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BRIO Wooden Railway Blog

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  • Understanding the Tip Converter

    In 1994, BRIO released the #33389 Tip Converter accessory for the wooden railway system. It is arguably the most baffling of all the wooden railway products, with a name that does nothing to help people understand what it is or what it's for.

    BRIO 33389

    Here's how it works: you move a tipping truck into the center of the mechanism, and then turn the knob on the side. This causes the mechanism to lift the tipping truck into the air and flip it over, as if dumping its contents to the ground below. You then turn the knob to lower the car back into place.

    Believe it or not, this accessory is modeled after an actual piece of railroad equipment: the rotary car dumper, or wagon tippler as it's known in the U.K. They do exactly what I just described: rotate the track segment and car together to dump out the car's contents. In a real railroad, these are used with gondola cars rather than hopper cars (what BRIO calls tipping trucks) as the latter have sloped sides and hatches for unloading.

    Rotary Car Dumper

    Image credit: Heyl & Patterson Inc, WikiMedia Commons

    For more images of rotarty car dumpers, do a Google image search.

  • Charlotte the Container Ship?

    I recently gained access to some old marketing materials from 1999 that BRIO sent out to its U.S. retailers. The most interesting of these was a flyer advertising upcoming releases and it featured an early prototype in the Theodore Tugboat™ lineup for product #32718 called Charlotte the Container Ship:

    #32718 Charlotte the Container Ship

    As you can see from the footnote, the final character and product name was still not known at the time this was printed. The Theodore Tugboat television series, produced by Cochran Entertainment Inc., was in production from 1993 through 2001 so it's possible that the name wasn't finalized in the series at the time the prototype was created. Or there may just have been some confusion or miscommunication between BRIO and Cochran, and BRIO needed to get the product announcement out before they could get clarification.

    Either way, the final toy would come to market as Chester the Container Ship, and would look quite different from the prototype shown in the flyer.

    #32718 Cheaster the Container Ship

    Major changes between early prototypes and final releases are not uncommon in the toy industry, though having them appear in catalogs is less so. After seeing this flyer, I went back through my catalog collection and noticed that Charlotte shows up in the 1999 wishbook, as well. Though the name is still printed on the side of the boat (or, rather, stuck on with paper...this is an early prototype after all), the official product name is given as just "Container Ship".

    #32718 Container Ship

  • The Train that Almost Was

    BRIO collector and enthusiast Tyme let me see a copy of an old flyer from 1997 that was sent out to BRIO retailers. This was something of a pre-announcement of upcoming BRIO products in the late 1997 and early1998 timeframe. On the cover of this flyer, which bears the name "Toy Fair 1997", is a photo of a prototype train in orange:

    Toy Fair 1997 flyer

    Inside the booklet is a larger photo with more information, indicating that the train was modeled after the TGV in France (in French, the Train à Grande Vitesse, which translates as "high speed train"), specifically the TGV Sud-Est in its original orange livery. According to Tyme, who had a close relationship with his local BRIO retailer, BRIO was not able to secure the rights from France to sell the train so it never made it to market.

    Prototype Trains

    As you can see in the photo (click to enlarge), this prototype is just a mockup. The body is orange, but the graphics are printed on paper which are glued onto the train body. This is probably fairly common in the early stages of train design since, once you have the body color decided, changing the graphics is easy if you are just printing them on paper as opposed to commiting them permanently in ink on the train itself.

    Also note the early prototype of the redesigned Shinkansen as well, which bears the name Shinkansen Tokaido. The final product name for this train would be Shinkansen Nozomi when it was finally released in early 1998. In Japan, Tokaido is the name of one of the high-speed rail lines in operation while Nozomi is the name of the fastest service offering on this line (the limited-stop service). So Shinkansens Nozomi is merely a more specific name for the same train. The train itself is modeled after the 300 series which was in operation from 1992 through 2012.

    Also note the suggested pricing in US Dollars. BRIO has never been cheap. Accounting for inflation, $43 in 1998 is equivalent to about $62 today.

  • History of the City Park set

    I received a copy of a 1982-83 catalog from writer and BRIO enthusiast Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez and will be adding it to the catalog archive, with his permission of course, in the coming days. One interesting bit of history jumped out at me in perusing it, however, and that is the origin of the City Park set, #33578. This item first appeared as a wooden railway accessory in the 1984 catalog, but it appears that it began life as an accessory to what BRIO would eventually come to call their role-playing line of toys.

