This week’s “blast from the past” comes to us from Germany in 1989. In this comic book/magazine advertisement, an SUV narrowly escapes what would have been a deadly collision with the High-Speed City Express (#7745). This train set debuted in 1985 but still would have been available for purchase in 1989. #7745 had appeared in various pieces of advertising up until this point, but this was perhaps the most unique scenario within which it was placed.
No Starch Press reached out to Brick Model Railroader recently and offered an advance copy of The Lego Trains Book by Holger Matthes. We graciously accepted the offer, and have decided to write and share some of our thoughts on it.
Before even opening the book, I’m reminded of the (former?) comprehensive resource book for those looking to get started in the hobby. Perhaps some of the older train builders are familiar with “Getting Started with Lego Trains” by Jake McKee, also published by No Starch Press, as far back as 2004. I remember buying that book online and reading it cover to cover more times than I can count. This book predates the end of the 9-volt era, so a new book for Lego trains has been long overdue, and there were certainly some big shoes to fill.
The Getting Stated book included a solid introduction and a great review of the current market for Lego trains. At that time, the Santa Fe, My Own Train line, and more was available. There was also plenty of information on effective use and operating tips for the old 9 volt system, as well as a comprehensive list of equipment needed to start running a 9 volt layout.
There were also some instructions for those looking for an instant way to jump into 6-wide 9 volt building. While I never actually built any of the models, I definitely wanted to. They were good models because they were appealing to look at, easy enough for a beginner but complex enough to learn real techniques.
As I’m writing the introduction and background information about Jake McKee’s book, I haven’t looked through the book, save for a relatively brief skim and a glance at the instructions included. So without much more delay, let’s dive right in.
First off, I have to say the photography quality is amazing, so big points to photographer Andy Bahler. Following acknowledgements, Michael Gale (of the PFx Brick team) offers a well-written foreword, briefly discussing his lifelong fascination with trains, and growing more and more into modeling them in Lego. The introduction is also very well-laid out, allowing the reader to become familiar with the official Lego website, as well as Bricklink and Brickset. Nomenclature (set numbers, part numbers according to Bricklink, etc.) is also discussed before moving into the real content.
Holger does an amazing job describing the history of Lego trains in vivid detail, from #182 to #10233 Horizon Express, and everything in between. Train operation, track availability, parts, wheels, and more are covered for each train system. I feel the Getting Started book did not do enough of this. Holger certainly has not missed a detail, even including a summary and a look at each system from a current perspective.
Moving into the Power Functions era (current), each component which may be used in train building is laid out and described, even shortly describing the possibilities of building your own drive trains. Monorail and even narrow gauge is covered. In all, awesome history.
Next is a section titled “Basic Principles.” I love this section, as it contains a lot of information I wish I had several years ago. Holger describes basic part naming and shows numerous examples of each type, and also describes the studs and anti-studs system (which gives Lego the clutch power, for those unaware). He also details technic connections, and legal vs. illegal connections. SNOT techniques are covered with convenient color-coded diagrams. All of this information gives the reader a great foundation for diving right into building their own MOCs. Other cool techniques demonstrated in this section include brick-built striping and using parts to simulate different textures.
The next section is titled “Designing Your Own Models,” and gives plenty of thoughtful content regarding various building scales, including the old 6 wide – 8 wide debate (as well as 7 wide, to make Andy Mollmann happy), and designing locomotives and cars to run on the track geometries on the current market.
This section also includes some hardcore Lego train engineering practices, such as trucks, couplings, pivot points, and more. There is also information regarding effective steam locomotive techniques! For those of you who have been pulling your hair out with failed steam locomotives, I recommend this section. I often describe building steam as a dark art, and it sure can be sometimes, but Holger has done a great job making a lot of potentially difficult information easy to read. Concepts like wheel quartering and basic steam locomotive components are covered here. One of the things I particularly like about the steam locomotive section is that Holger lists a few key design points to consider before or while building.
Power Functions drive train basics, along with use of train motors, is included here as well. From there, the Holger moves into modeling details and key features of a particular prototype, such as colors, doors, windows, roof design, and more. Further still, track and layout design is discussed, explaining the differences in curve radius, and BlueBrick (a Lego track software).
The next section dives into case studies with very specific techniques and features. Those of you interested in reverse-engineering Holger’s Vectron electric locomotive, this section is for you. The BR10 model is also discussed in detail, and there is a link to Holger’s website for instructions.
Speaking of instructions, that’s the final section! There are instructions for five of Holger’s AWESOME models, with links to his website for his BR80 locomotive. Sorry North American builders, nothing on our side of the pond in this book. (Maybe Cale and I can fill the void sometime…?)
In all, I have to give this book a 10/10 score. There was not a detail that was skipped over. This is certainly the new Getting Started With LGEO Trains, without any doubt. The instructions may be for foreign (to me) models, but they offer a lot, not to mention the countless other photos and well-written paragraphs full of useful stuff. I would recommend this book to anyone, even myself. There’s plenty in here I haven’t even thought of.
Well done, Holger. Thank you for your amazing new contribution to the amazing LEGO train hobby. I’m confident this will be the go-to book for a long time.
Background Information on the Article: The following article originally appeared in the March 1984 issue of LEGO Review, the English title of the LEGO Group’s house organ (employee magazine). The article, titled “On the track,” provides an analysis of a review on LEGO trains that appeared in the November 1983 issue of the Stiftung Warentest. Stiftung Warentest is dedicated to objective reporting on consumer goods and serves a similar function as Consumer Reports in the U.S.
