What is the most original product that Playcraft ever introduced? I would argue that it was Playcraft Highways. This was the first HO Scale roadway system and whilst it was not successful in itself, the product went on to become Aurora Model Motoring, which is better known today as Tomy AFX.
Along the way it led to the development of Minic Motorways and the introduction of ALL other HO scale roadway and racing systems, from Faller AMS, right through to modern Micro Scalextric.
Derek Brand (1926 to 2012) was the man who invented Playcraft Highways, devising the standard 9" straight to correspond to an Atlas 'Snap Track' HO straight rail. Brand saw 'Highways' as an add on to railways. Of course, eventually even the more successful roadway systems like Minic and Faller went on to become racing systems. Derek also played a significant part in the introduction of Tyco US-1 Trucking which was the last model roadway system to be introduced in 1981, but sadly this only lasted until 1986.
When introduced, Playcraft Highways vehicles and even early Aurora Model Motoring vehicles had an unusual vibrator type motor that run off an AC supply. Similar motors were used on the frankly disastrous Meccano Circuit 24 racing series and by Wrenn in the early Formula 152 models. Brand then designed the wonderful ThunderJet chassis with the amazing ‘Pancake’ shaped armature. This became the standard for all HO slot cars for the next decade and was widely copied. Cars with similar chassis are still sold today. The introduction of the ThunderJet chassis or ‘T Jet’ as it became known and the extra speed that it gave to cars led Minic to introduce their own ‘Jet Speed’ chassis, moving Minic further from roadways and towards racing.
So, in 2019 we celebrate 60 years since Playcraft Highways first hit the shops!
Playcraft also introduced a train system in 1961: Playcraft Railways. Sadly, this was around the time that Playcraft Highways was being withdrawn so there was very little joint marketing, suggesting that the two should be used together and there were no crossings or combined sets.
Playcraft Railways were a lot more successful than Playcraft Highways and was sold very cheaply, particularly at Woolworths branches throughout the country. This spurred Tri-ang to work out ways to reduce their own costs and prices to compete! One of the Tri-ang introductions, copying Playcraft was the 'Integral' style of wagon, where the body and chassis were all the same moulding, reducing the numbers of parts and processes to produce an item, therefore reducing costs.
The real credit for Playcraft Railways does not lie with Playcraft themselves but with the manufacturers of the range - the French company Jouef, who were already a well established and successful company with a range that was already popular in France.
Whole swathes of the French Jouef range were imported labelled as Playcraft, some with faux British markings, whilst others were sold very much in Continental form. There were limited numbers of specially introduced models of British items including a North British BR Class 21 Diesel, A Diesel Shunter, BR Mk 1 Carriages in various liveries, both steel and wooden bodied Open Wagons and a BR Brake van.
It wasn't all trains though and the range also included buildings, some were railway related, such as the very British Modern Engine Shed specially made by Jouef, but most were in the form of plastic construction kits. Initially the kits were clearly very American as they were licensed from Aurora, who were now manufacturing their own version of the former Playcraft Highways as Aurora Model Motoring. Within a few years Playcraft switched suppliers and the building kits were imported from 'Pola' in what was then West Germany.
The Pola models were a whole lot more colourful than the two-colour Aurora ones, and they were a whole lot more Continental in appearance too. As with the trains, some appear to have been specially produced for the Playcraft tie-in and modelled on British looking prototypes, such as a Thatched Cottage, a Brick House, a Village shop and the then very modern British 'CLASP' type station building that could be either Bletchley or Macclesfield.
CLASP by the way is short for Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme. These buildings were constructed from panels and made extensive use of copious amounts of Asbestos - Nice!
By the late 1960s the Playcraft Range was huge - The 1967 catalogue extended to 36 pages and it included 9 pages just of train sets, 9 pages of rolling stock and 9 pages of accessories and buildings, as well as the Jouef 009 Narrow Gauge trains. The 1968 Catalogue was even bigger, but sadly 1969 was to be the last year the range was sold.
Jouef continued to be sold, but now under their own brand name and it was mainly the higher end models that were sold in the UK, although some cheaper items were still sold through Woolworths, but now bearing the in-store ‘Winfield’ branding. Pola Kits continued too, selling under their own names and supplying kits to other makes around the world for many years until the company was absorbed by Faller. Several of the Pola building kits that had been sold in the Playcraft range were sold as Hornby in the 70s and 80s!
So, 2019, as well as being the 60th Anniversary of the introduction of Playcraft Highways, is also the 50th Anniversary of the end of Playcraft Railways!