Model Railway Firms

Model Railways have an interesting history from the Birmingham Dribbler to the modern models of today. Many firms, some with illustrious history have come and gone through the evolution of the market. Here we assess four model railway firms, Hornby, Triang, Bassett-Lowke and G&R Wrenn.

Hornby & Hornby Dublo

Picture of Hornby Dublo model train advert

Frank Hornby was granted his patent for a construction kit in the early 1900s and he soon put the invention into production under the name Mechanics Made Easy. This led to the establishment of Meccano Ltd in 1907. Such was the success of the company, Frank Hornby had to regularly move his factory to new and larger premises. Meccano was to become one of the classic toys of all time.

Meccano production continued during the First World War and Hornby took the opportunity to introduce toy trains in 1920. Hornby Trains were powered by a high quality clockwork motor, made of metal pressings held together by Meccano nuts and bolts and ?0? gauge scale.

Hornby Trains were an instant success and the company was quick to introduce more engines and accessories. In 1925 the first Hornby electric train was produced, operating from a mains supply of 100-250 volts. By 1929, Hornby had evolved a much safer system and electric models worked from a six volt DC source.

Hornby Dublo

Picture of Hornby Dublo Model Train

In 1938, Hornby Dublo (00) was launched. This was approximately half the size of the 0 gauge system except that the locomotives had cast metal bodies, not pressed metal, and the buildings were made of wood. 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 stopped during the Second World War (1939 - 1945) but Hornby Dublo soon reappeared once the war was over, although without a clockwork range.

Post war chronology
1947: The four tank 0-6-2 goods sets reappear just in time for Christmas trade, with the new "Peco" coupling.
1948: The loco "Duchess of Atholl" with LMS coaches appear, in boxed sets only, having been advertised in 1939 but never produced. "Sir Nigel Gresley" returned, again only in boxed sets, revised to post-war appearance without valances over the driving wheels and numbered 7 instead of 4498.
1950: Improved, heavier, loco chassis introduced, with powerful new "Alnico" magnet replacing the Horseshoe type, and radio interference suppressor fitted.
1953: Long-awaited announcement of Dublo stock in British Railways colours. The four private companies were represented previously, although from 1952 only LMS tank locos and goods sets were available.
Picture of Hornby train set 1954: BR Standard 2-6-4 tank introduced along with suburban coaches. and some new all-diecast wagons.
1957: Acceleration of new introductions, in the face of competition from other systems. First authentic Great Western loco, "Bristol Castle" introduced in October.
1957: Plastic wheels and axles start to appear on rolling stock, as a prelude to introduction of a 2-rail system.
1958: First "super-detail" SD goods wagon (bulk grain) with moulded plastic body. Tinplate-bodied wagons phased out, except for tank wagons.
1959: 2-rail system officially announced, though full supplies were not available until Autumn. A new system of 4-figure catalogue numbers introduced previous reference numbers were changed at least 3 times, and only printed in a public catalogue the previous year. The familiar blue boxes also changed to red for all items associated with 2-rail operation.
Picture of Hornby Book of Trains The "Hornby-Dublo Book of Trains" announced, by far the most lavish publication on the subject of Meccano Ltd. It is revealed that although 3-rail components will continue to be available, boxed 3-rail sets are discontinued.
1959: First plastic kit-form accessory (engine shed). Stations suitable for lower 2-rail track height followed in 1960.
1960: New ring-field motor for "Castle" and class 8F 2-8-0 locos, but not applied to any earlier models.
1960: Super-detail coaches, nearer to scale length than previous models, with plastic roof and body ends but retaining printed tinplate sides and steel underframes. Well-received by serious modellers. Plastic couplings first appeared on these models.
1961: The 3-rail steam loco models are re-vamped with some improvements and mainly new identities. In view of subsequent Company history, production was small, hence these models are scarce and relatively valuable. A new model of "West Country" 4-6-2 locos "Barnstaple" for 2-rail and "Dorchester" for 3-rail, is destined to be the last steam engine in the main system.
Picture of Hornby electric motor coach and Bo-Bo diesel 1962: Many new wagons and coaches and an electric multiple unit.
1963: Meccano Ltd. is now in serious financial difficulty, only 3 new models for this year. As an effort to increase business, a low quality "starter" set is introduced, with non-standard contents, marketed as a new range. A belated attempt is also made to simplify wiring for 2-rail points - the "Simplec type with insulated frog.
1964: Meccano Ltd. sold to to rival toymakers Lines Brothers, whose subsidiary Rovex Ltd. make Tri-ang.
The new owners announce the end of the 3-rail system, but allow some 2-rail manufacture to continue, including a new model of the A.C. electric loco E3002.
December 1964: Actual end of Hornby-Dublo production, with the infamous track-cleaning wagon, believed to be the smallest production run in Hornby-Dublo.
1965: Official announcement of the amalgamation of Hornby-Dublo with Tri-ang railways. In reality only the names "Hornby" survived.
Production of Hornby Dublo ceased in 1964 and some of the tooling was purchased by G&R Wrenn Ltd (another division of Lines Bros.) to launch Tri-ang Wrenn in 1967.
From the Hornby Hobbies site and elsewhere

