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Meccano Outfits

Throughout the entire period covered by this website (1901 to 1979), Meccano has been offered in a range of outfits of different sizes. Crucially, each larger outfit contained all the parts in the smaller outfits, and you could purchase a 'conversion' or 'accessory' box to convert your outfit into the next larger one.

I am convinced that this magnificent marketing trick was the reason why Meccano became so successful. Almost all other toys were a 'one-off' purchase. With Meccano, as soon as you had one set you knew exactly what you'd need to get to the next stage, and once you were there you needed to buy the next one! At the end of each manual there was a tempting selection of the bigger models that you would be able to build once you had made the progression. And, of course, this made the decision of what toy to buy for Christmas or your birthday so much easier. I just can't understand why they dropped this idea.

For the purposes of this page, we're going to divide the different eras of Meccano into manageable sections, and look at some images of Meccano outfits from each period.

Pre-Meccano (1901 to 1907)

Frank Hornby patented his new toy in 1901, and called it "Mechanics Made Easy". At first, there was only one box available. Very soon, however, he made a range of different outfits. Each one had more parts than the next. And, importantly, he also sold 'conversion outfits' which would convert one into the next. The first outfits were named A, B, and C. You could buy a box A1 to make your A into a B, and a B1 to make your B into a C. By 1906 this had extended to D and E. Outfit E was immense, containing almost 1000 strips and many other parts. A small outfit was also made, and called the "X box", for which you could buy an X1 accessory box to make it into a box A.

An outfit 5A dating from 1917
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Loading picture 1917Outfit5A

The nickel period (1908 to 1925)

In 1908, things were really getting off the ground. The word "Meccano" had been registered in 1907, and in June 1908 Meccano Limited was set up and purchased all of the previous company. From this point on, the toy was sold as "Meccano", and has changed surprisingly little. Some time around 1907 the company decided to change the letter system to a sequence of numbers. The X box became outfit number 1, and the boxes A/B/C/D/E became outfits 2 to 6.

In 1911, many new parts were introduced, and the larger outfits were reduced in size to a more reasonable level. An outfit 6 containing 168 of part 1 (12.5" strip) dropped to 48.

An outfit 7 dating from 1922, in superb condition.
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Please do not download or copy it for any purpose. It has been
reproduced from Spanner with permission from the image owner,
Jeff Jones (Surrey, UK)
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Loading picture 1922Outfit7 Meccano went from strength to strength worldwide, helped by the successful Meccano Magazine, and dozens of new and interesting parts were designed. Substantial prizes were awarded in Meccano-sponsored competitions, leading to the development of thousands of new and complex models by keen enthusiasts. Plans for these larger models were published by Meccano, and led to the introduction of outfit 7 in 1922, which contained all of an outfit 6 plus a huge range of the new and interesting parts to make many of these models. Outfit 7 was frighteningly expensive (initially 370/-, about two months' wages for a skilled working man), but at least it was something to aspire to!

The dark red and green period (1926 to 1933)

In 1926, Meccano announced the "New Meccano". In fact, this was very similar to the old Meccano, except that a small number of parts were painted instead of nickel plated. The braced girders became a light 'pea-green', and the flat plates and some other parts a medium red. However, this was such a success (and presumably cheaper than nickel plating), that in 1927 almost all parts were produced with an enamel finish. The colours changed to a very elegant dark green and dark red. There was some slight variation from year to year (or perhaps from batch to batch), but this new finish proved very popular indeed.

Each year, new parts were developed and announced, and were gradually added to each outfit. The most significant change came in 1930, when the outfits were substantially overhauled. Specialised parts that are now considered 'rare' were dropped from the outfits, and newer parts were included instead that are now more familiar.

This period is often considered to be the heyday of Meccano, when almost all boys in the UK and throughout much of the rest of the world were busily buying and building. Frank Hornby had also introduced his successful Hornby Trains, and no doubt his fame helped him to become an MP in 1931.

An accessory outfit 3A dating from early 1940
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Loading picture BG3a

The blue/gold period (1934 to 1941)

In 1934 the colours of Meccano changed completely. Strips changed from green to gold, and plates to blue with a gold cross-hatched pattern. The change was not universally liked, and still today it is very much a personal preference -- some love this colour scheme but many don't. Blue and gold Meccano parts are much less valuable today which seems to be more a function of low demand rather than over-supply.

