What Lionel is to U.S. model trains, Hornby is to the U.K.’s. Its 1937 “Princess Elizabeth” locomotive is considered the pinnacle of O Gauge trains. Its Hornby-Dublo “Cardiff Castle” is in the Guinness Book of World Records for running 153 miles nonstop. The Hornby-Dublo “Deltic” made news by transporting a 35-pound child on a specially made 00 Gauge trolley. And its “Flying Scotsman” was so popular, it was produced in 18 different versions.

Hornby was not, however, the first toy train in the British Isles. Train sets were first sold in England at the turn of the century, more than two decades after tinplate miniature trains were first produced in Germany and France. A man named W. J. Bassett-Lowke, “the father of British toy trains,” hired German toy train manufacturer Bing to produce sets based on British railways and began selling these imported toys.

Frank Hornby, whose Hornby Series is considered the epitome of British miniature train sets, did not come up with the concept of toy trains, either, nor was he even the first to bring them to Britain. In fact, around the turn of the century, Hornby was more interested in patenting his own invention, a construction toy set, first called Mechanics Made Easy, and then rebranded as Meccano shortly after its launch in 1907.

Meccano was a tremendous success, and it wasn’t long before Hornby’s fascination with cranes and bridge-building turned toward the railroad. In 1915, he produced a railway game called Raylo, not sold under the Hornby name, which used a clockwork locomotive, likely made by Märklin. To play Raylo, players manipulated a series of switches to prevent the engine from running into the siding or off the rails.

When the Hornby Clockwork Train, using the standard O Gauge, was finally introduced in 1920, it was considered revolutionary among toy-train enthusiasts. The Hornby Train Set employed the clever technology of Meccano, designed to be taken apart and put back together. In addition, nearly all toy trains of that era were tinplate, but the Hornby’s locomotive and coal-car were made of nickeled base plates enameled in black, red, or green, with brass trimmings.

Only three of the 120 British railroad companies were represented—London & North-Western Railway (black), Midland Railway (red), and Great Northern Railway (green). Their locomotives all had the same running number, 2710, on brass plates attached to their sides. Only the tender was trademarked with “M Ld L England” on the side for “Meccano Ltd. Liverpool, England.”

The Hornby Series was a huge success, partly because German products were so unpopular after the First World War. Around the same time, Meccano also offered a cheaper version of ...

Even though electric toy trains were produced in Germany and America starting around 1900, companies struggled with safety and the correct voltage for their tracks. So, again, Hornby, which produced an electric toy train in 1925, could be considered a little late to the game, but the company had a trick up its sleeve to one-up competitors.

The Hornby Electric Train Set, the first with a locomotive modeled after a real-life engine, was inspired by the Metropolitan Railway, now called London’s Underground Metropolitan Line, which was the first passenger subway. It had been slowly converted from steam to electric power from 1905 on, which means Hornby was able to launch its first electric toy train based on a real-life electric train rather than a steam engine.

Even so, Hornby’s electric model, which had a tinplate body and used 100 to 240 volts of alternating or direct current, was not considered entirely safe. According to some versions of the history, Parliament and the U.K. Home Office put pressure on Meccano until the company withdrew the high-voltage train set and began offering a low-voltage accumulator version.

In the late ’20s, Hornby was also under pressure to make a train on the half-size H0 scale, which was becoming increasing popular, but the company refused to relent. Two years after Frank Hornby’s death in 1936, though, the company launched its own miniaturized train set called Hornby-Dublo. It had its own scale, but it could run on any H0 Gauge track.

In the mid-’30s, Bassett-Lowke had already experienced great success importing the H0 Gauge Trix Twin Railway from Germany, which had 16.5 mm between the rails, as opposed to 33 mm on the standard O Gauge sets of the time. These electric trains were powered by a center rail that could use right- or left-hand pick-ups, meaning two locomotives could run independently on the same track.

When Meccano, now managed by Hornby’s son, launched it’s smaller-scale train in 1938, it introduced its own proportions. While the wheels ran on 16.5 mm H0 Gauge tracks, the rest of the train set was proportioned at a ratio of 1:76 (4 mm to 1 ft), instead of the 1:87 ratio (3.5 mm to 1 ft) of most H0 train sets.

