We are usually too busy enjoying the toys we buy to waste time thinking about how they are made. However, every once in a while, doing so can reveal what an amazing enterprise toy-making was, and sheds light on the models themselves. What can we learn from the Dinky production process?
To Dinky, like all manufacturing enterprises, there were two important considerations which had to be kept in balance. Their toys had to be good enough to buy, yet cheap enough to produce. For the former, accuracy and robustness were the key. Accuracy was important because shortly after a World War and during a time of continued National Service, there were plenty of adults around who knew what contemporary army vehicles looked like, and plenty of children who wanted to emulate the exploits of the grown-ups.
To keep costs down, simplicity was the key. Dinky simplified production by reducing the number of parts and processes required, and as a by-product helped keep toys robust for play. And so, in the spirit of keeping things simple, let’s look at a typical but small army model – the Humber 1-ton cargo truck.
Humber 1-ton Truck
3,700 1-ton lorries were built by Humber in 1952-3 for the British Army, for use as light cargo trucks and radio vehicles. Most army trucks were commercial designs repurposed for military use (for example, the Bedford RL and the Antar tank transporter), which had the advantage of keeping costs down and allowing the basic vehicle to prove itself in civilian service. However, sometimes this made it difficult to meet some of the more exacting requirements of the military.
The Humber, on the other hand, was purpose-built for the army to an exacting military specification. For example, it not only had an excellent 4×4 cross-country performance, but incorporated the ability to ford through deep water, and could be dropped by parachute. As a result, although effective, it was an expensive and complex machine. This also led to reliability issues, and it was withdrawn from general service in the 1960s (though many were converted to armoured vehicles and saw service in security roles in Northern Ireland).
Dinky 641 Army 1-ton Cargo Truck
Year first produced:1954
L79xW34xH41, Metal 88g, Scale 1:60, Features: 2
Before considering how it was made, let’s take a close look at the model itself, and gain an understanding of the components that it consists of.
The main element of the model is a single mazak casting of the chassis, cab and body. It’s easy to see that this is likely to have been the most complex and costly part of the model, especially considering the complex shapes and detailing it incorporates.
Attached underneath the cab is a metal baseplate, carrying the embossed legend
“ARMY 1 TON CARGO TRUCK” & “641”
The remaining identification marks are on the underside of the mazak body.
Inside the cab are two elements which are, coincidentally, often useful in dating the models. The first is a driver, attached to a metal bracket, which is itself secured to the spigot projecting from the body casting that secures the baseplate. When the military range was first started, drivers were not fitted, but they were soon adopted as standard and models already in production modified to include them. Initially metal castings, towards the end of the range they were made of plastic. The Humber always came with a driver.
This model also incorporates another late addition, a plastic glazing unit for the windows. This is marked under the cab roof “1 TON ARMY”, presumably to identify it within the factory. Not all vehicles received glazing, but the Humber was enhanced with it towards the end of its production.
The Humber has two axles fitted with spun metal hubs and rubber tyres. These are generic ‘standard’ components, seen on many other vehicles in the Dinky range. They also underwent changes through the history of Dinky, the hubs beginning life pre-WW2 as smooth and domed, then changing to the ridged examples here, and finally to a plastic convex shape. Tyres were initially smooth, but later changed to treaded types.
The canvas tilt that would normally be erected over the rear of the truck is represented in the model by a piece of flat metal plate, bent to shape and left open at the rear. This can be fitted or removed by squeezing the sides.
For completeness, one final element needs to be considered. In the rear of the truck there is seating, perforated by two holes in each side. These are fixing points for seated passengers, which, unlike the driver, were accessories that had to be purchased separately (603 Army Personnel – seated squaddies with folded arms).
The model is painted in army service green, with transfers fore and aft indicating the Royal Armoured Corps. The driver and any passengers are painted khaki, with flesh areas and caps picked out. It’s a good-looking model, and very typical of the Dinky range of army vehicles. Naturally, when retailed the model would be packed in the standard Dinky yellow card box.
