Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Mattel's Takeover of HIT

I must admit, I wasn't expecting to make a blog post on this until at least next year.  But the sudden news yesterday concerning the takeover allowed me to make it now.  Here is what I think of the whole situation.

Apax Partners, HIT Entertainment, announced in 2010 that they were in debt and the only way to get out of it was to sell Thomas and Friends and HIT Entertainment.  From the outset, Chorion, producers of The Mr Men Show and Peppa Pig, showed their interest, but soon after THEY fell in to financial problems and they may be the next company to be sold off.  Disney and Viacom were also linked with the bidding process.  While it was unpopular with the majority of fans (including myself), it was seen by many as the inevitable new home of HIT and Thomas for the simple fact that they could afford it easily.

Saban Brands, who had just bought Power Rangers from Disney after an unsuccessful tenure, were also incolved with the bidding, and they were a popular choice for owners like Chorion.  But after an 18-month long struggle, Mattel were announced as the surprising owners of HIT, Thomas and their other brands.

To be honest, I'm on the fence.  The only thing I can be sure of is that, with Mattel being one of the world's biggest toy makers - not to mention the fact they own Fisher Price - the revenue from merchandise will be exceptional.  But the TV Series, I have my concerns about.  Knowing Mattel the way I think I do, the only reason they make a Barbie DVD is when they're releasing more Barbie dolls.  And I have this fear that Thomas and Friends will go furthur down that track...  However, if they allow more creative freedom for the writers and the animators, they may be on with a winner.

Another concern I have is the future for Hornby and Bachmann.  Since, as I said, Mattel are known as one of the world's biggest toy makers, they would want to make their own merchandise, mainly expand on the Trackmaster and Take-n-Play ranges, as well as work with the Wooden Railway system.  But what about the HO/OO system?  Will Mattel extend the deals with the two?  Or will those two ranges hit the buffers when the contract ends?  I'm not sure, but I have my doubts.

I'm very disheartened that Thomas has left Britain, but with so many foreign companies bidding for HIT, it was pretty much an inevitabality that the show would leave British shores.  But my major disappointment is that EVERYTHING (I'm not just on about the takeover now) revolves around money, NO ONE cares about the legacy and history of brands, first with Cadbury's buy out by Kraft and now Mattel buying HIT.  It's sad that a lot of things that were created on this little island of Great Britain and Ireland have been sold internationally.  But then, some may argue that the world loves British exports.

Anyway, I'm rambling on a bit :P.  Bottom line is that I have my doubts, but if it is treated with the dignity it deserves, and this promise of better writing is delivered, then Thomas and Friends, and their fans, can look forward to an extremely bright future.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Hornby vs Bachmann (3/3)

It's been one of the biggest merchandising talking points that I've ever seen.  Which brand makes the better models: Hornby or Bachmann?  This blog post will analyse the pros and cons (from my point of view) of each brand and it will, definatively, conclude which brand I would buy.

Hornby have made a lot of models that Bachmann haven't and vice versa.  Hornby have made Duck, Oliver, Toad, Stepney, Flying Scotsman, Bear, Dart, a breakdown crane and, soon, Murdoch.  While Bachmann have made Salty, Mavis, Henrietta, Cranky, Terence, Harold and, of course, Donald and Douglas.  While I think Bachmann have steadily made better models year on year, Hornby are near enough left in the dust, as they don't make as many models as they used to (this year being their biggest for about 6 years while Bachmann have made many models FOR 6 years straight).  However, there is something lacking from both ranges: generic coaches.  Sure there's the express coaches, but as we've seen in the TV series there are old green and cream coaches from Series 1 or the red coaches seen from Series 2 onwards.  Fans don't really say it, because they have other ideas, but the sheer amount of wagons and vans created from BOTH ranges compared to their coaches is rather unfortunate.

