Milestone Models: Tri-ang Rocket Launcher

Author: Robert Forsythe
Date: 10 March 2010
Related Model: Rocket Launching Wagon

This article originally featured in the September 2009 edition of the Model Rail magazine.

Do you remember when model railways were about good, old fashioned fun? Robert Forsythe looks back to a British model that influenced a whole host of North American and European designs with endless ‘play value’.

Our first ‘Milestone Model’ - the Mainline LNER J72 - celebrated a definite move forward in the scale replication stakes and the move to Far Eastern manufacture (MR133). This time the story is at the heart of British-made model railways. It looks at the epic years in the 1950s when the ‘OO’ train market shifted from a very limited production hamstrung by post-war austerity to a blossoming industry, where some products have stood the test of time and are still being made today.

This months ‘Milestone’ has not gained an award for longevity as it last appeared in a catalogue in 1971 after a life of 14 years. Yet the Tri-ang Rocket Launcher certainly deserves its status.

This was the first model in Tri-ang’s notable military models sequence (which from 1966 was called ‘Battlespace’). It embodied two fundamental elements of the commercial success of Tri-ang Railways. These were the creation of fun operating accessories and the use of ‘base models’ to add variety and save on tooling costs. As an example, the Rocket Launcher was an exemplary piece.

At the outset of Tri-ang in around 1952, action accessories were not consciously promoted. Tri-ang’s rival Trix got the first in 1954 with its ‘designed for action’ elevator. Tri-ang responded in 1955 with a series of hopper cars with an opening bottom door activated by a trackside switch.

This was the R.111 Transcontinental bogie hopper car. However it wasn’t until 1957 that the R.161 Operating Hopper Car Set with staithes and bunker was released. 1957, however, was the year that Tri-ang unveiled its Rocket Launcher.

The genius of this clever design goes back to 1953 and the appearance in the Tri-ang range of the R.17 four wheeled bolster wagon. This had sockets in its deck enabling a variety of optional fitments. Actual bolsters, a tarpaulin-covered load and cable drums all followed.

Tri-ang’s design team quickly realised that the mould for the bolster wagon cold be altered to produce the range’s first bogie wagon. So, in 1953 the R.110 Bogie Bolster wagon was in the shops. However, its creation was hurried and coach bogies were fitted. At the same time, Tri-ang Minic, another arm of the Lines Brothers empire, was producing its ranges of road vehicles, including M328, the ‘Push and Go’ Mechanical Horse, Low Loader with Rocket Projector and Rocket.

This launcher was combined with the bogie bolster to create R.216 Rocket Launcher in 1957. Tri-ang Railways’ military range grew slowly after that, the next item being a well wagon with a Minic tank load in 1960 as R.241.

North American influence

Across the Atlantic, American firm Lionel was developing its own action accessories. Lines Brothers exchanged information and ranges with Lionel, the results being Tri-ang’s R.128 Helicopter Car and R.249 Exlploding Car, which followed in 1962/63.

Soon a NATO-liveried group existed, although the Rocket Launcher did not receive NATO livery. It existed in khaki between 1966 and 1971. ‘Battlespace’ ceased after that and, although some items were resurrected in the 1980s, the Rocket Launcher wasn’t one of them. It did however, make it into the French Hornby-ACHO catalogue in the mid-1960s, modified to carry European couplers.

Do tastes change in fun? Evidently, in Britain they do. British model railway manufacturers have not felt the need to mix and match with the huge wargaming hobby, an exception being Hornby’s T1501 Battle Zone action set in 2000 although this was never in the main catalogue. It comprised a Class 08 and two ‘Lowmacs’ carrying military hardware. This was definitely a toy aimed at children.

Some ready-to-run models of wartime locomotives have appeared such as the Dapol (now Hornby) ‘Austerity’ 0-6-ST and Bachmann’s ‘WD’ 2-8-0, which has appeared in WD green and Longmoor Military Railway blue. Wrenn’s War Department 8F (W2281 in 1988) was actually photographic grey and not an active service livery.

America still enjoys militaria, railways, and childhood play. Bachmann USA’s catalogue continues to offer examples of what I was familiar with from the Tri-ang catalogue growing up in the 1960s. For example, military wagons were in the 2008 edition whilst there were Special Forces and Desert Forces trainsets offered in the 2004 catalogue. The camouflaged operating searchlight and missile launching wagons harked straight back to 1960s Tri-ang.

There’s greater provision for ‘military trains’ in Continental Europe too. Liliput, Marklin, Lima and Roco have all released models recently. Here are a few examples from recent Liliput catalogues: a bogie DR Flakwagen (anti-aircraft coach) in 2008, rail-mounted, self-propelled tanks, a twin flat wagon laden with an Mel09 fighter aircraft (2004) and a US Army Transport Corps GE 44ton Bo-Bo switcher.

The moral of the tale is the original 1957 Tri-ang Rocket Launcher led the way. The craze of ‘Battlespace’ followed although it was not sustained in Britain after 1971. Since then, there have only been a few war related British railway models although similar models have been released in Europe.

Photography: Robert Forsythe

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