Hornby Dublo History Part 1


The perfect table railway

Hornby-Dublo bestrides the toy trains universe with an influence which goes far beyond its inventory and production. In the same way that brands like Scalextric and Airfix now connotate slot cars and plastic kits, the words ‘Dublo’ or ‘Double O’ are still used (and misused) in contemporary parlance by people who have little or no knowledge about model trains. Added to the iconic status, the invented word ‘Dublo’ has a particularly satisfying if tortured phonetic quality only matched by transatlantic brand names like ‘Kleen Eze’ and ‘Play Doh’.

Immaculate conception

When they introduced their new OO system in 1938, Meccano had a few things going for them. First, their Meccano modular construction toy had been incredibly successful, giving the company a huge presence in the toy business. This had been followed up with the Hornby O gauge train system which used Meccano principles and techniques to dominate the toy train industry between the wars.

Hornby Dublo pre-war clockwork passenger set from December 1938. A4 4-6-2 pacific loco ‘Sir Nigel Gresley’, two articulated LNER teak coaches and an oval of track. Sold at Vectis for £750 in 2006.
Hornby Dublo pre-war clockwork passenger set from December 1938. A4 4-6-2 pacific loco ‘Sir Nigel Gresley’, two articulated LNER teak coaches and an oval of track. Sold at Vectis for £750 in 2006.

Meccano’s experience, backed by efficient marketing and distribution through a strong established dealer network, was topped off by a formidable promotional weapon; their own in house publication, The Meccano Magazine transcended boundaries and enjoyed an obsessive following across the world. In short, Meccano were well placed to design and launch a new model railway system, and the Meccano Magazine duly carried the first advertisement for Hornby-Dublo in September 1938.

First to market

Once Meccano identified the market for smaller trains, they lost no time coming up with the first mass-produced OO gauge system as we know it. It is impossible to overstate the impact that Hornby-Dublo would have had on its adoring public. No-one had seen models of such detail, realism and precision outside of a museum, and certainly not mass produced in miniature.

It’s debatable whether Hornby’s choice of standards were an inspired decision which other companies chose to adopt, or whether other companies had to adopt them because Hornby were too powerful to challenge. Whatever, the measurements they chose have survived the test of time, and the combination of OO scale, 4mm to the foot and 16.5mm gauge is still the most common model railway standard in the UK today.

First Hornby-Dublo catalogue 1938-1939, boasting ‘Built to scale’, ‘Realistic detail’ and ‘perfect remote control’. The catalogue was in the form of a single large folded sheet.
First Hornby-Dublo catalogue 1938-1939, boasting ‘Built to scale’, ‘Realistic detail’ and ‘perfect remote control’. The catalogue was in the form of a single large folded sheet.

Hornby got it right first time with their choice of electrics as well; the use of DC power which relies on a magnet, means it’s easy to switch polarity. This allows for a simple system to switch from forward to reverse. Earlier AC powered models, such as those offered by Trix, needed a mechanical means of reversing. Limited space inside the loco then dictated a sideways-mounted motor, and the ugly protruding brush caps which characterised Trix products from this period. Hornby got their system to be simple, safe and reliable.

Although the design department may have been keen to go straight to 2 rail as a more realistic system, they went with the many benefits of 3 rail. Apart from the tinplate track being strong and durable, you get the benefit of good earth pickup from the wheels on both sides. Also the shoe pickup from the centre rail is inherently self cleaning. Two rail is a bit fussier, depending on clean track and wheels to cope with having live on one track, and return on the other. At exhibitions where vintage Dublo is run, the 3 rail trains always seem to run slightly more confidently than their 2 rail counterparts, and the operators are correspondingly more relaxed!