The History of Hornby Dublo Trains, 1938-1964: The Story of the Perfect Table Railway (Hornby Companion) (Hardcover)
by Michael Foster (Author) published by New Cavendish
Hornby Dublo Postwar 3 Rail Collectors' Guide (Paperback)
by T. Oakes (Author) Also see Lickey Incline Resources.

Rovex Triang Hornby

Picture of Triang Catalogue (Based on material by Pat Hammond.)
Rovex Plastics Ltd was founded in 1946 by Alexander Venetzian who made toys for Marks & Spencer. Venetzian was asked to produce an electric train set based on the LMS express locomotive 'Princess Elizabeth'. The train set was delivered in time for Christmas 1950 but financial limitations prevented further development.

Meanwhile, the toy manufacturer Lines Bros. Ltd, that traded under the name 'Tri-ang', wanted to get into model railway market and in 1951 bought Rovex Plastics Ltd. The trains were marketed as Tri-ang Railways and the Company renamed Rovex Scale Models Ltd. A brand new factory was built at Margate, in Kent, and production moved there in 1954.

Demand for the new models was so great that in 1951 Rovex bought the tools of a goods train set made by Pyramid Toys Ltd. which was selling under the name Trackmaster and this provided an 0-6-2 tank engine and two wagons.

The range gradually expanded with the LMS Jinty 0-6-0 tank engine, a range of station buildings and a guards van and other wagons by 1953. In 1954 the company introduced a range for the export market called Transcontinental'

Picture of Triang Catalogue Tri-ang expanded quickly and 1955 saw the first real Tri-ang Railways retail catalogue. By 1956 there were 10 locomotives available and a good range of rolling stock and lineside buildings and other trackside items. In 1957 Rovex were pressed by Lines Bros. to start a TT gauge (12 mm gauge) model railway system. A completely new 00 track system called Series 3 was also introduced that year.

Lines Bros. Ltd. were also expanding toy production overseas and Tri-ang Railways was soon being made in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand; in each case for local markets.

1962 was a high water mark in the development of Tri-ang Railways. That year another new track system called Super 4 was introduced and along with it an extensive new series of station buildings.

There were now 25 locomotives in the range and an extensive range of British and Transcontinental rolling stock. New scale length coaches were added; there was an overhead catenary system, locomotives had Magnadhesion and smoke and the famous railway artist, Terence Cuneo, was engaged to show how you could 'weather' your Tri-ang models as well s paintings for the catalogue front covers.

Much of this growth was at the expense of other manufacturers including and the two main rival systems, Trix and Hornby-Dublo.. The former had already changed hands twice and in 1964, Meccano Ltd, the manufacturers of Hornby-Dublo invited Lines Bros. Ltd to buy them out and Meccano Ltd. joined the Lines Bros. Group.

Triang Cuneo Cover at Saltash By this time, production of Hornby-Dublo had already ceased but there were large stocks to clear. Under public pressure it was agreed to retain the Hornby name by renaming Tri-ang Railways, 'Tri-ang Hornby'.

This was presented at the time as an amalgamation of the two systems but the only additions this brought to the Tri-ang system were the E3000 Electric Locomotive (after extensive modification) and, for a brief period, the terminus station kit.

Another subsidiary of Lines Bros., G&R Wrenn Ltd., put in a bid for the Hornby-Dublo tools and these were used to launch Tri-ang Wrenn in 1967. They also took over remaining stocks of Hornby-Dublo and Tri-ang Railways TT. Lines Bros. Ltd were under pressure to get into N gauge but chose instead to import the Lima system which they marketed through G&R Wrenn Ltd.

By 1967, Rovex Scale Models Ltd. had become the core of Rovex Industries Ltd. which was called the 'model division' and included Minic Ltd., Minimodels Ltd., Spot-On Ltd., Pedigree Dolls Ltd. and IMA Ltd. (Frog). It also had under its wing G&R Wrenn Ltd. The division was renamed Rovex Tri-ang Ltd. in 1969.