Meccano made the Hornby-Dublo to be deliberately out of scale, with the wheels closer together than they should be (true scale would have required the rails to be 18.83 mm apart), because actual British train engines at the time were smaller than those in America and the rest of Europe. Otherwise, it would have been difficult to fit all the toy-train mechanics of a British toy locomotive into the existing H0 scale.

Meccano dubbed this new scale as 00 or Double 0, and the trains were named “Dublo,” intended to be pronounced as “Double O.” Because Hornby trains were wildly popular, this peculiar proportion became the standard for toy trains in the United Kingdom. In the United States, 00 Gauge means something different—a train that runs on a 19 mm track.

The company boasted that the Hornby-Dublo let you “lay out a complete model railway on your dining table.” Train fanatics loved the product for its highly detailed diecast locomotives, made using techniques Meccano had perfected in its line of diecast model cars called Dinky Toys. Hornby-Dublo was also praised for its top-notch three-rail track that allowed trains to run smoothly.

The 1958 launch of the English Electric Type 1 Bo-Bo Diesel Electric Locomotive marked two milestones for the Hornby brand—it was its first locomotive made from molded plastic rather than diecast metal, and it was the first inspired by a diesel engine, which fans of steam trains resented.

Another innovation, in 1959, was the introduction of Hornby-Dublo’s first two-rail track line, meant to compete with Rovex’s Tri-ang two-rail line. Unfortunately, enterprise brought about the downfall of the company. To keep fans happy, Meccano had to keep selling the three-rail track at the same time, at great cost.

In 1964, Lines Bros., the corporate parent of Rovex, maker of Hornby competitor Tri-ang Railways, purchased Meccano Ltd.—it wasn’t long before the two separate lines of trains were merged into one, Tri-ang Hornby. However, only two Hornby-Dublo products were fully brought into the line, the Terminus and Through Station Kit and the E3000 Locomotive, using the running number E3001.

By 1971, the Lines Bros. business had disintegrated, and the miniature railroads became Hornby Railways again. In recent decades, the Hornby brand has continued to be known for its accurate train models, and has remained a model-railroad leader in the United Kingdom.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Airfix Model Railways

Airfix Model Railways

Dave McCarthy's Airfix Model Railway treasure trove is an in-depth archive of the company's plastic railway kits fr… [read review or visit site]

Gateway NMRA

Gateway NMRA

This great reference site for model railroaders, from the Gateway (St. Louis) division of the NMRA (National Model … [read review or visit site]



This site is a treasure trove of HO scale model railroad manufacturer catalogs and other reference information, inv… [read review or visit site]

Postwar Lionel Trains Library

Postwar Lionel Trains Library

Bernie Schulz’s Lionel Trains Library focuses exclusively on postwar Lionel trains and accessories. The site cont… [read review or visit site]

Eric's Trains

Eric's Trains

Eric Siegel's site displays his collection of O-gauge/O-scale trains, tracks, turntables, and other accessories. A … [read review or visit site]

