Nuts and bolts of a model revival

Frank Hornby's great British invention, Meccano, after falling to bits in the 1980s, is being rebuilt - by the French. David Bowen puts it together `Meccano is not about cranes and trains any more. It's about bikes, racing cars and all-terrain vehicles'
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IN the first week of January 1980, the Minister of Information and Inspiration of His Holiness, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, put out a statement. "If our methods can cure the problems of Meccano," he said, "we believe it will show they can cure anything ." TheMaharishi, the man who converted the Beatles to meditation and later established the Natural Law Party , said he could rescue the floundering toy factory - as long as its workers took the meditative path to recovery. In the meantime, his Age of En lightenment Company was looking for state aid to take over the plant.

The workers failed to take up his banner, and the Maharishi lost interest. The factory at Binns Road, Liverpool, was bulldozed later in the year. But this attempt to save Meccano was just one of the more bizarre episodes in the history of a toy whose emotional appeal has always far outstripped its economic impact. Why did the Maharishi want to save Meccano? Most likely because, like many children of the Empire, he was brought up on this most sensible of toys.

In many ways, the story of the Meccano company is typical of much of British industry. It grew mighty in the first half of the century, slipped in the second; failed to fight off the pretenders to youthful pocket money; and fell apart amid allegations ofbad management, non-existent investment and anarchy in the workforce. It was one of the first victims of the 1980-81 recession, which wiped out so much of the British manufacturing base.

But there is a happy twist to the tale which shows how difficult it is to erase one of the world's strongest brands. On the outskirts of Calais, 350 workers are busy churning out Meccano. Presses are stamping out such old favourites as flat trunnions andbraced girders. Alongside, a helicopter, merry-go-round and racing car chassis are being constructed for toy fairs in England and America.

Meccano is back from the dead. The company, owned by the 40-year-old entrepreneur Dominique Duvauchelle, is turning over £60m - five times more than in 1990 - and is in the midst of a heavy investment programme. It has spent £6m in the last two years, and will spend another £2.5m in 1995. "We have had significant growth for the last three years," says Yann Gourmelen, who runs the UK office. "We are doing very well."

In the United States, Meccano, which has bought its erstwhile rival Erector, claims to be growing faster than the "hot" new building toy, K'Nex. And in Britain, as anyone who has been watching GMTV will have noticed, it is advertising heavily in the run-up to Christmas. Mr Gourmelen says he is convinced that British sales, now "a few million pounds", will triple in the next few years.

The brilliantly original Meccano idea was born at the end of the 19th century, when Frank Hornby, a book-keeper for a Liverpool meat importer, began looking for a better way of building models for his sons. He had a workshop, where he cut and shaped metal sheets, and concluded the problem was that parts were not re-usable. He made a crude set based on strips with holes punched every half inch. He bolted them together with nuts and bolts - and the first Meccano model was built. He did not call it that atfirst: the system, which Hornby patented in 1901 when he was already 38, was known as Mechanics Made Easy.

Backed by his employer, Hornby found subcontractors who could make the parts out of tin and brass, and hired a woman to pack them in a room next to the meat warehouse. Then he looked around for distributors.

If Hornby was a late starter, he took to getting rich like a nut to a bolt. By 1905 he had wholesalers in London, Liverpool and Sydney, and was publishing a manual in French and English. As schoolboys told him about the elaborate models they had made, heincluded the instructions in his next manual. Some of these, such as the 16-foot Forth Bridge, were so spectacular that department stores used them in window displays.

Hornby gave up his day job in 1907, and registered Meccano as a trademark. His company was now turning over £3,000 a year, and starting to manufacture parts of nickel-plated steel in its own factory. Within three years sales had quadrupled.

The product range grew steadily, adding a spring motor in 1912 and an electric one the next year. Hornby proved adept at marketing. When Edward VII died in 1910, he produced Royal Meccano to cash in on Coronation fever. He also offered huge prizes for the best models, which provided great publicity and new ideas for the manuals, and he produced educational sets which, he persuaded schools, were ideal for demonstrating the principles of mechanics.

By 1914, when the Binns Road factory was built, Hornby had a joint manufacturing venture in Germany, and Meccano was so popular in America that it was being shamelessly copied. He spent much time and money on litigation, even crossing the U-boat-infestedAtlantic in 1916.

He used the Meccano Magazine, set up in 1916, to give his "boys" lectures on how they should behave, and set up the Meccano Guild, whose Baden-Powell-like precepts included the encouragement of "uprightness, honesty, ambition and initiative". But he sometimes fell a little short himself.

