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So, what went wrong?

(Author: Charles)

Thoughts about modern Meccano


There are lots of good things about modern Meccano. Just the fact that it exists is one of them. And there are new and interesting parts being made. All the same, the "hobby" of Meccano has declined very seriously and has very few new young members. Why is this? What happened?

There's been lots of discussion about this. But strangely enough, Meccano themselves have defined the issues – in their catalogue of April 1949. There is a good introduction to Meccano in this catalogue, running to four pages of the small booklet. Interestingly, almost all of the key points described in this catalogue have been ignored by the various Meccano companies for a very long time.

All the quotes given below are from these four small pages in the Meccano catalogue.

The outfits and parts

Meccano is made in eleven different outfits ranging from No.0, the smallest, to No.10, the largest. These outfits are linked together by Accessory or "A" outfits, which enable you to pass from one Outfit to the next larger without unnecessary duplication of parts. None of your original parts is wasted; you do not have to buy any parts twice over.

This is one of the key issues in my mind. As we all know, there is no link from one outfit to the next nowadays. There are several different 'series' in existence, mostly with completely different colour schemes, none bearing any relationship to the next. This confusion at the retail shelf is a massive turn-off for the buyer and seems designed to reduce sales. The only numbered series of outfits (10, 20, 30, 40, 50) have no linking accessory outfits, meaning that there is no encouragement for the buyer to come back and get more. This wouldn't be quite as bad if the colours matched each other, as then at least larger models could be built without them looking like a dog's breakfast.

In addition, most of the Meccano parts can be bought separately, so that you can increase your stock of any particular part, or replace parts you have lost.

The expense of stocking replacement parts is often quoted as the reason for the spare parts no longer being available, but this sounds like rubbish. The parts were never cheap in the first place. Toy shops are rarely reluctant to sell even low-priced items, as they bring in customers. And, crucially, the Meccano spare parts industry was one driven by the kids themselves, who would save up to go buying the parts they wanted.

Obviously, the spare parts industry nowadays should be available online, and in fact could be done like this exclusively (bypassing the objections about toy shops altogether). Now, it is technically possible to buy certain spare parts online at the moment, but not directly from a Meccano website, and the supply of parts is often a problem. It appears that Meccano isn't as good at supplying the online distributors as they might be.

The parts in their shining colours are fascinating to look at and to handle. They are made of metal of the finest quality.

Well, isn't it inevitable there will be some plastic parts, given the price of metal? Not necessarily, I would argue. Even during some of the world's worst periods of metal shortage, two world wars and the Korean war, Meccano managed to make the parts they wanted – with blackening or other substitute finishes. All of these parts last a great deal longer than plastic ones. The continuing value of Meccano is that even parts 100 years old are still just as good as they were when they were made, provided they have been kept reasonably dry. Cost-effective finishes such as anodising and blackening could be used to make exceptionally durable parts today.

Manuals and models

...it is not necessary to begin your Meccano career with the smallest Outfits... The Book of Instructions for each Outfit includes these pages of models for smaller Outfits.

With current Meccano outfits, only the smallest outfits contain simple introductory models. The Mechanical Workshop, for example, contains instructions for several quite ambitious models, tricky even for experienced Meccano model builders. An eight- or nine-year-old has almost no chance. By comparison, even the very largest of all outfits up to the end of the Binns Road period contained instructions for a small selection of very simple models, gradually moving to larger and more complex models. The pre-war instruction manuals contain models that even four-year-olds can build successfully.

When you have built all the models shown, or as many of them as takes your fancy, try your hand at rebuilding one or two of them with small alterations that will readily occur to you.

Many of the outfits (for example, the tuning cars) have almost no alternative models, or at least not enough parts that much variation can be achieved. Recently, a Meccano enthusiast built a ball-rolling machine from the contents of the modern ferris wheel set. It was heralded as an achievement, and many fellow enthusiasts copied it eagerly. The fact that one interesting and complex alternative model could be built from the contents of a set should hardly be a surprise!

Each Book of Instructions contains also an illustrated list of all the Meccano parts so that you can readily identify them.

At best, each Meccano outfit now contains pictures and quantities of each part supplied in that outfit. Most of them are not even described (presumably to save money in translations?) There is almost no record of the various Meccano parts that are currently available. Oscar Felguieras is maintaining a list of the current parts lists, but it is quite a job. Colour schemes and variations in supply from one country to the next makes is almost impossible to know what parts are available, and certainly there is no information from Meccano about what parts can be purchased.

Even the smallest Outfits enable you to build a variety of models that work on exactly the same principles as the originals. With the larger Outfits you can build machines and engines of all kinds, with their working details reproduced accurately in miniature. Steam engines with cylinders, pistons and valve gear; motor cars with steering mechanism, gear-boxes and differential; machine tools such as lathes that will actually cut wood or wax; cranes that lift, luff, swivel and travel along; lift and opening bridges – all these and many other fascinating machines and structures can be built...

