Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Lessons from York - What we saw: smaller scale, smaller sets

A great N scale starter set in the 1960's. And one that appears to be
making an appearance on the collector's market.
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 discussed what we saw a lot of (and what we didn't) -- and why.

The April, 2013 meet had a remarkable amount of the smaller scales (as I noted in What we saw: a change in scale). This meed that trend continued, and I think it's also related to the other thing we saw an unusual amount of -- low-end train sets from the late 1960's. And it all has to do with the passage of time

A little background on scale
Toy trains come in a variety of sizes, that has generally decreased over time. Here's a quick overview. The last column, "Years Popular" is something of a judgement call. It represents the time the gauge was commercially viable in the general toy market. Standard and S gauge gear is still being made today, but its designed and marketed to the niche collectors market.

Name Scale Track Width Years Popular
Standard Gauge 1:32 2-1/8" 1906-1933
O Gauge 1:48 1-1/4" 1932-1986
S Gauge 1:64 7/8" 1949-1967
H0 Gauge 1:87 5/8" 1957-present
N Gauge 1:160 3/8" 1962-present

The smallest scale returns in a big way
Last meet I remarked about how much H0 scale items were available. This time there was much more N scale trains for sale, mostly from the 1960's. And while there was plenty of loose cars and engines, there was also a significant amount of box sets from Aurora, Atlas, and Bachmann and other early N scale manufacturers.

But if you refer to the chart above, it makes sense. The average toy collector (be it trains, dolls, or board games) is after the products of their youth.

A Lionel entry-level passenger set from 1966. One with all
the pieces intact like this example have decided
increased in value.
When the Train Collectors Association was founded in the 1950's the middle-aged founders were primarily interested in the toy trains of their youth -- the 1920's and early 1930's. Standard gauge trains were the most desirable. By the 1970's, the average middle-aged collector sought the toys of his (or her) youth of the Postwar Era. O gauge and S gauge trains grew in value.

And now in 2013, the middle-aged collector is looking nostalgically back to late 1960's - early 1970's. Right when N gauge really took off with inexpensive all-in-one starter sets (like the one I received). No wonder it's coming back!

The smallest sets return, too
The original Lionel Corporation manufactured toy trains until 1969, when it sold that part of the business to General Mills. The late 60's saw a number of modest 027 starter sets offered -- sets that would have been a youngster's first train set. They were all there, and commanding some good prices, too!

There was still some standard gauge trains for sale, and plenty of postwar O and S gauge trains, too. But not quite as much as before.

Has the market started to shift? Two points of data don't necessarily mark a trend. We'll be returning to York in the spring with great interest.

NEXT: What we didn't see -- old favorites.

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