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In Defense of Model Railroaders

July 7, 2005, by Bill Cawthon

Scenes from Sarasota - What I was doing instead of writing this column.

Last year, Marge and I used up our vacation time to attend funerals for our fathers, who died within three months of each other. This year, we were able to take a real vacation and spent a week at a resort on Lido Key in Sarasota, Florida. More than a break in very nice surroundings, it was a family gathering arranged by Marge's mother and we enjoyed several relaxing days with her, two of Marge's sisters and their families along with various friends.

While I did have to spend some time on business, most of the hours I had planned to spend writing were instead spent walking with Marge on the beach, sipping drinks at Cha Cha Coconuts, an outdoor cafe on St. Armand's Circle, or shopping for something to bring to our daughter, Wendy, who decided an extra math credit was more important than enjoying a very different part of the Gulf Coast.

So July first came, and July first went, all without a column for Promotex. But now it's time to get back in the groove, before I wind up two columns behind.

Recently, a new thread got started on the 87scalecars forum. It started out as one of the more popular themes of any enthusiast bulletin board: what new product would you like to see? Of course, there are probably as many answers to that question as there are members of the group (there are currently 709 participants and lurkers) and it's a fun to see what other people want.

But somewhere along the line, the conversation turned to model railroaders and their notorious, penny-pinching ways. Specifically, how they will spend hundreds of dollars for a locomotive, but won't ante up to put some decent model vehicles on their layouts. I freely confess I have had much the same opinion, despite the fact I am a model railroader. I have always made sure the vehicles on my layouts and modules were accurate and detailed and as close to prototype as possible.

Perhaps part of my attitude stems from a time when it was fashionable to pay little attention to scale vehicles at all. In fact, there was an attitude of contempt toward them. I still recall Andy Sperandeo's dismissive, "This isn't model trucking," which was one of the reasons I canceled my subscription to Model Railroader magazine when he became its editor and have never bought an issue since.

But then three things happened to change my outlook. In the first incident, a member of our Grimy Gulch Scenic Railway crew was building a big HO-scale layout. It was set around 1960 and he was going to need vehicles. He had the money and was not satisfied with diecast models, but wanted high-quality injection-molded plastic models.

CMW was the early leader in affordable models of American cars like the 1978 Chevrolet Impala. Model Power's Mini series now offers a variety of diecast vehicles like this late model Ford Thunderbird at very affordable prices.

Then a friend wanted to build a replica of his employer's railcar facility and asked me to supply models. He gave me a list of the vehicles driven by the staff. Once again, price wasn't an object as fewer than a dozen vehicles were involved.

Guess what? In both cases, what my friends wanted wasn't available at any price. If I couldn't use the various diecast cars and trucks, I could offer only a handful of different Transition-Era (roughly the end of World War II until 1959-60, when steam locomotives disappeared from Class 1 railroads) models. In the other case, out of my friend's list, only one car was offered in any form in 1:87 scale. He and his co-workers didn't drive unusual vehicles; just the usual assortment of American light trucks and mostly Japanese cars. But the only model I could provide was a Chevrolet Caprice.

The third thing event was my joining the Model Railroader online forum and getting a quick education. An awful lot of the railroaders in the group did care about scale fidelity and were quick to jump on those who claimed Hot Wheels were HO scale or said it didn't matter. These gentlemen were excited about new vehicle models but wished for more.

So what does it take to persuade the other model railroaders to see the error of their ways? First, I think it takes a close examination of some possible flaws in our own position.

On most model railroad layouts, the cars and trucks are scenery items. They don't add anything to the operational enjoyment; they are there to prevent the towns and cities from looking empty. This is neither good nor bad; it's just true.

In model railroading, you can win prizes for everything from scratchbuilt locomotives to a nice scale model of a tree, but last time I did any NMRA contest judging, there were no prizes for a really swell vehicle model. I don't care you've got a model as good as the masterpieces you can see in the Galleries at the 1/87 Vehicle Club website, someone who built a basswood outhouse has a better chance of going home with a prize. Once again, I am not making a judgment, just relating a fact.

One final point: When a collector or scale vehicle modelbuilder displays their miniature jewel, it's going to be so that the model is the focus, showing off all the fine detail. The model railroader is going to put it in a parking lot or on an auto rack where none of that exquisite workmanship will ever be seen.

It's easy to be critical of someone who will spend a couple hundred dollars on a locomotive and balk at ten bucks for a decent Herpa model, but how many of us who happily pony up far more than that on a car or truck have been buying those high-dollar digital locomotives? Or spent well over a hundred dollars for a top-flight structure kit? Or emptied the shelves of Woodland Scenics because we need to plant a few square yards of trees? Model railroading can be an expensive hobby if you want much more than a four-by-eight layout running a "blue-box" peddler freight. Because of this, model railroaders look for all sorts of ways to save money. That's one reason so many model railroaders scratchbuild whenever they can and get very creative at recycling household items.

The new Magic cars offer variety, look good and $6.50 will get you a pair of them. Front (l-r) Ford Taunus P5, NSU TT, Renault R16. Behind the NSU is an Audi 100 sedan. Facing off in the rear are an Audi 60 Avant and an Opel Rekord Caravan. Missing from the photo are the Posche 914 and DKW Junior.

