Object histories in my garden #4: A Dinky Toy SEPECAT Jaguar

Not an adjective but a brand name, in this case dinky refers to Dinky Toys, a range of miniature toy vehicles, everything from engineering marvels like fighter planes such as this one, to life-like lawnmowers.  Dinky Toys were the brainchild of Frank Hornby, who was the innovator behind Hornby Trains and Meccano.  The Dinky Toys were made by Meccano Ltd.  They were produced in England between 1934 and 1979 at Meccano’s Binns Road factory in Liverpool.  They pre-dated other well known diecast brands, including the now better known miniature Corgi and Matchbox brands.

This particular object is a model of an Anglo-French SEPECAT Jaguar fighter plane, model number 731. The fighter on which the toy was modelled came into service in 1973, and the toy version was one of a series capitalizing on a new interest in modern warplanes.  It was one of the many curios pulled out of my garden during its ongoing revamp.  Most of the garden relics consist of fragments of decorated ceramic, but one or two are of particular interest (garden finds link).  Most of the later 20th Century items that we have found have been true rubbish, and every  object that we have found has been broken and was almost certainly dumped.  At first I thought that this toy was probably lost during play rather than deliberately disposed of, but on closer inspection it too is broken.

A promotional image of the Meccano Ltd. factory at Binns Road, Liverpool, taken from the back cover of the 1927 Hornby Book of Trains. Source: Brighton Toy Museum

The Dinky Toys company was the creation of Frank Hornby, whose name is forever associated with model train sets.  Hornby originally began with a vision of educating children wishing to teach  basic mechanical principles, which he translated into construction kits for children, the first of which were patented in 1901.  As Oliver Wainwright puts it,

With his “Mechanics Made Easy” sets he gave the system ultimate flexibility by punching holes on a regular grid across all of the pieces, allowing the parts to be bolted together as well as providing bearings for axles and gear shafts. Sold with a range of brass wheels and pulleys, gears and shaft collars, any number of complex mechanisms could be dreamt up – from bridges to cranes, to devices to ambush your unsuspecting sister.” 

The Meccano brand was launched in 1907, and went from strength to strength.   Hornby’s model train series came next, accompanied by all the accessories required to give them a real-life context.  The Hornby railway models, both mechanized and static, were so popular that Hornby’s next idea materialized itself as his Dinky Toy company, which was set up in 1934 to produce realistic model vehicles.  Wainwright again:

“The things he made didn’t look like toys, but precise versions of the real world, manufactured with exacting detail. His products were not packaged with the amoebic forms and infantilising colours of today’s toys, but gained their magical quality simply from taking things of fascination – industrial machines, trains, boats and planes – and shrinking them to the scale of 1:48, reducing the entire world to something that can fit in a box.”

The Dinky Toys were made from die-cast ZAMAK. Die casting is a manufacturing process that can be used to make geometrically complex metal parts in reusable molds called dies.  ZAMAK is a form of zinc alloy, described as follows on the DECO website:  “ZAMAK is a type of zinc alloy that consists of aluminum, magnesium, copper, and of course zinc. This alloy family contains copper, but is spelled with a K. This is because the acronym ZAMAK uses the German spelling: Zink, Magnesium, Aluminum, and Kupfer. That being said, ZAMAK is some times spelled ZAMAC with an English spelling. ZAMAK alloys are a separate family from the zinc aluminum (ZA) alloys although they both maintain a consistent composition of 4% aluminum.”

The Jaguar is 18cm long from nose to tail.  Although most of it is metal it also has small black plastic parts under the tail.  The top layer of paint is a fairly deep royal blue, and has slowly peeled off during its afterlife in my garden, revealing an undercoat of pale blue and the core dark metal grey beneath both. Comparing it with surviving examples online, it would have been painted with camouflage and other markings.  The whole thing is satisfyingly heavy to hold.  The canopy was spring-loaded to make it a moving part when depressed, and originally a plastic fighter pilot was positioned inside.  When the canopy spring was activated, it ejected the pilot.  Only a tiny piece of the canopy remains in situ, but the spring, a piece of cleverly bent metal, is intact and can be operated.  The plane once stood on three wheels, but all three wheels, plus the struts connecting them to the rest of the plane are now missing.  Two hollow spaces sit where the rear wheels would have been fitted.  The wheel struts were hinged so that the wheels could be folded into the main body of the plane.  There is a metal flap on the underside of the cockpit that may preserve the front wheel in situ, but cautious work to loosen it has failed and I really do not want to snap it.  The nose cone, originally black plastic, is missing.

Now if the garden would magically produce a Dinky Toy model 749, the delta-winged Avro Vulcan bomber (1955), I would be so happy.  I saw the XH558 Vulcan flying at Farnborough Airshow in 2014, and it was love at first sight.  Since then, I have fallen in love with the Vulcan all over again at Cosford Royal Air Force Museum, twice.  Irrespective of its ultimate purpose, it is a thing of awe and beauty.

For other objects in the series,
see the History in Garden Objects page


Books and articles

Wainwright, O. 2013. Frank Hornby:  The Man who put the World in a Box.  The Guardian, 15th May 2013


Die Casting

What is Zamak?

Dinky Site
Digital Museum

Wikipedia (very well referenced page)
Dinky Toys

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