Rocking the Market

Memories of Playcraft Railways are slipping away as this important system of the 1960s sinks further into history. Although never developed into a major British range, the appearance of this 12 volt 2-rail system in the market in 1961 sent shivers down the spines of Britain’s major model railway manufacturers at the time. The reason: its price!

In the early 1950s, Tri-ang Railways had taken Britain by storm, offering a reasonably realistic and comprehensive model railway system at very attractive prices but here was a new range which cut the cost of ‘getting started’, even further. Sold mainly through F.W.Woolworths, Mettoy were clearly interested in the beginner’s market and offered starter sets at £1 each. As a result, two of the major players at the time responded with cheap starter sets of their own.

In 1963, Meccano Ltd released their two beginner’s sets but in doing so, did too little too late. Tri-ang, on the other hand, went for overkill and released I wide range of starter sets (up to 40 in one year alone), with the cheapest ones selling at under £1. Tri-ang’s quick action worked. Playcraft’s expansion of British models was contained but, sadly, production of Hornby-Dublo ceased.

One of the ways in which Jouef had reduced their costs was in producing wagons with their body and chassis in one moulding. Tri-ang had copied this idea, after studying Jouef products, when they made their Primary Series wagons in 1959 and repeated the principle again around 1970 with their integral wagons for starter sets.

Origins

It seems that the Playcraft trademark was owned by Mettoy of Northampton (a company best known as the manufacturers of Corgi diecast toys) but the railway models were made for them in France by Jouef. As a result, the scale was H0 (although many wagons were to 00 width) and many of the models were based on French and other Continental prototypes.

Playcraft Railways was launched at the 1961 Toy Fair with the first sets being available by the following Christmas and it seems that Playcraft models were sold in Jouef boxes for a while. Production of the British models continued quite actively for at least four years after which there seems to have been a general run-down so that, by about 1969, only models of French prototypes were being offered.

This, however, was not the end of the British range. Around 1975, Tunbridge Wells Model Shop was offering a fresh batch of the Class 29 (D6100) but now fitted with Continental couplings.

The Playcraft name was not used solely for the train system but appeared on other Mettoy toy ranges. The company also marketed a slot-car roadway system, similar to Minic Motorway, and, like Tri-ang, they promoted the idea of the railways and roadway used together to create a total scene along with Aurora kits which were also available through Mettoy.

Playcraft models may be found with two types of coupling. The earlier ones were fitted with ones similar to a type used by Tri-ang until 1959 but, from around 1963/64, the Peco design, used for Hornby-Dublo and Trix models, were fitted to Playcraft stock.

Catalogues

I am aware of six catalogues produced by Mettoy for their Playcraft Railways range but there may well have been others after 1968. The following are the ones known to me:

1st Edition - The cover of this is printed in two colours and shows silhouettes of trains. It carried no edition number nor date but was probably printed in 1961 for the launch of the system.

2nd Edition - Also printed in two colours, the cover depicted a pattern made from track in order to emphasise that a new track system was then available for both electric and clockwork operation. This catalogue was priced 3d and, while undated, was probably released in 1962 or 1963. It was in A5 (landscape) format and consisted of 20 pages.

3rd Edition - This edition had a full colour cover and had several full coloured pages inside. The cover picture was a rainy night scene with a Class 29 and train in a station. The catalogue was priced 4d and the format was the same but with 24 pages. Again, there was no date but it would have been available in either 1963 or 1964. Hitherto, product numbering had carried a ‘PR’ prefix but, with effect from the 3rd edition catalogue, this was reduced to ‘P’. We also see, at this stage, the introduction of the Peco type couplings instead of the early Tri-ang type.

4th Edition - Again, a full colour cover but the format was that of a six section (12 page) folded leaflet rather than a booklet. British trains were featured in a model railway scene on the cover and the back of the leaflet carried a complete list of products as well as the date ‘1966’. This was probably given away free as the products list included the HO International Catalogue (below).

5th Edition - This was the HO International Catalogue. Dated 1967 on the back, this edition returned to booklet format but now had 36 pages and was priced 1/- (5p). The cover illustration was that of a Class 81 electric emerging from a Channel Tunnel and the back cover was a continuation of this picture but with a SNCF electric emerging from the same tunnel.

6th Edition - This, printed in 1968, consisted of an updating of the HO International Catalogue (above) to 40 pages and a colour change from blue to red on the front cover. Many of the illustration remained the same but it contained a number of additional and modified models.

