Now, the thing about toys is that they are meant to be played with. It follows therefore that a good toy is likely to be one that encourages play, or as I shall put it, has high ‘play value’.
What sort of play? The youthful, imaginative, physical type. Whether that means the more sedate pastimes of thoughtfully arranging dioramas, or rougher forays into imagined battle amongst the garden shrubbery, the important thing is that it is children we are talking about. After all, adults are perfectly content to collect and admire toys, but don’t tend to play with them. Yes, I know there are exceptions, but honestly, when was the last time you pushed a model tank along the floor with a “brrrrum”? Don’t answer that! I’m also not considering here the use of toys in wargaming, because although this is a type of play, the model is being used not as a toy, but as a game token.
So, let’s consider play value from a typical owner’s angle. Here’s my list of the things that a toy needs if Little Johnny is going to want to play with it:
- good looks
- ready to go
- other toys to play with it
Toys that look good and are ready for instant play are more likely to be picked up, and toys with features will probably hold the attention for longer. Little Johnny may intend to be very careful with his toys, but if a toy is not robust, it may not survive repeated play sessions… And if a toy can be used with complementary models from the same range, the number of imaginative scenarios that Little Johnny can dream up grows exponentially.
Note that accuracy is not in my list. Little Johnny may be a tank nerd (like me!), especially once he grows up a bit, but I doubt that this describes the average child who just wants to play.
Naturally, manufacturers are always keen to produce toys with high play value, so how well do the Dinky military series of the 1950s fare? Let’s examine this question by focussing on a flagship model from the range, the great big Centurion tank.
Firstly, let’s introduce the real vehicle. The Centurion was one of Britain’s most successful tanks. A wartime design that equipped the armoured units of the army through to the mid-1960s, due to a succession of armour and gun upgrades that allowed it to remain a viable combat vehicle. In 1948 the Mark 3 was introduced, seeing service in the Korean War a few years later. In the mid-1950s the visually similar Mark 5 was introduced. The Dinky model, released in 1954, must almost certainly represent a Mark 3 – this is confirmed by the presence of the rear escape hatch in the turret (though strangely rendered), removed on the Mark 5.
Dinky 651 Centurion Tank
Year first produced:1954
L127xW60xH46, Metal 290g, Scale 1:60, Features: 2
The Dinky model is satisfyingly heavy, due to the two large mazak castings which form the hull and turret. The turret rotates, but the gun is integral to the turret casting and so does not elevate. The underside of the tank is formed by a shaped steel plate, into which is embossed the usual Dinky marks:
DINKY TOYS, 651, CENTURION TANK, MADE IN ENGLAND and MECCANO LTD.
The model is generally accurate, but the dimensions are a bit off – the hull is slightly too wide which makes the turret appear slightly too small, and the gun barrel is too short. The overall effect is to make the tank appear slightly squat.
Dinky have employed an interesting approach to modelling the running gear, which emphasises practicality over appearance. The model can be rolled forward or back by pushing the hull. This is achieved by 5 pairs of stout metal wheels, fitted onto 5 axles, which grip the thick rubber tracks fairly efficiently (though of course over time the tracks do have a tendency to stretch).
However, let’s compare this to the running gear of the real tank (see the photo at the top of this story). The Centurion rode on 6 pairs of road wheels. Motive power was imparted by raised drive sprockets at the rear (note the serrated rims that engage in the tracks), and at the front, raised idlers guide the track back around to the road wheels.
Now, Dinky have modelled only half of the road wheels, plus the drive sprocket and idler. Why? Presumably to keep costs down, since it would have been perfectly possible to include them all. Having decided this, Dinky needed to disguise the missing road wheels. They did this by extending the side casting below the skirts to present a full set of dummy wheels cast in shallow relief. Not even the wheels that are actually present can be seen behind this! Hmm. For my money, this was a step backwards for Dinky – see here for an example of how well they tackled another tanks’ running gear far more effectively back in the 1930s (albeit on a smaller scale).
The model is painted overall in the usual army green and the only adornment are the Royal Armoured Corps flashes on the front and rear. Realistic, but fairly sombre.
Having examined the 1954 Dinky model, let’s take a look at a comparable product of the 1970s to get an idea of how toys changed during the intervening period. Rather than sticking with Dinky, we’ll also change manufacturer and take a look at one of their major competitors, Corgi.
