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Hornby Trains


Hornby Railways was the leading brand of model railways for many years in the United Kingdom. Its roots date back to 1901, Hornby 'O' gauge clockwork train from the 1920's when founder Frank Hornby (1863 - 1936) received a patent for his Meccano construction toy. Frank Hornby was granted his patent and put the invention into production under the name ‘Mechanics Made Easy’. This led to the establishment of Meccano Ltd in 1907. Meccano production continued during the First World War.

Hornby, and his Meccano Ltd, based in Liverpool, released its first train, a clockwork 'O' gauge (1:48) model, in 1920. Hornby Trains were powered by a high quality clockwork motor, made of metal Hornby 'O' gauge Nord pressings held together by Meccano nuts and bolts. Hornby Trains were an instant success and the company was quick to introduce more engines and accessories. An electric train soon followed but was under-designed and the few that were made were sold out in France. In 1925 a much more successful electric model was introduced, operating on high voltage (220-240V) AC power. Safety concerns saw low voltage 4V and then 6V motors introduced, followed by a reliable 20V AC system, which was developed in the early 1930s. However, clockwork remained the mainstay of the Hornby 'O' gauge trains until 1937.

Hornby`s first electrics were the high voltage `Metropolitan` type, modeled Hornby Princess Elizabeth 4-6-2 in '0' gauge after the London Metropolitan Railway locomotives, even though the Hornby model had only four wheels instead of twin bogies as on the prototypes. High voltage trains are now regarded as dangerous in the hands of youngsters, but in the 1920s such things were accepted. Light bulbs were placed in the circuit to facilitate speed control.

A factory was established in France, which developed its own range of French outline trains, but Liverpool dominated export activity elsewhere, with large numbers of Hornby trains exported to Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and Scandinavia. Even though the export models were often painted in 'foreign' liveries, Hornby Hornby Southern 0-4-0 clockwork engine in '0' gauge trains looked very British. Hornby attempted to break into the American market by setting up a factory in 1927 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to make American-style trains. These were colourful and attractive, but low market and only clockwork. They probably would have failed in the marketplace because several established U.S. firms could undercut them and Hornby offered no better-class goods or electric models, but the Wall Street Crash precipitated matters. In late 1929, Meccano Ltd. sold its New Jersey factory to the A. C. Gilbert Company, and Hornby trains had vanished from the U.S. market by 1930. The leftover inventory was sold in Canada and in the UK, and some of the tooling was reused for products in other markets.

Hornby 'OO' gauge 4-6-2 Flying Scotsman Hornby introduced its 'OO' gauge trains in 1938 under the name 'Hornby Dublo'. 'Dublo' was a phonetic distortion of 'Double O' or 'OO', by which the gauge of 16.5mm became known. The locomotives were die-cast, and the carriages and wagons were generally made of tinplate. Buildings were built of wood. This was a very well planned range of electric models, successfully consolidating 12 V DC as the standard for 'OO' gauge. Billed as 'The Perfect Table Railway', these scale models were a radical improvement on anything previously available, both in realistic appearance and engineering. The system ran on 3 rail track, with shoes on the locos collecting 12 volt current via the centre rail. This had many advantages; simple wiring, good earthing on the two outer rails, a self cleaning pickup and strong track which could be reassembled without breaking. The tin base also prevented fluffing from the carpet.

Hornby 0-4-0 LMS clockwork tender in '0' gauge The range expanded quickly. Both clockwork and electric sets were available before the Second World War, although these were limited to Sir Nigel Gresley, an LNER A4 Class Pacific, and an LNER Class N2 tank locomotive in the liveries of the ‘big four’ companies of the time (GWR, LMS, LNER and SR). Production was curtailed from 1939 to 1945 due to World War II, production being completely suspended in 1942. Production resumed after the war but without a clockwork range, and did not reach full capacity until 1948. The Dublo range grew to include die cast steam and diesel locos, tinplate carriages and wagons, buildings and accessories. They truly reflected the British Railways of the 1950's. Due to the phenomenal quality and quantity produced many of these models are still available, often cheap and in working order.

