The hobby of toy trains covers a wide spectrum. At one end it merges with model railways where you are building a layout that tries to represent a real railway system but using the products or standards of a commercial manufacturer rather than a general modeller’s standard (for example, a German outline layout with Märklin standards) – what in the US is called hi-rail modelling. At the other end is the collector, not interested in running but determined to own every variation of a particular range or locomotive or whatever. Most of us are somewhere in between. We enjoy operating, but we also are not averse to the thrill of the collecting chase. The historical aspect is also important to many of us, we want to know what was made, by whom and possibly why, without necessarily owning or running. This desire to know feeds many of the articles in our magazine, the Train Collector, and there is now a wide range of literature about toy trains – but there are still many gaps in our knowledge to await fresh minds.
Of course, there is an aspect of nostalgia about it all, many of us had train sets when we were children and are now recreating the dreams we could never realise when small. But we try to encourage younger enthusiasts, and plenty of the membership indulges in models that have little or no connection with their childhood.
Whatever an individual’s interests, it is an inclusive hobby. In the TCS we positively enjoy our different interests and the guy who builds a 21/2” gauge live steamer happily exchanges ideas with the collector of Japanese tinplate. And while most of the membership is male, we do not believe that trains are just a boy’s hobby, some girls always did play trains and probably more wanted to. You can now.
There have been models and toys of trains for as long as there have been real railways. Indeed some early ‘models’ of locomotives were made first as sales promotional tools for the early railways, even if they later might have become playthings.
During the Victorian period toy and model trains and locomotives fell into a number of categories – there were the live steam engines, expensive and only for the wealthy, there were pull along trains in all shapes, sizes and materials, penny toys in lead and tin and latterly clockwork engines. The steam and clockwork engines might be intended to run on the floor, or a simple track assembled by the user, but there was no real sense of system about these trains.
Most of these toys were made in Germany. Britain and France tended only to make the better class of steam engine. There was an indigenous US industry, with considerable use of cast iron rather than tinplate.
The Real Beginning
The defining event in toy train history though was the launch by Märklin in 1891 of the first complete system of toy trains. While the first models were derived from earlier products, what Märklin introduced was a series of standard track gauges, ready to use track sections for those gauges, and a range of locomotives, rolling stock and accessories to match. Now you could have an initial train set, but continually add and expand till your miniature railroad empire was complete – which it never was!
This was of course good for the toy manufacturer, indeed this is an early example of the expanding range, with items at various price points (Christmas, birthdays, parents and relations and pocket money sized), which is one of the basic features of most successful toys since.
These first Marklin models were made in three gauges (called 1, 2 and 3, logically enough). Painted and soldered tinplate was the main material, and clockwork the driving power. And they were crude! But the range was clearly a great success. So Märklin expanded and improved its range, after a few years adding a fourth, small gauge (O). The range of accessories was greatly expanded. Other German toy makers introduced competitive products, most importantly Bing (then probably Germany’s, and hence the world’s, largest toy maker). Despite the odd divergence these makers generally adopted the same standards as to gauge as Märklin, while developing new production techniques, in particular the use of lithographed (printed) tinplate, allowing much cheaper and more colourful items, at the expense of some robustness.
By the start of the 20th century other methods of propulsion were being applied too, in that live steam and electric powered models had taken to the toy train rails, though clockwork was still the prime mover. More importantly the first ranges of Märklin and Bing and others were growing and improving each year, and as with the rest of the German toy trade, was strongly export oriented, thus spreading toy trains worldwide. The main markets were Britain, France (and their empires) and the US. Britain had no indigenous toy maker to compete with, but there was home based competition in America. Britain however had something else – model railways.
The hobby of model railways can really be said to have been founded in the U.K. at the start of the Edwardian period. There were already active amateur model engineers, building live steam locomotives and with a keen interest in the real railways. One of the embryo suppliers to this group was a young man, W J Bassett-Lowke. He saw the potential of using the German toy trains, particularly the track and mechanisms, with bodies rather more accurate as to prototype and selling not just as a toy to children but rather to adult enthusiasts. And he used the services of another young man, Henry Greenly, as a designer of these models. Greenly, among other things, established a system of scales using the Märklin gauges as the starting point. He also founded the first periodical devoted to model railways. And thus from the beginning the hobby of model railways was in part a toy, and in part the effort of amateur and professional model makers co-existing, sometimes comfortably and sometimes not!
Bassett-Lowke tended to use the services of Bing and Carrette for its own models, but of course once the idea of British outline ‘scale’ models was established the German makers started to produce models for sale by other importers, for example Märklin for the Gamages store in London.
At the same time as Märklin was introducing the toy train to Europe America was experimenting with electrical novelties. One result was that several ranges of electric toy train were available from the later 1890s which in their size and use of home assembled two rail track rather resembled the pre-Märklin type of train. But they had a following, despite plenty of German imports. Also from 1900, Ives, an established US toy maker decided to compete with the likes of Bing with clockwork tinplate trains in gauges O and 1. As will happen, fusion occurred, in that Lionel, one of the ‘novelty’ makers, adopted European style tinplate tracks and some constructional approaches, but only offered electric trains. All of which kept the Germans innovative.
Before and after WW1
All of this meant that during the Edwardian period and up to 1914 the toy train matured. Marklin and Bing still largely set the agenda, but they had to take some note as to what the English gentlemen and their US rivals were doing. The result was some beautiful toys, larger, more realistic and yet still quite toy like. Model Pacifics appeared, rather than improbable express 0-4-0s (though the latter dominated the cheaper sets still). Live steam was available if required and electricity was becoming much more common for propulsion, though in Europe clockwork was probably still No 1 even for top of the range items, especially in Britain.