Locomotives

Most locomotives were fitted with the 12 v M40, one of the earliest coreless motors, which was quite powerful and had a low current consumption. It was, however, difficult to control with a standard resistance controller and a variable transformer unit was needed to operate it. The spur and crown wheel drive fitted to Playcraft mechanisms meant that it was possible to push them along the track by hand, with the wheels turning and no power, without damaging them.

The diesel shunter had the newer and more compact M60 motor which was designed to be suitable for use with batteries.

The first locomotives available were the 0-4-0 tank engine, the Class 29 diesel and the SNCF Type 231C Pacific. The Class 29, which was reviewed in December 1961, was disappointing; being badly proportioned and rather toy-like in appearance. I understand that a clockwork version was available in France but this did not get into the Playcraft range. The 0-4-0 diesel shunter, although advertised in 1963, did not join the group until the 3rd edition catalogue and was not reviewed until January 1964. At this stage, the clockwork versions of the two shunters were available as solo models; both shown in green.

From now on, completely new models to the catalogue would be of Continental design. Those new in the 4th edition were the SNCF diesel (BB67001), SNCF 0-4-0 diesel shunter, SNCF electric loco (BB13001), TEE electric loco (CC40101), SNCF Panoramic rail car, SNCF BB66150 diesel and SNCF CC7107 electric loco. The three electric locomotives had non-working pantographs.

In 1967, there was further expansion of the range of locomotives with the addition of a Budd stainless steel suburban electric multiple unit and trailer car, both open and closed versions of a SNCF 0-8-0 tank engine, the SNCF CC70000 Class diesel-electric and a Dutch version of the existing CC7107 electric express passenger locomotive as ‘1308’.

The following year saw just one more addition in the form of a very attractive 2-8-0 tender locomotive. In addition, the British 0-4-0 diesel shunter and the Class 29 were available in BR blue livery and the SNCF Pacific received a green paint finish.

Coaches

The British coaches were rather short for Mk1s but from the start were available in BR standard maroon and Western Region chocolate and cream and were reviewed in December 1961. These were quickly followed by a Southern Region green rake. They consisted of a composite, a 2nd class open, a 2nd brake and, later, a restaurant car. A special feature was the early fitting of interiors. These were correctly a light timber colour and the restaurant car even had its kitchen detailed with printed self-adhesive stickers. Thus, the interiors were much better than those of Tri-ang Hornby, the main competitor at the time.

By 1963, SNCF stock included a post office van, 1st class stainless steel coach, and 1st class and composite versions of the standard green coach. There were also four Wagon-Lits International vehicles in the form of a 1st class Pullman car, Continental sleeper, diner and a channel ferry sleeping car (a good representation of a CIWL type F sleeping car).

By October 1963, a Royal Mail travelling post office set was being offered; the coach from the set also being available separately.

In 1966, a Continental luggage van was added to the International train together with two Trans-European Express stainless steel coaches; one a passenger coach and the other a luggage/generator car. There was also a Budd stainless steel centre car for the new suburban EMU and the four British coaches were proposed in blue and grey livery although these may not have arrived until the following year.

In 1968, there were two new Continental coaches. These were a Wagon-Lits dining coach in red and a four wheeled heat generator van.

Wagons

Although we tend to think of certain Playcraft wagons as being British, they were, in fact, based largely on French vehicles. The bogie wagons ran on American type diamond bogies typical of the TP stock supplied to France by the USA after the last war. An attractive feature of those wagons that were supposed to represent British prototypes was the use of British Railways names for them such as ‘Boplate’, ‘Weltrol’ and ‘Walrus’ which were on printed data panel labels but later printed directly onto the side of the wagon.

Some wagons were available in more than one colour with, for example, both maroon/brown and green versions of the high sides bogie open wagon and the bogie goods van. I also have two versions of the Tierwag, both with early couplings. One is the common black version with stuck-on labels for the data panels while the other is blue-grey with directly printed data panels. The bogie hopper is usually found with a Walrus label but sometimes turns up with a Tare weight label instead.

The earliest four wheeled vehicles were a planked high sided wagon and a very ‘Continental’ looking van (the one presumably copied by Tri-ang for their Primary Series). Both had a long wheelbase and no brake gear which made it easier to mould chassis and body in one. There was also a steel dropside wagon and the BR brake van, which followed shortly after, was one of the first to be made with the brake rods showing. By 1965, the high sided wagon had been replaced by a new model with a separate, detailed chassis and was classified as a ‘Tube’.

The remainder of the early wagons were all bogie stock and consisted of high and low sided open wagons, goods and refrigerator vans, a tanker, well wagon, hopper (the Walrus reviewed in October 1963), bolster wagon with different loads and a Tierwag car transporter. The trend was to sell the wagons with loads and the French cars carried by the latter (and one version of the bogie bolster) were particularly attractive, with their red wheels and, sometimes, white tyres.