At first glance we might have imagined the Humber, being a small and relatively insignificant vehicle in the Dinky range, as a simple construction. Nevertheless, as we have seen, even the humble Humber requires, at its most complex, 6 bespoke pieces (the body, baseplate, tilt, driver bracket, windows and box), plus 13 standard components (the driver, transfers and wheel assemblies).
Now, we are lucky in that the factory drawing summarizing the overall arrangement for this model survives, and we can check off our components (except the box) against it.
It’s worth spending a little time examining the drawing, because it tells us a lot.
Firstly, it gives us a feel for how things were run in the Dinky factory. We can see that the model was a carefully designed object. Every component is numbered, and there were clearly internal quality assurance processes (checking and approving) in operation within the drawing department. The drawing was obviously updated during its lifetime, and there is an audit trail of these changes.
It also reminds us that manufacturing in the 1950s was largely a manual process. The plan is hand-drawn, and paper-trails were important.
Importantly, the plan can help us to date changes to the model. The original drawing is dated September 21st, 1953, but in June 1954 the driver and fixing bracket were added (see jobs 7447 and 10682 on the drawing). As the model was not released until August 1954, the driver would always have been present when sold, though his addition was clearly an afterthought. In April 1958 the tyres were changed, presumably from the smooth to the treaded variety, and it was not until January 1960 that the glazing unit was added.
Finally, at the top left corner a scale is shown – “13/64”. This means that every foot on the original vehicle is rendered as 13 sixty-fourths of an inch on the drawing. How on earth did people manage to cope with those awkward imperial measurements? For the benefit of everyone born after decimalisation, this works out at a scale of 13 over 64×12, or roughly 1:59. The drawing is annotated at bottom right as “FULL SIZE”, meaning that the model was the same size, or also 1:59 of the actual vehicle (rounded to 1:60 for convenience by me elsewhere).
Design & Preparation
When it comes to understanding how Dinky made their models, we are also fortunate that several accounts were published in the Meccano Magazine. From these, we can see that there were two distinct phases in any model’s life – the design and preparation stage, and production where the models were actually made. What follows is a brief summary of the processes involved based on those magazine articles.
The first stage of the design process was to make a set of drawings of the subject, sufficient to outline the components of the model. Any mistakes in the drawings would inevitably be carried forward into the models themselves, so great pains were taken to make the plans accurate. Wherever possible the Dinky draughtsmen used information supplied by the vehicle makers. Using these drawings, specialists in the various types of machine tool that would be involved in the manufacture could plan the creation of the tools that would be needed.
The next major stage in the process, was for a pattern-maker to carve in wood the main elements of the vehicle that would later be produced by die-casting using mazak (a hard zinc-based alloy). This must have been a highly skilled job, creating a 3D sculpture from a set of 2D drawings, and a good eye and hand would have been essential. The pattern was deliberately made several times larger than the resulting model was going to be, so that it was easier to reproduce the detail required.
The pattern was used to create a resin mould, which in turn was used as a master by the die-maker to cut the ‘dies’, or steel moulds used during production. The dies were extremely valuable items in their own right, as they were in effect the master moulds into which all the previous effort had been distilled. They were cut, using specialist 3D pantographing equipment, from the resin mould. The operator traced the lines of the mould, and the machinery reproduced this, simultaneously downsizing it to the scale required during production, into the solid steel blocks. Meanwhile, the other tools and processes required for production, were also prepared.
A basic die-casting mould consisted of two halves, mounted in an apparatus that enabled them to be quickly joined together and separated by the operator. Once joined, molten mazak would be injected into the cavity, after which the mould halves were separated to eject the casting.
Although very simple shapes could be made with a two-part mould, more complex shapes involving undercuts, such as vehicles, demand extra moving parts (sliders and cores) that must be released before the main halves are separated. Of course, every additional part greatly adds to the complexity and therefore costs of making the die.
We can see that some considerable investment of time and effort was involved in these pre-production activities, and that care was taken to ensure the accuracy of the information upon which the toy was modelled. Naturally this is where the major costs involved in making an individual model were incurred. In the early 1970s, one estimate of the costs in preparing for production of a single model put it in the range of £10,000-£15,000.