All that was to change after 1914. Germany was largely unable to export to its main markets and so local toy train industries began to spring up or expand. In Europe this generally happened after the war, with, for example, the development of Hornby Trains in Britain (and France) and JEP in France. Even in Switzerland local production got underway.
In the US the curtailment of German – made toys allowed the existing local makers to dominate the domestic market, so Lionel, Ives and American Flyer could battle for the hearts and minds of American boyhood, and a little later Marx (Louis not Karl) provided toy trains for the proletariat.
And while the German makers did try to win back their old markets, anti-German feeling and the advent of protectionism meant that they never really threatened the domestic producers in Britain, France or the US. However, the rest of Europe and the domestic market was open to them.
The Scale Effect
In terms of product there were a number of trends. One was the advent of still smaller scales. OO and HO gauge grew from collaboration between Bing and Basset-Lowke, designed by Henry Greenly, for a table top toy. These first models were really just toys, and the same tooling was used for UK, US and German outline trains. So the scale was a bit debatable. In fact as a toy the Bing Table Top system was not a runaway success, but what it triggered was a great deal of interest by adult modellers in this size of train. As a result two scales emerged (HO 1/87 scale) and (OO 1/76) both in Britain using the same track gauge.
This links with the second trend, model railways as a hobby, and not just for the rich enthusiast, came of age in Britain in the 1920s and was successfully taken up in the US in the 30s. This saw the publication of modellers’ magazines, an emphasis on home construction and better standards, but also the growth of smaller manufacturers aimed squarely at this adult enthusiast rather than toy market. In the US in particular this led to the early adoption of standards suitable for modelling (the NMRA was founded in 1934).
The toy makers took notice of these developments. While most toy trains were sold for junior, they were sold to parents. And if Dad could be enticed to be a more active player, then perhaps more would be bought! Whatever the influence as the 30s went by the better toy trains became much more realistic, adopting shapes, colours and markings much more like the real thing. By 1938 in US, Germany and Britain there were second generation OO or HO scale systems from major toy makers that set new standards in realism. And then came a second world conflict.
Of the leading toy train players only the US avoided major physical damage in the war, and its economy was in good shape too, so not surprisingly got going with both toy and model train production much sooner than Europe. Perhaps as a reaction to war the US toy trains in some ways became more toy-like, with emphasis on extra features such as smoke or action cars. But at the same time model railroading blossomed, with the emphasis on HO scale trains which gradually took their place in the toy market as well.
In Europe it took longer for the manufactures to re-start production, and when they did the emphasis was on the OO (Britain) or HO (rest of Europe) size of train. New players came into the market, Fleischmann in Germany, Rivarossi in Italy and Rovex-Triang in Britain, all to have a big influence on their markets. And these new ranges largely adopted 12v DC two-rail standards from the start.
Toy trains were a major toy during the Fifties. They were produced in their thousands and tens of thousands. But throughout the world real railways were losing their pivotal role in transport to the car and plane, and so was the toy train in the imagination and desires of children. What is more the great post war ‘boom’ or ‘bulge’ of children were growing up, and the total market for toys was shrinking. So it was that the toy train market declined, some long established brands disappeared and others consolidated to survive. The Sixties did not swing a lot for the toy train.
Decline and Hong Kong
The survivors adopted various strategies. But there were perhaps two main themes. One was to acknowledge what had probably always been at least partly the case, that toy trains were in fact sold to adults. So many makers followed the scale modeller, producing ever more accurate and detailed models. Also some looked more specifically at the adult collector. For as the toy train ceased to be a universal toy so groups of adults started to more actively collect toy trains, not to be used as part of model railways but as objects in their own right.
The second theme was to tackle the cost of production. In some cases it led to a cheapening of the product. But more generally it led to new sources of production, such as Hong Kong, China or Eastern Europe.
Something seemed to have worked. In Britain new manufacturers entered the fray in the 1970s and despite various commercial ups and downs their heirs are still with us. In the 60s and 70s new gauges were introduced (N and Z for the small scale, and G for the large) plus commercial revivals of the larger scales. In the US the larger scales have boomed, after near death a strong market for toy trains to the old toy three-rail gauge O standards was established.
The Way We Live Now
While the move to off-shore production started just as a cost-reduction exercise, as production began to be transferred to mainland China it became apparent that low labour costs and the nature of the workforce allowed for some significant upgrades to the quality of the finished product, in particular the ability to contemplate much more hand work and smaller production runs. The result has been that over the past 20 years we have seen ‘toy’ makers produce models that are better in accuracy and details than those all but the very best of the amateur model maker could produce. Many would argue we should not see them as toy trains at all. But they clearly have evolved from the ‘toys’ of earlier generations, with the many livery and detail variants on offer, they are intended to appeal to the collectors as well. So while acknowledging that they are fine models, they can be claimed as very superior toys (for grown-ups?) as well.
However the move to off-shore production, and the advent of the internet, has led to further developments. One is that the ’cost of entry’ for a new manufacturer is much lower – no factory needed now, just a small development team and contacts in the manufacturing country. So newer players have come in, in particular we have seen retailers (even museums) start to instigate their own models, at first just different paint schemes but now complete new tooling. Have they become manufacturers? Conversely, some established brands actively sell direct via the web. One suspects these trends will continue and the market place will look very different in another 10 to 20 years.
Another development, of even more immediate interest to lovers of the older toy train, has been the advent of makers of reproductions or new items but in the style of the great tinplate toy trains of yore. While there have been some small scale ‘reproductions’ for years, the same production developments noted above have allowed these to be offered on a rather more commercial, rather than cottage industry basis.
So today the toy train is still very much with us, and in a wider range than ever before. Apart from various scales and gauges, we have items clearly made for the adult enthusiast modeller, others for the collector, others thankfully still for children. And then we have all that survives of what has been made, which is where the collector comes in …