as Rovex, Trix, and Playcraft, etc. were coming into the model railway market. With the rapid expansion of the Tri-ang Railways range, and the highly successful marketing of the Airfix Trackside series, Meccano Limited could ill-afford to be lethargic. Meccano were, however, slow to counter this increasing competition, an example being the delay in changing to BR liveries, which was not introduced until 1953, a year after Tri-ang Railways had launched with locomotives in BR livery, although the Tri-ang wagons were lettered GW and NE.

The introduction of 2-rail in 1959 was to become another problem. The chief draughtsman had been a scale railway modeller and the 2-rail track, with nickel Silver rail, was a bit too fragile for children to use. The live frog points used, which needed complicated wiring using two types of isolating rails and switches built into the points, caused many customers to desert to the simpler self-isolating points system of Tri-ang Railways, Playcraft, and other makes.

Hornby Dublo 2-rail

The wiring problem was tackled at first, not by re-designing the track, but by the selling of books showing how to wire layouts. It wasn’t until April 1963 that the ‘Simplec’ self-isolating points, similar in principle to the Tri-ang Railways points, were introduced, along with some ‘track packs’. This proved too late to save the system in the end.

Sales to the more ‘serious’ railway modellers were simply not enough to keep the system in production. The sale of model railways for use by children was a larger market, and here price was all-important. Meccano Limited tried to recapture this market with the ‘Ready-to Run’ starter sets that even included a transformer-controller, advertised in the April 1963 Meccano Magazine (Price 89/6) but by then it proved to be too late.

It was difficult to make the two ranges profitable, but Meccano Limited thought it important to stay with 3-rail, as well as the newer 2-rail system, out of loyalty to the 3-rail customers.

Dinky toys now also had competition from the Lines Brothers Minic and Spot-On ranges, Matchbox (Lesney) small die-cast models, and Corgi Toys, similar in scale to Dinky toys but with added features. As the Corgi marketing phrase stated, “The ones with windows.”

Meccano construction sets were under pressure from the plastic Lego building sets. Bayko, a Meccano brand of plastic and metal parts for making model buildings, for example, just couldn’t compete with the versatility of Lego.

Meccano even missed out on the slot racing car craze. After seeing Lines Brothers (Scalextric and Wrenn Formula 152) and Airfix (Motor Racing and Model Road Racing Cars) both profiting from the craze, they came in too late in the day with the French-made “Circuit 24” system.

Meccano Limited seemed to believe that their products were on another, altogether higher, plane than their competitors and that their long reputation and perceived higher quality than others would be sufficient to carry the day.

In fact the pre-occupation with being of higher quality than anyone else was costing the company dear, plus the tooling for the new Hornby Dublo Super Detail plastic wagon bodies was costly to produce, and complicated to use, adding further costs to the production of the models.

The company had become over staffed, manufacturing methods and materials tended towards the ‘traditional’, and modern methods and materials were seemingly not trusted, adding costs to the production that had to be reflected in comparatively higher retail prices. These higher prices were considered to be indicators of the perceived higher quality of Meccano Limited’s products, rather than a barrier to sales.

An accountant named Tattersall, who was new to the toy industry, was brought in and looked around for new things for Meccano to make. None were successful, but belatedly Dinky Toys were fitted with windows, and other features.

Finally Meccano Limited brought in Joe Fallmann, an Austrian who saw the potential of having Dinky Toys models based on vehicles in Films and on Television. The Meccano management seemed more worried about potentially devaluing the reputation of Dinky Toys than actually getting products that would sell. In desperation the Company turned to marketing “Super-Skates” roller skates (“A revolutionary skating idea from America” advertised in the March 1964 Meccano Magazine.) but by then it was far too late to turn the tide.

The Lines Brothers Group (Tri-ang) Takeover 1964

After negotiations, the Meccano Board invited Lines Brothers Limited to buy their company and on 14th February 1964 Lines purchased the full share capital of Meccano Limited for £781,000.

During the time after the takeover of Meccano Limited, there was much speculation as to the future of Hornby Dublo. Would it just disappear? Would it carry on as a separate range alongside Tri-ang Railways? Would Tri-ang Railways production be stopped in favour of production of Hornby Dublo?

Dinky Toys and Meccano proved to be useful additions to the Lines Group’s range of products, and development and improvement of these ranges continued under the new management, including the introduction of Plastic Meccano in August 1965.

Hornby Dublo however was a problem. Production of the range at Binns Road had already been stopped, as the unsold stock piled up at the factory. The selling off at discount rates of the surplus Hornby-Dublo stock couldn’t be contemplated, as it would have caused damage to sales of Tri-ang Railways at a time of reduced sales. It was also found that there were further large stocks that they could not sell being held by retailers, and any sell-off would not produce any orders from these retailers, and could harm the relationship of the company with the trade.

Rovex were to produce price lists of the Hornby Dublo stock, and continued to sell it off over a number of years to various customers, until in 1970 the entire remaining stock was sold to Mr. Dick Goddard of Rastatout Warehousemen Limited.

The March 1964 issue of Model Railway Constructor Toy Fair Report from the 1964 Brighton Toy Fair stated that Hornby had announced their intention to discontinue Hornby-Dublo 3-rail that year, but that for the time being most shops will still be carrying stocks.

Beatties of London, the Southgate Hobby Shop, was amongst the first to purchase the now obsolete 3-rail stock, buying 2,000 locomotives. 1,000 had been sold at half the retail price during April, as their advert in the June 1964 Model Railway Constructor states. Beatties was later to purchase all the then remaining stocks of 3-rail track, and then some of the 2-rail stock as well. Hattons of Liverpool were also heavily involved in the clearance of surplus stock of 3-rail, and later 2-rail. They announced a massive acquisition in August 1966 and were still trying to clear the stock 30 years later.