However, losses overseas saw the giant Lines Bros. Group in trouble and in 1971 the directors of Lines Bros. Ltd called in the Receiver. The Group was broken up and sold off. The profitable Rovex Tri-ang Ltd was for a brief period called Pocket Money Toys Ltd and then sold as Rovex Ltd, with its factories at Margate and Canterbury, to Dunbee Combex Marx Ltd. (DCM). At this point, George Wrenn bought out G&R Wrenn Ltd and renamed its system Wrenn Railways. The name Tri-ang had been sold with one of the other companies and so a new name was required for the Tri-ang Hornby system. Hornby Railways was chosen and this took effect from January 1972.

The 1970s saw new challenges come from Airfix and Palitoy who both launched model railway systems that offered finer scale models. This and pressure from Lima forced Rovex Ltd to raise its standards. There was steady development of new locomotives over 20 in all.

In 1980 DCM were in trouble and Hornby Hobbies Ltd., as it was now called, became an independent company through a management buyout, with the help of venture capital. In October 1986, Hornby Group plc was floated on the Unlisted Securities Market and became a public company. By now both the GMR (Airfix) and Mainline (Palitoy) systems had ceased to be produced and this led to a new player, Dapol, entering the field and Lima getting a stronger toehold.

Changes taking place on British Railways brought new liveries thus offering more subjects to model. The demand for higher standards of modelling lead to a number of models being retooled and a search for ways to improve printing on models. In 1996, Hornby Hobbies purchased a number of tools from Dapol including several formerly used for the Airfix GMR system.

Hornby Logo Hornby Hobbies now has its models made by Sanda Kan in China and has substantially upgraded its range. Competition comes from Bachmann, using upgraded Mainline tools as well as new quality tooling, and from Lima who have concentrated on the lucrative modern image market. Hornby Hobbies recognises the important collectors' market and has established the Hornby Collectors Club and a chain of Collectors Centres.

Now called just 'Hornby'. The Company justifiably retains the position it has held for the last 40 years as Britain's leading model railway system.

Further Reading
'The Rovex Story' by Pat Hammond. published by New Cavendish Books. 'Volume 1 - Tri-ang Railways' (ISBN 0 904568 57 1), covers the story from 1950 to 1965
'Volume 2 - Tri-ang Hornby' (ISBN 1 872727 58 1) covers the period 1965 to 1971.
'Volume 3 - Hornby Railways' takes the story from 1972 until 1996.

Also see Lickey Incline Resources.


Picture of Bassett-Lowke Shop London Bassett-Lowke set up by W J Bassett Lowke in Northampton was both a sales organisation and a manufacturer. The model railway and model train items were frequently contractedto other manufacturers, such as Twining Models, and Wintringham's also of Northampton and latterly individual makers sich as Beeson and Hunt. Bassett-Lowke produced trains in a variety of sizes, from 15-inch gauge live steam models to Gauge 2, Gauge 1, and 0 gauge.

Their first 15-inch gauge steam locomotive, in 1905 was Little Giantand test run on the Eaton Hall Railway. Unlike other engines on the line it was a replica of main-line locos, being built for a new public miniature railway at Blackpool. It was a quarter scale 4-4-2 Atlantic tender engine, though not an exact copy of any particular prototype. This engine still exists in private ownership.

In 1914, Bassett-Lowke produced only the second Pacific 4-6-2 of any size to be built in Britain (the first being the GWR's 111 The Great Bear). This was the John Anthony, built for J E P Howey a racing driver who ran a private miniature railway at Staughton Manor. It was never delivered, but after storage at Eaton Hall during World War I, was sold to the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway and renamed Colossus. It was scrapped in 1927. Previously the Ravenglass and Eskdale had purchased another Bassett Lowke Atlantic, the Sans Pareil.

Picture of Bassett Lowke Model Train Catalogue In the 1920s, W J Bassett-Lowke recognised that the larger gauges could not be accomodated in the houses then being built and introduced 00 gauge products that were initially based on Bing products and with design input from Henry Greenly.

Bassett-Lowke's decline starting in the late 1950s can be blamed on a variety of factors. Bassett Lowke himself had failed to put in place a succession plan and once he became ill and died , the company really lost its way and failed to innovate. Also people would sometimes browse the firm's catalogue and then buy similar or nearly identical items elsewhere at a lower price. Consumer interest in technical toys in general began to decline in the late 1950s and Gauge O (Bassett Lowke's principal modelling scale) fell out of favour.. Bassett-Lowke's decline was mirrored by two of its U.S. counterparts, the A. C. Gilbert Company and Lionel Corporation.