Hornby Southern L1 electric engine in '0' gauge Like its counterparts Bassett-Lowke and Exley in the UK and Lionel and American Flyer in the US, Hornby thrived in the first half of the decade but struggled in the late 1950's. The company was slow to recognize the threat posed by rival manufacturers (particularly Tri-ang/Rovex) and to realize the potential of plastic. In 1959, far too late, Hornby introduced a two-rail track system, which used a mixture of plastic and tinplate, but even then the system was complicated and difficult to use in comparison to its rivals. Meanwhile the company plugged on producing a range of very old-fashioned 'O' gauge models, in 1957 completely retooling much of the range instead of taking the opportunity to discontinue it, indicative of major failings at management level.

Hornby 'O' Gauge trains were first offered in 1920 and last produced in 1962, although stocks remained throughout the 1960's. Hornby Railways R.051 0-6-0 PT 57XX Pannier Tank loco from 1973 Most Hornby 'O' Gauge collectors concentrate on prewar items and seek items such as the Princess Elizabeth (Hornby's only 6 coupled locomotive), the #2 Special 4-4-0's or the beautiful lithographed bogie corridor coaches. Hornby's postwar offerings were headed by 0-4-0 tender and tank locomotives. Remaining stocks of 'O' gauge were either scrapped or sold to the local retailer Hattons.

In 1964, Lines Bros Ltd., the parent company of rival Tri-ang Railways purchased Meccano Ltd., and merged Hornby and Tri-ang into Tri-ang Hornby. Tri-ang initially continued production of the acquired Hornby-Dublo range, but eventually the former Hornby line was discontinued in favour of Tri-ang's less costly plastic designs. The Hornby Dublo tooling was sold to G & R Wrenn a Lines Bros. Group subsidiary, which continued to make most of the loco range and Hornby Sir Nigel Gretley in '00' gauge 'superdetail' rolling stock. The trading name of Tri-ang Hornby continued even though there was no trace of the original Hornby Dublo left.

Tri-ang model railways had its beginning in a small firm called Rovex Plastics set up in 1947. This firm was making plastic model cars, but after conflict with Rover Cars over the use of the name Rovex, the company moved into the model railway field, making train sets for the department store chain Marks and Spencers. The first Rovex train set was in the Marks & Spencers stores for Christmas 1950, but in October 1951 the company was taken over by Lines Bros. Ltd, who manufactured Tri-ang baby prams and bicycles, and were looking to break into the model train market. With the resources of the Lines Bros. group, great expansion was possible, and by 1953 the outline of the Tri-ang range was available in the shops.

Hornby Barnstable Pacific in '00' gauge These model trains represented a great step forward in the production of model trains. The use of plastic injection molding meant: low cost, cheap mass production, less weight (less powerful motors required), greater detail could be reproduced. The Tri-ang range continued to grow throughout the fifties and early sixties. By 1964 Tri-ang dominated the model train markets in the United Kingdom, and colonial countries such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada. During the late 1950’s and early 1960’s there was a large production of Tri-ang products in Australia and New Zealand. This was to overcome trade barriers in place because of massive trading deficits. There was a small production in South Africa. Models designed for the Canadian and American markets were made in England.

The Tri-ang Hornby period is best remembered by many for the change to British Rail blue liveries on Hornby Duchess of Atoll LMS in 'OO' gauge diesel locomotives, the introduction of pre-Nationalisation liveries for steam locomotives and the launch of Battle Space and Battle Zone. Some of the locomotives produced during this time included the E3000, Hymek, Class 37, M7, Hall Class, Coronation Class, Flying Scotsman and Evening Star. In 1967 Hornby was merged internally into Rovex Industries, which by 1969 was Rovex Tri-ang Ltd.