Hornby 3-rail

1964 passed with little concrete news, the Meccano Magazine seemingly ignoring the takeover, apart from an increase in advertisements for Lines Brothers Group products.

Hornby O Gauge Clockwork Trains had already been slanted towards the younger toy end of the market, but production had come almost to a stop around 1962. The O gauge range was to run down and to not survive beyond the end of the 1960s.

The final development of this range was released as a ‘Meccano’ product rather than under the ‘Hornby Trains’ label, under Lines Brothers management.

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The Tri-ang and Hornby Amalgamation. Tri-ang Hornby. May 1965.

On May 1st 1965 Lines Brothers published a leaflet, R.280S 1965, entitled ‘An Amalgamation of Tri-ang Railways and Hornby Dublo’. The cover included a Terence Cuneo painting of an AL1 overhead electric locomotive alongside a ‘Jinty’ 0-6-0 Tank Locomotive. This had been commissioned by Tri-ang Railways and was painted in November 1964. This painting was also to be used as the cover of the 1966 Tri-ang Hornby catalogue, the first to carry the new name.

The news of the amalgamation was not very well received by the public and it led to a stream of letters in the model press expressing concern on a range of issues from the standardisation on Tri-ang Super 4 track to the superiority of Hornby Dublo locomotives. It seemed to many that Hornby Dublo had been ‘killed off’ by its competitor, Tri-ang Railways. It seemed not to be well known how badly Meccano Limited was doing, and that the whole Meccano Company had actually been ‘saved’ by the Lines Brothers takeover.

It was possibly not noticed that it was not all one way, in that Meccano products replaced some Tri-ang products. The Tri-ang Magazine stopped publication in July 1965 to be replaced by Meccano Magazine, as mentioned in the Meccano Magazine Editorial for the August 1965 issue, and Dinky Toys were to eventually replace the Minic and Spot-On model vehicles.

At the time, the adoption of the name ‘Hornby’ was seen by the Rovex management as a move to keep the public happy. It was not thought to be of long-term commercial benefit.  The name ‘Dublo’, finally registered by Meccano Limited in 1957, although so far not used by them is still owned by Hornby Hobbies (the successors to Rovex). As it turned out, the Tri-ang Railways system continued almost unchanged under a new name. Some former Hornby Dublo models were sold with ‘Tri-ang Hornby’ labels over the ‘Hornby Dublo’ logo, and the large station kits were actually made at Margate, with the parts moulded in the ‘Tri-ang’ colour scheme. The tooling proved difficult to use and production didn’t last long. A new overall roof unit was tooled up to replace the Hornby Dublo example.

The Triang and Hornby amalgamation

In France, the Tri-ang Calais factory was taken over by Meccano (France) Ltd and their Hornby Acho railway system was adopted as Tri-ang’s continental system, with the Hornby Acho catalogues also offering items from the Tri-ang Railways range. Some Hornby Acho stock actually appeared with ‘Tri-ang’ lettering on the undersides, one example being the ‘USA’ 0-3-0 (0-6-0) Tank Locomotive.

The Hornby Dublo Tooling Question

The fate of the tooling for the Hornby Dublo models not to be part of the new Tri-ang Hornby was another problem. They couldn’t really be given away to a competitor, but had a value that couldn’t really just be written off and the tooling disposed off.

A similar problem had happened at British Trix. The stock and tooling for the obsolete A.C. system was tying up the company and hindering the progress of modernising the British Trix range. The management ‘bit the bullet’ and disposed of the surplus stock and tooling (Apparently some was dumped into a large hole at the company’s factory in Wrexham!). By 1966, the disposals of obsolete Trix-Twin stock and tools, etc. had cost large sums, and they sustained a £20,000 trading loss.

At this time Trix was concentrating on the sales of various kits of locos, wagons, and coaches from the British Trix range (similar in concept to the CKD and Assembly Pack kits made by Tri-ang Hornby). The Trix management was reluctant to spend money on new tools and decided to see whether they could acquire some of the Hornby-Dublo tools. At the 1966 Nuremberg Toy Fair, Richard Lines was in conversation with Mr. Rosza, who managed British Trix Ltd, when the subject of the tools came up. Initially Trix was interested in leasing the tools, and selling the products both as kits and in finished form. Leasing was thought by Rovex to be out of the question, and in March Meccano were asked to prepare prices for the sale of the tools requested by Trix. By now it was considered that the Hornby Dublo tools, if not sold, would be a complete write-off. If a buyer were to be found a reasonable price was required as they would be used in competition with Tri-ang Hornby. While the subject of the Hornby Dublo tools was being discussed, Lines Bros was invited to buy Trix, but in June 1966 Lines Bros. turned the offer down.

Tri-ang Wrenn

As there was still pressure from the public to re-introduce the Hornby Dublo Range, Rovex considered low-volume manufacture of some models through the Lines Bros subsidiary G & R Wrenn Ltd. As Wrenn was linked to the Model Division, they had been a model railway manufacturer; it made sense for them to have the Hornby tools rather that an external competitor such as Trix. Wrenn Railways were to remain in production for over 26 years using the ex-Hornby-Dublo tools, initially as Tri-ang Wrenn and then, after the Lines Brothers Group break-up, as Wrenn Railways.

Tri-ang Hornby was to carry on until 1971 when, after the demise of the Lines Brothers Group, it was re-named Hornby Railways.

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