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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 2 of 3.   Previous  Next

Brian Willis      (at 12:07pm, Tue 29th Dec, 09)

After following these pages over the last couple of years, there sems to be total agreement with the authors comments. However, this does not tally with the many responses to Spanner where quite a few contributors have purchased and made up various modern models from currently available sets. Perhaps its desparation at the lack of 'normal' sets to buy but they seem happy with the results on the whole. There are a few vagaries which have been repeated in this column which have elicited negative comments and concerns similar to those mentioned already.

However, we all know this will not change Meccanos marketing strategy and they seem content to pursue their current agenda which presumably makes them money. Judging by the number available for resale on Ebay, etc, there seems to be a glut of some sets which might mean a neccessary revision in the type of sets and models presented if they are to continue to add to the bottom line.

Conventional sets from France seemed to do quite well if those on the used market are anything to go by. Thats where I got my second Meccano inspiration but their current offerings certainly wouldn't have had the same effct!

Kendrick Bisset      (at 5:17pm, Wed 18th Nov, 09)

Much of my Meccano collection is traditional (read: old), including my Dad's collection which he last added to around 1932 (some gems in there!). I have several modern outfits, too.One which I thought would be very interesting is the train (more correctly, locomotive). I found the instructions riddled with errors and omissions, and the resulting model is quite unsatisfactory. It will not run on my four foot minimum radius "G" (45mm) gauge railroad, and it has no tender (though I did come up with one using a second loco outfit plus some other parts). The appearance agrees with others' comments - designed by an artist.

I doubt that we in the hobby will affect Meccano's 'marketing' approach. I suppose we should be thankful that it is still available, in whatever form. Perhaps I should dump all of my 'new' Meccano parts into a box and see if something interesting could be built....no, I'd rather use my nickel or red/green or yellow/zinc...

Dave Groves      (at 2:55am, Sun 22nd Mar, 09)

An interesting point on the motor. As someone who only recently returned to the hobby after a hiatus of 35 years, I experimented with the French motors as while the traditional (i.e. Binns Road) parts are readily available, decent Meccano motors such as the Powerdrive motor are less easily found. I also found the new motors to be fairly pathetic, and have had to be creative with old video recorder motors and electric screwdrivers to operate my models. Having said that I have observed a number of models made by experts in the Transvaal Meccano Guild and Johannesburg Meccano Hobbyists working perfectly satisfactorily with the French 6V motors. In particular, Anthony Els has constructed Paul Dale's "Box of Gears", or "Manager's Special" running off the 6V motor in exhibition conditions (i.e. continuously and unattended), and Dick Anstee and Tony Gane have demonstrated complex mine machinery and ping pong ball transporting mechanisms using the French motors - So maybe my bad experiences with the French motor are more to do with bent axles, poor bearings, inadequate lubrication and general modelling incompetence!

Kaushik Saha      (at 5:47am, Tue 10th Mar, 09)

I have a special concern about the electrical motor that is supplied with the modern Meccano outfits, apart from the issues highlighted by Mr. Dave Groves, Mr. David Johnson and Mr. Craig de Bressac. This motor, which is packaged with a 3v and 6v battery supply, seems to be underpowered with respect to the weight of the models. I've done some dynamometer tests with the motor (made the dynamometer with Meccano :-). I found the torque constant to be 0.006 Nm/Amp, stall torque 0.0035 Nm, No load speed (theoretical) 4600rpm, with 6v supply. Current at max power is 550mA. So max electrical input=3.3watts and max shaft output = 0.45watts. This high power loss is explained by the rotor resistance which is found to be 4.6ohms with an ohmmeter. The torque and rpm at max power are 0.0018Nm and 2300rpm respectively. I have a feeling that this is too little power and torque for the large models in the manuals, even if you gear up to get the highest practicable gear ratios.
Please let me know if I've reckoned wrong. If there's anyone else who's had similar problems, perhaps s/he could give me pointers about the solutions.
Thanks, all

Reply: Wow, that's some serious research. I have to say that for any serious model you should be using either a Powerdrive Meccano motor or a modern non-Meccano motor which will give hugely more power for a great deal less battery...

David Parrott      (at 9:23am, Sat 14th Feb, 09)

I very much agree with the comments above on the failings of modern Meccano. I came back to the hobby about a year ago after an absence of some 25 years and have been steadily increasing my stock of both modern and traditional pieces. Some of the modern pieces are interesting and I've incorporated a few into my own models. My wife and children have also been attracted by some of the newer sets. My over-arching experience, however, has been that the models are all about artistic interpretation with little or no engineering merit. The "cover model" vintage car in Mechanical Workshop is dreadful. The suspension simply does flex once bolted together, the steering has almost no movement and is way too stiff, the motor should never be run in reverse or the "purely for show" cams foul, the truly awful method of restraining gears with small rubber collars allows parts to quickly come loose, and has anyone noticed that the steering wheel is situated to one side of the driver's seat and level with his/her shins? I could go on, but I think you get the idea. The quality of parts also seems to be somewhat down on traditional meccano; the strips feel a little thinner and there's far too much plastic. A good supply of good quality parts sold as spares, a progressive system of working models featuring good engineering, and a properly sequenced series of sets (with intermediate conversions) would certainly get my vote.

David Johnson      (at 4:39am, Tue 3rd Feb, 09)

I was very interested to read this discussion, because I bought my 7 year old a Mechanical Workshop set for Christmas. We attempted two models, only to find that both designs had fatal flaws that prevented us from completing them. There was just no way that the pieces would fit together - in one case, the holes in two pieces wouldn't line up as illustrated because one piece fouled against a bend in the other. I wondered whether anyone had actually built the model! If the set had contained sufficient pieces, we could have designed a work-around...

What do people suggest? Should I just stick with the Multi Model sets and bypass the more modern special editions like the Mechanical Workshop? Or acquire vintage Meccano or reproductions?

If anyone has thoughts to share on these issues, I'd be happy to hear from them: david@johnno.biz

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