Listed below are some of the other notable construction toy systems that were produced during the 20th century. The list is by no means exhaustive, as by some estimates hundreds of such systems have come and gone over the years.
  • Bing's Structator (Germany)
  • BRAL (Milan, Italy)
  • Buildo
  • Construction (E.Germany)
  • Constructor
  • Construct-o-Craft
  • Elektromehaniskais konstructors (Russia)
  • Ezy-Bilt (Australia)
  • FAC (Sweden)
  • Lyons
  • Marklin Metall (Germany)
  • Mekanik (Sweden)
  • Mek-Struct (China)
  • Mini Meta-Build (New Delhi, India)
  • Necobo
  • Palikit
  • Pioneer
  • Primus Engineering Outfits (England)
  • Schefflers
  • Sonneberger
  • Steel Engineering (U.S.A.)
  • Structomode
  • TECC (Czeckoslovakia)
  • Tekno (Norway & Denmark)
  • Thale Stahlbau Technik (E. Germany)
  • The Constructioneer
  • The Engineer (Toronto, Canada)
  • TRIX (Germany and England)
  • Trumodel (U.S.A.)
  • Vogue (Melton Mowbray, England)
  • Wisdom / Sagesse (China)

Ami-Lac Construction System

A BRIEF HISTORY OF
AMI-LAC

Metal construction sets were first produced in Italy in 1920 by Bral. By the early 1930s, a competitor appeared bearing the name AMI. Then, in 1954, Dante Alemanni, head of the company founded by his father Leonida Alemanni in 1908, acquired the firm of Fratelli Comerio, the maker of AMI sets, and began to manufacture new metal construction sets under the name Ami-Lac.

Ami-Lac is a two-part acronym. The first three letters are the initials of Articoli Metallici Ingegnosi (ingenious metallic articles); this slogan appears on set packaging to this day. The second three letters are the initials of Leonida Alemanni Casalpusterlengo, where Leonida Alemanni is the name of the company (and its founder), and Casalpusterlengo is the name of the town in northern Italy where the factory is located.

According to the current head of the company, Ausonio Alemanni, "We have produced metal construction sets since the mid-1950s, deviating very little from making the basic outfits, numbered 2 through 8, and only recently introducing monothematic sets. We were the first in 1980 to use powder-painting, making many colored parts. We produce good quality for a good price. In reality, metal construction toys have a limited market, but we have chosen to maintain the tradition, that is to say that practically all our parts are metal, and we still use the British Standard Whitworth 5/32 thread in our nuts and bolts."

This item first appeared in a slightly different form in the 4th Quarter 2003 issue of the SCEMC Newsletter. It is used here by permission of the author, Anton Calleia.

The current line of high quality Ami-Lac metal construction sets from Italy have changed very little since the first sets bearing the Ami-Lac name were manufactured in the mid-1950's. Today, they are still produced in the same family owned factory in the northern Italian town of Casalpusterlengo. For more details, read "A Brief History of Ami-Lac" in the left column of this page.

THE SETS
There are 22 different construction sets in the current Ami-Lac product line. As is common in other systems, these sets are designated by numbers rather than names. At the lower end of the spectrum, there are ten monothematic sets, i.e., sets designed to build a specific model. Sets 100-105 contain fewer than 100 parts, and are designed for the beginning builder (and/or children 5 years and older). Sets 106-109 contain between 100 and 200 parts. These sets, which feature slightly more complex models, are intended for the somewhat more experienced builder (and/or children 7 years and older).

At the upper end of the spectrum are sets designed for building multiple models. These range from the No. 2 with 170 pieces, up to the top-of-the-line No. 8 with over 700 pieces. In between are eight other sets, including No. 2000 which builds five different transportation themed models, and No. 201 which builds ten different models, five of which are motorized (this is the only set that includes a motor). Inside each set, the parts are arranged in molded white syrofoam trays (see below). Outside, most sets are packaged in full color cardboard storage cases, but several of the larger sets come in wooden cases made from unfinished or naturally finished clear pine with dovetailed corners and a hinged lid with a full color label pasted on the top (see photos above and below). The artwork on the label is duplicated on the cover of the instruction manual, which features a variety of model designs illustrated in black and white on a yellowish, old looking paper. The manuals are printed only in Italian, but this is not a hindrance, since models are meant to be built from the illustrations. According to the current head of LAC, the company takes pride in its adherence to the tradition of metal parts, and frankly trades on nostalgia. The "retro look" of the manual, artwork, and the parts themselves are a deliberate strategy in an admittedly limited market of mostly grown-up Meccano boys.