In 1964 the company ceased its retail sales and sold its shops, including the famous one at High Holborn in London, to Beatties. The original Bassett-Lowke went out of business in 1965. In 1966 the company was acquired by Messrs Riley and Derry, and in the late 1980s by Nigel Turner, a Northampton businessman. In 1993 the name was revived for a while with short-run white metal models. These included a Burrell Type Traction Engine, Clayton Undertype Steam Wagon, Burrell Type Steam Roller, and London 'B' Type bus.

The brand name was in 1996 acquired by Corgi, which has now linked it with live steam and electric 0 gauge locomotives.

Because of the premium nature of Bassett-Lowke's models, they tend to be well preserved, and many examples survive today. They are highly collectible.

Key competitors to Bassett-Lowke were Hornby and Exley, although Bassett Lowke carried Exley products (sometimesmade by Beeson) in their catalogues

Most of the history of the rise and fall of Bassett Lowke is covered in The Bassett Lowke Story by Roland Fuller - with additional material by Dudley Dimmock - New Cavendish Books 1984 However this book concentrates on the model railway aspects of the company's business and does not cover in any depth all its many other model activities.
See also Bassett-Lowke Society
and Lickey Incline Resources.

G&R Wrenn

Picture of Wrenn Railways Model Train Catalogue

G & R Wrenn was a toy company specialising in the manufacture of model railways. It was founded in 1950 by George & Richard Wrenn [1]. Its early product line was trackwork for OO scale model railway equipment. In 1960 G & R Wrenn branched out into electric car racing toys similar to Scalextric but whereas Scalextric adopted the popular 1/32 scale, Wrenn produced their system to 1/52. Some accessories were marketed, such at track barriers, lap counters, pit buildings etc, but as the only proponents of the 1/52 scale, the system was never popular.

The mid 1960s were a bad time for the model trade and several companies collapsed. Lines Bros Ltd (operating as Tri-ang) bought up the Hornby Dublo line after the collapse of the Meccano Ltd empire and a year later bought a controlling share in G & R Wrenn. Wrenn were given the old Hornby Dublo moulds and continued to produce these models under the Wrenn name as well as acting as the distributor for the remaining unsold Dublo stocks. Around the same time the Wrenn car racing system?which competed with Lines Bros.-owned Scalextric?disappeared. In 1968 Wrenn took on the same role with TT as it had with Dublo, and the 'Wrenn Table Top' name was used to sell off the remaining stocks of the abandoned Tri-ang 'TT' 3 mm scale models.

Picture of Wrenn Railways Royal Scott model train In 1971 the Lines Bros Ltd group collapsed into receivership. Wrenn bought itself free from the receiver and traded under the name 'Wrenn Railways' for some time thereafter, primarily selling mostly die-cast products from the former 'Hornby Dublo' line. Although they obtained rights to many of the Hornby Dublo models, they did not acquire the Hornby brandname. Lines Bros had obtained this name as a result of buying up Hornby Dublo and used it as part of the name 'Tri-ang Hornby'. The Hornby name was subsequently sold to Rovex Ltd.

G & R Wrenn also had a sideline reselling Lima N scale models into the United Kingdom under the name 'Wrenn Micro-models'. Although they traded from 1972 to 1992 and kept a huge following they did little new manufacture beyond new liveries and numbering for the models they made plus the introduction of Royal Scot and a Merchant Navy class locomotives.
In 1992 the company was put up for sale by George Wrenn but the company ultimately closed down without a buyer being found. This was not to be the end however. Even as the closedown took place, Dapol was busy purchasing the remaining materials. Unfortunately, many of these materials?including many Wrenn company records, were later destroyed in a fire at Dapol.

Dapol made little use of the Wrenn material, selling a few wagons and reusing some of the designs in N gauge. In 2001 Dapol sold the name and most of the original tools and equipment to three collectors who have since released a small number of collectable items. Some other moulds which had been modified and improved by Dapol for the wagons manufactured at the Dapol plant remained in Dapol hands and have been used to make commemorative special releases for the Wrenn collectors club.

From various sources including Wikipedia
Maurice Gunter (March 2 004). The Story of Wrenn: From Binns Road to Basildon. ISBN 1903266424.
A HISTORY OF 00 GAUGE - Part 3. (August 1993) "The Economic History Review".
Also see Lickey Incline Resources.

See this YouTube film for stroll through some old Hornby Dublo catalogues: