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A Touch of Magic
March 15, 2005, by Bill Cawthon
Last time, I talked about the American International Toy Fair in New York. This time, I want to stick with the Toy Fairs, but I need to switch continents.
The week before the New York show, Spielwarenmesse 2005, the granddaddy of these events, closed in Nürnberg, Germany. At that show, Herpa introduced a significant new line: the new Magic cars.
If you're not familiar with Herpa's Magic products, they are essentially "downscale" versions of Herpa's European trucks. Made in China instead of Germany, the Magic trucks have diecast metal cabs and significantly less detail than the plastic Herpas. The graphics on the truck and trailer are simpler, too. On the other hand, they are far less expensive. Here at Promotex, the Magic tractor-trailer models are just $11.95. Compare that to paying $33.95 and up for the regular Herpa rigs or nearly eighty dollars for one of the PC models.
While they are dandy for budget-minded model railroaders or collectors, the Magic series was created to meet a more pressing need: an inexpensive model for the promotional trade.
One of Herpa's core businesses is making special-run models. Whether they were promotional models, like those made for BMW, or advertising specialties, like the popular German beer trucks, these special runs were an important source of revenue. Incidentally, this is not true only of Herpa. Most model companies welcome such commissions. Even Athearn will be happy to make special editions of their models.
For a number of years, Herpa ruled the roost when it came to promotional models. Brewers, shipping companies and other enterprises would buy thousands of 1:87-scale trucks every year to give away to special customers or, in the case of the brewers, as a premium with the purchase of a certain number of cases of beer. Best of all, these orders could be handled through the year, making it easy to keep the manufacturing facilities going.
However, the market for pricey advertising specialties took a hit as the world's major economies ran out of steam at the end of the twentieth century. It was more cost-effective to give a pen or mug, or nothing at all, in many cases. Worse, the influx of cheap diecast models from China took a huge bite out of what market for custom runs remained. As the commercial customers for most breweries gave the freebies to their children and cared very little about the quality, brewers and others quickly learned they could save a very significant amount of money by using the less expensive Chinese models. While some customers still preferred the premium models Herpa could provide, the folks in Dietenhofen soon found themselves shut out of the bulk of the market.
There was no way Herpa could match the price for the diecast trucks, so it did the next best thing. Herpa contracted with a Chinese company to produce a line of diecast trucks. Herpa didn't want the new models to be confused with their regular line, so the name "Magic" was chosen.
While Herpa will happily package promotional models any way you'd care to pay for, regular Magic models come in black window boxes instead of Herpa's standard red or silver package. In fact, the only place the Herpa name appears on my model or its package is on the bottom of the box where it says "Magic is a trademark of Herpa Miniaturmodelle GmbH." The model itself has only "Magic" on the tractor chassis and no markings on the trailer.
I realize I have been linking the words "cheap" and "Chinese" far too much, even though it's a common perception. Chinese companies can, and do, produce excellent products with tooling and craftsmanship that rivals the best on the market. You would be surprised at the number of companies, including Athearn and Atlas, who have products manufactured in China. The new Ricko models I mentioned in my last column are really nice, too. It all depends on what you want. If you want top-flight models, there are Chinese manufacturers who can deliver world-class products at a competitive price. One the other hand, if a low price is your sole determining factor; Chinese companies can give you inexpensive toys, but the quality will suffer.
The Magic models are somewhere in the upper-middle range. They come without mirrors, the tractors have only single rear tires and the diecast cab isn't as detailed as Herpa's typical plastic truck. But they include nice touches like headlight inserts, taillights and interiors. The pad printing is good, although the trailers are printed only where necessary and lack the smoothness of Herpa's regular high-quality work.
In short, compared to a lot of competing models selling for a similar price, the Herpa Magic trucks are a very good deal. I am quite happy with the one I bought and have had no trouble recommending them (as, indeed, I am now).
Having given you some background on the Magic line, I want to return to the subject with which I opened this column, At Spielwarenmesse 2005, Herpa showed the line of Magic cars that appeared in their "Projects" listing last year. Considering all the wonderful new models show in Nürnberg, you might be surprised to learn I think these are among the most significant developments to come out of the show, but that is the case.
Herpa plans to produce eight different Magic cars this year. They are all based on European prototypes from the 1960s and 1970s, but a number of these cars, including the Audi 100, Porsche 914, Renault 16 and NSU TT, were sold in North America.
There are two significant things about the new Magic models: First, they are injection-molded plastic. Second, a two-car package is $6.50 from Promotex, making each model only $3.25.
Make no mistake; these aren't anything like a typical Herpa car model. For one thing, there are fewer parts. Headlights, bumpers and other details on the Magic cars are painted, not separate pieces. The finish and tooling aren't going to be up to Herpa's typical standards. The wheels are free-rolling but they definitely aren't the nice miniature replicas to which we are accustomed.
But who cares? As Herpa notes, the Magic cars are primarily intended to be scenery items for model railroads and these are perfect for filling a parking lot or creating a busy street scene, where high detail is not needed and high cost is definitely not desirable. Being made of plastic, they are lighter than the diecast cars which are really their only competition at this price point, so they are also ideal for loading on auto racks, where the weight of fifteen to eighteen metal cars could cause problems. Last, they are models of real-world, workaday family cars, just the thing for a model railroad. The only way they could be more perfect for American model railroaders is to be models of American cars from the 1960s and 1970s. I hope Herpa, or someone, gives serious consideration to creating similar models based on cars from AMC, Chrysler, Ford or General Motors.
So we get the best of both worlds. Herpa will continue to produce the exquisite miniatures for which they are famous. But now they have branched out in a whole new direction that could open a new market: Model railroaders with a layout to populate and a limited budget with which to do it. Sounds like Herpa is making "Magic" in more ways than one.
One more note: New for 2005 is a line of Magic aircraft models in 1:600 scale. In addition to being slightly smaller than Wings models, the Magic jetliners have simplified landing gear and less complex printing. However, retail prices start at $12.95, so collecting will be very economical. Herpa says there will be ten models, based on seven different aircraft, in the initial launch.
Believe it or not, this is my one-hundredth column for Promotex Online. My first column appeared just over four years ago, on March 1, 2001. Since that time, I have had the opportunity to write about people, planes and cars and topics ranging from Easter eggs to Christmas carols. I have celebrated the Shuttle Columbia and, later, mourned its loss. In preparing these columns, I have explored the past and, as Tennyson said, "dipt into the future" though the eyes of fascinating visionaries. And I was able to say a special "thank you" to my father.
I think I have now written enough words to fill the average potboiler. When I began, I was writing 500-word essays. Thankfully, Promotex has allowed me room to grow: the average column today runs about 1400-1500 words.
I want to express my appreciation to Bill Brillinger, Axel Meyer and Bruce Penner for giving me this privilege. And to the many people who have helped me with research and material as well as the readers who have written to let me know when I didn't get it right.
Most of all, I want to thank you. It has been a wonderful and very educational experience and being able to share what I have learned has made it even better. And that's the real magic.
- 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 just-auto.com, 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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