Collecting Thomas the Tank Engine

08 August 2023
Remembering collectables that found fame through books, television or the silver screen.
Collecting Thomas the Tank Engine Images

Ask any non-railway enthusiast to nominate the most famous engine they can think of, and you might expect the ‘Flying Scotsman’. Others might give you ‘Mallard’, the world speed record holder for steam, which is rather inappropriately named after a duck. But there is another unassuming little engine which, despite being entirely fictitious, is more famous and influential across the world than those two put together. He’s really useful, he’s been doing it for 70 years, he’s Thomas the Tank Engine.

Thomas the Tank Engine books

The series of Thomas books famously originated as stories told by The Rev W Awdry to his young son Christopher who was suffering from measles. These were later written down to satisfy the child’s demand for consistent repetition. It was Awdry’s wife who, noticing the scarcity of post war books for children, encouraged her husband to submit the stories to a publisher.

The first book came out in 1945, entitled The Three Railway Engines. It did not feature Thomas but did introduce us to Edward the blue engine, Gordon the big engine and Henry the green engine. The books were in full colour, which was rare just after the war and would have contributed to their popularity. They were also in an unusual format, being landscape rather than portrait, which prompted complaints from booksellers that they were difficult to display.

The series went through several artists in its lifetime, and their work was particularly important in setting the right ambience; a mixture of authentic railway, bucolic countryside and, err, engines with faces. Awdry was not the first to anthropomorphise steam locomotives; Rudyard Kipling had previously noticed the elements of humanity in the living, breathing steam engine. However, his work did not lead to an avalanche of marketing products and a multi billion pound brand.

Running through all Awdry’s stories is a strong moral tone; engines may misbehave and precipitate a crisis, but it is always resolved, and the naughty engine redeemed. All the engines were based on real prototypes as closely as possible. The Rev W Awdry wrote twenty-six books before stepping down in 1972. Such was the strength of his stories, and the emerging brand, that Awdry’s son Christopher continued writing more Railway Series books, bringing the total up to forty-two.  

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Meccano’s Percy

You might have expected the first Thomas train model to come from the innovative, forward looking Tri-ang company. But it was its staid northern cousins, Meccano, that was the first onto the Thomas bandwagon. However, it was a half hearted effort. Having stopped production of O gauge tinplate trains in 1962, it produced a plastic Percy Play Train in 1965. If it had been made by anyone else it would have been considered junk, but as it signified the last product from a once-leader of O gauge trains, it holds a mystical place in the hearts of Hornby collectors.

Described as having an ‘easy to wind, long running clockwork motor’, Percy could also be pushed along without damaging the mechanism. The track was crude, but the loco and two wagons could also be used on standard O gauge track. It’s possible that Percy was chosen over Thomas as he has four wheels rather than six, making for a simpler toy.

The box for Percy mentions long playing records, press out model books, postcards and painting books, so Thomas merchandise was already in full swing, although future developments were to dwarf the earlier efforts.

Enter Britt

The catalyst that propelled Thomas to superstar status was of course his arrival on television. The rights to bring Thomas to the small screen had been acquired by a feisty TV producer called Britt Allcroft in 1979. In collaboration with the author and later the Awdry family, Allcroft was responsible for nurturing Thomas and maintaining standards of design and artwork for the associated merchandise.

The television series started in 1984, voiced by The Beatles drummer Ringo Starr. The stories feature extensive model railway footage using gauge 1 models which are radio controlled.

Thomas the Tank Engine in model form

As well as taking books and television by storm, Thomas can be credited with helping to save the model railway industry, which faced serious competition initially from Scalextric and later, computer games. After a shaky start, Hornby’s Thomas models have matured into a brilliant range in their own right. It’s almost as if the manufacturer was free to express itself, rather than trying to produce completely realistic trains as demanded by the average railway modeller. The models were introduced from 1985 in both electric and clockwork versions, many adapted from existing models, thereby creating a whole new area for collectors. They have revived the interest of children in model railways by putting back the play value. Now many of the models are thirty years old they have become increasingly scarce in mint, boxed form; as such they are an obvious opportunity for investment.

Ertl cornered the market in diecast push along Thomas with a huge range, while Brio produced wooden models. Thomas naturally lends himself to being represented in wood, but toys made from this material are notoriously uncollectible. Could Brio buck this trend?

Bachmann has been producing some excellent HO scale Thomas models since 2002. It’s still early days for serious collectability, but these products are definitely worth watching. Even more interesting is the G scale range suitable for garden railways, which has been available since 2009.

Merchandise explosion

Lunch boxes, bubble bath, duvet covers and wallpaper. Pencil boxes, jigsaw puzzles, stamps; the list of merchandise is so extensive that it would be easier to say what hasn’t been produced in a Thomas version. Any Thomas collector would be wise to specialise. In model railway terms, any Thomas toys in original packaging which haven’t been played to death should command a premium.

The Thomas brand has been owned by Mattel since 2011 and there’s no sign of his popularity waning. The only caveat being that the traditional values nurtured by Awdry and Allcroft may get diluted by commercial pressure. But that has been an issue which dates back to Thomas’s first illustrator. It would be nice to think that Thomas can rise above it; after all he represents a mode of machine which ceased regular use fifty years ago. In the same way that the road sign warning of a railway still depicts a steam loco, Thomas will continue to represent the human face of trains for many years to come.