In the third edition catalogue, the refrigerator van was shown in a ‘Stef’ livery, but this livery had disappeared again by the following catalogue. The dropside wagon had lost its mineral load and gained either two steel containers (marked ‘British Railways’) or a load of pipes. Four completely new wagons in the 3rd catalogue were a ‘Shell/BP’ tanker, steel mineral, ‘Blue Circle’ bulk cement twin silo wagon and a barrel wagon for transporting wine - an unlikely sight on British railways. These new wagons were probably available at the start of 1964.

The bogie hopper was now available with working trapdoors and available in a set with an undertrack hopper and collecting bin. The same year, an incline system was available with high level piers and parapets.

The new wagons in 1966 were a European goods wagon with a sliding roof, a Continental steel open wagon, ‘Evian’/’Badoit’ mineral water van, ‘Algeco’ French cereal hopper, ‘Kronenbourg’ French beer van and a magnificent operating crane set. The Cockerill steam powered crane had four main supporting wheels and detachable four wheeled bogies at each end and came with two match trucks; one as a spacer and the other to carry the jacks. The beer van and the mineral water van were from the same tools and the latter carried the ‘Evian’ livery on one side and ‘Badoit’ livery on the other.

By 1967 there was a European goods van which was available either with or without a working tail light. The beer van was now available in Dutch ‘Heineken’ livery an a third car carrier was added to the range in the form of a French articulated transporter with 8 cars.

1967 was the year the Jouef Kangourou joined the Playcraft range. This beautifully engineered model was the best so far. The set contained a tractor unit, access ramp, loading area, two Kangourou wagons and two semi-trailers. The Kangourou wagon and semi-trailer were also available separately, allowing one to build longer trains. The trailers used as loads carried the names ‘Calberson’ and ‘Bailly’. The set was quite expensive; costing as much as some of the larger locomotives.

Sets

From an early date, many sets sold in the UK were given the names of famous stations or depots. There was also a choice between clockwork and electric operation; the former being propelled by the clockwork 0-4-0 tank with its late BR decals.

There were initially four clockwork sets - large passenger (‘Liverpool Street’), small passenger (‘Suburban’), large goods (‘Crewe’) and small goods (‘Bishopsgate’). The five electric sets in the 2nd edition catalogue consisted of goods (‘Broad Street’) and passenger (‘Swindon’) trains pulled by the 0-4-0 tank and goods (‘Stratford’) and passenger (‘Euston’) trains pulled by the Class 29. The fifth electric set was the ‘London-Paris Night Ferry’ containing the SNCF Northern Region Pacific and three Wagon-Lits coaches. The third edition catalogue saw the addition of the ‘Clapham’ goods set which used the new 0-4-0 diesel shunter.

By 1966 the clockwork sets had been reduced to three but the electric ones increased to eight with the addition of two more Continental ones. These were the ‘Alpenrose’ Pullman set pulled by the SNCF BB867001 diesel and the ‘Trans-Europe Express’ pulled by the TEE CC40101 electric locomotive.

The following year, 1967, the number of clockwork sets was doubled in order to offer a different assortment of wagons and to introduce one set pulled by the 0-4-0DS. Out of the six sets only one contained a passenger train. In the electric range there were a further 0-4-0DS goods set, two more passenger sets pulled by the 0-4-0 tank and five new Continental sets. The latter consisted of a Budd 3-car suburban EMU, a three car Wagon-Lits with the SNCF Class CC70000, a mixed passenger and car traffic set using the SNCF Class BB13000, a goods set pulled by the SNCF 0-6-0DS and another goods train hauled by the new 0-8-0 SNCF tank engine.

There were also three action sets in 1967. The 0-4-0T and three Walrus’s formed the operating hopper set, the Royal Mail TPO set was incorporated in a Class 29 hauled passenger train and the new Cockerill steam crane came with the SNCF Class BB66150 and a coach to form the breakdown train set.

The main changes in 1968 were as a result of the introduction of new liveries. The ‘London-Paris Night Ferry’ now had a green loco and a new catalogue number, the ‘Euston’ set changed to BR blue livery, the ‘Stratford’ goods set received a blue loco, a new selection of wagons and was renumbered and the ‘Liverpool Street’ clockwork set now had blue and grey coaches.

From around 1963, the catalogue advertised the ‘Lakeside’ sets. These were the diesel goods (P1350) or diesel passenger (P1450) set each supplied with a 34" x 48" colour printed card base on which the circuit and extra track (provided) could be laid. It also included lineside buildings such as the full goods depot, tunnel and island platform as well as a level crossing, signals kit, trackside signs, telegraph poles and platform figures. All of this came in a special storage box.