On the Track… (By Preben Peterson):
TEST: In the November 1983 issue of their magazine ‘test,’ the German consumers council ‘Stiftung Warentest’ took a close look at toys, as a sort of preview to the on-coming Christmas shopping.
Among the products tested were various LEGO products: our train programme was evaluated against others, even bigger and well-known brands.
We have tested ‘test’…
INTRODUCTION: In Germany, and just about all central European countries, model trains are a subject which occupies a lot of children and adults in their leisure time.
For many of them the game is to acquire or construct precise models of existing or historic, characteristic or famous trains, stations, landscapes, etc.
WATCH THE FORMAT: This test did not concentrate on that side of model train sports, but on model trains as toys. Here one begins, soberly, by pointing out that although it is not an unimportant part of play to build and rebuild, some of the excitement is lost if one, owing to size is forced to build and dismantle the construction at the end of every day’s play. Or if the dimensions in relation to the available space are such that there is little room for variations, details and the finer points of the game. Here the LEGO train scored its first point, since, all in all, it was described as very handy.
For instance, the LEGO locomotive in the train in question measures only 153 mm and weighs 367 g. While a similar version of the otherwise so popular brand Märklin with its 335 mm and 1850 g is described as a somewhat ‘overgrown’ item, especially for smaller children.
IDENTICAL…?: Our track width – that is the distance between the rails – is a little outside the standard which a number of the other trains use. Three of the five trains tested, namely Lehman, Märklin and Playmobil use standard ‘G’ (45 mm) which corresponds to a 1:22.5 ratio. The fourth train, Faller, uses the standard ‘O’ (32 mm), which corresponds to a 1:45 ratio. As many of you already know, we use a track width of 38 mm. This adherence to the non-standard did not give rise to criticism. On the other hand one wonders, naturally, why the components from the three ‘standardised’ trains are not compatible…
PRICE: The magazine pointed out that price was not without importance when the decision of which brand of train was to be made.
Here again, our products were praised – perhaps to the surprise of some people. For instance, if one buys a LEGO train set comprising a steam engine, some carriages and goods wagons and a modest, little beginners’ set of rails, one is in business for 70 DM (about 25 US $). That is only a couple of dollars more than one would pay for a Faller engine – alone. And that is the cheapest of the four competing engines whose prices topped at nearly 80 dollars. Add to this carriages costing between 5 and nearly 25 dollars – each.
And, the magazine reminds us, who will remain satisfied with a mini railway with one engine and two carriages forever? Hinting to the cost of expanding the set…
PLUS AND MINUS: After this a ‘dive’ and then more praise to those of our colleagues who have worked with the trains and their ‘accessories.’ It is rather difficult to connect power to our rails, they complained. However, our constructors’ and users’ guides got through unscathed when very sharp, critical words were passed about nearly all the others.
MOST IMPORTANT: Finally, and absolutely of greatest importance the toys’ play potential are evaluated. A test-panel (I think that’s what they call it) of children between 6 and 14 years old was asked to play with the trains – under the appropriately watchful eyes of experienced analysts. Here too, the trains and their accessories were exposed to special trials and tests which we also know from our product tests here in the company (- but which, to judge by the results, could lead us to believe are not known, or perhaps not used in all the other companies).
Not surprisingly, it turned out that our train performed extremely well during the long-term tests. The speed matched amply that offered by the others, and on the matter of pulling power our train, as the only one of the five, was characterised ‘very large.’ Some of the others could not cope with load i the form of cargo on the wagons and gradients in the terrain/landscape which one was tempted to give them.
Our rails, points, signals, carriages and driving capacity received praise, while one could have hoped for a somewhat more popular passage about sidings (Is this noticed during play? we are tempted to ask. Ed.).
And the LEGO train was the easiest to work with – that is, to get on the tracks, shunt, etc.
ALL IN ALL: The conclusion is:
“The LEGO train is constructed upon the same principles as the other boxes and models from the same company and the elements can thus be combined freely. Construction of the engine and carriages feed children’s creativity. Once in a while things fall apart during play but that doesn’t disturb or annoy. This train is particularly good fun to play with, thanks to among other things, its powerful pulling capacity and speed.”
Upon this background, the LEGO train got the evaluation ‘very good,’ together with Playmobil’s train, while the others were placed lower.
“Upon the basis of their wide range toys in general, the two companies probably have greater experience to build upon,” concludes the report.
And that’s not untrue – neither is it at all bad…
*NOTE: First two illustrations come from the March 1984 issue of LEGO Review. All other illustrations come from various examples of LEGO train advertising for the year of 1983.
This week’s piece of LEGO train advertising history was published in France in 1971. This is probably my favorite example of LEGO train advertising. The stylized drawings and explosion of color make this a feast for the eyes.
There is also some creative storytelling going on here. If you look closely, you will notice a Darwinian depiction of trains. The 4.5V train moves into the world of 12V, is transformed into a monorail, a boat and a supersonic jetliner. All of these illustrations lead your eyes to the final focal point, which is a space-bound rocket. From trains to spaceships, “LEGO is a new toy every day.”
P.S.: Be sure to take a second look at that monorail. You might find that it bears greater resemblance to more recent fan designs than LEGO’s official monorail system of the 1980s & 1990s.
If you walked into a toy store in 1983 and saw this, how could you not fall in love with LEGO trains? The following illustration comes from a set of photographs of dealer displays distributed to toy stores in Germany. This display designed to promote LEGO trains is absolutely gorgeous and features an operating signal light. Other themes covered in the packet include Town, Classic Space, Fabuland, etc. However, only the train-themed display featured functional lighting! Were any of our German readers fortunate enough to see this display in stores?