I’m old enough to recall the fuss which was made by some writers and teachers when Toys R Us dared to first open in England, saying the distortion of the language was the start of a slippery slope, etc. Not so much the start as a precursor perhaps. But the truth is manufacturers had been doing much the same for years in an attempt to create copyrightable brand names. I was reminded of this when I photographed these Betta-Bilda toy sets recently.
Lego had invaded England and shaken up the construction toy industry. Airfix, primarily a maker of plastic construction kits (but with a side-line is all sorts of polythene oddities), decided to try and develop their own version to gain a share of the market.
Airfix Builder was a first attempt launched in the mid 1950s, but was soon replaced by Betta-Bilda. This was produced from 1960 to 1969 (according to the V&A).
I was lucky enough to have a grandmother who saw some of the early Lego sets and bought me one as a kid, so I was already hooked (still am to some degree). Betta-Bilda looked almost the same but was cheaper, so we tried a couple of packs. But while they were very similar they had been changed just enough to avoid patent infringement (though I have seen reference to Lego suing them), so the rival bricks did not mesh with one another. They were also made of a cheaper plastic, which just didn’t feel as good. It was back to saving up that bit extra for more Lego packs.
Even the budget style packaging looked just a bit crude compared to Lego, despite the very similar visuals – even down to having a young child making things on the set lids. Airfix copied the idea of a range of starter sets and additional pocket-money accessory packs (which were again almost the same size as their Lego rivals). But it was clearly a product developed in haste and without much vision.
Had I come to it before Lego, I might have been less picky. Certainly online recollections from people who did get into it point out that because it was more focused than Lego, being a largely architectural toy, the roofs (which were made using actual tile shaped bricks) and some other components were often more realistic. Although how many kids got to make the amazing Empire State Building replica as featured in their catalogues at the time isn’t known.
As I write, Lego have just launched an all white Architects set which looks uncannily like some of this early Airfix stuff…