At the same time, the outfits changed from their numeric sequence to a letter series, from A to L missing out I and J. At the top of the range, the K replaced the 6 outfit, and the L replaced the 7. Braced girders were replaced by a much larger range of flexible plates, initially made from a fibre board (and hence now quite rare!), soon changed to thin metal panels. Later, the sharp square corners of these plates were rounded off, which made them considerably safer! Some consider the 'L' outfit to be the best Meccano outfit ever made, although others prefer the pre-1930 Outfit 7. Either way, it was a magnificent set and an original one in good condition is worth a small fortune today.

Frank Hornby died in 1936, and in the following year the outfits were changed again. Rather predictably, the letter sequence of outfits had not proved as successful as numbers. At the top of this page we talked about the success of the obvious progression from outfit to the next. The general public found it less obvious to grasp that you needed an outfit 'Ha' to convert your outfit H into an outfit K! The outfits were completely overhauled into a new progression from outfit 1 to 9 roughly being equivalent to the old outfits 0 (the one smaller than A) to H, and a new outfit 10 with most of the specialised parts removed and replaced by new circular parts, being equivalent to something slightly larger than the old outfit K. At the bottom end there had been outfits 00 and even 000 in the dark red/green era, the smallest set now became the new outfit 0, roughly equivalent to the twenties outfit 00.

This new numerical system was to last for over fifty years with only very small changes. It is the system that most people are familiar with, and you can safely assume that most references to an outfit number are meaning this sequence of numbers. Although the outfits from 1 to 9 were a steady set of increments, the huge gap between an outfit 9 and an outfit 10 (around three times as expensive) meant that the outfit 10 was no more than a dream for most boys.

An outfit 3 from 1956. Note the elongated holes in the plates CMH
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Loading picture 1956Outfit3

The medium red/green period (1945 to 1957)

Production at the Binns Road factory in Liverpool stopped in 1942 and restarted immediately after the war. In fact, there have been copies of manuals found that pre-date the end of WWII, slightly 'jumping the gun' as it were. The colours of Meccano were changed from the blue/gold to a medium red and medium green, but the outfit numbers remained as before. Initially, government regulations prevented the sale of the more expensive outfits, and it wasn't until 1949 that the outfit 9 became available again, and 1950 for the 10-outfit.

This colour scheme is probably the one most people associate with Meccano, and is often shown to be the most popular. Whether this is because the collectors of Meccano are now of the age that they remember this colour scheme from their childhood or because of the colours themselves, it's not clear!

In fact, medium red/green had been around before the war. The very latest of the dark red/green outfits of 1933 were much lighter than earlier colours. With the change to blue/gold, these existing red/green parts were supplied for export, along with blue/gold flexible plates. You can therefore find numbered outfits dating from pre-war (not stamped "Made in England"), which have medium red/green parts and blue/gold flexible plates. For the purposes of UK Meccano though, medium red/green didn't start until 1945.

Only minor changes were made through the 50's, the most significant being in 1954 when the ends of the flexible and strip plates were made with elongated holes. This change allowed for considerably more scope when fitting flexible plates into unusual situations, and creating smooth curved shapes. This change is one of the most obvious ways to date a Meccano outfit. Although Meccano remained very popular through the fifties, it never really regained the heights it had achieved during the twenties.

Click here for a whole lot more pictures of medium red/green outfits.

An outfit 5 from 1960 CMH
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Loading picture 1960Outfit5

The light red/green period (1958 to 1963)

Meccano went through a facelift in 1958, with the colours being lightened considerably. These colours are referred to as light red and light green, although there are a number of different light greens that were produced. The colours are perhaps more toy-like (which would have been a good idea considering that's what it is!), and are not as desirable nowadays as the medium red and green, but you should not try to tell this to someone who grew up during this period!

Meccano's popularity went slowly and inexorably downhill, for all sorts of reasons. Some blame the television and competition from Lego and many other new toys made from much cheaper plastic, and there is no doubt that many of the models were starting to look very long in the tooth, most having been designed before the war. I would suspect that the principal reason was that the chairman's qualifications were limited to having had a successful father, as is the way with so many family companies. The best that can be said about the development of Meccano after World War II is that at least the outfits remained fairly consistent.