Bachmann are better value for money.  In some instances you can get 2 Bachmann engines for the same price as one Hornby engine.  An example I have personally is that I bought Bachmann Donald and Douglas for £80 (on eBay), whereas Murdoch will be retailing at £92.  The sheer price difference is incredible (and not in a good way).  Sure, you could TRY and shop around for a cheaper price for Murdoch, but the cheapest I found is in the £70 mark.  You could probably get Bachmann Spencer and one of his coaches for about that!  Yes, the Hornby models are finely detailed, but if they just lowered the price a bit they'd be more enticing.  Trust me, people would want to buy more of something that's cheap than one thing that's expensive.  So drop the price, watch the models fly off the shelves and watch as the profits skyrocket.

Bachmann make their models from scratch, so they can be built with precision and be made to look exactly like they should in the TV Series.  Hornby use pre-existing models from their vast catalogue of models to try and make the engines look the way they should in reality (only Percy's body is scratch built).  That's fine for Thomas, Henry, Duck, Spencer and Murdoch as they are perfect representations of their prototypes.  But for engines like Emily, Edward and Dart, they should have planned them better, even made completely new models if they had to.  Emily's face looks downright ugly and Edward just looks... wrong, despite the correct livery and wheel configuration.  If Hornby don't think outside the box and try making characters from scratch, Bachmann will just pull even further ahead and that would be sad, especially for company that has such an illustrious history like Hornby.  Then again, with the amount of models they've discontinued this year, it seems like it could be the beginning of the end for them anyway.

So the brand I would turn to first would be Bachmann.  Ever since they burst onto the American market in 2002, their models have improved year on year, while Hornby's range has sadly been dying a slow death.  But what the Bachmann range shows more than anything else it's that the voice of the people CAN be heard.  We asked for Edward, and we got him.  We asked for Donald and Douglas, and they were soon made.  Maybe if we ask for Duck and Oliver, they'll be made too...?  The main reason I would buy Bachmann is the most important one for me: value for money.  I guarantee you that if a Bachmann salesman showed a Thomas model (for this example, Edward) to a random guy in the street and said "Here's Edward, your kids will love it and he's all yours for £40), would he say no if he had the cash?

I just want to say for the record that I adore Hornby and near enough every model looks great.  But for me the models are just too overpriced for what they are, especially when compared to Bachmann.

Hornby vs Bachmann (2/3)

It's been one of the biggest merchandising talking points that I've ever seen.  Which brand makes the better models: Hornby or Bachmann?  This blog post will analyse the pros and cons (from my point of view) of each brand and it will, definatively, conclude which brand I would buy.

Bachmann Industries have been making HO scale models since 1970, but only started making Thomas and Friends models in 2002, one of - I'm guessing - HIT Entertainment's first acts in charge of the brand.  Their first three models were, naturally, the show's biggest characters: Thomas, Percy and James.  Unlike the Hornby models, the Bachmann versions were handbuilt to the specifications of the TV series.  Also, each engine was given a nifty moving eye mechanism, to bring more life into their faces.  Sadly, they weren't really up to scratch.  Thomas was the best looking of the three, only let down by the face, which looked like one he had in a magazine (as did Percy's and James', although his looked a bit like his usual face).  Another problem with Thomas was the gap that is usually seen between his tanks and his splashers was filled in.  The Hornby model didn't have this problem.  In fact, the ERTL toy didn't have that problem and it is A LOT smaller.  Also, neither of the first three models had a coupling on the front.  With James, that wasn't much of an issue, with Thomas and Percy, who are designed to go backwards and forwards with no trouble, it was a bit confusing for me.

Percy was very detailed, especially the valve gear.  That is a thing of beauty.  It's just a shame that the stepladder leading to his cab is on the outside of his valance rather than under it.  But the biggest problem was that the bunker was far too big - mostly due to the coal.  What was worse was the bunker itself was grey rather than black.  But the worst one was James.  While I admit that the shapes are all there, the colours are not.  The wheels and axle boxes are grey rather than black and the part under the smoke box is red, rather than black. To buy a model that needs a lot of work to get it looking right is ridiculous, bordering on criminal.  The main disappointment though is the cabs of the tender engines.  There is absolutely no detail in them, and it's a shame.  Hornby extracted a lot of detail from their cabs so there was nothing stopping Bachmann doing the same.

