22 November 2019

Old Elementary: The 1x2 plate with handle

Let's take a momentary break from our amazing Parts Festival to enjoy another look back into LEGO® element history. Skye Barnick suggested we discuss a tiny change to a familiar piece that occurred in 1983 and stepping up to the task we have Inthert, a UK-based builder who participated in our earlier Parts Festival this year.

Coming alongside the introduction of the beloved minifigure in 1978, the 1x2 plate with handlebars (Mini Handle - Design ID 3839) was among the first LEGO® elements to feature 3.18mm diameter bars, essentially meaning it was perfect for being held by tiny minifigure hands… or was it?
Only a few years into production, a replacement version (always pictured throughout this article on the right) was phased in, with two distinct differences. Since both the old and new version have the same LEGO Design ID number, I will follow BrickLink’s lead and refer to the old style as 3839a and the new as 3839b.

Because of its short-lived production run, 3839a has only ever (officially) appeared in three colours: White, Black and Grey/ Light Gray (i.e. the old light grey). Which makes for a rather meagre stack when compared to the veritable rainbow that is all 16 official colours of 3839b!

The most recent addition is Flame Yellowish Orange/ Bright Light Orange (Element ID 6258707) which comes in two 2019 sets: four in 80103 Dragon Boat Race and a whopping 16 in the sadly limited edition 80102 Dragon Dance. I was also surprised to find one in Brick Yellow/ Tan when I went through my collection (making a total of 17 colours here) as it doesn’t appear to have been released in any sets. A factory escapee perhaps?

But enough of colours and onto the aforementioned differences. The first and most defining is the positioning of the horizontal bars. On the original, they are in line with the centre of the plate, whereas on the newer version they sit just 0.25 of a plate lower, with the bars sitting past the base of the plate. The variation in height is easiest to spot when the two versions are placed back to back.

I believe there are a few factors that went into this change – not to mention one bizarre situation involving another element – but before I get into all that, let’s briefly look at the second difference that I feel, while equally subtle, is easier to explain. On the original, the bars are longer with rounded tips, comparable to the some contemporary minifigure accessories like the shovel (Mini Shovel - 3837) and axe (Mini Firemans Axe - 3835).

On the redesigned version however, the bars project from the plate by exactly one module with flat tips and so allows the element to be placed facing flat surfaces – impossible with the old style. The fact this shortcoming (pun intended) of the original is so apparent when trying to use it this way, I can’t think of a reason why the bars weren’t just made one module long from the get-go.


But back to the bar repositioning, where there is a little more to unpack. The most commonly accepted reasoning is that the bars were shifted down to bring the element in System when being used with minifigures - which makes sense given its official name is ‘Mini Handle’.

Attaching both types atop stacks of four plates to a figure’s hands shows how the centre mounted bars of the original causes the minifigure on the left to be lifted up by 0.25 of a plate. Not having your legs touch the ground is a real pain when trying to shift heavy objects as this unfortunate astronaut has discovered!


It’s clear then that the updated version is more minifigure-friendly and sets such as 6601 Ice Cream Cart and 6606 Road Repair Set put them to good use as handles for minifigure scaled trolleys and carts. But what’s odd is that by far the most common use of both 3839a and 3839b around the time of the update was for general spaceship detailing just like on the 1979 set 885 Space Scooter (transparent stand not included).


An astonishing number of Space sets use the elements on anything from radar arrays to spaceship nose cones (although admittedly its frequent use might be more of an indicator of the limited array of greeble pieces that existed at the time). Even so, while minifigures undoubtedly enjoy being able to push their carts around without flailing their legs, I was convinced there was more to the update than just this one anti-leg-flailing safeguard (yes, that’s a thing now).

I therefore tried to see if the update might improve connections with other elements too. Thankfully the parts selection available around the time of the update wasn’t what it is today (although there was a darn sight more variety than most believe) so it didn’t take long to identify a likely candidate: the ever-reliable headlight brick (Angular Brick 1x1 - 4070) introduced in 1980.


Attaching a couple, along with some plates, to both 3839a and 3839b shows the spacing between each bar which is neat see but not strictly important to the point I’m making since it’s the same for both versions. What is significant though is the gap below the sideways headlight brick caused by 3839a on the left there. Look familiar? It’s the same 0.25 plate gap.


Unfortunately, or perhaps unsurprisingly, I wasn’t able to find a single use of this technique in any sets released 20 years after the update. Nor was I able to spot any other practical reason for shifting the bars down beyond the previously identified minifigure related one. Often times the part is purely an aesthetic add-on rather than essential to any structure. But the mere fact it’s possible to connect the headlight bricks this way compelled me to use the technique in a build.


The base of the radar dish and the cargo crates are built the same way, with two sets of 3839bs back to back to secure the headlight bricks in place.


