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Bill CawthonOn My Soapbox

July 15, 2004, by Bill Cawthon

I participate in a few model-related message boards and one topic that keeps popping up is the future of 1:87 scale. Whether it's military models, Herpa cars and trucks, or model railroading, the "gloom-and-doom" attitude seems to prevail. Some worry about the lack of young people entering the hobby, or the aging of those who do participate, or the encroachment of other scales/hobbies/computers/video games. In their view, twilight is upon us and night will soon fall.

Gee! Should we circle the wagons? Call out the cavalry? Or just give up and, borrowing from Dylan Thomas, "go gentle into that good night?"

How about none of the above?

First, it must be admitted this branch of the hobby is currently in a slump, supplanted by the diecast and remote-controlled models that seem to be omnipresent in the mass-market stores. Model railroading sales are down somewhat, as are those of plastic models. Some of our favorite manufacturers are under pressure from inexpensive Asian products that have siphoned off large portions of the advertising specialty market. Things are changing and the only ones who enjoy change are those who have already figured out how to profit by it.

Of course, just about ten years ago, model railroading was enjoying a boom. Model Railroader was enjoying the highest circulation in its history and retailers were enjoying growing sales, while R/C fans were moaning about their average age.

Interest in model railroading has waxed and waned over the years. Forty years ago, model motoring was going to kill model railroading and any need for HO-scale vehicles. Frankly, anyone who bets against model railroading having a long future in store is betting against one of the most creative hobbies in the world.

In the world of scale cars and trucks, even though perhaps see fewer new models from some established manufacturers, we have new manufacturers and others who are expanding their lines. Athearn has not only introduced new models, they are upgrading their old models. We haven't seen a new model in a couple of years, but Atlas still has a vehicle model development program. Tonkin, a manufacturer of quality truck models in larger scales, is working on its first 1:87 scale models. Boley and Model Power have new lines of 1:87 diecast models. Norscot took its first steps into HO just a couple years ago. The results were so positive; there are now several Norscot Caterpillar models. Promotex developed EconoCars, the inexpensive cars-as-scenery products that model railroaders have wanted for years. I guess at least some businessmen think there's a market out there.

Second, it's true that today's youth has a lot of interests competing for its time and money. On the other hand, what a lot of people don't seem to understand is that, in most cases, the hobbies we enjoy aren't for kids. A youngster sees a layout or beautiful model car or truck and wants to play with it. What we want are adults who see the same thing and want to create one of their own.

Don't get me wrong: I have seen lots of good work done by older kids and teenagers and that is often the age in which the seeds of adult interests are planted. But in most cases, the skills, knowledge and focus required for maximum enjoyment are the products of maturity. That's why most active participants in hobbies like ours are men who have reached middle age. By the way, I am not being chauvinistic: women are welcome, but men make up the overwhelming majority of participants.

What we should find encouraging is that kids still have the right stuff. Most of the boys that I know still play with cars and trucks. While today's full-size railroads aren't the integral parts of childhood they were when I was a boy (and the big railroads still ran steam), Thomas the Tank Engine has done a lot to fill the gap.

We do have to accept the majority of young people won't grow up to be model fans. They will develop other interests. Some won't have a hobby at all, much to their detriment. This is something that has always been true. After all, how many of your neighbors share your recreational interests?

But there will be a percentage who will find enjoyment in creating or collecting miniature cars and trucks, or building a railroad in their basement. Or moving tanks and soldiers on a sand table; recreating the great battles of World War II. That's what happened with me. I loved toy cars and built kits when I was young, but those interests were replaced by new ones for many years. I didn't really get into the hobby until I was in my mid-thirties.

So what can we do to improve the odds for a steady supply of new fans for 1:87 scale? After all, outside of model railroading, HO is not a dominant scale in North American modeling.

First, and foremost, share the hobby. Model building, model railroading and collecting tend to be solitary pursuits, so show off the fruits of your labor and be willing to share your skills and experience with young and old alike. One very important tip: "Dad time" is very important. Be sure to give your children a chance to join in, when they are old enough. They might not grow up to follow in your footsteps, but they will have an understanding of the importance of hobbies and the time spent together will definitely be rewarding for both of you.

Second, join a hobby group or club. As I wrote in my second Promotex column, club membership offers a variety of benefits. More importantly, whether it's the 1/87 Vehicle Club, International Plastic Modeler's Society, the National Model Railroad Association, or another group, your membership increases the club's ability to advance the interests you share with your fellow hobbyists and your ability to promote your special interests within the group. And don't forget, the more you put into your membership, the more you will get out of it. Everyone has something to contribute that will make the organization better in some way.

See you next time!

- Bill Cawthon

Bill Cawthon is a modeler and collector. His primary hobby interests are vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales and model railroading. He is senior editor of Route 1-87, the magazine of the 1/87 Vehicle Club, and a columnist and product reviewer for Model Railroad News. He is one of the creators of the award-winning "Grimy Gulch" model railroad layout.

In real life, Bill is a marketing and public relations consultant for MARK III Systems, a successful information technology company. He also writes for, an international auto industry publication, reporting on the U.S. light vehicle industry.

He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife, Marge, and their children.

Bill's columns appear twice monthly on Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.


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