Wrenn Railways - Are these the most collectable trains in the world?
There’s always been a tension between runners and collectors. Nowhere is this more pronounced than with Wrenn. Our model railway brethren like to build their own models or adapt proprietary products. However the train collector is fixated on originality; far from adapting a loco and taking it for a drive, the collector would prefer it if you didn’t take it out of the box, or even open said box, thank you very much.
Even among collectors Wrenn can be controversial. Some avid Hornby Dublo fans look down their noses because it’s recycled Dublo, and not made in Binns Road by Meccano. Others happily collect both, and of course, many espouse Wrenn only.
The Wrenn story starts like so many other model train companies. Brothers George and Richard Wrenn started applying their engineering abilities to manufacture OO gauge track and pointwork in 1950. They were mostly filling in the gaps left by the leading toy companies, or supplementing the parts available to the burgeoning model railway scene. By 1960, based in Basildon, Essex, they boasted an extensive product range, including Formula 152, a slot car racing system that would compete with Scalextric.
In 1964 a combination of circumstances was to lead to a fantastic opportunity for G&R Wrenn; the dissolution of Meccano’s Hornby-Dublo range had been preceded by Lines Brothers taking an active stake in Wrenn. As part of the Tri-ang empire, Wrenn was ideally placed to help with processing the huge backlog of unsold Dublo inventory left by the collapse of Meccano.
The possibility of merging Tri-ang and Hornby-Dublo had been considered at length, both in the board room and the toy room. The main obstacle was incompatible couplings that would be difficult to change retrospectively. Also the track didn’t exactly go together and there would have been considerable duplication. So when Tri-ang merged with Hornby-Dublo, the main change was the name; Tri-ang became Tri-ang Hornby and the ‘Dublo’ moniker disappeared. So Wrenn’s adoption of Dublo models helped to soften the blow of losing Meccano’s train range, and provided some continuation.
Wrenn did not slavishly copy Dublo; the motors became five pole instead of three, and ran better for it. Wheels gained silver rims rather than all black and, of course, Tri-ang tension lock couplings were fitted instead of the Dublo ‘Peco’ style coupling. The firm even retooled to produce new models using existing loco chassis; namely the Royal Scot, the streamlined Coronation and the streamlined (unrebuilt) Bullied pacific.
Another bullseye from Wrenn was the Brighton Belle. Ever since the Southern Railway created multiple units by sticking a driving cab on the front of a standard coach, modellers have toyed with the idea of doing the same. EMUs (electric multiple units) were much neglected in model form until recently, so this was Wrenn filling in the gaps again, this time using the Pullman coaches from the Dublo range to devastating effect.
Wrenn never bothered with re-releasing the metal bodied Dublo diesels. The ‘Deltic’ was probably not sufficiently prototypical, and, even looking through classic-tinted spectacles, still appears to lack detail. As for the quirky Co-Bo, with its unbalanced bogies (six wheels on one end and four on the other), it’s still a mystery why Meccano chose to make it in the first place. It sold terribly the first time round, so a re-issue would be suicidal. However the plastic bodied diesels (Class 20 and 08 shunter) were re-released in the mid seventies. Both required new moulds as those for the Class 20 were lost when it was discontinued early by Meccano, while those for the shunter had been adapted to make a shorter starter set loco.
Non-prototypical colour schemes abounded; the 2-6-4 tank appeared in a red LMS and a blue Caledonian version. The Bullied West Country had all manner of strange liveries visited upon it, including black and pre-grouping Southern lined green. These were anathema to the purist, but hey, great for the collector. There was even a period when locos that should have been BR Brunswick Green turned out with an accidental Khaki shade. Yep, despite being a mistake, they now command a premium.
Private owner wagons
The Hornby-Dublo wagon range has always looked better than Tri-ang’s stunted offerings, which were based on a legacy chassis dating back to the fifties. So another obvious area to exploit was the reissue of wagons in different colours and owners. Like the loco repaints, many of the wagons were not prototypical, as BR did not tend to splash advertising on its wagon stocks. Some of the notable wagons included Kellogg’s, Quaker Oats, St Ivel, News of the World, Robertson’s, Peek Freans, Double Diamond and Guinness.
Correct boxes are even more important with Wrenn than other collectable trains. To my eye, they leave a lot to be desired. Different models used the same size box, necessitating various packing rings to hold the models; a bit of a compromise, although understandable given the cost of bespoke packaging. The grey colour scheme means that, even in perfect condition, the boxes look drab. They don’t wear that well either. Dublo, being toys foremost, always had an eye for a good stiff box with some compelling artwork depicting what lay within. However, Wrenn’s wagon boxes with cellophane windows were an improvement over the rudimentary Dublo wagon packaging.
With the benefit of hindsight, the story of Wrenn was always going to be a collector’s dream. Hand made in Great Britain with traditional Meccano values; limited production runs and a handful of its own products pretty much guaranteed that these trains were heading for instant collectability. And so it proved as Wrenn approached their twilight years. It was almost as if collectors and dealers were standing by, waiting for the cessation of Wrenn production. Prices duly went from expensive to bonkers, but have since settled down to somewhere in between.
It has been said that Wrenn epitomised everything that was great about British engineering and modelling, and they will probably be the last UK manufacturer of fine OO gauge diecast model locomotives. While it would be nice to be proved wrong, it’s certainly true to say that manufacturers are not queuing up to assume the mantle that Wrenn carried so successfully for 30 years.