    My earliest catalog is from 1980, so what I know of this line is limited to that decade. The 1980-81 catalog shows these four items:

    • Garage #1110/31654, a large building with three overhead doors,
    • Garage/petrol station #1111/31656, basically the garage plus gas pumps
    • Parking Garage #1113/31658, a three-story garage with petrol station, numbered parking spots and adhesive stickers that children could use to customize its appearance
    • Farm #1122/31105, a farm house with removable roof, large play yard and a two-room animal shed.

    Accessories for this line would appeared in the early 1980's, debuting in the 1982-83 catalog:

    • Farm #1131/6-31131, a four-piece animal shed with animals
    • City Park #1132/4-31132, which would later become wooden railway accessory #333578
    • Chicken run #1133/2-31133, a two-piece chicken coop with chickens and other figures

    The 3-car garage set #1110/31654 would eventually be renumbered to #31109 in the new 5-digit system, and the Farm #1122/31105 would become #31122. Both products would live for several more years and were last seen in catalogs in 1989.

    The accessories for the farm, the smaller four-piece farm and the chicken run, were in catalogs through 1986. What's interesting here is that these items were in the same styling and rough scale as the wooden railway system, even using the same animal and figure cut-outs, but only the City Park would go on to become an official wooden railway accessory. It would also live on an extra year, showing up in catalogs through 1987.

  • The Town set through the years

    The Town set is one of BRIO's oldest and most venerable wooden railway accessories. First introduced in the early 1960's, the Town saw production through 1991 with only modest styling changes, giving it a roughly 30-year history.

    The first known catalog appearance was around 1964, and the set originally consisted of three houses, two skyscrapers, a church and a factory. The skyscrapers were wide, and the factory was a single building with two roofs. The factory smokestack was a skinny, smooth dowel 9mm in diameter and 55mm long.

    As the catalog pages from this time are all black-and-white drawings, it's not known what color the roofs were but surviving pieces from this time, and a catalog sheet excerpt from the 1970's, suggest that the houses and skyscrapers all had red roofs, the church had a green roof and red steeple, and the larger factory roof was green while the smaller roof was red. Curiously, the church and the skyscrapers were also double-sided, meaning the graphics for the windows were printed on both sides.

    By the early 1970's, the Town had lost the double-sided printing, one of the skyscrapers and one of the houses, but gained six trees. These early trees differed from the tree style that would emerge in the 1980's in that they had a round, brown base.

    Sometime around 1980, the Town set underwent a major styling change: the skyscraper was replaced with a much narrower building, the factory was split into two pieces and lost the smaller roof, the smokestack grew to a 12mm diameter and 60mm length, the roof of the church turned red, the roof of one of the houses turned black and the trees were replaced with the newer style. Note that the smokestack was still a smooth dowel.

    The Town most people are familiar with emerged around 1983. The styling change was minor: the smokestack was replaced with a 12x60mm wooden dowel pin with spiral fluting.

    It would remain in production unchanged through 1991. This latter set is frequently seen on eBay, though missing smokestacks are not uncommon.

  • Observations on BRIO Catalogs

    One thing I have noticed watching eBay for BRIO catalogs over the years is that there seems to have been a major transition in 1992, and again in 2001. If you look at the BRIO dealer/consumer catalogs from the 80's up to 1991 you'll notice that they are all "full" catalog books: the complete lineup of BRIO products are shown inside, ranging from infant toys all the way to role play toys aimed at older children.

    Beginning in the year 1992 and running through 2000, there don't appear to be any of these full catalog booklets at all, however. Instead, what you see are specialized catalog books that focus on the individual product lines. For the purposes of this blog, what I am most interested in is the first Wooden Railway system catalog book which appears in 1992 along with its companion photo book. You'll also note that 1991 is the first year that the modern foldout/brochure mini-catalog insert appears. Coincidence? Probably not. In 2001 the product-specific catalog books start to disappear and the full catalog book returns. There are no Wooden Railway-specific catalog books to be found after 2001 until the overhaul of the BRIO Wooden Railway system in 2010.

    This change in the way catalogs were done in the 1990's would make sense. You can think of the 90's as being the golden age of the Wooden Railway system as this is when sales were increasing rapidly, peaking in the late 1990's. Wooden Trains, in both the BRIO and Thomas the Tank Engine lines, were extremely popular toys driven in large part by the Thomas and Friends TV series. Why wouldn't it have it's own catalog, particularly versions of it that could be distributed with the large and popular starter sets in order to drive more sales? The full catalog book, in the mean time, was not abandoned entirely: it was merely shrunk down into little inserts that were placed in (neary) every retail package, a practice that continues to this day.

    Of course, all of this is just observation and guesswork, and a theory that conveniently fits the information at hand. But just because something isn't seen on eBay, that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. If you know of a full catalog from the years 1992 to 2000, I'd sure like to hear from you.

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