Tech Model Railroad Club of MIT

Tech Model Railroad Club of MIT

MIT's model railroad club, as one might expect, has one of the best websites for learning about how people play wit… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Hornby Dublo 3 Rail D1 Power Ethyl Tank WagonHornby Dublo 3 Rail Lms 4-6-2 Duchess Of Atholl Locomotive & Tender Edl2 Hornby R751 B.r. Class 37 Co-co Diesel Electric Boxed British BuiltHornby R350 Lner Class A4 60022 Mallard Br Green ,british Built Serviced TestedVintage Triang/hornby Oo/ho Scale Locomotive Boneyard Lot - As Is - Pts/restoreVintage Triang Blue Pullman Cars Hornby Railways Model Train Carriages + Tunnel 2 X Hornby R 430 Gwr Coach. 57' Brake 3rd. New And Boxed.9 X Hornby Dublo 3 Rail D1 Lms Wagons & Vans 6 X Hornby Dublo 3 Rail D1 Tank Wagons Power , Royal Daylight , Vacuum Etc EtcVintage Hornby Dublo 3 Rail 'barnstable Rebuilt Serviced Tested Wonderful LocoVintage Hornby Dublo 3 Rail L30 Bo Bo Diesel Electric Locomotive Rebuilt Vgc Hornby Br Express Freight Train SetHornby Br Inter-city Passenger Train SetHornby Pennine Express Oo Gauge Train Set R1158 Mint Boxed Unused From LoftHornby Ltd Ed R2078 The Mid-day Scot With Duchess Class - City Of Leeds Loco VgcHornby Oo Gauge`r2114 Virgin 3-car Set Class 43 High Speed Train Tested ServicedGenuine Hornby Trainmaster Train Controller. 12v Output.forward-reverse-stop-etcHornby Railways Oo - Left Hand Diamond Crossing - New - UnusedHornby Jouef Eurostar 4 Unit Train Pack Ho Scale Collectors ItemHornby Dublo 00 Canadian Pacific Cpr Loco And Tender Very GoodTriang/hornby Electra - Pantograph - Overhead Power - Catenary LocoTriang/hornby Canadian Pacific Railroad Cpr Shunting LocoHornby Silverlink 2509 Ho Engine And TenderHornby Series Gwr Passenger Coach Set First-third 6857, 6857, 4073 (3-cars)Hornby O Gauge 'meccano' No.1 Coal Wagon - BoxedHornby Dublo Duchess Of Montrose 4-6-2 & Tender Matt Green British RailwaysHo Triang Hornby British Railways 2-8-0 "evening Star" Loco & Tender New Os ObHornby Dublo #6917 Tank Locomotive 0-6-2 L M S 3 Rail.Triang/hornby Canadian Pacific Railroad Cpr F7 Passenger Loco GoodHornby O Gauge Type 101 Clockwork Lms 0-4-0 Tank Loco ( Good Condition With KeyHornby Dublo D1 Island Platform, Dinky Toys No.1003 Passengers Miniature FiguresVintage Hornby Duchess Of Montrose Engine & Tender 3rail Very Heavy Play WearCa967 - Vintage Hornby Train Locomotive - EnglandHornby Dublo From 4-6-2 Ho 46232 Locomotive Chassis Rods Linkage PartsLot Of 4 Tin Ho Hornby Train CarsTriang R.39 Tender Section. Excell Complete Cond. 2 Rail Dc. Oo Scale. No Box Hornby Oo Gauge R758 Class 35 Hymek Diesel Locomotive D7063 In Blue Livery BoxedHornby Dublo 00 T.p.o Mail Van Set Complete Boxed Near Mint Vintage Hornby"flying Scotsman"r850 Loco Drive British Built Tested ServicedVintage Metal Hornby Dublo Train Locoamotive 69567 Type Edl17 Nice Clean ExampleHornby Oo Pullman Parlour Coaches X 4 Rosemary Sheila Belinda Car No 77 Tri-angHornby Oo Pullman Parlour Coaches X 3 Suit Layout Tri-ang Trains Railways RovexHornby Dublo Track Layout: Buffers, Points, Switches, Uncoupling, Roadway, RailsOo / Ho Scale Hornby Thomas & Friends Open Wagon Foolish Freight Car Hornby Dublo 00 Semaphore Signal Boxed Set Of 2 ExcellentHornby Vintage Tin Litho Toy Train Luggage, Wicker Basket Suitcase 1 1/4 X 1 InHornby Dublo 3 Rail - Br Class 20 Bo-bo Diesel #d8000Triang Hornby Cn Red And Yellow Box CarVintage Hornby-dublo 3-rail Silver King A4 Steam Locomotive Serviced Tested VgcHornby 00 Ho Gauge Trains Railways Battle Space Job Lot Spares RepairsVintage Hornby Series Tinplate Luggage X2 Model Railway O Gauge 1366Hornby Dublo 3 Rail - Br 0-6-2 Tank Loco #69567Vintage Metal Hornby Dublo Train Locoamotive 69567 Br Triang/hornby Canada Pacific Railway Cpr Cattle Car In YellowHornby Oo Scale R.539 Railway CottagesHornby Oo Scale Water TowerTriang/hornby Canadian National Cn Car Transporter - Excellent BoxedHornby Triang Suite 3 Packs Of R.207 Track Pins UnopenedVintage Hornby Dublo 3 Rail -duchess Of Montrose -edl12 Rebuilt Tested Boxed Triang/hornby Cti Container Car In Bubble Box - Mint