Once the casting dies and the other equipment was prepared, production could take place. The Dinky factory was essentially a production line designed for mass-production, and it was important for productivity that it was perpetually in operation. Individual models would be slotted into the production schedule in batches, over a period of years, new batches being submitted when stocks had declined and if demand remained buoyant, until the model was finally deleted from the catalogue.
The first stage in production was the die-casting of the main body component(s) of the vehicle, as described above. The resulting castings contained burrs and so were smoothed by rolling them gently in cages with small stones, after which they were dipped in a solution to facilitate paint adhesion. They were then washed and sprayed the base colour (military green in the case of the Humber) by semi-automated machines, and baked to dry and harden the paint. Following this, the headlights were silvered by spraying through masks, and the body then baked again.
At this stage, the mazak castings of the body of the Humber were ready for assembly. For this to begin, all of the other components were required. The bespoke items would be produced as required: the baseplates and tilts, and the small platform upon which the driver was fixed, were folded and cut from sheet metal. In later years when glazing was added, this was created by injection moulding. The other ‘standard’ components would be manufactured if stocks needed replenishment – wheels were cast and sprayed; axles cut to length; drivers cast and painted; and transfers manufactured.
To assemble the Humber, several largely manual operations were required. The tyres would be put onto the wheels, and one wheel placed onto each axle. The front axle would then be slotted into the baseplate and the rear axle into the main body casting, after which the other wheel could be placed on each. The projecting axle ends would then be flattened to secure these assemblies.
If glazing was provided, this was fixed into the roof of the cab. The driver was attached to the small bracket which held him in place, and the bracket placed over a spigot projecting from the body casting. The baseplate was then attached to the body by slotting it into a recess at the front of the cab (the projecting tip simulating a registration plate), pushing a hole in the baseplate over the same spigot, and flattening the projecting tip using a special tool to secure the driver and baseplate in position.
Finally, the model was placed in a box, printed with details of the model it contained.
I think it’s clear from the above that producing Dinky toys was a complex process, with many stages and treatments, and a good number of manual activities. Even the construction of the unassuming Humber truck once the constituent parts had been made involved bringing together a range of components, and a series of tasks.
We have seen that much attention was paid to ensuring accuracy during the design stage, and quality assurance was certainly an important activity during production runs. Dinky often lauded the accuracy and finish of their models in their advertising, so this was clearly important to them. Care was taken to add detail to the diecast components of the model.
The bulk of the cost of any given model was incurred during the design and preparation for production. As we have seen, in the early 1970s this might cost somewhere in the range £10,000-15,000. Recouping these costs from a toy that typically would have retailed for less than a pound at that time (and out of which must be deducted production costs and the retailer’s profit margin) shows that a high volume of sales would have been required before a profit could be made.
As a result of these cost pressures, Dinky were very strict in their efforts to avoid complexity. Every extra component would add cost to the design, manufacture and assembly of the models. Consider the Humber. It had only one diecast component. No attempt was made to detail the interior of the cab, or the underside of the vehicle. Features were kept to a minimum: the wheels turned, but the doors, bonnet and roof hatches did not open. The plate metal rear cover to the body which represented the canvass tilt was unadorned – no attempt was made to simulate the fabric or fastenings. The wheels and tyres were standardised components across the whole Dinky range.
In closing, it is worth mentioning again the driver and the glazing. The 1950s range of Dinky army vehicles were classics in green. But they were of their time, and the toy world was intensely competitive. By the 1960s, Corgi had appeared on the scene, and were offering more sophisticated toys (for a comparison, see see my story on the Centurion tank), with jewelled headlights, windows, suspension, opening doors and other exciting features. Dinky responded by retrofitting drivers and glazing where possible, but nevertheless the Dinky back-catalogue looked old-fashioned and crude in comparison. As a result, by the mid-1960s most of the military range including our Humber truck were discontinued. Robustness and accuracy were no longer enough.
Dinky produced a good selection of small military transports, including 153a Jeep, 674 Austin Champ and 800 Renault Sinpar 4×4.