Hornby British Railways Dwight D. Eisenhower Class A4, 4-6-2 steam locomotive with tender in 'OO' The Tri-ang group was disbanded in 1971 when Meccano Ltd's owner Lines Bros. filed for bankruptcy. When the Lines Group of companies was split up and sold, the Tri-ang name went with the manufacture of prams (Tri-ang Pedigree). The former Tri-ang Hornby was sold to Dunbee-Combex-Marx, becoming Hornby Railways (they could not use the Tri-ang name) in 1972. Even though the name changed, production continued at the Margate factory. The specification of a large part of the range was also upgraded to make it more attractive to adult enthusiasts and improvements were carried out to provide finer scale wheels, wire handrails on locomotives, better paint finish on plastic bodies and high definition printing of logos.

Hornby Duchess of Montrose BR in 'OO' gauge By 1976 Hornby was facing challenges from Palitoy and Airfix, both of which were producing high quality detailed models. Detail on the models was upgraded to make the product line more attractive to adult hobbyists. A multiple train control system named Zero 1 was introduced in the early 1980's. This digital system was a forerunner to the Digital Command Control (DCC) system, an NMRA open standard, which appeared in the 1990's.

By 1980 the market was extremely tough and Dunbee-Combex-Marx was liquidated, placing Rovex in receivership.

In 1980 Hornby became Hornby Hobbies and in 1981 a management buyout saw the company back on a sound Hornby Metropolitan Electric in 'O' gauge footing. It went public in 1986. Changes taking place on British Railways and privatisation of the railways at this time brought several new eye catching liveries that were eagerly modelled by Hornby. The demand for these liveries and higher standards of modelling led to a number of models being retooled. New products also included a Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends range, based on the television series.

By the early 1990's Hornby again faced competition from newcomers like Dapol and established foreign manufacturers, including Lima and Bachmann Industries. Manufacturing was moved to Guangdong province in China in 1995, completed by 1999, cutting costs and Hornby 'OO' gauge streamlined Coronation class pacific locomotive in maroon and gold livery of the L.M.S. #6237 City of Bristol improving quality, according to the company. The first totally new ‘Far East’ model was a Rebuilt Merchant Navy Class locomotive, which was to become a benchmark of quality for future locomotives and rolling stock. As part of the process Hornby also brought in some of Dapol's products and also some of the old Airfix molds (by then owned by Dapol). Train sets associated with The Railway Children (that was released in time for Christmas orders when the film came out), Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends and Harry Potter (the "Hogwarts Express") have been particularly profitable ventures. In September 2003 Hornby released its first steam-powered 'OO' gauge locomotive, a model of the record-breaking Mallard. Several other "Live Steam" locomotives have now been produced.

Since then Hornby has bought Lima, an Italian model railway equipment manufacturer that had previously acquired Jouef, a French manufacturer. Some of the ex-Lima models appear in the main Hornby products list. This range is known as Hornby International. This acquisition also included the Rivarossi line of Hornby Metropolitan Electric in 'O' gauge HO-scale products, also originally from Italy, and the Arnold brand of N-scale products.

Hornby now produces a large range of detailed British locomotives, such as the Class 60, Class 50, Class 31 and Class 08.

In November 2006, Hornby Hobbies acquired Airfix and Humbrol paints for the sum of £2.6 million. The parent company went into administration earlier that year after cashflow problems.

Now simply called "Hornby", the company justifiably retains the position it has held for more than 50 years as Britain’s leading model railway manufacturer. Hornby now also owns a group of historic model railroad firms, including Rivarossi, Lima, Jouef, Arnold, and Electrotren.

Hornby County of Bedford electric in 'O' gauge Hornby 4-4-2 Carephilly Castle electric in 'O' gauge
Hornby 4-4-2 Lord Nelson electric in 'O' gauge Hornby Compound electric in 'O' gauge
Hornby Braman Moore 4-4-0 in 'O' gauge Hornby Eaton Coach in 'O' gauge
Tri-ang/Hornby Brittania in 'OO' gauge Tri-ang/Tri-ang Lord of the Isles in 'OO' gauge

Hornby website
Hornby Railways Collector guide
Hornby Railway Collectors Association website

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