One of my favourite movies. Can't recall plot or characters, just the amazing First World War flying sequences. And I'm looking for a copy. And a good enough lead into a look at one of the finest airplane toys ever made the 1930s Meccano Aeroplane Constructor.Other toymakers in Germany (Marklin, Dux) and the USA (Metalcraft, Erector) made similar sets in the 1920s and 1930s, but, to my mind, none approached the quality and range of Meccano.
I love Meccano sets, instruction books, tin parts boxes, varnished set boxes, reversing No 2 clockwork motors, all of it. I can count nuts and bolts and disappear into the trivia of colours, patterns, dates of manufacture, American market sets, box design changes ad nauseum. But one thing I've never understood is why your average Meccano collector has so little enthusiasm for the 1930s aeroplane and car constructor sets.
To my eye they are the pinnacle of Frank Hornby's 'Mechanics Made Easy'; miniature sheet metal stamping and clockwork running gear as an art form. I am particularly fond of the aeroplane sets. At one time I had managed to accumulate 24 of them and was only just running out of significant variations.
Much like real aircraft, their design and tooling changed greatly throughout the 1930s. The first No 1 aeroplane of 1931, like the first Hornby trains (the nut and bolt Zulus) showed its Meccano heritage of flat plate construction. As a result these are hard to find in good condition because they bent easily without any strength to the wings. 1932 saw a strengthening of the wings with a folded over leading edge and ribbing but colours were still restricted to silver (with dull blue or red trim). Later models came in cream/green, cream/red, blue/white but paint adherence is a problem and mint ones hard to find.
The ad from early 1932 shows both the early version aero and the newer, 1932 version. Typical Meccano economy to utilize advertising artwork with very minimal changes throughout a product's life.
Between 1932 and 1941 the sets became larger and more elaborate. With the 2S you could build over 50 distinctly different aeroplanes quite realistically reflecting the Italian, French, German, English and American aircraft between the 2 World Wars.
Using European sets (made in the French Factory?), and their corrugated panels and wings, you could make a passable Fokker or Ford Trimotor (Lindbergh's 1927 trans Atlantic plane)
Sets made specifically for the Danish, German and French markets had the correct identification roundels and some unique parts.
Those readers of earlier articles know my wandering collecting tendencies. Here interests turned to early illustrations of aeroplanes in boy's books (the Wonder Book of Aeroplanes, Modern Boys Book of Engineering and the like) and to early aviation photos like this Canadian Aeroplanes Ltd publicity shot from the 1920s. You can see how well the Meccano sets reflected the reality and spirit of the era.
Of course you couldn't really fly your Meccano aeroplane. They were much too heavy and underpowered. There were 2 aero clockwork motors available; a simple No 1 which would barely rotate a single prop relying on a milled axle rod end to engage the motor gear, and a No2 which attempted to rotate a single prop while also engaging an axle to drive the wheels. You could manage taxiing the aircraft in a more or less straight line. With these power to weight ratios (again much like the real thing), you would have needed multiple engines with pusher and puller props to get airborne.
They didn't float either and I never dared to get one near the water but you can see again how faithfully the Meccano sets capture the lines of a 1930s flying boat.
Vickers, Fokker, Handley Page, Gotha, Breguet, Macchi, Gloster, Bristol, Westland, all could be built to a fair degree of accuracy. And, like most of the real aircraft, their Meccano production was ended in 1941. Some of the rarest versions are the very last production camouflaged Set 0 small aeroplanes. One would assume there was no money to re-tool for the car and aeroplane sets after the war. Late in 1939 the box label design was modernized (how did they pry the extra money for new art?) and showed a red DC2 airliner as opposed to the old cream and red biplane but no new airplanes.
Writing this rekindles my interest in this great toy. I really should finish restoring the Set 0 floatplane languishing in the basement workshop. It's a very pretty model. Maybe I should increase my e-bid for that blue/white No1 minus a pair of wings ??? And I could try again to collect all the parts I would need to build that 1930's dream constructor aeroplane - the giant 12 engined Dornier flying boat.
Patrick Flynn, the author, has written about, displayed, collected, restored and traded vintage toys for longer than he cares to remember. If you have just found some toys, if you just realized that you still have some of your toys (in this case the older you are the better!) and especially if you feel ready to part with some toys, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org