19 September 2011
Paul Lumsdon takes a look at model railway manufacturer ACE Trains and finds out what the company has planned for the future. ...
Brilliantly old fashioned
The heyday of 3-rail, O gauge, tinplate, ready-to-run toy trains had already long passed with the demise of brands like Hornby O Gauge and Bassett-Lowke when, in 1995, Allen Levy began an unlikely revival. This was the beginning of the ACE Trains story but, to understand the thinking behind the project, it is worthwhile taking a brief look back at the colourful background of its founder.
Allen was no stranger to the toy train market. In the late-1960s, he was one of the founders of Bassett-Lowke Railways – a rather short-lived ‘licensed’ project aimed at halting the decline of the Bassett-Lowke name. In the 1970s, he wrote and published A Century of Model Trains through his own company, New Cavendish Books, and went on to write and publish several other train-related titles.
In 1980, he and his partner at New Cavendish, Narisa Chakrabongse, founded the London Toy and Model Museum. It is perhaps worth noting, just to add colour to the story, that Narisa was the great grand-daughter of King Chulalongkorn of Thailand, who went on to be immortalised by Yul Brynner in the stage and screen versions of ‘The King and I’. Furthermore, Narisa’s uncle was Prince Bira, the legendary Thai racing driver.
Allen and Narisa ran the Toy and Model Museum until 1989, when they sold the entire undertaking. In 1990, they both became involved with the early promoters of the full-size A1 project and indeed Allen proposed the name ‘Tornado’ which was adopted.
In the early 1990s, Allen spotted a new opportunity following a chance meeting in Switzerland with Andries Grabowsky, at that time of Holland Rail. The traditional O gauge market had been starved of new products for the best part of 25 years. However, there was an active secondary market for these traditional toys and demand was growing, fuelled to some extent by overseas collectors.
At the suggestion of Ron Budd, the UK importer of Darstaed coaches (a brand latterly acquired by the Grabowsky family), Andries decided to produce an electric version of the O gauge Hornby clockwork 4-4-4 tank locomotive. In 1995, Allen and his wife Charlotte became the founding shareholders of Allchem Trains Ltd (named after Allen, Charlotte and daughter Emily), which was soon shortened to ACE Trains.
A deal was struck to underwrite the manufacture of 1,000 of these 4-4-4 reproduction Hornby tank locomotives (in a wide variety of liveries) and the famous ACE E/1 model was born, produced almost entirely in Taiwan by Andries Grabowsky’s factory. By 1996, traditional British O gauge tinplate was once again available in ready-to-run form.
The business grew from strength to strength over the next years. Production moved first to India then to Thailand. Some superb models were introduced, locomotives such as the Gresley A3 and A4 Pacifics. The A4 is particularly impressive: it features the distinctive streamlined bodywork reproduced as a pressure cast metal moulding, giving a really heavy, quality feel to the finished model.
Personnel also changed over the years. In 2003, Len Mills joined the business, bringing with him a wealth of model engineering experience and a passion for model railways. In 2009, the business parted company with Andries Grabowsky and production moved from Thailand to China, and latterly also to the Czech Republic.
Throughout all these changes the core philosophy behind ACE Trains remained the same as it was on day one, and was summed up beautifully in the title of the book that Allen published in 2005 to mark the 10th anniversary of ACE Trains – ‘brilliantly old fashioned’. The models have retained all the excitement and passion of a bygone era that can only be described as the ‘Golden Age of the Railways’.
The vintage feel has remained true to the spirit of these toys of the past – there are none of the electronic sounds or digital controls of modern day model rail layouts, nor are there the finely detailed features of a rivet-for-rivet accurate finescale model. ACE Trains are designed to be run, and are rugged enough to be handled frequently and reliable enough to rattle along vintage 3-rail track for hours in the way their forerunners were designed.
None of the models are limited editions but are rather produced in quantities judged to be adequate to supply the market demand. As a result, ACE models have not experienced the heavy discounting that some other brands have suffered and indeed some of its releases now trade at considerably higher than the original prices on the secondary market, adding to the assertion that ACE’s models are among the most collectable of the past few decades.
So, what does ACE Trains have in store for us in the near future? I spoke recently with Allen and he brought me up-to-date with some exciting plans.
First and foremost the long awaited E/10 Schools Class will be available in the autumn. The recommended retail price of these has been maintained at £495 inc VAT until further notice, in recognition of the long delays that these have suffered. They will be available in SR Maunsell and Malachite Green, BR Black and BR Brunswick Green. All are supplied with optional Maunsell and ‘Le Maitre’ chimneys, both being simply fixed by one screw into the smokebox.
In December, the first deliveries of the stunning E/16 GWR 3300 Class 4-4-0 Locomotive and Tender are due. There are four livery options, which are as follows: GWR 1900 livery lined green/Indian red frames, Great Western un-lined green/black frames, GWR un-lined green shirt button/black frames, BR un-lined black. Locos will be supplied with five nameplates: Orion, Sir Lancelot, Falmouth, Bulldog and Tregonthan plus relevant cab plates. Priced at £495 inc VAT, the E/16 is able to operate on 2ft radius curves making it ideal to haul a rake of the new ACE C/24, 6-wheel Clemenson Series coaches.
These too are due before Christmas and are available in eight different pre-grouping liveries (GWR, LMS, LNER, LNWR, LSWR, Metropolitan, Caledonian and SR). Each coach is 23cm long making them ideal for smaller layouts. They are supplied in sets of three consisting of 1st/3rd, 3rd and 3rd/brake with a working rear light on the brake end coach. Each set is priced at £165 inc VAT or £185 inc VAT for clerestory roof variants. These are available factory fitted as an option on the GWR, LMS and LNER coaches only.
The G/2 Ventilated van series continues with sets 10-13, which are also due to be released before Christmas. As with previous releases, these four new sets feature beautifully litho printed bodies and are supplied with three vans per set. The recommended retail price is £110 per set inc VAT.
Finally, Allen mentioned a possible surprise release before the end of 2011. He didn’t want to say too much but I get the feeling it might be a trackside building of some sort. I would suggest a regular visit to www.acetrainslondon.com might be worthwhile between now and the end of the year.
And, what of 2012? Well, Allen didn’t want to say too much but he did say: “2012 will be the year of The Duchess!” Sounds exciting! One thing is for sure – whatever 2012 brings from ACE Trains, you can be assured it will be just as ‘brilliantly old fashioned’ as all the past years’ releases have been.
PICTURED TOP RIGHT: ACE E-16, GWR 3300 Class, ‘Bulldog’.
PICTURED MIDDLE: ACE E-10 Schools Class, ‘Charterhouse’.