Hornby’s most daring moments

08 June 2020
Hornby has never been afraid to create innovative and unusual products. Phil Parker uncovers a few from his model cupboard...

R752 – Battlespace Turbo Car

In my opinion, this is the greatest model ever produced by Hornby. Launched in 1966, it's a cross between the propeller-powered German Schienenzeppelin (Rail Zepplin) and something Buster Crabbe would have piloted in a 1930s Buck Rogers Saturday morning serial at the cinema.

According to the catalogue; “The space car can be driven at hair-raising speed and will negotiate inclines and declines safely.”

The speed is true enough, a Turbo Car can attain some hair-raising rates of progress given enough straight track, but the safety aspect was compromised by the fitting of a hard plastic spike to the early production models. Someone obviously realised this wasn't clever and it was quickly replaced with rubber, although these rot badly, so any you see with a good spike probably sport a wood or plastic replacement.

Under the curvaceous body was Hornby's first split frame chassis. Rather than employ normal wiping pickups that would act as brakes, the metal frame and wheels are electrically insulated from one side to the other. Power comes from a motor fixed directly to a propeller - if you want to slow down, just run it in reverse.

Hornby Battlespace Turbo cars

Turbo cars are popular with collectors and while they may have cost 38/- back in 1970, you'll be looking at around £150 for a good boxed example today. Even tired examples are worth over £30. If you are tempted, check the propeller is complete, because once chunks are missing, it will rattle badly and it's out of balance.

Sadly, despite my regular requests to Simon Kohler, it's unlikely that we'll ever see a new Turbo car released. An unprotected fan capable of giving small fingers a painful whack isn't going to meet modern toy safety laws. I'm not sure how it would fare on DCC either - what sound would you fit in it?

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R348 - Giraffe Car

Hornby Giraffe Car

Produced under the Tri-ang Hornby label, the Giraffe car is one of the more novel items of rolling stock produced from 1963 to 1971. The wagon travels in a normal goods train, and when the out-of-gauge giraffe reaches a tunnel or bridge, the dangling telltale instructs her to crouch down to avoid bumping her head.

Operation is both simple and ingenious. The animal's neck and head are fitted to a pivoting arm. At the bottom of this is a magnet and in the box is a steel rail that clips in the middle of your track. When the wagon passes over the rail, the giraffe ducks. The telltale is just decoration.

Inspiration for this model came from Lionel Trains in the US, where it was produced in coarse scale O gauge. Tri-ang picked up a few ideas from there, including the helicopter car. Maybe this is why the model is in a box car from the Transcontinental range? Originally intended to be a brown body, the colour was changed to match the giraffe for production. Oddly, the 1964 and '65 catalogues show a brown car with white giraffe, but I've never seen one in the flesh. There is also a military version with a sniper figure and green-bodied wagon.

Hornby Giraffe Car

According to the catalogues, the giraffes name is either Georgie or Georgina.

First sold for 16/6, you can pick up Giraffe cars for £15 upwards. Boxed examples with both telltale and clip in rails are worth more. Rarest of all are giraffes with two ears, because the box design usually knocks off the left.

G100 – 3½ in gauge live steam Stephenson's Rocket

G100 – 3½ in gauge live steam Stephenson's Rocket

No one would have believed in the mid-1970s that Hornby would release a large scale live steam model of one of the most famous locomotives ever, but it did. And it sold.

Rocket is an ingenious model in many ways. Powered by a gas tank in the tender, the working boiler is tiny and well-lagged inside a decorative cladding nearly an inch larger in diameter. It powers a pair of 13mm diameter cylinders connected to the wheels by a hidden 2:1 reduction gear set to increase the power available.

In theory, all this was great and the idea was certainly impressive, but early gas tanks tended to leak. This was quickly fixed and replacements are now available. If you overfilled the boiler, the excess water would soak the generous lagging and the only way you could dry it was to dismantle the model.

