These days, LEGO is the biggest toy manufacturer in the world by quite someway. As a result, it seem preposterous to suggest a title of LEGO vs Meccano.
It’s almost like comparing Ferrari to Ford or Apple to Acer. It seems unfair, but that hasn’t always been the case and there is more here than LEGO fans might think.
Why LEGO vs Meccano is Valid
I grew up in the 1990s in the UK, when LEGO and Meccano were more or less split. In 2003, LEGO would be saved from almost certain destruction and within 10 years they would become the biggest and the best. Prior to that, they were on par with many other toy companies and Hornby created Meccano (the same brand behind the model trains that everyone knows and loves) was one of them. Or rather, it was if you were in the UK.
In my era, kids either played with Meccano or LEGO and most of them opted for the former. So, just what made it so special, is it still going now and why did LEGO become so much bigger when the popularity was more or less split once upon a time?
Meccano vs LEGO: Basics
Mecca was founded in the English city of Liverpool and has actually existed in some form since 1901. This means that it predates LEGO (founded in 1949) by nearly half a century. Kids in the UK were busy building all kinds of vehicles and more with Meccano long before LEGO was even dreamt up by those Scandinavian geniuses.
Meccano sets, like LEGO sets, can be used to create all kinds of things. They come in many different parts and these can all be reused, which means you can build, tear down and then rebuild however many times you like. The difference between the two is that Meccano focuses on metal strips and plates, as well as axles, cogs, gears, nuts and bolts, whereas LEGO uses simple blocks.
This brings us to the first major issue for Meccano and highlights one of the main reasons LEGO was able to become so much bigger.
Meccano vs LEGO: Building
You can build more with LEGO than you can with Meccano and you are also much more limited with Meccano. What’s more, the metal parts are more fiddly and require more of a skilled touch, as well as a lot more patience. LEGO became as big as it did simply because those little blocks could be turned into everything and anything, and that just isn’t the case with Meccano.
Meccano vs LEGO: End Product
As mentioned above, Meccano is a little fiddly and if kids don’t have patience then this can become an issue. However, the end product in Meccano looks much better and much more realistic than what you can get with the average LEGO set. There are no blocky, brightly-colored constructions. The sleek metal look was always something that appealed more to me as a kid and the same could be said for many of my friends.
When you are in your early teens and even your preteens, you quickly reject the colorful blocks you deem “too childish” in favor of the metallic look. The fact that Meccano was a lot more fiddly meant that it was a big hit with young kids, and that’s why kids of my generation were so keen to choose it over LEGO.
Meccano vs LEGO: Cost
LEGO has a cheaper look and feel, but the sets can cost a lot more money. However, in both cases you can buy cheap sets and you can buy expensive sets. LEGO probably wins this one purely because LEGO tends to increase in value and there are even people who see LEGO sets as a sound investment.
LEGO expanded their activities over time, growing from the relatively small company it was when competing with Meccano in the UK, to the giant it is now and in that time they expanded their range. The LEGO range dwarfs the Meccano one and there are cheaper as well as more expensive sets.
Meccano vs LEGO: Demand
Back then, Meccano was coming off the back of a successful history in the UK. My parents and grandparents knew the brand, so it was a natural choice for creative kids. In fact, everyone I knew had a Meccano set, even though half of the kids I knew didn’t know how to do anything with it, while many others don’t want to do anything with it.
Accessibility has been a big issue for Meccano in recent years. It might have been a big hit with creative kids in the 1930s to 1980s, but in the digital age, when consoles, cable TV and tablets rule, kids want things that are fast, easy and produce a brilliant end product. This is why LEGO has taken over somewhat and why fiddly Meccano sets have been left behind.
It’s also why my Meccano years were more like Meccano months—I only bothered with it for a brief period aged 12 or 13. I personally never got into LEGO, but many others did and many just preferred it.
Meccano vs LEGO: Success
These days, Meccano is a global name after they purchased the Erector Set company in the US and rebranded them all as Meccano. They are still going strong because they still have a strong brand to rely on, as well as a product that probably costs them very little to put together and is popular at Christmas. There are also Meccano clubs and publications, and these have been helped greatly by the digital age, even if Meccano hasn’t.
Ultimately, LEGO is the bigger, more successful brand and it always will be. But there is still a place for Meccano in the market and it will likely still be around for many years to come. Parents in my generation will likely look to LEGO and Minecraft before they even consider Meccano, but that doesn’t mean the brand is finished, it just means it has been resigned to the shadows of the retail marketplace.