So if we chuckle at the model railroader's dream of the "bag 'o cars" for ten bucks, maybe it's our problem, not theirs. They don't need pad-printed multicolor logos or visible brake detail except perhaps on a few cars and trucks located near the edge of the layout or when they are taking photographs.

Considering the number of cars and trucks needed to fill some of the layouts I have been privileged to enjoy operating, you wouldn't be talking the cost of a single DCC-equipped locomotive; you'd be looking at two or three. So choices have to be made. That doesn't mean these folks are unenlightened; it means most are in the hobby because they like trains.

So let's rephrase that question: What does it take to persuade the model railroaders to start using real 1:87 scale vehicle models with their $200 locomotives, works-of-art buildings and award-winning trees?

The answer is very simple: Models of everyday cars with enough detail to look right and priced so that one of those expensive locos will cover the cost of perhaps fifty instead of fifteen. Mold or paint them in a few different colors or make them easy to disassemble so the model railroader can paint them so there aren't fifteen identical beige sedans on an auto rack.

In short, Magic cars. I wrote about the Magic cars a few months ago ("A Touch of Magic," March 15, 2005) and shortly before I left on vacation, Andreas Spector at Herpa was kind enough to send me some samples.

As I expected, the Magic cars are pretty basic. They consist of a few pieces and lack any chrome or detail parts. Brightwork, headlights and taillights are all painted. The quality of the tooling is pretty good, but you won't mistake it for the care lavished on a Herpa BMW. The wheels are molded onto the axles and "one size fits all." On the other hand, there's an interior and glass and a retail price of $6.50 for two. So the price of that DCC-equipped locomotive will now cover 60 HO-scale cars. That's about enough for four auto racks and the Magic cars are lightweight plastic so sixty won't present a load problem for motive power or rolling stock.

There are eight different two-car packages with two different colors in each package. That's sixteen different cars to fill a parking lot or car dealership.

Yeah, they're based on foreign cars, but so what? Beats "foreign scales" doesn't it? Besides, five of the eight prototypes were definitely sold in the U.S. In fact, Americans bought over 146,000 of the Audi 100 during a seven-year period. And they are all from the 1960s and 1970s, a period with few ready-to-run models on the market.

But the very best thing about the Magic cars is that they are something I was told couldn't be done. A decent-looking injection-molded plastic scale vehicle model for under $4.00 per piece.

With licensing and associated costs, I think an equivalent set of American cars would run about $7.50. Maybe a four-car pack at $13.98. But still under four dollars retail per model.

Can you think of a better way to get the model railroaders out of the toy aisle at Wally-Mart? No pricey resin or white metal kits that would take hours away from projects the railroader might enjoy more, like handlaying track, quartering drivers or fashioning a tree-for-tree reproduction of the Allegheny National Forest. Just use them straight out of the package or do a bit of painting to add extra variety.

Top: The Renault R16, NSU TT and Audi 100 are prototypical for North American layouts. Bottom: I disassembled the Ford Taunus to show the Magic cars are made up of just six pieces, including the body shell with painted details. Two models, each in a different color, come in a box.

Once the basics are covered, then there's room to suggest a more upscale model here and there. There's money available for those lovely Athearn Mack B and R trucks.

When it comes right down to it, I think a lot of model railroaders have bought Hot Wheels and similar toys for the simple reason there was nothing else. In fact, the whole myth about there being no market for 1:87 scale vehicle models in the U.S. is likely based on the fact no one has ever really understood there are actually two markets in North America: a fairly small group of active collectors and modelbuilders who will pay a premium for first-class replicas of cars and trucks and a much larger group with completely different needs that most manufacturers either have not recognized or have ignored.

But things are changing. Bill Giacci of CMW was the first to break the ice with his collection of Mini-Metals. Promotex took a different approach with the Econo-Cars. Matthew Tager is doing a great job with the Model Power Minis. Now Herpa has produced injection-molded plastic cars in the same price range.

Sadly, Herpa is unlikely to make models of American vehicles, so the door is open. However, there are Chinese modelmakers who can produce the Chryslers, Fords, Ramblers, etc. Both Athearn and Atlas subcontract their scale model vehicle production to China, so it would be nothing new. And I know for a fact that DaimlerChrysler and Ford will happily license scale replicas of their "classic" vehicles.

So, everything is in place. The challenge is now for us to listen to the model railroaders and persuade manufacturers to do the same. Then we can work on persuading model railroaders to kick the Hot Wheels habit. I am not saying it will be easy, but it sure beats the situation we have now. Besides, we all want the same thing: More Models!

Before I go, a big "Thank-You!" to Dolores Martin, my mother-in-law, for a wonderful vacation, and "Hi" to Dawn, Dave, Robbie and Nick Sobieralksi and Louise, Darren, Matthew and Lauren Wood. It was great seeing you all.

I'll be back next week - See you then!

- 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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published by Cadabra Corp. This page was lasted updated: October 12, 2005