I also made use of some handlebars (Handlebar W/3.3 Shaft/Bar Ends - 98397) which share the same bar spacing: Firstly, as part of the dish itself but more significantly as part of the support stand where the placement of the neck bracket studs from a perfect square! I reckon the same stud spacing could be achieved with a combination of brackets but the unusual spacing of 3839b is what makes it possible here.


Ok, so thus far, we’ve had bars moving down, bars getting shorter, flailing minifigure legs and… a space cat. Can a New Elementary article get any weirder than this? Yes, it can because I’ve saved the strangest thing until last. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: the thill for gig… need I say more?
Now, before you think I’ve gone completely mad, allow me to explain: thill for gig is the official TLG name of the part more commonly referred to as horse hitching (2397), an element that was introduced in 1987. Note, this is years after the update to 3839. The problem here is that it shares design commonality with the now outdated 3839a in that its bars are in-line with the centre of the plates at either end.


As a result, if you place the two modern parts next to each other you’re left with a rather noticeable step down/up between the two. My only thought as to why the design of the horse hitching wasn’t made to match is that a turntable attached to its underside wouldn’t be able to rotate if it had the bars set lower. However, I couldn’t find an example in a set where this combination of parts occurs. If anyone has got any other ideas on this on why this part was designed this way, I’d love to hear them because I’m stumped!


Leaving that conundrum to one side though, I think it’s fair to say the changes made to the 1x2 plate with handlebars were very sensible; not only do they make the element easier to integrate with minifigures but with other parts too. Indeed “I hate to say it 3839a, but you will not be missed.” – Anonymous astronaut (who hasn’t moved in days).




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11 comments:

  1. This is the kind of article NE was made for, love it!

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  2. love articles about Lego pieces like these - your little builds are imaginative and so clever!! :)

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  3. Great article!

    Question: With the old version, I wonder if the height offset of the bars has something to do with using it with the 1x1 plate with clip? Or perhaps with the 1x1 plate with clip ring?

    If it is attached to the underside of a large plate, does the lower bar location allow enough room for clips (or maybe hose) to attach?

    How does it interact with part (bricklink#) 4590 plate modified with 1x4 offset?

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    1. Cheers!

      Ahah! I knew should've included this in my write up! I did wonder if any bar/clip parts promted the repositioning but I couldn't find a concrete link between them. Clips & similar elements (at least all those around in the 70s & 80s) do have thier connection points offset but they're positioned above the plate rather than below. Not only that but their connection points are centred one module away from their plate unlike 3839 whose bars are spesificly positioned further in for minifigs hands. I really thought you'd hit on something with attaching it to the underside of a plate, that's something I never even considerd. However I just tested it and I think any clip piece would still have insufficient clearance. Pneumatic tubes do work though so you might be onto something there!

      And would you believe it I also thought of 4590! That part's trough holes are 4 modules appart & offset from it's studded plate by half a module - so unfortunately shares very little in common with either 3839a or b besides the fact core design it's based round a 1x2 plate.

      I'm sorry to say the case is ongoing!! But thanks for sharing your thoughts, good to know some of my fruitless investigations are also worth talking about! :D

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  4. Possibly for the horse hitching it was intentional to make the horses “hover”, so they don’t create friction when a kiddo is pushing the cart?

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    1. Good thought! However the placement of the bars doesn't effect height the horse, the spacing of the two plate sections would be the same regardless of where the bars are. I wonder if there's a other reason related to play rather than build though...

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    2. Could it be related to the diameter of the cart wheel?

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    3. Oooh possibly, maybe the lower bars would've conflicted with wheel hub? And since a lego horse's height is fixed they decided to just keep the bars centrally as it's the only fact it they could change. This is definitely worth testing out!

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  5. There is a set with the example of the horse hitch! And it predates the change...perhaps the reason for the change? As a lover of all things space, the moment I saw this article I already knew the example. It is in set 6832, released in 1991. (maybe my first or second space set as a kid). Here we have 3839a right in front of 2397, and the use is very common for 3839: lasers (pew pew).

    This always really bothered me as a kid (my OCD nature), and I don't know when I became aware that they changed it. Now, as a purist (and still OCD), I can't bring myself to change it. The set is on the shelf right above my desk, and I still have 3839a in its place.

    To my knowledge, TLG hasn't used 3839b in conjunction with 2397...even if it was the catalyst.

    Image link: http://www.brickshelf.com/cgi-bin/gallery.cgi?i=6628955

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    1. SpaceMan Nathan1 Dec 2019, 23:37:00

      SpaceMan Nathan here btw.

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    2. Huh! The difference in height is hard to look at at the best if times but to see it featured in an official set is prehaps even worse. It still strikes me as odd that the horse hitch didn't follow the new positioning.. I can't find a single 80s set with the part that wouldn't also work with the bars set lower.

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