With the possible exception of the Mechanical Workshop, there is no Meccano outfit that can build anything like this range of models. Most can build only one or two types, and even the multi-model outfits contain strange varieties of cranes that have no obvious connection to the real world. The idea of a single outfit, such as the 1950's outfits 6, 7, 8, or 9, that have a reasonable range of parts and can build a wide range of models depending on the choice of the builder, has disappeared.

I'd love to hear your comments on the above... please feel free to add them below...

Total number of messages on this page: 17.  This is page 1 of 3.   Next

Orion      (at 9:52pm, Mon 25th Jan, 16)

Totally agree. The "experts" have muddled around trying to reinvent the wheel for about 30-40 years now. Best recent sales for Meccano around here that I know of was during the 90's, when they made a system of progressive sets 1-6, and the 10. From the amount available they must have sold a ton of them compared to all the other "attempts" at revisions by the "ex-perts".

I think that every lad goes to college and gets a MBA, but forgets to take the simple prerequisite "common sense". We get "college trained theater" scholars all the time, then we show them how things are really done in the real world. Takes longer normally to get a college grad to be worth his salt in the theater than just a normal joe off the street, and at least 10x as frustrating too.

John      (at 10:09am, Mon 1st Jul, 13)

The situation isn't that much better today.

Many of the secondhand dealers in england are quite arrogant and seem to have something of an attitude that they "are doing us a favour".

For those of us who don't live in England, we often have to rely upon these people and I have personally found that the level of service can be rather hit and miss, as well as the related matter of the seller's ego.

Some of the sellers are "big noises" at the exhibitions and that seems to go to their heads on occasions!

How wonderful it would be to turn back the clock to a time when every major toyshop in England and elsewhere had a thriving spares department. I have the six drawer cabinet with many items within which my father bought for me years ago when our local store gave up selling the spares.

Michael J. Walker      (at 5:06pm, Sun 30th Jun, 13)

Selling Meccano spare parts demands considerable patience plus at least a fair knowledge of the system if the customer is to receive reasonably fast counter service.

For example, the sales assistant may be asked for parts in terms that do not conform to the price list descriptions, and rarely given the part numbers.

With six drawers of spares in the dealer's cabinet, and even with the help of a drawer plan, where does the search begin?

It was all very time and labour intensive, with the likelihood of little profit at the end of the transaction. It was hardly surprising then, that on many occasions I encountered a resigned attitude on the part of sales assistants, when I arrived at their store with my 'wants list' of spare parts!

On the other hand, there were notable establishments such as Geoff Wright's MW Models, where the Meccano modeller was always accorded VIP status, regardless of how fat or thin their wallet might be.

Sadly, such shining examples were the exception rather than the rule.

neal      (at 4:44pm, Sun 30th Jun, 13)

the problem i think these days a lot of a children dont have the hand skills , too much time spent pressing buttons on computers

Cameron Stewart      (at 8:23pm, Wed 2nd Feb, 11)

I see where Carlos is coming from on 'the Generation(s) at hand', and where the original pitches of "Mechanics made Easy" and "Make and Know" are dying along with the quality of components especially with the introduction of plastic parts, barely functioning designs and horrid motors. All this and more is true.

Honestly, I think the new age management of Meccano should be dropped leaving the artistic engineering to the French, car building to the Japanese, and returning Meccano management and innovation to the original prolific engineering educators of the world, the English.

(Well they did give the world originally Meccano and the Collins, Cambridge and Oxford dictionaries.)

Carlos Giani      (at 1:05pm, Mon 24th May, 10)

IMHO, if we consider the way the modern markets behave (at least here in Europe and in the USA), I presume that producing Meccano in the classic way just wouldn´t work, because there simply aren´t enough young users out there capable of tackling classic sets. I´m definitely not meaning that today´s children are stupid, but it is the whole social and media enviroment which keeps them away from occupations which require patience, guide and the willingness to learn. I´m not against electronic entertainment, and I´m not against other toys like Lego (I myself have lots of it, accumulated over 40 years and 2 generations), but Meccano is much more challenging than these, and it definitely requires guidance. And here we are at an awkward point: with so many grownups today permanently looking for distraction, richness and fugacious pleasures, there is a big lack of example and guidance. Children normaly look first at their parent´s world and way of living, and will inherit their values. To be honest: how many car drives you know who have an idea how their cars work? And this is simple in comparision to most other machines! Unfortunately, there´s mostly nobody there to help junior when he wants to take his firt steps into construction (daddy is always at bussiness, has no idea or is simply too lazy). In most modern households there are no more encyclopedias but tons of DVDs and a TV in each room!

Although we Meccanoma**ure gave and give a good example, we are simply not eno... read more »

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