A perfect storm

The result of Meccano’s efforts must have been stunning to the consumers of the day. The models were exceptionally well observed and close to scale, as opposed to the models from Trix and Marklin. They were obviously prototypical and recognisable, to a revolutionary extent for a mass produced model. Take the humble N2 tank; the profile of the model complies to scale, it’s not lumpy or toy-like, and it’s instantly recognisable. The loco wheels are thin and see-through, not solid with a representation of spokes. Even the goods wagons have detail on their die cast chassis; yes the brake gear is webbed for strength, but it is still there in fine detail; a triumph of tool building and casting.

First Hornby-Dublo advertisement from the September 1938 Meccano Magazine: “The perfect table top railway at last!” The clockwork goods set retailed at 12/6 with the electric version at 17/6d.
First Hornby-Dublo advertisement from the September 1938 Meccano Magazine: “The perfect table top railway at last!” The clockwork goods set retailed at 12/6 with the electric version at 17/6d.

Hornby-Dublo was only produced for a couple of years before it became necessary for the factory to switch its attention to the war effort. What’s remarkable is the amount of Dublo that has survived from that period. Of course it was expensive, so unlikely to be abused or thrown away. But its survival also demonstrates how robust and well executed the products were.

Hornby were lucky in another regard; magnet technology was advancing, and they were on the right foot to exploit this when their competitors, slightly earlier to market, were labouring with compromises and complexities which Hornby were able to sidestep completely.

The range

Locomotives have always been the focal point of any rail system, whether full size or model. Dublo launched with two well chosen locos, a workaday tank engine and a glamorous express. Like most fledgling model railway systems, you got a goods tank loco plus some wagons; what you aspired to was the large express, and Hornby picked the most iconic, attractive and successful loco of the period; one of Gresley’s blue A4 streamlined pacifics. This was accompanied by a pair of articulated teak coaches, where two coaches share one bogie. The loco bodies were diecast, as were the coach bogies and wagon bases. However, the wagon and coach bodies were tinplate.

Locomotives

The first OO loco is clearly a particular prototype, despite three of the four colour schemes not being prototypical. This was and always has been extremely important, and Meccano understood this clearly. Even at the end they were reluctant to compromise, which in part led to their demise.

The first loco could have been an 0-6-0 tank, but no, they chose a prototype with an extra pair of trailing wheels, increasing cost and complexity. But any enthusiast would value that extra pair of wheels; it made the difference between adequate and highly acceptable.

The LNER A4 pacific loco represented the most up to date, streamline express passenger loco in its original form with valances. Both locos were available in clockwork or electric versions.

The streamline set; a fine drawing of the Sir Nigel Gresley loco with articulated coaches from the first catalogue.
The streamline set; a fine drawing of the Sir Nigel Gresley loco with articulated coaches from the first catalogue.

Rolling stock

Apart from the articulated coaches there was single LNER corridor coach and four variants of goods vans. Similarly there was a closed van and an open wagon, both in four varieties to cover the big four railway companies.

Post war improvement

Although the war stunted the development of Hornby-Dublo, and it took a long time to shake off austerity and return to non essentials like expensive model trains, it could be argued that the hiatus also proved a benefit. The gap in production must have given Hornby time to reconsider some of their earlier design choices. After the war there were two areas in which Hornby made changes; the clockwork locos were dropped in favour of an all electric lineup. This reduction of options would have simplified production considerably; something which Hornby were not noted for in later years.

Couplings

More importantly, the design of the couplings was changed. Consequently the style of couplings is the most obvious way to identify pre war Hornby Dublo. The original couplings were described as ‘automatic’, which they were when coupling. However there was no way to uncouple automatically, which is a bit of a holy grail for model railways. Another disadvantage of the original couplings was that it depended on being sprung, with attendant problems if the springiness was lost. The new Peco couplings solved both of these problems elegantly and simply.

Accessories

Hornby-Dublo wooden buildings; the through station and island platform.
Hornby-Dublo wooden buildings; the through station and island platform.

From the start, the Dublo range included metal buffer stops and signals with tinplate arms. There were also attractive wooden buildings including a goods depot, signal box, short and long tunnels, island platform and through station.


This article first appeared in the Collectors Gazette,  September 2015.

Still playing with electric trains