The Silver/Yellow/Black period (1964 to 1969)

In 1964, Meccano hit its first rock bottom and was bought out by Lines Brothers (the owners of Tri-ang). A desperate desire for a new image resulted in the updating of colours possibly to match the yellow road-building equipment busy building motorways throughout the UK. Green parts became a painted silver, and red parts became yellow. The larger circular parts, and the recently introduced plastic flexible plates changed to black. Given that the pulleys and some other parts were still blue since 1958, the steering wheel remained light blue, and some green parts inexplicably became nickel-plated, this was a rather mixed-up colour scheme.

In this period, each outfit was given a name, with the number being relegated to the corner of the box. The names such as 'Breakdown Crew Set' hid the fact that each outfit was almost completely unchanged from the previous contents. Although Meccano continued to survive throughout this period, it was a pale shadow of previous eras and was only profitable because of the very low price that had been paid for the company.

The quality of the silver painting (also referred to as aluminium paint) was terrible, initially painted over existing light green parts, but even when painted on bare steel it would mark very easily. During 65/66 the parts changed to zinc plating, which was very satisfactory when done well but when not correctly processed these parts would oxidise very easily, turning them grey and ruining the look.

An outfit 4 dating from 1970, with content similar to the outfit 3 above! CMH
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Loading picture 1970Outfit4

The Blue/Yellow/Zinc period (1970 to 1977)

The French Meccano factory had ignored the red/green period, and was still making Meccano in the blue and gold colour scheme from before the war, although they had dropped the cross-hatch pattern. In a bid to join the two companies up again, it was decided that both companies should merge their colour schemes. Strips continued to be zinc plated, plates were yellow, and larger circular parts changed from black to blue.

The outfit names were dropped, and in a blatant fit of disingenuity, the outfit numbers were increased by one and price reductions were announced! An outfit 7 of 1970 was indeed cheaper than an outfit 7 of 1969, but it contained largely the same contents as the outfit 6 of 1969! Only the outfit 10 remained unscathed. The previous outfit 9 therefore disappeared completely -- the 'new' outfit 9 was almost identical to the old outfit 8. This made the gap between a 9 and a 10 larger than ever! Perhaps unsurprisingly, the conversion set previously known as the 9a was dropped altogether. It would have been so close to the price of an outfit 10 as to be unsaleable. This 'reduction' in the outfit numbers is a very common source of confusion among newcomers to Meccano history, and should be very carefully watched. If you are offered an 'outfit 9' you need to be very careful to establish which outfit 9 you are going to receive!

An unused Outfit 9 dating from 1977
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Loading picture 1977Outfit9 The boxes in this new period changed to an elegant dark blue with silver lettering and pictures of the models that could be built on each box. Although the expensive silver lettering was soon dropped, the boxes were a great improvement on previous years. The new outfit 9 came in a smart light oak plywood suitcase-like box, and the 10 remained in a larger cabinet with drawers.

Click here for a whole lot more pictures of blue/yellow/zinc outfits.

An outfit 5 dating from 1978
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Loading picture dbdy5

The Dark blue/yellow period (78 to 79)

By 1978 Meccano was really struggling. The company had failed to successfully negotiate recession, high inflation, and the extreme strength of the unions of the time. New management decided that a change was needed, away from the sequential numbering (or lettering) systems that had served for Meccano's entire history. Although outfits 9 and 10 remained for adult enthusiasts, a new series of outfits 1 to 5 were launched.

There were some illogical components in this series, most obviously a motor included in the outfit 2 that was not used in any of the models in the manual. There was a much less clear 'upgrade path' with which to make a customer keep buying more outfits. There was an "S" (small) outfit to convert an outfit 1 or 2 into a 3, and an "L" (large) outfit to convert a 3 or 4 into a 5, but this was a strange cost-saving method and wasn't immediately apparent to the (parent) buyer.

At the same time, the zinc plating of strips was dropped and the strips changed to a deep blue, with the yellow parts changing to a dark yellow 'mustard' colour. This colour scheme is very elegant indeed and many Meccano enthusiasts are particularly keen on it, but there is sadly very little of this colour around. The unions managed to force Meccano to paint the parts by the old-fashioned and labour-intensive enamelling, even though the factory had already spent the money buying automated powder-coating equipment that could have done the job far cheaper and better. This kind of writing on the wall was always going to be terminal, and Meccano in the UK finally closed down on 30th November 1979.

Click here for a whole lot more pictures of dark blue / dark yellow outfits.

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