Saturday 13 February 2016

The golden age of the train set?

First blog of the new year, and a welcome to any new readers. I've not posted much lately, but only because I've been amassing a large amount of work for a project linked to Alice in Wonderland, but I'm not quite ready to put anything up yet.  So being as shortly this blog is going to get extremely busy with updates on "Project:Alice", until that’s quite ready to be posted, instead there will be a few bits of misc.
This week will feature something of an impulse purchase, and a horrifyingly in-depth review of a train set. I am, by nature, a bit of a hoarder, something of an issue when I live in a small house, and a very definite issue when I live in a small house which now contains three foster children. But I do have a bit of a habit of buying and in a sense collecting items which might one day come in useful, hoarded against the day when I have time, money, or space to do anything with them.
Which brings me neatly onto this purchase. I went for a walk with the family and an old mate along the Severn Valley during the Christmas hols, a walk which featured Hampton Loade Station as its halfway point so we could grab a hot drink. And as at many preserved stations, there were fundraising activities being run by the heritage groups. I like to look in these places because they tend to contain old models, toys, and books which get missed by the more ‘mainstream’ shops. I also these days have to fight hard against the urge to buy things; not because I don’t like supporting these causes, I really do, but because of my earlier point about having a small house (not to mention a smaller income).
What they had on a table outside though, was an 0 gauge train set. Old, but not old enough to be overpriced collectible stuff, it had an unusual plastic locomotive, battered box, oval of track, and two nice metal carriages. I glanced at it, went back to it a couple of times, realised I couldn’t carry it back along the three miles in its tattered box, and forced myself to ignore it, whilst all the time thinking it would be a perfect parts donor for "Project:Alice".
I spent the evening looking the set up on Ebay, unable to quite ignore it, then the next day decided I did indeed want it after all, and engineered an afternoon trip to Bridgenorth via Hampton Loade. To my immense disappointment, the shop was closed. However, I managed to collar a passing volunteer, who was only too happy to oblige, and thus for a ridiculously small amount of money, I was the owner of this vintage train set, ready to be broken up for parts.
…except it won’t be. Because like the immature so-and-so I am, I got the set out of its box when I got home, and decided it was really quite wonderful.
Lets take a look at the box lid first. That painted illustration is beautiful; I far prefer stuff like this to modern photographed models, which I’ll admit is somewhat ironic for someone who spends most of his time photographing miniature sculptures and models. There’s just so much going on in the painting, and if the details aren’t all 100 per cent accurate, then who cares? It taps into a rich vein of nostalgia for me, when I was little some of the model train catalogues, not to mention a lot of the books I had, featured paintings on the covers (my favourite being a very old Wrenn catalogue which I’ve kept, which has a very moody, atmospheric picture on the cover). I also just love the comment about "Electric Shock-Proof"… ahhh, the Golden Age of Children's Toys.
And so to the contents. Boring stuff first, the track is classic tin-plate train set fare, simple but quite sturdy, not much in the way of damage or corrosion. According to my research this set was a sort of transitional one between Mettoy making full tinplate train sets, and their later embracing of simpler, plastic sets (as Mettoy-Playcraft). I actually had a Playcraft train set as a child, a simple push-along set with flexible red plastic track, without realising until now it was by the same manufacturer. Another link to my work is that the later Playcraft Clockwork HO gauge tank loco, produced in assoc. with Joueff (the French model railway manufacturer) is the loco which I used as the basis for the goods engine in the Britannia Steampunk Monorail build.
The passenger carriages next- these are simple, crude, representations of Pullman carriages. And they are brilliant, just because in these days of super-detailed, super-realistic models, I find something much more appealing in these older, less detailed and incredibly unrealistic but very charming toys. Judging from what I’ve found online, these are hangovers from the old all-tinplate range. It probably would have cost too much to tool-up new plastic coaches and stock to go with the locomotive.
And that brings me onto the locomotive itself. Usually, with these older O gauge trains, the prototypes date from the golden age of the toy train, the early 1900’s, and are thus loosely inspired by the colourful express engines of the LMS, the Southern, the GWR and the LNER. What really attracted me to this set is the prototype, which is the BR Standard ‘Britannia’ class loco, "Robin Hood".
A quick word on the prototype, which has relevance; the Standard Classes of locomotive were commissioned by British Railways to capitalise on the large stocks of coal under Britain, and to replace life-expired older locomotives after the war. They were designed with greater efficiencies in mind, incorporating the best features of older locomotives and more modern mechanical aspects seen on some of the American locomotives (high running-plates, etc.) which had been run on British tracks during the war. In a way, the Standard Classes never achieved their potential, being replaced by diesel and electric trains, some working only a fraction of their intended lifespan (its quite an intriguing notion that some, such as the 9F heavy freight class, could legitimately have been running into the mid-80’s). The "Britannia" class of locomotives were built in the first half of the 1950's, with the prototype of this toy, the "Robin Hood" entering service in 1953 and surviving until 1967.
