airfix betta bilda box lego copy

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.

airfix betta bilda box lego copy

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.

airfix betta bilda box lego copy

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…

airfix betta bilda box lego copy catalogue page


12 thoughts on “Betta Bilda

  1. Pingback: Early text speak… | easy on the eye

  2. In my opinion Betta Bilda was much more fun for an intelligent 7-8 year old. The smaller pieces allowed more design possibilities than the large clumsy Lego bricks, and as far as I can remember it provided actual doors, windows frames, roof tiles, etc. long before Lego.

    • Not really up on which firm did what first John, though Betta Builder always seemed more architectural than Lego. Both systems were pipped to the door post by Bayko which was a great house building toy from the Thirties.

  3. Pingback: Xmas 1963 | easy on the eye

  4. I always thought Betta Bilda was a better product and taught me how to build walls properly but using overlapping bricks to build in strength. I also really liked the more realistic windows and doors!

    • It was nice to play with I agree, though the actual plastic never seemed quite as robust as Lego. But much better for building and the like.

  5. I loved Betta Bilda. I used to play with it for hours. Never seemed to have enough pieces though. Lego was not a patch on this more realistic system.

    • It was a good toy, and I do recall playing with it as a child. I seem to recall bieng a bit frustrated when I realised the two system were incompatible!

    • It was a good toy, and I do recall playing with it as a child. I seem to recall being a bit frustrated when I realised the two system were incompatible!

  6. I really want to source a load of Betta Bilda, I had it as a kid and I thought it was great, wonder what ever happened to it…I’m building a house in Bulgaria and I’d love to make a replica of it, not just for fun, but also to explain to my Wife what I’m doing and how it will eventually look.

    • Betta Builder does turn up at vintage toy fairs at reasonable prices, it isn’t as collectable as Lego. I guess ebay would also be worth a try. If you’re successful do take us a picture!

  7. I had Betta Bilda as a child back in the late 1960s into the 1960s.

    I did not like Lego. Big, chunky blocks! Betta Bilda were proper small bricks with Windows and doors to scale with panes for the windows. And there were tiles to build proper roofing, too! I preferred Betta Bilda to Lego.

    I also had a kit which used real miniature bricks and cement. Can’t remember any details of who made that.

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