Dinky Toys by David Busfield (Book review)

David Busfield’s new book tells the story of the iconic Liverpool-based toy brand

Never mind fidget spinners – the latest schoolkids’ craze, tens of millions of which have been sold worldwide – here’s an excellent book about the days when it was toy cars, intricately designed and built to last, that ruled the roost (among boys, anyway). And for several decades the most iconic brand was of course Dinky.

The picture on the cover of model no.255, a Mersey Tunnel police van, is a reminder that Dinky has strong local connections. Liverpudlian Frank Hornby, who was born in 1863, founded Meccano in 1907 and in 1914 opened a factory in Binns Road, producing mechanical engineering construction kits for children. His son took over the running of the business after Hornby died in 1936, and by 1963 the factory employed 2,000 people, 80% of them women. The Meccano company had by then expanded to include other brands, notably Hornby Trains and Dinky Toys.

Telling us the fascinating story of the rise (and fall) of Dinky is David Busfield, a bona fide Dinky nut. Over the past 30 years he’s amassed a huge collection of Dinky toys and memorabilia, and he’s a former editor of a Dinky Toys collectors’ magazine. He was also a professional photographer and the book is lavishly illustrated with his own superb colour photos of cars, packaging, publicity materials and all manner of other Dinky-related stuff. As a result, the book’s a visual treat as well as an absorbing read.

The very first Dinky toys appeared in 1934, when the range included cars, commercial vehicles, animals, human figures and a military tank. More models were added, before the factory was used to manufacture military hardware during the Second World War. But then came what Busfield describes as the ‘golden age’ of Dinky, between the end of the war and the early 1960s: an era when, as he says, ‘Dinky Toys were what every boy wanted.’

Busfield describes well the appeal of the toys, and how they stimulated children’s imagination, encouraging them to create a make-believe world filled with cars, buses, vans, bulldozers, fire engines and ambulances. It helped that so many of the models were faithful replicas of vehicles seen every day on Britain’s roads. In 1947, for example, the range included a Hillman Minx, a Morris Oxford and a Triumph Saloon. He also has a fine eye for the technical details of each model, drawing our attention to features that made them unusual or distinctive. You realise just how impressive was the general standard of design. Many of the vehicles had moving parts, and accessories such as telephone boxes and petrol pumps added to the fun.

Dinky became a worldwide success, and as well as factories in Binns Road, Speke and Aintree, Meccano had manufacturing facilities in the USA, Argentina, France, Germany and Spain. Vehicles that were made for overseas markets were often sold in the UK as well. The book has photographs of a Model T Ford, a Cadillac and a Volkswagen.

Meccano’s slow decline began in the 1960s. Their construction kits faced increasing competition from Lego (wonder what became of them?), while Hornby Trains were also suffering, partly because houses were becoming smaller and there was less enthusiasm for elaborate, attic-filling train sets. Dinky itself was threatened by the growth of Corgi. In 1963 Meccano made a loss for the first time, and the following year it was sold to the manufacturers of Tri-ang toys. Later it became part of the Airfix Group, who closed Meccano (and the Binns Road factory) in 1979. The Dinky trade name changed hands several times after that, and it’s now owned by the US giant Mattel, though they’ve done little with it, apart from licensing the production of some replica models.

David Busfield has of course an intimate knowledge of the Dinky collectors’ market, and he has some useful tips on finding and buying original toys (as well as scouring the Internet, you should check out toy auctions, toy fairs, model collectors’ magazines and the Dinky Toys Collectors’ Association). You need to beware of repainted models, but will have struck gold if you chance upon a dark blue and pale yellow (the colour is key here) 934 Leyland Octopus Wagon, worth around £3,500.

It goes without saying that men of a certain age will love this book. But anyone with an interest in how children entertained themselves in the past will find much to enjoy. And it’s nice to be reminded of a far-off time when Brexit didn’t mean Brexit – in fact it meant nothing at all…

Dinky Toys by David Busfield is published by Amberley Publishing, price £8.99