08 January 2017

Old Bricks: LEGO® Minitalia

Posted by Admin
We have another historical article by Francesco Spreafico today, which he first published in Italian on his excellent blog Old Bricks.

In 1970 a new LEGO® theme debuted in Italy, and only in Italy. It was called "Minitalia" and you might have heard of it or stumbled across a few bricks from those sets... strange bricks that don't really look like LEGO bricks, even though they're perfectly compatible. It's very easy today to find people, even here in Italy, finding some of those bricks and asking what kind of strange clone they are. They aren't, they are 100% LEGO.

For many years it was believed that those sets had been produced directly in Italy because of restrictive Italian import laws but a few years ago a friend of mine realized that there were no such laws and it must have been one of those things that everybody "knows" that turns out not to be true. My friend, Nicola, wrote an article for the ItLUG site (in Italian) to explain this and also the fact that the first wave of sets had been on sale since 1970 and not 1971 as everyone else thought before; he had been able to track down an old advertising page published in an Italian Disney comic book in May 1970.

The actual reason for the existence of this strange theme is, officially, still unknown. You can read a great article by Gary Istok in Bricks Culture #6 about the origins of Minitalia; basically it would seem that TLG wanted to test how a cheaper product would do in the Italian market where sales for regular LEGO sets weren't going so well, hoping they could boost sales in general. (Also, in Bricks Culture #7, Gary tells how they tried something similar in Japan with the OLO series). Nicola's theory is that TLG also wanted to test new parts and new solutions with the Minitalia theme. Additionally, these parts also used a little less plastic than regular parts, so it could also have been a test to see if they could save on that.

By checking catalogues and advertising, Nicola was also able to establish a timeline for the Minitalia sets:
  • 1970 - 1st semester 1973: sets 1/4 (houses);
  • 1971 - 1st semester 1973: sets 21/24 (vehicles);
  • 1972 - 1st semester 1973: set 5 (house);
  • 1st semester 1973 - 1976: sets 30/32 (boats);
  • 1st semester 1973 - 1976: sets 11/17

An alternate LEGO brick

Minitalia bricks were different to normal bricks; on the underside they had crosses instead of tubes, the studs were recessed and the plastic was cheaper than the ABS used for regular bricks. We still don't know today what plastic it was exactly (I'm considering having a lab examine a brick to find out) but it was definitely cheaper in quality.

There were also many new parts that were created for Minitalia: 33° slopes, doors, windows and arches. All of these parts debuted in 1970 in the first wave of Minitalia sets, before their regular LEGO counterparts and this is why the 1970 date is actually important and not just a detail. Some parts remained basically unchanged (like slopes), some were slightly modified (doors, windows), and some a little more (arches), but all of them debuted in this theme.

Not all of the bricks had the "X" below; some had the so called "slit tubes" - tubes with a "cut" (probably starting in 1973?). In those years (from 1974-ish to 1979, according to this very interesting article) you could also find regular bricks with that kind of tubes, even though, weirdly enough, the cut in regular bricks is perpendicular to that in Minitalia bricks.

"Minitalia bricks had thinner walls than regular bricks"

There's one final detail that debuted in Minitalia bricks: those bricks had thinner walls than regular bricks, with sidebars in the points where the studs of the interlocking lower brick would touch the walls. For instance, a 2x4 brick has 12 sidebars, four along each of the long sides and two along each of the short sides.

In regular bricks these thinner walls and sidebars were then used only together with slit tubes, so by 1979 they were gone... until 1985 when they came back for good; just pick up any new brick and you will find them.

This was another first for Minitalia: thinner walls and sidebars. (I have to say that someone on Flickr got to this first, see the "remarkable features" section... I'm starting to believe that you can find answers to everything on Flickr!)

Anyway this structure wasn't invented for Minitalia, it was invented many years before, in 1958 like the tubes themselves. Thinner walls with sidebars (with the "X" support) were in one of the variants of the brick that went with the patent requested that year.

So, were these parts/solutions (or some of them) really tested on the Minitalia series and then "promoted" to the regular LEGO System... or did it happen in this order by chance because maybe the Minitalia sets were rushed on the market using parts and ideas already designed for the regular LEGO System? We will probably never know...

A shorter version of this article by Francesco Spreafico was originally published in Italian on Old Bricks.

