03 April 2019
Profiling the franchise which saved the model train business.
Profiling the franchise which saved the model train business.
Pretend you’re an old curmudgeon from the last century who has just been accidentally and magically transported into the present. “That’s not very difficult to imagine” I hear you say, followed by “why is everyone walking around with pieces of rectangular glass glued to their hands?”
Another good question would be; why is there a huddle of tourists queuing up to photograph each other whilst blocking access to one of the platforms in an important London train terminus? I mean, Kings Cross is supposed to be a transport hub isn’t it? Since when did it become a theme park?
The answer, as we all know, is a true millennial phenomenon.
Of course, it didn’t happen overnight. It had its gestation in the early 90s, and the slow burn started after the first edition appeared in 1997. Interestingly, it wasn’t a trendy film like an earlier merchandising sensation, Star Wars. It started off as good old fashioned dead tree media. By 2001 it had spread like wildfire into film, computer games and toys, including train sets. What was most surprising and unexpected, though, was how much Harry Potter would appeal to adults.
The first book cover
It’s interesting that it wasn’t the school, or the sports ground, or the woods, or the protagonists which made the first Harry Potter cover. It was the train.
For the illustrator who created the artwork for the Harry Potter cover, it was their first commission after leaving art college. Its cartoonesque quality was tailored for 11 year olds, and Thomas Taylor had no idea he was designing something which would approach the cultural significance of the first Beatles album cover. Both the artist and the author were novices.
The Hogwarts Express started life as a train for everyman. It needed to be composed of a series of whimsical sights, sounds and smells. Of course it had to be steam, but what type of engine, and what colour would it be? Thomas Taylor made it red. So that was that then.
As to the loco, it looks like it was drawn by someone who’d never seen a steam engine, and was having it described to them by a child. Rather appropriately this seminal first book cover is known as the ‘children’s edition’. Although the publishers decided to use more experienced graphic artists for subsequent covers, the original has a naïve charm which provided a template for future designers to work off.
The Hogwarts Express
So any steam loco could have been used in the film, but it happened to be a preserved Great Western Hall class designed by CB Collett and produced between 1928 and 1943. This was an excellent choice, as it’s a classic, well proportioned outline, with the added flexibility of being a 4-6-0 wheel arrangement, rather than the larger 4-6-2. It was number 5972 ‘Olton’ Hall which found itself thrust into the leading role. Of course, it had to be repainted red, a colour it never wore in service because, as you can see, it doesn’t really suit red. The powers-that-were in Great Western days knew this, so they painted all their locomotives green or, occasionally, black.
The Hogex coaches are maroon MK1s which most rail enthusiasts will approve of. Fortunately they were already the right colour and look authentic. The only change would be a Hogwarts crest replacing the BR ‘lion and wheel’ emblem.
Several Hogwarts Express scenes feature the famous concrete Glenfinnan Viaduct on the line between Fort William and Mallaig. That the Jacobite steam service on this line runs full most of the season is partly due to the Potter effect.
As of 2015 Olton Hall has been decommissioned and is on static display at the Warner Brothers Studio Tour near Watford.
As it happened, Hornby had a suitable loco to convert to Hogwarts Castle; an ex-Airfix Railways ‘Castle’, which had also passed through Dapol’s hands. Unless you’re a GWR obsessive, the Castle Class is close enough in appearance to the Hall. So, the real ‘Hogwarts Castle’ loco in the film is a Hall, the Hornby Hogwarts Castle is a Castle, but the Bachmann Hogwarts Castle is a Hall. (I know it’s complicated, but there are collectors present.)
As with the real coaches, the Hornby MK1s needed little modification apart from the crest and numbering. The first set came out in Philosopher’s Stone packaging in 2001.
Subsequently the models stayed the same but the packaging was updated to reflect the books and films which followed. Hornby supplied sets to Marklin which were rebranded to cater for the German market. In 2001 they also produced a limited edition of 1,000 Castles with 18ct gold plated detail parts.
Bachmann’s HO Hogwarts Express train set was only available in the US. It was called ‘The Sorcerers Stone’ reflecting the US alternative to the philosopher’s stone. If there’s a reason why the Americans prefer sorcerers to philosophers, I’m not going to speculate.
Lego included a non motorized Hogwarts Express in their Harry Potter range. No longer in production, sets are now expensive and highly collectable. Lego train fans are not so enamoured that the set isn’t compatible with older or newer Lego trains, although it is possible to motorize the loco with some ingenuity.
An honourable mention must go to the O gauge coarse scale set from Lionel which has a real retro feel about it. It includes puffing smoke, interior lighting and soft moulded diaphragms between coaches. They also produce a larger G scale version.
Wizard of the toy train world
Although the specialised, expensive end of the collectable train business may be holding its end up, the train set market has been in freefall for several years. Most offspring of the modern Millennial couple do not ask for train sets for Christmas. They don’t have the room, the mindset or the interest in trains. The fact that manufacturers as diverse as Hornby, Lego and Lionel have all licensed Harry Potter trains is indicative of the brand’s pulling power. Hogwarts Express has even managed to become a franchise within a franchise. Imagine the toy train ranges without it; they’d all start to look a bit threadbare. The most you’d be left with is Thomas the Tank Engine.
So thanks must go to JK Rowling. Besides entertaining millions of muggles and making a fortune for the publishers, film makers and merchandisers, she may have helped to defer the demise of the toy train business. As far as I’m concerned, (and overlooking the annoying fake platform at Kings Cross), that’s magic.