Guide to Modelling April 2019

From the Editor, Pete Kelly

Unless you’ve been living on Planet Zog for the past few weeks, many of you will be aware of yet more air time given over to railway modelling on TV in James May’s captivating two-part BBC4 series, Big Trouble in Model Britain.    

The hallowed name of Hornby formed a big part of the presenter’s childhood, and the fact that he remains a model train enthusiast to this day made him the ideal choice for introducing the programmes – but this time, in contrast to the usual gently-nostalgic musings about the hobby we all love, they were about the serious matter of stark survival for the iconic brand in an increasingly crowded market. 

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Central to the theme was the return to Hornby of Simon Kohler as second-in-command after being ‘let goç by the firm four years ago. He’d been re-recruited from a rival company by CEO Lyndon Davies after an “astronomical” loss of £30 million had been built up by the model-making firm over the past five years, and now it’s up to Simon to turn things around once and for all.

At one of the most critical moments in Hornby’s 118-year history, the TV cameras were given exclusive access to the Margate factory that served the firm for 50 years, employing more than 2000 people at its peak – and what a picture was painted as Simon Kohler was followed around and key employees were interviewed.

Sheer passion for the Hornby name came out time and time again, and among the older employees Peter, who’s worked for the firm for 52 years and is now head of archive at the Hornby Museum, had seen it all before. In fact he was so outspoken that small images of Hornby models kept appearing in front of his mouth in answer to his last words: “I hope all this is going to be edited!” 

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What a character!  

As I write (at four o’clock in the morning!) several of my old Hornby models are lined up on my desk, including two of my apple green LNER favourites – B17/6 4-6-0 No 2862 (BR No 61662) Manchester United and D49/1 4-4-0 No 2753 (BR No 62728) Cheshire – and on their underside are the immortal words ‘Hornby, made in Great Britain’.

My reason for mentioning them is that I wonder if these sturdy and beautifully free-running models will ever be made again, for one of the most poignant moments of that first programme came when Simon was shown around the strangely empty old tooling room, and seemed absolutely devastated when he realised just how many of the precious moulds had been scrapped in recent years. 

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They’d cost tens of thousands of pounds each to make, and were irreplaceable,  but those that hadn’t gone over to China as part of the factory move, and which might have formed the basis for re-runs of some vintage models, had now gone forever!    

On a more pleasant note, and perhaps one of the more imaginative ways of securing Hornby’s future, the audio research division at Sandwich was working on a brilliant idea for a ‘canopy of background sounds’ that seemed to be emanating from a model vent van.

The sounds included footsteps on platforms, the clickety-clack of wheels over rail joints, birds singing, dogs barking, cockerels crowing – in fact the sound library could contain anything you could  possibly imagine, bringing layouts to life as never before.

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I couldn’t help thinking what a difference the cries of seagulls and the crashing of waves on the rocks could make to our N-scale ‘St Ann’s Cove’ layout.  

Other interesting moments in that first programme revealed what an ordinary modeller – brought up with Hornby but now faced with a bigger choice than ever before – thought about the company’s fortunes; what goes on between the big firms at big model exhibitions; and the problems that were encountered (and are now solved) when a sound-fitted versions of Hornby’s excellent new ‘Lord Nelson’ model was first tried out.

What a wonderful behind-the-scenes insight into the world of model railway manufacturing Big Trouble in Model Britain has brought – and the second programme (which we were unable to watch before this issue of RMM went to press) promised even more fireworks!   

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