For the more advanced builder or collector, there is a series of multiple model building sets that culminates with the top-of-the-line No. 8 set, shown below. This series consists of sets numbered 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. In addition, supplemental sets numbered 3a, 4a, 5a, 6a, and 7a are also offered. The purpose of the supplemental sets is to upgrade each of the regular numbered sets to the next higher number. For example, Set No.7 plus Supplemental Set 7a is the equivalent of Set No. 8.

The large photo above shows the complete contents of Set No. 8. Like sets 5, 6, and 7, it comes packed in a wooden presentation case. The case measures 17¼" x 12¾" x 8", and the set weighs in at just over 17 pounds. Inside, the parts are arranged in eight individual styrofoam storage trays. Screws, nuts, and small parts are stored in small white rectangular cardboard boxes bearing the Ami-Lac logo. The set includes two instruction manuals: the No. 6 manual and a separate 7/8 manual. Both manuals feature the same full color artwork found on the box lid label. Oddly, although Ami-Lac literature indicates that the No. 8 set contains 724 parts, it actually includes well over 800 parts by my count.

Because the contents of the Nos. 3-8 Ami-Lac sets are standardized into a series of part trays that do not change (except for screws and nuts), each larger set is simply made up of the same part trays found in the smaller sets, plus one or more additional part trays (this system makes the supplemental sets possible). With this in mind, the contents of the No. 8 set, as shown above, includes the contents of sets 3-7 as well. Note the numbers I have added to the image - they indicate which trays of parts belong to which sets. Set No. 3 contains one tray of parts, shown at lower left. Set No. 4 contains two trays, marked 3 and 3a, and so forth. Of course, the trays marked with an "a" also represent the supplemental sets.


The No. 5L set, with 3 part trays in a wooden case


A page from the instruction manual

THE PARTS
Most, if not all, metal construction toy systems that have appeared over the years were inspired by the originator, Meccano, invented in England in 1901 by Frank Hornby. Some of these systems took their own form, like A.C. Gilbert's Erector, while others like Marklin Metall and Temsi closely imitated Meccano's format. Ami-Lac falls into the latter category. The current line of Ami-Lac sets, like those that came before them, are essentially a mixture of copies of English Meccano and Marklin Metall parts, with ½" hole spacing like those two systems. As a result, Ami-Lac parts are compatible with Meccano and Marklin parts, although they are not always completely interchangeable with them due to slight variations in dimensions. With a very few exceptions, Ami-Lac parts are made from metal, primarly steel, and the majority of these are powder painted in shades of yellow, blue, and red, similar to the yellow and blue livery of the later Binns Road British Meccano. Painted parts include plates (flat, flanged, and sector), girders (flat, angle, and truss) large pulleys, round flanged plates, windmill sails, and flexible plates. Unpainted parts include strips, trunnions, angle brackets, double angles, curved strips, medium pulleys, and fishplates. The majority of these parts are plated with zinc dichromate, giving them a characteristic golden color with occasional pink and green highlights. Small pulleys and most gears are silver-gray cast metal. Nut and screw threads are 5/32 British Standard Whitworth; nuts are hex-shaped, and four lengths of screws, with a combination of both slot and Phillips heads, are used.

As I mentioned earlier, Ami-Lac parts are a combination of Meccano and Marlin Metall styles. For example, perforated strips, large and small pulleys, and most flanged plates - to name a few - resemble Meccano closely, while angle girders, small flanged wheels, large flanged disks, and windmill blades reflect Marklin designs. Still other parts are unique to Ami-Lac. These differences are evident in the images below, which represent the Ami-Lac parts catalog as it appears in the current instruction manuals. It actually represents an older catalog, since many of the parts shown do not appear in any set in the current product line. To view photos of the actual parts, see my feature on the Ami-Lac No. 8 set.