It is unusual then to have a locomotive from this timeframe thus represented as the subject for this sort of train set.  By this time, a greater move was being made towards somewhat more realistic train sets in 00 gauge (the likes of Hornby Dublo, Triang/Rovex and so on capitalising on a desire for more realistic trains on smaller tracks, better for the modern home).  This must then be one of the last designs of the purely toy, O gauge sets ever done, mixing the traditional toy train set with more modern plastic materials.
The locomotive itself is battery powered, on a 4-wheeled chassis, with moving front pony-truck and fixed rear pony truck.  The bodywork is in black plastic, but the mechanism is mostly metalwork.  The 4-wheeled tender is all-plastic.  Back when this set was produced, there was less knowledge around plastics, and thus a lot of plastic toys were moulded in material which hasn't stood the test of time, and which has warped heavily and deformed with age; I own some old OO carriages from this period which are so warped they wont even sit on the track.  There is some evidence of the plastic deforming, particularly on the tender, and a bit on the loco boiler too. 
An interesting detail- the tender has the coat of arms on it, and correctly feature the lion facing forward on each side (as per the prototypes, which were found to be in breach of their licence from the people who granted heraldry rights as it was classed as being technically two separate heraldic designs).
But look at that bodywork- the moulded detail, including the number plates, is very crisp, and though it is a very basic toy like affair, it really does capture the atmosphere of the prototype. I also wonder if there is some reasoning behind the use of black plastic- was it more stable perhaps than using the more realistic green (the main livery these locomotives ran in)? The lack of painted details is interesting, suggesting a toy designed to be cheap to produce and sell, which also hints that the more decorative tinplate carriages are indeed leftovers from older tinplate sets.
A word on the loco wheels. These are of a somewhat unique type known as the ‘Boxpok’ wheel, which was created by the Chief Mechanical Engineer of the Southern Railway, Oliver Bulleid, and which featured extensively on his Southern Pacifics. Their inclusion on this toy then seems a bit odd, but slightly appropriate given that the design of the "Britannia" class was partly influenced by the Southern Pacifics. Interestingly some pictures of other examples of the "Robin Hood" toy online show it with normal spoked wheels, and the box art also prominently features a Streamlined Southern Pacific. I’ve seen a Mettoy example of the SR loco in tinplate, so was the idea that plastic toys of these two locomotive types should be produced, sharing a common chassis to save money? Or had they simply got a load of the older SR chassis in stock, which were used up on the earlier batches of "Robin Hood"? If a plastic version of the Southern Pacific exists it would be wonderful to acquire one, as they remain a favourite prototype locomotive of mine.
A shame though is that the locomotive has some damage, and appears to be missing some parts on the lower of the chassis- my guess would be this is the ‘stopping’ mechanism which would appear to be activated by the odd bit on the tinplate track. Having connected up some batteries and given the metal contacts a bit of a clean, and the mechanism a drop of oil, I was pleased to see the locomotive still works.
I know most of the ‘collectors’ end of the market is focused on tinplate O gauge trains, and that at the time this oddity was produced it must have really been something of a last throw of the dice in this scale. But there is something utterly wonderful about this set, from the box art to the characterful locomotive.
As an aside, wouldn’t it be nice if toy manufacturers could make stuff like this now? Back when Mettoy were making these, manufacturing in Britain meant British prototypes. It irks me slightly (at an age where I’m buying toys for the foster kids, not to mention ‘donor’ models for things like the Model Village Project) that ‘toy’ trains tend to all be generically American-inspired. Indeed the cheap battery-powered O gauge train sets which were so readily available in 2005, and which formed the bases for most of the locomotives in the model village, were somewhere between a Germanic and American loco in outline. Even these are hard to come by now though, ten years on. I do wonder if I should buy one just to keep as it is, but they are usefully, well-made toys which convert well into other models. I recognise that the cheap, mass-produced toy market is international now, but it would be pleasant to have a British-outline toy train, at least something other than the Mattel-interpretation of Thomas the Tank Engine...
So what to do with this train set then? The original intention was to break it down for parts, but it would seem pretty criminal to do that. On the other hand, I don’t have an O gauge layout on which to run it, and given my foster kids have been raised in the era of ‘utterly disposable cheap plastic crap toys’ I can’t see it surviving their use, despite how much we try and correct their behaviour. So that relegates this train to use in photography projects if I’m going to justify keeping it.
That’s not a bad thing of course; I have three railway related projects slated for 2016 which could happily feature this engine. Some restoration work is planned, and I’m tempted towards a bit of a repaint too, even if it will destroy any value it has. But I rather envisage this as one of those items hoarded against a future where I might be able to have an O gauge railway in the garden or loft, specifically for all the slightly odd railway-related sculpture pieces I’ve made over the years…

1 comment:

  1. Ben, Thank you for this wonderful post. I have two of these sets in various stages of repair. The failure of the stopping system is common with these and I have had to rebuild one. I have repaired one box and I am working on the other. I allow my repairs to be obvious but tidy as nobody could expect these to be in pristine condition.