Annie, Clarabel and the Troublesome Trucks were released this year too.  These look a lot better than Hornby's versions, but the issue I have with Clarabel is she's styled as a composite coach, like Annie, when she should have a little compartment for the guard.  The grey running plate is a bit disappointing as well, but not unexpected cosidering Percy and James.  Bertie, Harold, Cranky and Sir Topham Hatt were also made this year, as were sets including Thomas (with Annie and Clarabel) and Percy (with the Troublesome Trucks).

In 2005, the range was enlarged by Gordon and Henry, as well as a shedload of rolling stock including Red Express Coaches, tankers, Scruffey, red, blue and bright brown trucks as well as a brake van.  From Gordon and Henry onwards, all engines were fitted with front couplings as well as the rear ones, but the lack of cab detail was still evident.  The faces also matched the TV characters a lot more, but they were no longer fitted with the lamps that Thomas, Percy and James were given.  I didn't have a big problem with Gordon, he's a great model.  Sadly, Henry's tender was too short, which made it look longer than it actually was.  I would have loved to have bought the Hornby alternative, but its high price tag put me off.

The tankers were better designed than the Hornby ones too as they are the perfect size and shape, but the Hornby ones had much more visible detail.  The brake van looked good, but it seemed like the grey was too bright.  But the worst one was Scruffey.  Yes, the face was spot on, but there is no orange lining to be seen at all.  The Hornby one is a lot better.  Another set was introduced, featuring James, a blue truck, fuel tanker and a brake van

In 2006, Toby and Spencer were added to the group.  Toby looks a lot like his TV counterpart and is a better design overall compared to Hornby's.  He isn't very fast, nor is he very strong, but then he's neither of these things in the TV Series as well.  The only disappointment was that the cowcatchers were seemed to be fitted around the coupling, whereas with the Hornby version, the coupling was cleverly moulded into the cowcatcher and there was no hole to be seen.  Spencer's design is rather disappointing.  He looks rather tall and square, which makes the tender look too tall at the cab end.  Whether this be down to lack of attention to detail, or the motor and eye mechanism, it is Bachmann's poorest looking model since James.  Sadly, this is the only one available as Hornby's equivalent has been discontinued.

Emily's Coaches were also released, which was strange as there was no Emily at the time.  Green Express Coaches were added to the line for Gordon, and the inevitable set with them and the Express Engine was released too, but discontinued soon after.

In 2007, the Bachmann range welcomed its first female engine: Emily.  She was, in my opinion, the best Bachmann model at the time.  Strangely though, one of her front bogies was used, as well as the drive wheel, to power her.  But then it may've been because it would be too complex to wire up just one pair of wheels.  She was joined by a cattle truck, a well wagon, a pedestrian bridge, water tower, salt wagon, signal gantry, an RF Container wagon, a 6 ton wagon, a station, coal wagon (with load), coaling station and signal gantry.  More tankers were released with more detailing than the first few and, yes, Emily and her coaches were included in a set.

In 2008, Bachmann released two models that fans had been longing for: Henrietta and a better looking Edward.  In fact, I think that Edward is still my all time favourite HO/OO loco I have (even though I had to buy two as the dome fell off the first).  Spencer's Coach (an express coach with the red livery) was introduced for Spencer and a mail van was released for Percy.  I love the mail van, that's probably my favourite piece of rolling stock.  A conductor was made this year, and so was Mavis, Bachmann's first diesel.  Fans were a bit shocked with the first picture they saw as she was grey, the same colou grey as James' wheels and Percy's bunker.  Happily, this was fixed when the final picture (and model) was released.  But the couplings left a gaping hole in the cowcatchers, like Toby.  Two new sets were also released: Thomas "Holiday Special" set which included Thomas with Christmas hat and snowplough, (Emily's) coach with Christmas decoration, (red) truck with Christmas tree and a candy cane tanker and also Thomas' "Fun with Freight" set which included Thomas, S. C. Ruffey, red open wagon, cream tanker, cattle van and a conductor

2009 saw the release of Bachmannn's second diesel, Salty.  He looks really good, but he looks too clean as, in the TV Series, he has a weathered look about him.  I also thought the wheels were quite small and, like Mavis and Toby, a gaping hole was seen in the bufferbeam where the coupling was.  But overall, he looks really accurate.  Bachmann also released Terence the Tractor with a detachable snowplough (or plow in America), a flatbed full of paint drums (ala Calling All Engines!), a ventilated van and a signalbox.