"He preached fair trade, but was not above misleading his customers with claims, descriptions and advertising that would certainly not meet trading standards today," say Bert Love and Jim Gamble in the official Hornby history of Meccano. An illustration for one 18in model suggested that it was 6ft tall.

The factory made munitions as well as toys during the First World War, and by 1920 Frank Hornby was a millionaire. He branched out into clockwork trains, and dabbled in anything that took his fancy. After one trip to the US, Binns Road was told to start producing a Meccano radio.

By the late 1920s Meccano was being made in New Jersey and at Bobigny, near Paris. Though the US plant was sold during the Depression, the French factory kept expanding. In 1931 Hornby was elected as Unionist MP for Everton. He handed over the reins to his sons in 1933, and died three years later, aged 73.

The 1930s were glory days for Meccano. As its system became ever more elaborate, the company added a variety of other products, the most durable of which were Dinky Toys and Hornby Dublo electric trains. By the time war broke out, Meccano had become an icon. A National Savings Certificate poster showing a boy with a Meccano model was headlined "Lend to Defend his Right to Be Free."

By 1952 demand was so strong that a second factory was opened to make model cars. But complacency was also setting in. Dinky Toys were not improved, even though they were looking increasingly crude in comparison with the rival Corgi cars, while the Hornby Dublo system, which used three rails, was being trounced by the rival two-rail system from Tri-ang. Profits peaked at £750,000 in 1955, but fell in real terms from then onwards. Meccano launched a two-rail system at great expense at the end of the decade, but all that did was to bring it to its financial knees.

By 1963, teenagers were being seduced away from Meccano by transistor radios and records, while Lego had launched its invasion from Denmark. The company, now making heavy losses, was sold to Lines Brothers, owner of Tri-ang, in 1964.

Lines pushed Meccano into further diversification, including a range of plastic Meccano for young children in 1965. The railway business was sold in the same year, leaving only Meccano and Dinky production at Binns Road. "Joe" Fallmann, an Austrian-born manager with a tough reputation and a deep knowledge of the toy market, rationalised production, and sales started to rise again. But in 1971 the whole Lines empire collapsed. Meccano, which was profitable, was transferred to a separate company and sold to Airfix the next year.

By the mid-1970s Meccano sales were slipping and the management wondered whether its product was flawed. It concluded not that it was too difficult to make, but that it was too difficult to take to bits.

"That was fine in the days when a model could remain in the front parlour from one weekend to the next," says Bev Stokes, who was personnel then operations director. "But in modern houses, the instantly destructible Lego had a big advantage: parents could knock it down and sweep it under the settee." In 1976, the company spent time and money trying and failing to find alternatives to the nut and bolt.

There were other weaknesses. Because Meccano was virtually indestructible, replacement sales were minimal. And children were growing out of toys younger. "When I joined in 1971, my two boys were still playing with Dinky toys and Meccano at the ages of 10and 11," says the former finance director, Ivan Bruce. "But the age span dropped dramatically after that."

As the French are showing, there was a way forward for Meccano, but at the time the company was too busy lurching from one crisis to the next to see what it was.

Industrial relations were poor. Mr Stokes believes they were no worse than the admittedly miserable average for the 1970s - especially against the background of a workforce whose numbers were cut from 1,700 to 800 during the decade. "The reality was thatthere was some not very good management and significant lack of investment over many years," he says. "Some of the presses must have been original Frank Hornby stuff."

Mr Bruce is more critical of the workforce. "I worked at other companies including Pilkington and British Steel, and none of them ever had the sort of problems we had at Meccano," he says. "There was a running battle with the unions."

In 1976 Airfix decided the rambling Binns Road factory could never become efficient, and announced that Meccano was moving to Huyton. Pressure from Liverpool City Council forced him to change his mind. "The council said it could make things difficult forAirfix if it went ahead," Mr Bruce recalls.

Instead the company tried to reposition Meccano, simplifying the range. But signs of rot were now abundant. Large batches of 1977 production were returned covered in spots, while new painting equipment, installed at great expense, was never used because of union blacking.

As managing directors came and went, the lack of any hand on the rudder was increasingly evident. Meccano, while trying to economise, produced its most complex item ever, a road wheel with nine parts. Metal plates in the biggest sets were replaced with plastic ones, making some models unbuildable.

By 1979 Meccano sales were down to £2m a year, while Dinky output was running at £4m. The final fling was a range of monsters called Meccanoids; the company spent £100,000 promoting them, but even they were flawed: the design meant they would not stand up properly.

