10 October 2014
In this in-depth feature Paul Lumsdon traces the history of popular OO gauge model railway manufacturer Bachmann Branchline. ...
When I was first asked to write a short article charting the history of Bachmann Branchline in the UK, my initial thoughts were that this should be straightforward enough. After all it was only in 1989 that Graham Hubbard and his wife Ros set up the UK arm of the already established US company Bachmann Industries. A combination of hard work, innovative design and effective marketing, touched with a smattering of good luck has seen the company grow to become a major name in British railway modelling and part of a Global company.
However, following a conversation with Bachmann Europe’s PR Manager Dennis Lovett, I began to see another story emerging and certainly one worth further investigation. The story of what lead to the creation of Bachmann in the UK is actually a fascinating and complex web of events and decisions involving some great names from the UK toy industry as well as global toy businesses. Its roots also begin almost two centuries ago. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin - at the beginning…..
In the beginning
Henry Carlisle founded the company that became Bachmann way back in 1833. At this time the business produced vanity items such walking cane handles, combs and hair ornaments from horn, tortoise shell and ivory. In 1899, Carlisle merged the business with that of a competitor company run by a German immigrant and master carver, Henry G. Bachmann, and his son, Walter J. Bachmann. The newly merged business was soon renamed Bachmann Bros. In the early 1900s Bachmann Bros began to use celluloid in their products and produced celluloid optical frames. This lead to experimentation with plastics and they became the first American company to produce prescription sunglasses. Called ‘Solarex’ they became a worldwide success and were even purchased by the US Army and the US Army Air Force for use by troops during World War 2. After the war the business further diversified and began to make ‘Birds of the World’ model kits, shooting glasses, and ski goggles. The company also used its expertise in injection-moulded plastic to enter the model train field with ‘Plasticville U.S.A’. These were snap-together kits of buildings and they were hugely successful. By the early 1950s Bachmann began to actively look for a cheaper production base and they found that Hong Kong was able to offer stability and quality as well as being cheap. Bachmann eventually partnered with a company called Kader who began production for them in 1952. During the 1960s and 1970s Bachmann continued to diversify and produced everything from slot cars to toy airplanes, plastic animal sets, robots, and even cassette cases. However it was the growth of model railroading that proved the most lucrative and the company began producing everything from locomotives to scenery. In 1969 they turned to their Hong Kong partners, Kader Industrial Ltd, for manufacturing support with the model railroad products.
Kader was formed in Hong Kong by Mr Ting Hsiung-chao in 1948. Before World War 2, Ting had bought and successfully run a battery and light bulb business in Shanghai. However during the instability of the immediate post war period, the Chinese communists rounded up known capitalists, Ting was imprisoned and his business collapsed. Upon his release he fled to the British colony of Hong Kong and set up his new business. Kader became a major manufacturer of household goods and also produced models and toys for export. Kader became known for its fair pricing and fine products and won several prestigious awards in the USA. In the 70s and 80s, business from overseas clients continued to expand, leading the Company to produce such famous products as the original Star Wars figurines, Teddy Ruxpin and Cabbage Patch Kids. From 1969 Kader and Bachmann worked hand in hand to create quality model railroading products for the discerning hobbyist. Eventually in 1987 Kader acquired Bachmann Bros, renamed it Bachmann Industries and has since become the world's largest manufacturer, by volume, of model railroads.
PICTURED Left Mr Ting, founder of Kader and Right Graham Hubbard (MD) and Merl Evans (Head of Research and Development) of Bachmann Europe.
How does all of this link to the UK model railway scene?
Well, Airfix first introduced ‘OO’ gauge railway related items to their plastic kit range in 1957. By the 1970s this was a fairly comprehensive range including trackside items as well as wagons and static locomotive models. The range was very successful and could be seen on many layouts and some even converted the rolling stock and locos to run on their track. The UK ready to run market at this time, was all but dominated by Hornby but the products had become rather dull and the market stagnant – not unlike the economy during those dark days of the early 1970s. Airfix however saw an opportunity to introduce well-designed, high quality, detailed ready to run ‘OO’ models into the UK market, by taking advantage of the modern moulding technology and low costs that were available from far eastern factories. The Airfix team set about designing a new UK ‘OO’ rail system, which was to be tooled and manufactured by another Chinese company called Sanda Kan.
The gap in the market that Airfix had spotted, had also been identified by another British company: Palitoy. They were already manufacturing well-known toys like Action Man in China and Kader Industries produced them. When they decided to introduce a new model railway range in the mid-1970s they turned to Kader, who offered them the choice of marketing the Bachmann US range in the UK or tooling a new range of British outline models. They chose the latter option and again decided that the opportunity lay with higher quality and better accuracy than the Hornby offering. The range was to be called ‘Mainline’ and, significantly the agreement with Kader was that the cost price of each item would include a contribution toward the tooling cost - Palitoy never owned the ‘Mainline’ tooling.