2010 was a quiet year, with only Tidmouth Sheds (with an add-on pack so more berths could be added), Farmer McColl, a third Troublesome Truck (a green cattle truck with a face and Salty's Dockside Delivery set (featuring Salty, 6 Ton wagon, Raspberry Syrup tanker, Salt Wagon and a custom conductor) were released.  Sadly though, the 6 ton wagon, the RF Container Wagon and the Red Express Coaches were discontinued this year.  Well, I say "sadly" I've always preferred Hornby's express coaches and always will.

This year has probably been the biggest year for Bachmann's Thomas range, with FIVE engines being released, more than any other year.  Bill and Ben early in the year, Donald and Douglas last month and Diesel about two weeks ago.  I've managed to get Bill, Donald and Douglas and I plan to get Diesel and Ben next week.  Bill and the Scottish Twins look absolutely exquisite, epecially Bill's valve gear.  I shall review them once I get the other two.  Also released were Knapford Station and the Lighthouse.  The lighthouse looks good, but Knapford is disappointing, as it only allows one track per platform rather than two in the TV Series.  There also aren't any buildings to go with it.

Compared to Hornby, they're cheap and much better in the "value for money" stakes.  And these days, with the recession, you want value for money when you buy anything, especially luxuries like model trains.

They're based on their TV Series counterparts, so they are easily recognisable to children compared to Hornby's

They CAN run on Hornby track using Hornby transformers (controllers), so for those who are mad on Hornby but fancy a change, you can safely choose Bachmann and know that you won't need to buy new track.

The moving eyes, a big win for me.  They bring the face to life more (those who enjoy the model series will get what I mean).

They are only really available in America and Canada.  Brits that want to buy them can only do so online.  As I said before, why don't HIT allow both companies to sell their models to everyone and let people make their own choices?

The range has been around for 9 years now and Thomas, Percy and James still look the same.  Considering the high standard models they're producing nowadays, I think they should go back to the drawing board with those three (and possibly Spencer) to improve them.

That's the two brands fully scoped when it comes to what the two brands have produced.  Next time, you shall see my final verdict!

Hornby vs Bachmann (1/3)

It's been one of the biggest merchandising talking points that I've ever seen.  Which brand makes the better models: Hornby or Bachmann?  This blog post will analyse the pros and cons (from my point of view) of each brand and it will, definatively, conclude which brand I would buy.

When it comes to brand partnership with Thomas and Friends, Hornby has made models for the franchise for 26 years while Bachmann Industries will be celebrating their 10th year modelling Thomas and Friends next year.  But does the age factor really make any difference?  To me, not really.  What makes the difference is which brand has made the biggest impact in their lifespan, and you'll see which has made the biggest impact for me if you read on.

Hornby Model Railways first struck a deal making Thomas the Tank Engine models in 1985, with the range beginning with, who else, Thomas and Percy.  From the Thomas model, it was clearly evident that - when you look at the shape and styling of Thomas - they were tooling their models to the specifications of the engines' prototypes, rather than the TV Series styling which was, at the time, still finding its feet.  That being said, Percy's model could still be a very convincing TV Series style model.  Annie and Clarabel were also made to accompany Thomas.  In my opinion, they really should've tried to make their own versions rather than base them on their generic 4 wheel coach design.  It made them look very squashed, no matter if you compared them to their TV OR Railway Series counterparts.  There was also some rolling stock introduced, including an open wagon, a closed van (sadly they have been discontinued.  I bought 5 in a lot on eBay and they are fantastic.  I would love it if Hornby bought them back), a TV Series style milk tanker (which looks a bit squashed in my opinion, but it has all the detail there) and a brown brake van.  Sets including Thomas, Percy and the two engines together were released as well.

