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Vintage Lego Sets: How to Identify and Collect Classic Lego Bricks

With a degree in biochemistry, Leah works for a small biotechnology company and enjoys writing about science.

This article will break down some of the history of the Lego company and provide some information on how to identify vintage Lego sets.

This article will break down some of the history of the Lego company and provide some information on how to identify vintage Lego sets.

The History of the Lego Brick

The Lego company did not always make building blocks. In the 1930s, owner Ole Kirk manufactured various toys and furniture, in an attempt to remain solvent through the Great Depression. In fact, the Lego Company didn’t have a name until a 1934 contest in which employees submitted ideas in the hopes of winning a bottle of homemade wine. The little company in Denmark finally selected the name Lego: a contraction of the Danish phrase leg godt (“play well”).

The Lego company is focused on creating high-quality products, and the company logo is det bedste er ikke for godt ("the best is never too good").

The first plastic interlocking blocks were manufactured by a company called Kiddicraft, and the Lego company received some plastic bricks for review in 1947. The Lego company decided to manufacture their own interlocking bricks, and dubbed the product Lego Mursten (literally, Lego Bricks). The very first Lego brick was a white 4 x 2 brick.

The Lego bricks did not sell well in the beginning, until the decision was made to improve the locking ability of the bricks and to sell the toys in a series of related kits. The first building system kit series was the Lego “Town Plan,” released in 1955.

A vintage Lego town set and space set, released in 1978–1979.

A vintage Lego town set and space set, released in 1978–1979.

How to Identify Early Lego Bricks

  • The first Lego bricks had a hollow rectangular base, but no hollow tubes under the bricks. The bricks were modified in 1958 with hollow tubes for better locking ability. The earliest bricks will not have the hollow tubes.
  • The first Lego bricks were available in the colors of red, white, yellow, blue, and black. Green Lego bricks were not included in the earliest building kits.
  • Roof bricks were added in 1958, so kits earlier than this year will not feature roof building components.
  • Lego wheels were not included until 1961, when the Lego System of Play was introduced (this series contained 15 vehicles—while the series debuted in 1955, wheels were not included until 1961).
  • Bricks manufactured prior to 1963 were made from cellulose acetate, a different plastic from the modern bricks. After 1963, bricks were manufactured from acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS).
  • Lego kits manufactured prior to 1964 did not include instruction manuals.
  • Lego kits prior to 1974 did not contain mini-figures. The earliest minifigures were not poseable, and did not have faces. The modern Lego minifigure was not produced until 1978. The first Lego minifigures had a variety of skin tones—the modern yellow Lego minifigure was manufactured in 1978, with the classic smiling face. Later models from the 1980’s and beyond featured specialized minifigures, such as pirates with eye patches and Lego aliens.
  • Lego Technic kits did not have pneumatic components until 1984.

The First Wildly Successful Lego Kit: Trains

In 1966, Lego released the Lego train system. This system contained tracks, building bricks, a battery compartment, and a 4.5 volt motor. The earliest Lego train systems have a 4.5 volt motor: later editions used a 12 volt motor (the 12 volt motor was added in 1968).

A second series of trains was released in 1981, with a wider variety of accessories (including lights and remote-controlled points). The trains from 1981 were available in 4.5V battery powered models, or with 12V mains powered engines.

Another series of trains was launched in 1991, with modern 9V trains which are able to use a modern transformer. The trains from 1991 also contain a speed regulator, which allows the operator to move the train forward, backward, and alter the speed of the train.

The First Lego Minifigures

The first Lego people were manufactured in 1974—the Lego company produced a series known as “Lego Family.” This was the best selling kit of all time. The very first Lego minifigures had no face and was not poseable—later models in 1974 were manufactured with movable limbs and faces.

The Lego Family minifigures were poseable, but had a different overall shape than the current Lego Minifigure. These minifigures were slightly larger, and had jointed arms and dress shapes built into the body of the female figures.

Lego Expert Series

Lego decided to create a set of Legos for advanced builders: the Expert Series was introduced in 1975, and series of kits (dubbed “Expert Builder”) were released for sale in 1977. These kits included motors, gears, levers, differentials, and axles for older Lego builders. Cars with working motors could be constructed from the Expert sets.

The Expert Series preceded the later Lego Technic series: in 1982, the Expert building sets evolved into the modern Technic sets—by 1984, the Lego Technic series has pneumatic components.

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The moon landing set on the left is circa 1975, and is an extremely early example of the Lego Space series.

The moon landing set on the left is circa 1975, and is an extremely early example of the Lego Space series.

Vintage Lego Space Sets

In 1979, Lego introduced the Space series. The Space series included translucent Lego windows, satellite dish bricks, and computer shaped bricks. An interview with a Lego designer reveals that the Lego company advertised for “space ship designers” in the Sunday paper—young Bjarne Tveskov applied and was sent a supply of Lego bricks. He was told to design a space ship from his imagination: his design was well received and the young Bjarne left high school to work for the Lego company full-time. Many of the Lego Space Series kits were designed by Tveskov. Tveskov invented two of the Blacktron space sets, as part of a Lego design team.

Lego With Licensed Characters

Lego sets with licensed characters (such as Harry Potter and Star Wars Legos) did not appear until the 1990s. These kits contain minifigures with realistic skin tones (similar to the on-screen character) and special building components to recreate the worlds of the beloved fictional characters.