G100 – 3½ in gauge live steam Stephenson's Rocket

On a good day, the model would haul itself along for about eight minutes. Couple up the G104 coach, one of the best models Hornby has made, and performance would suffer. Add a second and you'd be lucky to get it moving on the straight, never mind a curve.

Despite this, the model won awards and sold in the thousands. Boxed examples aren't rare but look at them carefully and budget £150 upwards. Less common is the static kit version that sells for at least £50. If you'd like a coach, those start at £250; particularly galling if you remember a model shop selling them off for a fiver a few decades ago.

R1058 – OO gauge live steam Flying Scotsman

Hornby OO gauge live steam Flying Scotsman

More live steam, this time in OO gauge and inspired by an article in BRM showing Richard Hallam's 'Duchess'; a model that had taken over two decades to develop. Powered through the track, a boiler in the tender supplies steam via an electrically-controlled valve to cylinders inside the loco frames. The body is a specially developed temperature-resistant plastic based on the company's existing models.

Launched in 2003, full sets cost £520 including A4 locomotive, special controller, oils and tools. Despite running on standard OO track, the models weren't compatible with normal electric-powered locos thanks to the much higher voltage required to generate steam.

Sales started well but quickly fell off as the models gained a reputation for being difficult to control. Most of the problems can be laid at the door of a poorly-produced manual with several sections that were incorrect. The learning curve for a steam loco is also greater than that of an electric model, which might have knocked the novelty a bit.

Hornby OO gauge live steam Flying Scotsman

The A3 Flying Scotsman quickly joined the A4, but after only a year in production, no more A4s were made. A3s were produced in 2005 followed by a final run in 2008 with a double tender model. After this, the change in financial climate made the model uneconomic and the range was dropped with just over 14,000 models made.

Fortunately, many still survive and the range is well supported by the OO Live Steam Club, members of which attend many shows with their test track and can offer all the help and assistance an owner is likely to need, including their own controller that overcomes the deficiencies of the supplied unit.

3DS Mission 1

Hornby 3DS Mission 1

In the 1980s, Hornby was faced with serious competition from video games. To fight back, it decided to create a three-dimensional space war game. Thus 3DS (3D Space) was born.

3DS is a monorail capable of operating horizontally, vertically or upside down. Buy enough track pieces (15ft came with the set) and the instruction manual suggests that if “Adult humanoids living in the vicinity permit”, the track supports could be screwed to walls and ceilings to produce a complicated circuit.

To play, a white ‘Hypercruiser’ is clipped to the track and powered by a ‘Hyperdrive Controller’. The player takes the black ‘Photon Gunship’ and proceeds to blast away at the moving target. A digital readout tells you how many shots you have taken and if enough hits are registered, the ‘Hypercruiser’ stops moving.

Every shot is accompanied by a suitable noise and, a cassette full of ‘Space Sounds’ could be dropped into the family hi-fi for atmosphere. Scenery included posters and a bright orange polystyrene planet, slightly smaller than a tennis ball.

Hornby 3DS Mission 1

The designers envisaged 3DS evolving into a comprehensive system. ‘Fast Interceptors’, ‘Space City Elements’ and ‘Robomodule Gamma’ were promised, but never materialised.

With two players, one controlling the ‘Hypership’ and the other firing the ‘Gunship’, this must have been great fun! Sadly, Hornby's Simon Kohler described the operation as being “a bit dull”. The ‘Hypership’ trundles sedately around the track, but, because you have to be accurate with your aim, it’s still difficult to score a hit. It didn’t do much to dent the rise of the video game or home computer boom that followed. Second-hand sets are readily available, and £20 will buy you the basic set and accessories are easy to find online.

While not a great success, this brave attempt deserves recognition. Perhaps someone would like to build a set for an exhibition one day?

For more model railway inspiration covering all gauges from OO gauge through to N gauge, click here.

For more Hornby history, check out our article on Hornby's most notable moments here. Or, if you'd like the latest Hornby reviews and news, head to our dedication sections for all the latest products and stories.