In 1986, Duck (more than likely introduced to coincide with his TV Series introduction, which is made more noticeable - to me - since the green livery is styled on the TV Series green rather than the GWR green used in the Railway Series) and Gordon were created.  Some green and cream TV Series style express coaches were created for the Express engine as was a cattle truck, which was retired and bought back in the 2000's.  To coincide with Duck and Gordon's introduction, they were released in sets as well.  Gordon including his coaches and Duck's including a cattle wagon, open wagon, milk tanker, closed van and a brake van.

The next year, only two models were released: Devious Diesel and the Breakdown Crane.  It was quite ironic that Hornby's first diesel to be modelled was the first to ever be seen in the Railway Series and Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends.  More sets were released too, with Diesel being included in one, with a cattle wagon, open wagon, milk tanker, closed van and a brake van.  Also, they released a clockwork set including Thomas and Bertie.

James was created in 1989.  He used an LMS 3F tender engine with an added bogie at the front.  To go with him, red and white TV Seres style express coaches were created.  It's a bit strange that they were called JAMES' coaches when, in Series 2, Henry, Edward and Duck usually pulled them.  Only in Series 3 was James seen with them (please say if that's not the case).  A set including James was also released, including him and his coaches, which was re-released in 2005.  Also released was a tar wagon, which had the same con as the milk tanker (it looked squashed).  These three were the last major OO electric releases for 11 years.  Sadly, during this time, Duck, Gordon, Diesel, the breakdown crane, the closed van, the cattle truck, the tar wagon and James' coaches were retired.

Happily, however, these were re-commissioned in 2000 (except for the closed van, catlle truck, the crane and Diesel), while Toby, Bill and Ben, 'Arry and Bert and The Diesel were all added to the range, as were two Troublesome Trucks and Scruffey.  From this point on, in my opinion, the models went downhill.  Toby was far too tall, the Troublesome Trucks were far too big and The Diesel was the wrong class - a Class 37 rather than a Class 40.  'Arry and Bert looked alright, but strangely their faces were based on Splatter and Dodge.  It would've been nice to see a Hornby Splatter and Dodge, considering TATMR came out that year.  And Bill and Ben were far too big and wide, and the back of the cab had no detail on it at all.  The only good models were Scruffey and the Ironworks twins, despite their faces.  Also introduced were Radio Controlled Thomas, Thomas and Percy and RC Toby sets.  Thomas' set was unique in that it was given a lamp.

In 2001, Hornby released a fuel tanker, a Sodor Scrap Co. truck, a Country Station, a water tower and signal box pack and a radio control sound system.  They also re-introduced Diesel and made, in my opinion, the best looking engine since they made Duck, that being Henry.  He is one model that I've recently really wanted, but sadly he's been discontinued.  Hopefully Hornby will reconsider, as he is one of their best, hands down.  In fact, a lot of models released this year were great, a lot better than most of those released in 2000.

The next time we'd see any new models from Hornby would be 2005, Thomas' 60th anniversary and Hornby's 20th anniversary making Thomas & Friends models.  And they came back with a bang, releasing the most stock they had ever done.  They released Stepney, Oliver, Circus wagons (including vans, cattle wagon and flatbeds), a grey brake van, Maithwaite, Water Tower, Signal Box, Engine Shed, Tunnel, Goods Crane, Cream Tanker, Raspberry Syrup Tanker, Ice Cream Van, Toad, Old Slow Coach and, more surprisingly, Bear and the Flying Scotsman.  Considering these two were featured in the Railway Series (although Scotsman's tender was modelled for TV), it was a pleasant surprise that HIT commissioned them.  I have both and they are fantastic.  I also have Stepney, Oliver, Toad and the Brake Van, and I love them all, they are astonishingly detailed, with Bear and Oliver having traction tyres and Bear given sprung buffers.  More sets were introduced too, with the old Thomas and James sets re-introduced, Percy and the Circus set (sadly, no brake van) and Thomas and Bill set.  The Percy set was the first set I was given since I renewed my interest in model railways, and it's a great one.  The breakdown crane and cattle truck were re-released this year as well

The next year, only one engine was released, and it was one that many people had wanted: Edward.  Sadly, it didn't capture the blue engine in the way that many fans recognise him as, even compared to his Railway Series look.  It was one of the worst looking models that Hornby had made.  The rolling stock saved face for them, as the red and blue truck, the oil tanker and red and grey vans were fantastic; the oil tanker keeping the trend of Thomas tankers being quite squashed.  The utility van looks great too, and I do want one, sadly they are hard to find now...  The mail truck is very disappointing.  It only has 4 wheels and looks too much like the utility van to me.  It's a shame, as Hornby have made trucks that look like the TV Series mail van, so they could've used that as a basis.

