Background

The introduction of these 'cheap and cheerful' railways came as a bit of a shock to the indigenous companies in the UK model railways market in the early 1960's.

Hornby Dublo had been the market leader for the previous decade. Their watchword was quality and their prices reflected this. Although other factors had an influence on their eventual demise, they had been very complacent regarding potential threats to the junior end of the market. Problems of their own making included clinging on to the three rail system for too long, combined with the added expense of having two and three rail systems on sale at the same time. For a number of years Hornby Dublo thought that their position was unassailable but they eventually woke up too late to the attack and introduced a few cheap starter sets.

Trix Twin Railways were also at the upper end of the market but were suffering with numerous internal problems at this time. They went through several major upheavals, which included along the way three rail AC, HO scale, OO scale, 12v DC non-scale and finally scale models of specific prototypes. Similarly they never really got to grips with idea of starter sets for the young enthusiasts, although they did introduce some 6v DC sets.

Tri-ang Railways on the other hand had always retained their toy appeal, were a reliable source of brightly coloured and interesting trains, such as early 'Battlespace', giraffe cars etc and seemed to recognise the threat immediately. To counter it they introduced numerous cheap starter sets of their own to combat Playcraft.

This acted as a 'containment exercise' and prevented Playcraft from gaining any decent share of the market.

Playcraft Railways was launched at the 1961 Toy Fair with the first sets being available by the following Christmas and it seems that Playcraft models were sold in Jouef boxes for a while.

Their main ploy was to sell through toyshops and department stores, in particular F W Woolworth Ltd., whose stores were low cost and widespread at the time. The advertisements of the time all stress the low cost of the models. They also drove home the idea of buying train sets rather than individual items and hence marketed a large number of sets considering the relatively small range of models they offered.

But by the middle of the 1960's the range had stagnated and no further British prototypes were made after 1964 and by about 1969, only models of French prototypes were being offered.

Perhaps the downfall of Playcraft was twofold. In the first place, apart from two locos, a number of coaches and a few wagons, they did not include enough British prototypes and the British models were poor compared to their continental stablemates. The idea of putting BR Type logos and other labels on continental stock didn't really fool anybody. Secondly they were basically to HO (3.5 mm to the foot) and not OO (4 mm to the foot) scale, which (unfortunately) was the preferred scale/gauge ratio in the UK.

The models including the Class 29 Bo-Bo survived the downfall of Playcraft and continued to be produced by Jouef well into the 1970's, but by then they were fitted with their own couplings.

Nowadays Playcraft Railways items can be picked up at swapmeets for very little but there are also some rarer items, such as the piggyback freight cars, the crane and some of the locomotives which are more expensive, but by no means in the same league as Hornby Dublo.

My own interest started when I saw a couple of articles in Model Railway Collector magazine in late 1999 and decided to investigate the possibility of acquiring some models. My collection continues to grow and I have upwards of one hundred pieces, but still require a few of the locomotives.

 

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