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  1. Maybe history is repeating itself... imagine this... you're a big company protected by patents. All is going well, but then your patents expire after 50 years. You KNOW for sure that competitors will catch up although actually you're the biggest player... When competition enters your market, for sure you're gonna lose marketshare ("money"). How to compensate for this future loss? First you'll increase your prices, filling the marketing bucket for as long as all goes very well. Then you'll launch agressive marketing campaigns to keep the door closed for competitors. And one of your smarter employees says "let's expand to emerging markets". Great idea ! Let's move into China, Asia, ... whatever as long as it compensates futur marketshare decline... You build a dedicated factory in China, and export your knowledge to it. But hey, are you going to sell your A-brand for less in those markets, at the risk of parallel export to the developed countries? No, the smart guy says, let's create a clone brand and we'll call it "L...." . Of course, we don't want the developed market to know that we've created it, so we'll put it in a secret subsidiary and provide them all the knowledge they need. In public, we'll even sue them for copying our ideas - knowing that it will never lead to any concrete result. Once they grow big (and once they've paved the way for us), we'll close them down by lawsuits or we'll just buy them. Great idea, his boss replies. You're a smart guy, I might raise your wage in the near future!
    Although this conspiracy theory is completely fictional, did you never wonder how certain clone brands are able to bring out products sooner than the original (that is kept secret so well)? And did you never ask questions how so sudden - almost out of nowhere - a clone brand is able to copy the original so close although it took so long for the orignal to arrive at that point?
    I stopped wondering. After several discussions with close friends, I know for sure that history is repeating itself.

    1. There are a few holes in your theories. LEGO prices have remained flat for decades. I remember being told 20 years ago that $0.10/pc was the standard to shoot for when buying sets, and that remains largely true today. Yesterday after a MichLUG meeting, one of our members and I were explaining this to a third member, and he pointed out that the Galaxy Explorer from 1979 originally retailed for $32 and came with 332 pieces. So, the reasons for any price increases that have been seen in the last decade can be chalked up to a combination of the following:

      1. After almost _FORTY_YEARS_ of holding prices flat against inflation, there comes a point when they can't just keep reducing production costs by improving efficiency. The more efficient you become, the less return you get on any further improvements, and the harder it is to find new ways to make them.

      2. Major fluctuations in currency valuation can cause individual countries to see massive shifts in pricing. The US saw it right around the time the UCS SSD was revealed, but the USD has recovered and prices have stabilized again. The UK saw it two weeks ago due to falling value of the Pound against the rest of the world.

      3. New molds cost money. Themes that rely heavily on new element design tend to see higher MSRP to offset the tooling costs. The first instance we saw of this sort of thing was when the Bionicle pod sets went up $1 each (and nothing else was affected at that time). They revealed that this specific price increase was being used to offset the cost of setting a new production line just so they could keep up with demand for Bionicle sets (it should be noted that yet another new production line is scheduled to go live this year, as they've been operating at max capacity ever since The LEGO Movie premiered).

      4. One-off minifig parts are very easy to link to sets that have higher than expected MSRP. The 7959 Geonosian Starfighter was the first set that people were able to hold up as "proof" that there was some sort of licensing surcharge being applied, but what they were missing is that it's one of the first SW sets that featured an exclusive sculpted alien minifig, with Ki-Adi-Mundi. They sent production of those oddball minifig parts to China to take advantage of some of the lowest wages in manufacturing, because some slight variations in tolerance on minifig parts aren't going to cause the problems that they would on bricks and plates that could be used in large quantities over a single construction.

      Additionally, it becomes harder to protect against industrial espionage, not easier. In the old days, all you had to worry about were spies getting hired into your workforce, and to some degree you could combat that with compartmentalization. Today, you've also got hackers and business partners to worry about. With designs shifting from paper to networked computers, anyone in the world could gain access to them from their living room. If they contract out their paper products, someone else has access to all of their instructions well ahead of release. You still have to worry about old-fashioned spies getting hired in, but now the company is spread across multiple nations presenting more ways to get in. Corporate buyers want earlier access to new set info, and they aren't going to invest as much in protecting _your_ interests, which is probably why most of the leaked images come from retail sources.

  2. I love the windows, I wish they still made these.The shutters are great

  3. It's worth noting that there is one instance where the X-support made it to production, even though it has now been converted over to the standard tube bottom. The ironic thing is, both versions of this part have their distinct advantages, and some older sets actually relied on the unique properties of the old version. It's the 2x2 round tile. While the 1x2 tile and the 1x2 clear bricks are the only current elements that I can think of that feature a slip connection where you can slide the part between two full-stud positions, but this remains the only 2x element I know of that can be shifted in half-stud increments. The new version, on the other hand, works great for bar stools and hubcaps, without the need to use a 2x2 round plate as a transitional interface.

  4. This is great information. I learned a lot here.

  5. Just guessing Lego was after Montini users, this uses pegs & hollow studs, & softer plastic. Lego closed them down as also has patent for diagonal, as well as tubes & crosses (Lego patents them as wall, to remove other brand like that).