Deconstructing Meccano: The story of a British icon

It's the toy that gave generations of boys (and some girls) a love of screwdrivers and spanners. Now, with sales booming, Hollywood wants to give Meccano a starring role. John Lichfield reports from Calais
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The Independent Online

This is the story of a great British icon, which, despite being full of holes, conquered the world. It is also the story of why that icon is no longer British but French; why the icon is about to become the hero of an American, 3-D animated movie; and why it is no longer always cheaper and better to make things in China.

The icon in question is Meccano, the toy which has taught basic engineering principles to five generations of boys and some obstinate girls. The perforated metal strips and screws and nuts and wheels and pulleys were invented by a visionary British entrepreneur, Frank Hornby, in 1901.

Just like a Meccano kit, the long and complicated history of the Meccano company has colourful components which can be put together in many different ways.

First, to make a Hollywood movie. An American film production company, Helix, has announced plans to make an animated 3-D film, rather like Toy Story, with Meccano (known as Erector in the US) in the starring role. Steven-Charles Jaffe, producer of Ghost and Star Trek IV, says he and his two partners were Meccano fanatics when they were boys. He hopes that the film will lead to a TV series and video games.

Second, the history of Meccano can be shaped, without much effort, into a sad but instructive story of modern Britain. The history of Meccano is the history, in miniature, of the decline of British engineering and manufacturing. Frank Hornby's toy empire, in Binns Road, Liverpool was also the cradle of two other great designs and brand names, Hornby model railways and Dinky Toys. The company went bust in 1964 from a combination of bad management (long after Hornby's death) and trades-union short-sightedness.

Meccano has been through various French, American and Japanese ownerships in the past four decades. It is now wholly owned by a French company, based at a factory in Calais set up by the original British company in 1959. Third, Meccano makes an optimistic, modern industrial story.

With its steel struts and girders and pulleys, it might seem to symbolise a lost industrial age. The kits have been updated in recent years to include radio-control, robotics, sound and lights. All the same, French and Chinese-made Meccano kits in 2010 retain precisely the same metal shapes, and the same hole spacing and sizes, which Frank Hornby created in 1901.

In other words, the Meccano factory in Calais churns out parts which are measured, not in millimetres, but in inches and fractions of inches. It still offers tiny, imperial-measure screws and bolts.

Despite – or perhaps because of – this bolted-on attachment to tradition, developments at Meccano point to a potentially more prosperous future for manufacturing in Europe. The Meccano company almost went bust in the 1990s but it is booming again after re-investment in new, automated machinery. Sales are 20 per cent up these past three or four years.

"We lost out for a while during the computer-game boom," said the factory manager, Mattei Théodore. "But there seems, all over the world, to be a return to traditional values, and traditional kinds of toys – a trend which has been reinforced by the recession. At a time of uncertainty, people feel the need for something more solid, something they can touch, something more educational."

The company has just decided to repatriate a large part of its production from China back to France, not for sentimental reasons, but for good, Meccano-like, nuts-and-bolts economic reasons. Mr Théodore says that the repatriation of 20 per cent of production from this spring (taking French production to 80 per cent of the total) is an "experiment".

He says that a number of factors make manufacturing in France a sound financial proposition once again. There are safety issues with Chinese subcontractors; there are

increasing costs of wages and manufacturing in China; there are higher charges and long delays for shipping; there is the need to react more rapidly to market demand. The Calais factory may gradually take over all production, save a few items such as miniature electric motors, which are no longer available in Europe.

Mr Jaffe, the filmmaker, is not the only person to have been lastingly impressed by Meccano as a boy. Two of the most successful contemporary British architects, Richard Rogers and Norman Foster, attribute their choice of career to a Meccano-obsessed childhood.

So does Mr Théodore, 44. "I loved Meccano as a child. It was Meccano which led me to choose to study engineering," he said. "When Meccano head-hunted me 11 years ago, I didn't have to be asked twice. I came here like a shot."

Mr Théodore ushered us into what he described as his favourite room in the factory. Three 40-something men were happily playing with Meccano. Their desks were piled high with Meccano parts and completed or half-completed models. On tables, on shelves, or hanging from the ceiling, were a Meccano Concorde, a Meccano Japanese winged monster, a giant Meccano sailing ship, Meccano space-rockets, jet-fighters, trucks, cranes, tractors, bulldozers and racing cars.

This is the "development office", where Meccano devises "lead" ideas for new kits, or identifies possible new components, or plans giant demonstration models.

The largest recent Meccano project was a full-size canal bridge built in Liverpool last year for the James May TV series Toy Stories.

"I come in here every day and play with Meccano," said Mr Théodore. "I still love to discover new ways that the pieces can fit together.

"We are always being asked to produce more plans for potential models, and we do. But, to me, the real delight of Meccano is inventing your own ideas, seeing what can work, and what does not."

His opinion is shared by the Reverend Philip Webb, a baptist minister from Derby, who is chairman of the International Society of Meccanomen. Mr Webb, 60, is celebrated among Meccano fanatics all over the world, for the size and elaboration of his models. The uninitiated sometimes fail to see the point.

"People, non-Meccano people, say to me: 'How long did you take to make that?' I say a year, maybe two years. They look at me oddly," Mr Webb told The Independent.

"Then they say: 'What are you going to do with it now?' And I say, 'Take it apart and start again.' So then I get even odder looks. Meccano is not about owning things or passively enjoying your possessions. It is about the pleasure of creation, of solving problems ..."

The Reverend Webb is delighted with the recovery of the fortunes of the Meccano factory in France. He senses a sharp increase in interest in Meccano among British children, encouraged partly by the James May programme last year.

But he says that the second half of the 109-year history of Meccano is a sad reflection on modern Britain. "We have abandoned our great engineering heritage," he said. "We have become a country of services and finance."

The Reverend Webb's only complaint about the French Meccano company is that they have abandoned the traditional colours. In the very early days, Meccano components were a metallic silver colour. They later became blue and gold and then red and green and then blue and yellow again. There are now, by Mr Théodore's admission "over 100 nuances of colour" in the Meccano range. "It makes it very hard to complete a large model in something like uniform colours," the reverend complained.

"We are caught between the traditionalists, who want to stay with the colours they like, and the need to appeal to modern children, who demand lots of colours," Mr Théodore said.

Reconciling tradition and innovation is what the Meccano survival – and success – story has mostly been about.The colour conundrum may be insoluble, but the proposed Hollywood movie should help Frank Hornby's much-holed invention to survive and thrive deep into the computer age.

Vroom vroom: The Hornby world

Frank Hornby (1863-1936) created not just one icon of the miniature world but three. After the success of his Meccano metal engineering kits, his Liverpool factory went on to create Hornby model railways (1920) and Dinky Toys (1934).

The best-loved and most pioneering version of Hornby railways, the Hornby Dublo electric train sets, were actually launched in 1938, after Frank's death. They provided a cheaper and smaller scale electric model railway than had previously been available in Britain.

The brand thrived again after the war (during which the Binns Road factory switched to war production). But by 1964, poor management and union disputes brought the Meccano company to its knees.

The Hornby railways brand name – but not the line of Hornby models – was taken over by Meccano's great rival, Lines Brothers or "Tri-ang". After various commercial derailments, Hornby Railways, based in Kent, thrives today as a wholly British company, with much of its production in China.

Rare examples of the original Dinky toys – ranging from cars to aircaft – can command four-figure fees at auction. The brand is now owned by the American toy company Mattel, but is little-used.