03 April 2019
Sizing up the Small Small range of Big Big trains.
Sizing up the Small Small range of Big Big trains.
My overriding memory of any battery toy was that the batteries had run out, and I couldn’t afford new ones. Not only that; if you forgot about them, what was inside the batteries also ran out, corroding the contacts, warping the battery housing and completely wrecking the toy. The same with my bicycle’s front light, although this wasn’t so much of a problem as the bike always had a flat tyre to match the battery.
By the mid-Sixties, the Lines Brothers empire, trading as Tri-ang, already had a trio of mains electric train systems. Their comprehensive OO gauge offering, supplemented by a smaller scale ‘TT’ range, was completed by the audacious Minic Narrow Gauge ride on railway, as profiled in the May 2018 Gazette. But, like the Marx Brothers, there’s always another Lines brother, in this case W Moray Lines. During his tenure as chairman, one of the fruits of his labours was to develop an unusual fourth railway system. It was battery driven, and designed to be used indoors and outdoors. The track was red plastic, and on it ran the first new O gauge toy train since the demise of Meccano’s Hornby tinplate O gauge system. It was none other than the BIG BIG Train.
Thinking of the kids
The Big Big train was designed at the grandly titled Tri-ang Research Centre at Canterbury. Tooling and production was by Rovex. From their first appearance in 1966, the trains were a fascinating hybrid. On the one hand the bright red track was clearly aimed at children, as were the primary colours of the models. However, many items were clearly recognisable as scale models of contemporary trains.
Big Big trains had a unique selling point; they could be played with inside or outside the house. The advertising even went as far as suggesting that the kids could be indoors, with the track going from inside to outside in the rain. The track didn’t have to form a joined circuit, as an ingenious system of switches and trip levers meant the the train could be stopped or reversed at the end of its run. The larger sets contained 18 feet of track, and more was available separately. Packaging was in basic yellow boxes with black writing. The Tri-ang branding was visible but not prominent.
Batteries not included
Although the system required no wires, you have to wonder what the rationale was behind the battery operation. Cheap rechargeable batteries weren’t really a consumer item back then. To be fair, they did consider using an advanced clockwork mechanism, but it would have been too expensive to manufacture. The larger locos needed four batteries, which might only last for two hours, making it an expensive toy to run.
The Blue Flier
The Blue Flier set a standard for the Big Big range which was sadly not sustainable. Such was the accuracy of the model, it was obviously a Beyer Peacock hydraulic diesel known as a ‘Hymek’ and a familiar sight on BR’s Western Region, despite being a different colour. It was intended that the windows be glazed but for reasons of economy this didn’t happen. It was seized upon by O gauge modellers, detailed and repainted, with several write ups on how to do it appearing in the model press.
The motor required four U2 1.5 volt batteries, and you had to unscrew the roof to fit them. Drive was through one axle with rubber wheels, the rest being plastic. It is estimated that over 150,000 ‘Fliers’ were produced.
The model was later released in yellow with red window surrounds and black roof, with the ‘Flier’ plaque blanked out. Another 16,500 of these locos were produced, many included in the Freight Yard train set.
The MK2 coach
Another startlingly realistic model (bearing in mind the scarcity of new plastic O gauge models) was the Mk2a coach in corporate BR blue. The recessed doors were not prototypical, but added play value as they could be opened and closed by sliding a ventilator in the roof. However many features including the bogies were considered realistic enough for modification or reuse by scale modellers.
At the same time (1968) the coach was available in yellow with red window surrounds and doors, and corrugated sides, giving it a more continental appearance.
An odd range
The USA tank loco was another accurate toy, being based on a loco which had been imported to haul munitions trains. After the war they supplemented the Southern’s motive power in Southampton docks.
There is a noticeable mismatch between two areas of the Big Big range. This is because another part of Lines Bros was developing a different train toy. Hence the 0-4-0 diesel and steam locos, along with the tipper wagon, are freelance and less detailed.
The couplings for the trains diverged from the usual Tri-ang tension lock couplings in favour of a beefed up Peco design. These were similar to Hornby-Dublo couplings but scaled up to O gauge. Although not as forgiving as tension lock, this design makes it easy to decouple locos and rolling stock.
Track was simply clipped together and came in straights, curves and half curves. There was just one turnout introduced in 1967 in the form of a Y point.
The Big Big series was well endowed with fourteen sets. However their survival rate in boxes is low, unsurprising as the range was primarily a toy. Sets included the predictable passenger and freight themes which were compiled from various items, with different accessories and track selections. One set of note was the zoo train. This contained two cages with a zebra and a hippo along with some fencing which was commandeered from the Minic Motorways range. There was also a Mining Depot set with operating barrel loader.
Buildings and accessories
While of interest to collectors now, the accessories were definitely toys. The buffer stop and station building both contained bells; the station is quite rare as not many were made. There was also a level crossing, and signals which could be set to stop the train. A girder bridge signal gantry was introduced in 1971 which reused the earlier Tri-ang girder bridge tooling.
Licensing - or not
Lima of Italy produced their own version of the Big Big series under the name ‘Jumbo’. The American Machine and Foundry Co (AMF) also made their own version of the Big Big range.
Big Big was discontinued in 1972 as the range proved to be not profitable in the long term. However, the tools were sent to Russia and production continued during the 70s under the ‘Novo’ name.
An unlicensed Big Big copy was also made in Hong Kong and sold through an Australian retailer, much to the disgust of Richard Lines. One of these sets called ‘The Mighty Red Rocket’ consisting of the ‘Flier’ Hymek in red and white with four wagons and track sold at Vectis Auctions for £90 in 2008.
The Big Big ending
In an article in the Train Collectors Society magazine, Richard Lines states that the reason for the demise of the Big Big train was simply that they couldn’t make it cheaply enough. The cost of tooling was immense.
In truth, the Big Big train would probably be a footnote in British toy history if it had been made by anyone other than the Lines Bros empire. Such is the enduring fascination for all things Tri-ang, their stock is still growing and, while unlikely to eclipse Meccano of Binns Road, it is certainly becoming its equal. With the average Tri-ang aficionado being at least ten years younger than many Meccano collectors, it will be interesting to see if Lines Bros, like the Marx Brothers, can get the last laugh.