Model trains have been with us for a very long time, and because they are, ahem, toys, we don’t always consider the fact that they are also manufactured products. In our pursuit of creating a world in miniature, many do not consider the real world aspects of the model train business. That is, someone sat down to make models of trains, and for the most part, to make model trains which yielded a profit for the effort. Many model train enthusiasts have a difficult time with this minor detail, and more than a few actually resent those who do make a profit in the business of model trains. Let’s face it, if there wasn’t any money to be made in the model train business, there wouldn’t be a model train business.
The manufacturing process is a complicated one. The potential model train entrepreneur has to first figure out what can be manufactured that will make a profit. Of course, these days, it usually means manufacturing in China, but the overall process is the same. Once a decision has been made about what to manufacture, then there is the designing of that item, the engineering of the item, the actual manufacture of the items, then packaging it, bringing it back to the United States, marketing of the item, then shipping the item to dealers who then sell the item to the end users, us. This piece is about the manufacturing aspects of the process.
In most cases, the model train is manufactured with both plastic and metal. This is called the tooling. There is a mold or molds for both plastic and metal parts, metal stamping jigs for forming other metal, electrical wiring and motor manufacture. In all, a complicated process which will produce an item which may actually sell. It may sell enough to make a profit. Once the tooling has been made for an item, the manufacturer stands a greater chance of making a profit if a lot of an individual item can be manufactured and sold. Which brings us to an example.
Our manufacturing example is a simple trolley car, one that shows up many times on eBay, although this first car is much rarer than those that were manufactured later. Apparently, the first company to distribute this car was “The HO Train Co., of Philadelphia, PA.” The actual manufacturing is “Made in Japan”, so this means that it was after World War II, probably in the early 1950’s.
As of this writing, I have no idea as to who the principals of The HO Train Co. were, but there are a few suspects since at least two other model train manufacturing companies have been based in Philadelphia (this would be Bachmann Brothers and AHM). There are no other clues.
By the 1960’s, the tooling for this unit had changed hands, and Mantua (of Woodbury Heights, NJ) was manufacturing it under its “Tyco” name in the United States. One online source states that it was 1962 – 1963, which seems to be correct. Mantua added more value by manufacturing track for the car. At the same time, the operating trolley poles, which were expensive to produce, disappeared and were replaced with dummy plastic pieces that gave the car a semi-realistic appearance without the added expense.
This set used a group of “D” cell batteries for track power to run the trolley. The cars manufactured by the HO Trolley Company and the early Mantua production had two axles, with one electrical pickup per axle, which resulted in erratic operation. At the same time, the car was an accurate representation of the prototype car. Here, an early Mantua set:
In addition to the powered trolley, Mantua included a non-powered trailer car, creating a two car trolley “train”.
Eventually, Mantua realized that the poor performance that resulted from one electrical pickup per axle was interfering with potential sales. Rather than extensively (and expensively) redesigning the power mechanism of the trolley, Mantua chose to use an existing power mechanism from their diesel locomotive line. This mechanism was a proven unit, but it also had the wrong axle spacing for the trolley car’s short wheelbase. The difference is small, and most people do not notice it.
Economies of Scale
As mentioned earlier, “once the tooling has been made for an item, the manufacturer stands a greater chance of making a profit if a lot of an individual item can be manufactured and sold. ” Perhaps the best example of this comes from the mouth of a production manager for a German model train manufacturer.
While visiting the United States, this manager attended a garden railway event, where other manufacturers were exhibiting their wares. Standing in front of one booth, this manager was slack jawed in wonder. The display of model trains featured a tank car, a box car, a refrigerator car and a flat car. But what was different was that there were at least fifty different cars on display, each with a different paint job and lettering scheme, making for many different products from four basic tools. “So many products, so little tooling….” were his words of awe.
His company was to put this into practice with several different locomotives, trying to create as many possible permutations of manufacture without the necessity of massive tooling expenditures; paint is cheaper than hard tooling. It got to the point that the German company was commissioning real locomotives to be painted in a special paint scheme and then producing a model of this locomotive. Eventually, the market wised up to this ploy and the practice has ended, but not before at least thirty five variants of the same locomotive had been manufactured.
Mantua did not beat the trolley as badly as the Germans did, but they did manufacture several different paint schemes using their basic trolley tooling:
There are those who cannot leave well enough alone, choosing the redecorate a perfectly nice Factory paint job. Their numbers are legion, and some are actually well done:
Production of the trolley car by Mantua ceased at some point in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s. Newer cars with better drive mechanisms and features have entered the market since then, and these little trolleys are largely relegated to the collectors.