Corgi Centurion Mk3
In the 1970s Corgi created a small range of tanks and guns from World War 2 and the Cold War periods. In 1974, they released their version of the Centurion tank. By this stage, the Dinky model had been out of production for 4 years, and the Centurion itself had been replaced in the British Army by the Chieftain (a tank that would also be modelled by both Dinky and Corgi).
The Corgi model is slightly smaller than the Dinky. Curiously, although Corgi also identified their model as a Mark 3, it lacks the escape hatch on the rear of the turret (and also, the machine gun has moved across from the left to the right of the main gun)! It has a similar level of detail, but with better definition. The tank sports a two-tone camouflage pattern, several colourful stickers at front and rear, and plastic tow cables on the rear hull.
Like the Dinky, the turret rotates, but unlike it, the gun also elevates. But the really exciting feature of the model – a game changer really, in terms of fun – is that the gun can fire plastic shells, by an ingenious mechanism formed of several components. The barrel of the gun is spring-loaded and can be pushed back into the thicker portion until it clicks into place and remains, shortened and cocked. The tip of the barrel sports a plastic muzzle, into which a plastic shell (supplied with the model) can be placed. The gun can then be triggered by depressing the prominent aerial housed on the top of the turret, which releases the spring and shoots the barrel back to its full length, propelling the shell forward out of the gun. Bang! Well, actually there is no bang, just a click as the mechanism is activated.
This is not all. The model also features a full set of functioning running gear – 6 road wheels, drive spigot and idler on each side – in plastic, all of which turn and move the flexible plastic tracks with great ease. The tracks, by the way, are fully detailed with individual links clearly defined. The whole arrangement both works and looks far better than the Dinky.
Now that we are familiar with the two models of the Centurion, how do they compare with respect to play value?
For my money, the Corgi is a far more attractive model to look at, with one reservation. I think the Dinky, with its slightly squat shape and clumsy rendition of the running gear, was a poor effort. A full set of wheels and a longer gun would do wonders for the model, transforming how it looks. The Corgi on the other hand looks better proportioned, with sharper detail and of course a proper set of wheels. The camouflage colour scheme is not, as far as I know, correct for a Centurion and personally I’m neutral about it – but I bet Little Johnny would prefer it! That reservation? Well, the bulky plastic muzzle may be functionally necessary, but it is an eyesore. Dinky 0: Corgi 1.
Both of the tanks are ready for play straight out of the box. In the 1950s, the working tracks, and the rotating turret of the Dinky were exciting features. But by the 1970s, the boundaries had been pushed further and the Corgi has both more effective running gear, and more importantly a gun that elevates and fires shells. When it comes to features, the Corgi wins hands-down. Dinky 0: Corgi 2.
I can say based on my experience of handling many vintage examples of both models, the Dinky model is more resilient to hard play. Over time the paint may be rubbed, and the rubber tracks may perish, but the casting itself is seldom damaged. On the other hand, the many working parts and plastic components of the Corgi are vulnerable – not fragile exactly, but many is the Corgi tank that turns up for sale today missing one or other of them, and with a broken or bent gun. No doubt the plastic shells would disappear as fast as they were fired! Dinky 1: Corgi 2.
If Little Johnny wanted to acquire some additional vehicles for his re-enactments, Dinky could provide him with a good selection of complementary British army vehicles, so his tank can be loaded onto an Antar transporter or tended by support vehicles. Corgi could offer fewer vehicles, and very few that were historical contemporaries, but at least there were plenty of tanks with which to exchange fire. Honours even?
The final verdict is clear. Dinky 1: Corgi 2. When it comes to play value, the simple, relatively ‘passive’ Dinky Centurion from the 1950s can’t compete against the smart and feature-laden 1970s Corgi, even if it is tougher.
Which leaves us with a question – does this mean that the Corgi Centurion is superior to the Dinky? No doubt Little Johnny would say yes. For us grown-ups, it’s a more complicated issue… What do you think?
Other armoured vehicles modelled by Dinky include the pre-war 151a Vickers Medium Tank, the 670 Armoured Car (Daimler) and from the French factory, the 817 AMX 13 Tank.