There was only one release in 2007: Emily.  And I wish they had picked a better basis for her.  The general details that she possesses (steam valve, the wheel configuration, the livery) are there, but like Edward everything else is just wrong.  Especially the face.  The facial features are there, but it's too big.  In the TV Series, its size is just big enough to fit on a smokebox door.  It, like Edward, was the worst model Hornby have made.

Thankfully, in 2008, Hornby redeemed themselves - big style - when they made, quite possibly, their best model in Spencer.  The ONLY slight problem is the wheel colour, but everything else looked absolutely beautiful.  Also released this year was a special set to coincide with the release of the Great Discovery, featuring a weathered Thomas, Annie, Clarabel and two trucks with brick and timber loads.  Thomas also featured a brand new tired expression and they also removed histraction tyres (at least on my model).  Also released, by UK model retailler Modelzone, was a limited edition (500) Thomas model with the tired expression.  They also made special buildings that were seen at Great Waterton, including the station itself.  Sadly, all of 2008's models have been retired, including Spencer...

There were no new models in 2009, just a re-release of two old sets: the generic Thomas set and the Thomas Passenger and Goods set (which I have).

This year, Hornby have so far released Percy and the Night Mail Set, which includes a brand new version of the mail van.  It looks fantastic, like a proper British Rail mail van.  If Hornby decide to release that seperately then I would be very happy.  They have also released Dart.  This was a surprise to some, as no CGI characters had been considered for HO/OO scale markets, with Take-n-Play, Wooden and Trackmaster always being their first - and often, only - ports of call.  While I like the idea, and admire the effort, it has the same issue as Edward and Emily: the basics are there, but the BASIS isn't.  This is clearly evident as Dart's wheels and coupling rods are on show for the world to see.  Considering they've made Class 08 characters (Diesel, 'Arry and Bert) already, I don't think there was any excuse for them to make Paxton, Sidney or even both.

Still to come are lots of buildings (sheds, water tower, station), a new breakdown crane, a works unit coach (in the style of the cream utility van) and a red and grey lime wagon (reminiscent to the red and grey vans).  And they're also releasing Murdoch, a model that - since it was announced - I've really wanted.  It looks great, and I'll go out on a limb and say that it'll be Hornby's best model, if not THE best model of  the two ranges.

Despite the company not saying it, to fans Hornby create the models as close to their real life bases.  This is evident when you look at Thomas, Henry, Duck, Oliver, Bear, Spencer and Murdoch.  So if you like to imagine that the engines are real, most Hornby models can plant the idea in your head.

Even with the models that don't look like their prototypes (Edward and Emily) there is some excellent detailing in most of the models, especially the cabs of the tender engines.

They are the major model makers for Great Britain, so UK fans can buy them with no trouble, unless they're sold out.

The models are a lot stronger and faster compared to most of their Bachmann counterparts.

As of this year, pretty much half of the range has been discontinued, uncluding Spencer, Duck, Stepney and Henry, as well as the old breakdown crane, old buildings and old sets.  So a lot of the range is very hard to come by.

The engines cost an absolute fortune, if you go by the recommended retail price.  This may explain why the exsquisite model of Spencer, or the model of main character Henry were discontinued.  In this day and age, especially with the recession, most people just cannot afford them.

American fans can barely buy them at all, since their main supplier is Bachmann.  It's a shame, really, and I think that HIT should allow the two brands to do what they do in Australia: sell Hornby OO and Bachmann HO worldwide, so fans - and their parents - can have more of a choice.

Some of the models (main ones: Emily and Edward) just don't capture the look of the character they're trying to represent.  And if a child can't match the merchandise to the character, then it has pretty much failed in its purpose.

Well, that's the Hornby part over.  Next time, Bachmann will be under the microscope, with my final verdict in Part 3