By Bob Hayden, 3 Nov 1996
Here’s some ancient history concerning the products that got a lot of us started in HOn2-1/2: AHM’s MinitrainS sets and accessories. What follows may even be the answer to a mystery that’s better than 30 years old.
Three weeks ago I sat down to lunch with Nikolas Pfusterschmid, an Austrian gentleman who has served as a marketing and product-development rep. for many hobby and toy companies over the past 40+ years. Nik was repping for Italeri, the Italian plastic-kit manufacturer, and our lunch involved me as editor of FineScale Modeler magazine. But when Nik mentioned that he had worked for Bernie Paul of Associated Hobby Manufacturers back in the early 1960s, I asked whether he knew anything about the origins of the MinitrainS line.
It turns out that he knew a lot.
Nik said that the MinitrainS line was an outgrowth of the successful (and still successful) HO scale Minitanks line. AHM imported and sold millions of Minitanks in the early 1960s, and was looking to repeat that sales success with an inexpensive range of HO scale-N gauge trains that could be used as industrial adjuncts on HO layouts.
The first MinitrainS AHM imported were manufactured by Egger in Germany. Egger was the brothers Egger — two of them — and their trains were called “Egger Bahn” (Egger Railway — how original). If you have any of the old Egger locomotives, you’ll see an “EB” on the cab sides.
AHM thought they had an exclusive importation deal with the Egger boys, but the brothers had a different take on exclusivity. Egger equipment started showing up in the U.S. without benefit of having passed through AHM distribution (nowadays we call that the “gray market”), and soon AHM looked elsewhere for its MinitrainS supplier.
Nik was around for all of the above, and when AHM decided to have its own U.S.-prototype MinitrainS produced to compete with Egger, he was assigned to come up with the designs and the manufacturing arrangements. The Baldwin saddletank 0-4-0 was based on plans, I think (maybe even the prototype “Nova Scotia Steel & Coal Co.” initials printed on the tank), but Nik revealed that the Plymouth diesel was — appropriately enough — free-lanced.
“Free-lance,” I said, “how could it be free-lanced if it’s a Plymouth?” Nik replied that he visited Model Railroader magazine’s library way back then, and made copies of various Plymouth sales literature — the kind that shows the many variations Plymouth COULD build for you if you ordered one. Nik based the design on the sales brochures, and has no idea whether a flesh-and-blood prototype ever existed.
There were four basic sets (I have two of them): No. 3051, Diesel with 4 cars and track, $9.98; 3052, Steam loco with 4 cars and track, $10.98; 3055, Diesel with 10 cars and track, $14.98; and 3056, Steam loco with 8 cars and track, $14.98. The diesel alone, No. 3001, was $5.95; the steamer, No. 3011, was $6.95. The seven varieties of four-wheeled cars were sold separately for 98 cents apiece. Track sections — 4″ straights and 7″-radius curves! — were 7 pieces for 98 cents or 15 cents each. They have “Minitrains” and “ahm” molded on the back.
Based on the sales of the Mintanks line, AHM had lots of MinitrainS sets produced in Austria. Too many, as it turned out. My guess is that’s why they started showing up at Woolworth’s (a five-and-dime department store chain) shortly after being introduced into hobby channels. It turned out that not many HO gaugers wanted to run a narrow-gauge industrial line (just like they never had much use for adding HO slot cars to their layouts), and the product got dumped. I remember buying the sets at Woolworth’s for five or six bucks apiece — about half price.
Now for the big mystery. AHM catalogs of the mid-1960s showed some Maine-prototype additions to the MinitrainS line. I don’t have the catalogs (do any of you?), but there were illustrations (no photos) of an inside-frame version of SR&RL No.24, a 2-6-2 with tender; a Maine-style coach; and an 0-4-4T Forney. Answering the question of whether these items were ever tooled or produced has been the Holy Grail for HOn2-1/2 modelers ever since.
I asked Nik about these mysterious cataloged models. He told me he recalled that the tooling was produced for the SR&RL body shell (the boiler and cab? the tender shell? who knows?), but was subsequently lost before any models were produced. The tooling for the 0-4-4T was never made, and he didn’t recall anything about the passenger car.
So there’s your story, or at least a version of it from a reliable source who was there when it all happened. Nik is still marketing and repping at about age 72, and he divides his time between homes in Graz, Austria, and Telluride, Colorado. He has no particular interest in AHM’s MinitrainS — they were just a few of hundreds of products that he helped the company bring to market — so I have no reason to believe he made any of this up. The Minitanks connection goes a long way toward explaining why so many of the sets were made, and why they keep showing up at swap meets and shows. (Roco still makes all of the four-wheeled cars, but they sell for over $6 each these days.)
Hope this makes for some enjoyable reading, and helps dispel a 30-year-old mystery!
– Bob Hayden