At 3.30 on Friday, 30 November, 1979, the 800 Binns Road workers were told the factory would close in 40 minutes. "It was losing £40,000 a week and Airfix, which was starting to slip itself, could not afford to keep it going," Mr Bruce says. He and his team set up in the Holiday Inn to tie up the financial loose ends, while the Maharishi and other potential rescuers came, saw and left.

In February, Airfix was given an injunction to evict the workers, and Mr Bruce's team moved in to empty the factory. He locked the door for the last time in September 1980, and Hornby's factory was demolished.

That was not quite the end of British Meccano production. Parts were made briefly for Airfix by subcontractors; but when the whole group collapsed in November 1980, production finally halted.

Thanks to Frank Hornby's early internationalisation, Meccano and its relatives were still being made abroad. Marklin in Germany made a recognisable relative ,even though the companies had long severed their links. The best Meccano, experts say, was made in Argentina - this factory still provides specialist shops with more unusual parts.

But the only country still using the Meccano name was France: when Lines Brothers collapsed, the French factory, now transferred to Calais, was bought by the American food company General Mills, which was diversifying into toys.

As Binns Road collapsed, the situation in Calais was not that much better. General Mills was concentrating on more fashionable plastic toys, and Meccano had become a sideline. In 1984, it decided to get out of toys altogether and the Calais factory, which employed only 40 people, was sold to a French accountant, Marc Rebibo.

Mr Rebibo decided to redesign all the Meccano sets, meanwhile taking on plastic moulding work for the motor industry to keep his workers busy. He then relaunched Meccano, selling it to shops in France and through distributors in other countries. In the UK, Atlascraft, a Nottingham-based wholesaler, took charge of it.

Jean-Marie Pennel, now general manager at Calais, says that although Mr Rebibo had many of the right ideas, he was naturally cautious and refused to hire a marketing staff that could bring real volume. "He was the man to restart Meccano, but not develop it. It wasn't in his psychology."

In 1989 he sold to Francois Duvauchelle, a high flyer with the Bouygues construction giant who had left to make his own fortune. By now Meccano sales were running at about £6m a year, and Calais was employing 90 people.

Meccano still had a loyal following among adults, who were well served by specialist shops. Everything Meccano in Henley-on-Thames, for example, had bought much of the Binns Road stock and is now the only source of top-of-the-range sets.

But the real problem was that the toy had lost touch with its original audience. "Meccano had aged with its consumers," Mr Gourmelen says. "We had to try to make it attractive to children again." It was all very well parents wanting to give their children Meccano, he says, but if it was not on their Christmas list, it would probably be abandoned by Boxing Day.

The French rejected the notion that indestructibility was a problem, and believed that with proper marketing Meccano could once again make it on to that wish list. They accepted that to many children it appeared to give little reward for a great deal of effort. But they believed that there would always be children who were by nature meticulous and patient. It was these children who would make up Meccano's "niche".

The sets were revamped to shed the old image. "Meccano is not about cranes and trains any more," Mr Gourmelen says. "It's about bikes, racing cars and all-terrain vehicles." The company also started a programme designed to capture children young, and to make sure there was a set to which they could move up. It invested £1m in a new plastic range, Junior Meccano, which was launched last year. "If you haven't convinced them young, there is no point in trying to sell to a 12-year-old," Mr Gourmelen says.

Meccano stopped selling the bigger sets two years ago, but still makes the 400 parts that go into them, which it supplies to hobby shops. When the hearts of youngsters have been recaptured, Mr Pennel says, it will re-enter the top end. Plans have alreadybeen drawn up for sets that are more sophisticated than anything hitherto.

Like Frank Hornby 90 years ago, the French are tapping whatever market they can find. Schools are being invited to pre-Christmas roadshows in Britain and France, and Mr Pennel notes that engineering students still naturally turn to Meccano to build models. One day, he says, Meccano might sponsor competitions, just as Hornby used to.

Despite the new investment, the Calais factory still relies heavily on old-fashioned equipment and labour-intensive systems. Next year two rivals, manufacturing in China, will be launched in Europe. Meccano knows its first and strongest line of defence is its brand name, but that its sets must not be priced too far above the newcomers. That is why Mr Duvauchelle will have to continue forgoing profits in favour of ever more sophisticated machinery. Meccano may have been bolted back together without the help of meditation - but it will be a while before we can be sure it will not again come apart at the trunnions.