By complete coincidence both Airfix and Palitoy were ready to launch their new railway ranges at the same time and it was in January 1976 at the Brighton and Harrogate Toy Fairs that the model railway world got their first sight of both as they went head-to-head. Although both ranges were successful to a degree it was generally acknowledged that the ‘Mainline ‘ range was the superior of the two. The partnership with Kader worked well and the resultant product was so good that Hornby was forced to react and make changes in order to compete. Sadly for Airfix the parent company was struggling financially and in 1981 the receivers were called in. Most of the Airfix GMR (Great Model Railway) tooling was sold to Palitoy and was immediately absorbed into the ‘Mainline’ range. However, just two years later in 1983 the story took yet another twist, when General Mills, the American owners of Palitoy, decided to pull out of the UK Railway market altogether. The reason is not 100% certain but it is widely believed that the board of directors wanted to focus on global opportunities and ‘OO’ gauge was seen as to parochially British. The Palitoy UK offices in Coalville were closed and the design team, headed up by Merl Evans were made redundant. Just one year later General Mills announced that its entire European toy operation was to be wound up and Palitoy itself was to be closed down.
At this point we introduce two more famous names from the UK railway modelling world into the fray: Replica Railways and Dapol Model Railways. Both Godfrey Hayes of Replica and David Boyle of Dapol were interested in the ‘Mainline’ assets. When Hayes arranged a meeting with the Financial Director of Palitoy, he was advised that the intention was to sell all the remaining ‘Mainline’ stock and any tooling that had been acquired by Palitoy on the acquisition of ‘Airfix’ to Dapol. The tools for all the original ‘Mainline’ models remained in China so Hayes then changed tack and approached Kader about getting access to the tooling. After several months of chasing, he was eventually invited to meet with Kader representatives, firstly at the Nuremberg To Fair in February 1985, and then in Hong Kong later in the year. An agreement was reached and Replica drew up plans to re-launch some of the ‘Mainline’ tools in their name, and also to develop new products. In September 1986 the range was ready to launch and was advertised as ‘Replica Railways’. This immediately landed Godfrey Hayes in trouble. David Boyle of Dapol had believed that, by virtue of the fact that he had purchased the ‘Mainline’ name, he had also acquired the rights to the use of the tooling. As a result of the court case Replica had to acknowledge with certain models that Dapol had granted them the right to market these models. Replica Railways proceeded with the range and by the time their 1987 catalogue was launched they had included their first all-new locomotive, the LNER Class B1.
PICTURED LNER Class J72 0-6-0T was first introduced by Mainline in 1976 and then reintroduced by Bachmann Branchline in 1990.
Now you will recall that 1987 was also the year that Kader Industries took over Bachmann Bros. They now owned not only a leading railway brand but also all the development and marketing resources that went with it. Wishing to expand the operation and still having ownership of the former ‘Palitoy’ Mainline’ tooling the obvious place to start was the UK, which would then be a springboard for an assault on the huge European market. In 1989 Kader informed Replica Railways of their plans to develop a UK branch of Bachmann using initially the ‘Mainline’ tooling. Godfrey Hayes was considered for the role of MD of the new UK business but it is thought he refused on the basis that he wanted to retain the independent status of Replica Railways, which he had built from nothing.
Kader turned instead to their British importer of Bachmann US products, a company called Eastern Models, based in Hinckley, Leicestershire. The business was owned and run by Graham Hubbard and his wife Ros. Kader agreed to purchase Eastern Models from the Hubbards and then formed Bachmann Europe Ltd in June 1989. Hubbard was installed as MD and new premises were found in the small Leicestershire town of Barwell. The distribution of the US Bachmann lines continued alongside the development of a new ‘OO’ range to be called ‘Bachmann Branchline’. Initially this was to use the old ‘Mainline’ tools but Hubbard was also working on a brand new improved chassis for the fledgling range. For 1990 and 1991 the Bachmann Branchline releases continued with the old ‘Mainline’ tooling but it was becoming very apparent that in order to properly develop a UK range, the business would need to put together a dedicated design team of its own. In 1992 Merl Evans, the former chief designer of ‘Mainline’ Railways, joined the Bachmann team as head of research and development.
1993 saw the acquisition by Bachmann Industries Europe Ltd of the well-known German model manufacturuer, Lilliput. This was the first move to establish a real presence in mainland Europe, and in particular in the key German model rail market. The next acquisition was in 2000 and was of real significance to the UK market. Graham Farish had developed and produced a successful ‘N’ gauge rail system since 1970. When Peter Graham Farish decided to retire he sought a purchaser and Bachmann were quick to complete the deal. As with Liliput, production was immediately switched to China to take advantage of the reduced costs. Bachmann now had a second scale offering in the UK and the opportunity to replicate the 4mm scale models in 2mm scale under the Graham Farish banner.
The rapid growth of Bachmann Industries Europe necessitated the expansion of the team at Barwell. Key management positions were created with Colin Albright joining, initially to develop the ‘N’ gauge market, and David Haarhaus taking control of the sales operation. Ros Hubbard (now retired) took over the Bachmann Collectors Club, which in 2000 was brought in-house, and Dennis Lovett was brought in to look after Public Relations.
Although the foundations of the Bachmann Branchline range were built upon the former ‘Mainline’ tools, they were quickly improved upon and added to with brand new offerings and with each new model Bachmann have endeavoured to set new standards in ready to run ‘OO’ scale models. Leading from the front they have proudly introduced new features such as RP25 wheel profiles, blackened wheels and valve gear, sprung buffers, NEM coupling pockets and Digital Command Control (DCC) decoder sockets. The introduction of DCC in 2003 was probably the biggest innovation in Railway modelling since clockwork gave way to electric and continues to offer opportunities for further innovation such as sound, which was first introduced in 2006.
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