Lineside

Lineside structures helped to provide a complete railway system and many of these found their way onto non-Playcraft layouts; such was the quality of them.

The original items were an island platform, with a canopy, which came complete with 16 passengers, a hand operated level crossing, signal kit, tunnel and a number of small accessories consisting of sets of 16 passengers, 18 trackside signs, 10 telegraph poles and 8 fences. There was a very attractive goods depot with a wide platform unit and pitched roof building and a similar platform unit with the same tiled pitched roof held aloft on six girder pillars. The two parts of the depot could either be used end to end or as separate units on either side of the track. They were later available separately if required.

By 1965 there was also a red and black engine shed which, in structure, was very much like the Hornby-Dublo plastic kit of the 1950s; the Playcraft version also having an extension unit. Both hand and electrically operated level crossings were also now available; in both cases with rising booms.

With the introduction of a working hopper wagon set came a complete incline system. This consisted of a girder bridge (with incorporated track), both curved and straight track beds with parapets (also with incorporated track), a set of five incline piers and a kit to make up high level piers. The bridge was sufficiently high for pantographs to pass beneath it and it took five sections of track bed to raise the train to bridge height. The piers were very similar in design to those introduced by Tri-ang in 1970 for their System 6 track.

It seems that the only lineside additions after 1965 were a set of twelve railway workmen, who were incorrectly called ‘station personnel’, and an operating coloured light signal; both being illustrated in the 1967 catalogue.

Playcraft Kits

Pola building kits were available in Playcraft packaging from 1966 onwards. They included two similar, modern British style, stations named ‘Macclesfield’ and ‘Bletchley’ which occasionally turn up on the second-hand market. Hornby were later to also buy-in kits from this German company but the range marketed by Mettoy was far larger. It totalled 77 items in all which ranged from working street lights to a complete old-time coal mine. These were too extensive to list here.

Track

Early track had the rails made from brass sheet which was cut into strips and then bent longitudinally into a rod with the correct cross section for rails. By the time of the second edition of the catalogue, this had been replaced by what was referred to as ‘new rails’. This used the same plastic sleeper web but with well plated code 100 drawn steel rail.

Two radii of curves were available from the start and these were 12¾" and 15". Points were made in both radii with only the larger ones being available electrified. By the late 60s, large radius double slip points had been added along with a third radius curve (17½"). Impulse rails for electric signalling and an electric uncoupling rail were also available.

It was claimed that the new track, together with the polished needle axle bearings used on rolling stock and the efficient M 40 motor, would give the operator about 40 hours of intermittent use from two 4.5V batteries.

Narrow Gauge

Jouef had developed a limited H0 narrow gauge system and in 1967 this was available in Britain under the Playcraft label. The motive power was a Decauville 0-4-0 tank locomotive and there were two sets available. One contained the locomotive with three tipper quarry wagons and, in the other, the loco was paired with two bogie open carriages. Both sets contained a circle of narrow gauge track but the purchaser could also buy straights, points and 1/3 lengths of track. The following year, the Miniature H0 system had been dropped from the catalogue.

Finale

To date, Playcraft remains the most successful attempt at establishing a British H0 system. In closing, we should remember that the manufacturer of the Playcraft range, Jouef, made their own incursion into the British model railway market in the late 70s but this time, sensibly, with 00 scale models. The importers were Hestair and the range was to be sold as Hestair Railways. Although a large range was planned, that actually produced was limited to a Class 40 diesel and some Mk3 coaches. These were held in high regard as models but, sadly, were a line to nowhere. In recent times, Jouef were taken over by Lima.

Ramsay's Catalogue

For the fuller story of this and some 50 other brands of model railways made for the British market, buy a copy of Ramsay's British Model Train Catalogue (6th Edition).

You will find a comprehensive listing of locomotives for about 50 vintage and current systems for the British market. This includes Hornby, Hornby Dublo, Bassett-Lowke, Wrenn, Graham Farish and many more including current manufacturers such as Hornby, Bachmann, Graham Farish, Ace, Heljan and Dapol and manufacturers of the past such as Leeds, Bowman, Milbro, Exley and Bonds. The lists include dates, details, catalogue numbers, together with value ranges. There is also some advice on rarer items of rolling stock, sets and accessories.  The book contains a number of pages on the history of manufacturing, collecting and publishing. There are about 700 photographs in colour.

Strongly supported by many of the principal auction houses specialising in toy sales and with contributions from 70 of the country's leading experts on toy and model trains, this has become the standard work in the UK.