Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Lessons from York - What we saw: A change in scale

Dad and I recently returned from our semi-annual trip to the Train Collectors Association Eastern Division toy train meet in York, PA. As always, we discussing what we saw a lot of (and what we didn't) -- and why.

Although the particulars of these posts are about toy trains, that's not what they're really about. Rather, it's how changing demographics affect collector's markets.

The York train show is a good place to spot trends. It's one of the biggest shows in the hobby, drawing 13,000 - 15,000 attendees, and has over 1,000 vendor tables. It's also the show that most major manufacturers in the field (such as Lionel) roll out the new product.

What we saw

The biggest change in this year's show was the appearance of vintage N scale items. Not only did a significant number of vendors offer them, but for the most part, the objects for sale were in good condition and reasonably priced.

A little background

The Train Collector's Association was founded to further the hobby of collecting toy trains. In the 1950's, that meant Lionel and American Flyer (and the prewar companies that preceded and in some cases were bought out by them). For prewar trains, it meant metal construction and bright colors. For postwar (1949-1970) it meant metal and plastic construction and more realistic colors.

In any case, gauge (or size) mattered. Trains in standard gauge (1:32 scale), O-gauge (1:43 scale) and even S gauge (1:64 scale) were acceptable. HO trains (1:87 scale) were not.

The reason was two-fold.

First, HO gauge was considered the scale for modelers. Many HO hobbyists started with an O or S gauge train set as a child and discarded it when they became serious modelers. a majority of TCA members are former HO modelers and now look to replace the toy trains they gave away.

Second, what HO scale toy trains there are have virtually no value. There were inexpensive starter sets made that were sold for younger children to play with. They were cheaply made, and quite fragile. As a result, they were often broken through rough handling. And being plastic, these trains weren't easily repaired. Broken plastic trains missing most of their parts aren't attractive display pieces.

Scale model HO trains also have little collector value. Assembling and customizing model kits is a highly individualistic form of expression. Others may admire the craftsmanship, but few are interested in purchasing such a "used" HO train piece.

The HO scale trains and accessories I've seen at York have received no love. They're usually just dumped in a cardboard box and offered as a lot. Even well-modeled pieces are indifferently displayed and sold.

A small change

Enter N gauge. (1:160 scale). N scale really became popular in the late 1960's. Like HO, a number of starter sets were offered, and there were model kits available. But there were some differences. First, because N scale locomotives and cars are so tiny, wheels, gears and motors had to be made with precision in order to work at all. Which mean even entry level N gauge sets were built to a much higher quality standard than corresponding HO sets.

Second, although there were (and are) many serious N gauge modelers who modify their gear in the same fashion as their HO counterparts, a large percentage of rolling stock was used "as is" straight out of the box. The cars were so tiny it was difficult to work on them, and because of their size, it didn't seem to matter. N scale trains can look very realistic without any work.

So why the influx?

N scale trains are not something you give to a child. The first generation to really embrace N scale probably purchased (or were given) their first set as a teenager or later. Now in their late 40's and early 50's, these TCA members are ready to do what most toy collectors do -- replace the objects of their youth.

There's now a market for this scale. The vintage N scale trains I saw offered for sale were clean and in good condition. Most were in their original boxes, and none had been tampered with.

And something else: the couplers that were used universally by N scale manufacturers has recently been replaced by a smaller and more realistic coupler. So if you have an N scale layout with older rolling stock, you can't use the current offerings with them. Another good reason to start haunting the train meets. And at York, I saw some bargains -- and, perhaps, a new market for a new generation.

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