Modern Lego Sets

The modern Lego sets include licensed characters such as Lego Batman and Harry Potter. Other current Lego sets include Ninjago, which feature Lego ninjas. The Ninjago series includes ninja characters of four "paths" which can battle atop lego-constructed tops. The four paths include fire, lightning, earth, and ice, and there are characters to represent each of the elements. A spinner can be purchased for each character, and battles between the ninjas can be staged with the "fighting tops."

Questions & Answers

Question: What was the size of the original Lego pieces?

Answer: The very first Lego building blocks (1949) were called "Automatic Binding Bricks" by Lego, and were very similar to a toy product made by Kiddicraft in the UK. The locking ability was limited in the first iterations of the toy, and this was not perfected until 1958, when the current brick design was patented. The bricks made from 1958 will work with any toy today and are of the same size. The bricks made prior to 1958 will not work as well with the modern blocks due to a different structure. The size of the pre-1958 blocks is the same (or very similar) to today's blocks, but the locking system was not perfected prior to this date.

Question: I was given two sets of legos from a friend and want to find instructions. The dinosaur set has a copyright stamp from 1992 along with the word 'Ritvik'. Are these Legos or something else?

Answer: The toy you were given is actually from a Canadian manufacturer, known originally as Mega Bloks, Inc. The brand is now known as Mega Brands, Inc. and was involved in an unfair competition lawsuit with Lego in the early 1990's. Lego claimed the Ritvik (Mega Bloks) brand unfairly competed with their product. The patent Lego held, however, had expired and Ritvik successfully defended their right to sell their product as long as it was fully distinguished from the Lego brand.

You may be able to find instructions for your toy by going to eBay and searching for "Mega Bloks dinosaur toy instructions." There are several instruction manuals available on that site and you have a probability of finding directions for building the toy you were given.

© 2011 Leah Lefler

What is Your Favorite Lego Kit?

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on January 31, 2019:

We are huge Lego fans, Alexander!

Alexander James Guckenberger from Maryland, United States of America on January 28, 2019:

Lego is awesome. :)

ada on August 06, 2016:

I have the red space guy from the space sets from 1976. I won him.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on October 18, 2015:

Legos are the best toy in the world. I might be biased, but the imagination and engineering skills developed from building with the toy are really valuable for kids. I am glad your mom kept your kits together, BoB! What a wonderful toy to hand down!

BoB on October 05, 2015:

I am glad my mom was very ocd about the Lego sets I had as a child. After I was grown and had moved out, she painstaking went through every set, ordered any missing pieces and bagged them. Now that my children are starting to build with them, we dug them out of storage. I did not realize how many sets we had, half still with the boxes and some unopened, mostly from 1984-1995. My kids love them.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on March 07, 2014:

We are huge Lego fans in this house, LEGOdomenick! My son just built a working candy dispenser with his Legos - I think it is the world's best toy!

LEGOdomenick on March 07, 2014:

Great little early LEGO history.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on February 12, 2014:

I wish I still had my old Lego sets, ilikegames. I had several of the old space sets, and loved them. They were (unfortunately) stolen out of our garage when I was a child!

Sarah Forester from Australia on February 07, 2014:

Love the article, I really should try find some of the classic Lego sets that I used as a young child, might be worth a pretty penny.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on September 27, 2012:

Thanks, Domenick! I love Legos, and my two boys love them even more. We recently visited LegoLand in San Diego, and my children were in heaven. My older son really wants the new architecture kits.

Domenick Dicce on September 26, 2012:

I have been slowly writing my own articles on LEGO. They are such a fascinating family company. The more I learn the more I want to know. Thanks for the informative read.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on December 14, 2011:

Wow, Bjarne - it is nice to hear from you! I will correct that quote: the models you created were very cool. We are huge fans of Lego in this house!

Bjarne P Tveskov on December 14, 2011:

Quote "The Blacktron space sets were entirely Tveskov’s invention, and were very successful."

They were very successful, but not my invention. A whole team worked on the Blacktron theme, I created two of the models. But thanks for the mention!

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on October 27, 2011:

My brother-in-law has some great vintage sets, including an elevated train Lego set (I think it is a monorail). I am so glad he kept them! They intend to give the sets to our children (they don't have kids of their own), but we want to wait until our boys are older. Right now, they like to build with Legos, but they wouldn't care for a vintage set properly! I do want to get a Lego train to go around the Christmas tree - that would be cool!

Sinea Pies from Northeastern United States on October 27, 2011:

Our family has always enjoyed Legos. They are the best invention. I think we had some vintage sets but, alas, they are long gone. Kids grew up and I decluttered. Bad move.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on October 20, 2011:

My boys are both Lego fanatics. Nolan loves his Duplos, but my older son is a whiz with the bigger sets. They're great for educational purposes - Matt's phenomenal addition skills and spatial relationship skills are probably from building with Legos so frequently!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on October 20, 2011:

What a fascinating history regarding Lego! I love learning new things and it was especially interesting that at first this product did not even have a name. You have given collectors of this toy some knowledge as to what to look for when finding some older ones for sale. Kids of all ages (even adults) like playing with Legos as a fun family activity. :))

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on October 19, 2011:

Definitely hang onto that set, especially since you have the booklets! We are big Lego fans - my son has developed an addiction to the tiny bricks and we just love playing with them. My first Lego set was a Lego firehouse back in the early '80's. My favorite Lego sets were the Lego space sets, though - I just loved them!

acc12 on October 19, 2011:

Interesting! My brother has a bunch of Lego from around 1975 including the booklet. It was always one of his favorite and most durable toys. We'll have to give it another look now that we know its history. Thanks for the info.

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