Brass: Part II - The Japanese Years

by Bruce Bloch

The first import of Japanese brass models was in 1949. Japanese importing continued until the early 1980s. There were many changes in both quality and price during these years, which mirrored the rest of our society.

The first models were quite crude by today’s standards; the builders were just learning their craft. Very few models were factory assembled. Workers built most of them in their homes. Most models were of steam locomotives, with huge motors protruding from the cabs. They had few details or castings and no backhead detail. The engines barely ran, and if they did operate, it was usually at the scale speed of the Starship Enterprise. The large motors forced many small locomotives to have the motor in the tender.

Very few modelers cared about accuracy, and the brass models reflected this. Models were both oversized and undersized, including whatever parts were on them. The steam locomotives rarely had brakes between the drivers; the drivers’ axles were not sprung.

One could buy an articulated engine for under $100.00. Many modelers were able to buy any and all brass models that were imported. The U.S. Dollar was very strong relative to the Japanese Yen, so modelers were not restricted to just one or two railroads. Even as early as the middle 1950s, there were imported models of narrow gauge and logging locomotives. Diesel locomotives were also imported as early as the middle 1950s, but the quality was so poor on the F units that the domestic Varney and later Athearn locomotives had better-shaped noses.

There were a few imported models of cabeese and passenger cars. Builders often shortened the passenger cars so they could negotiate the tighter curves of then current layouts. Passenger cars, rolling stock, and cabeese often arrived without trucks.

The Japanese builders improved their models by the 1960s, but prices remained fairly constant until 1966. PFM imported the Santa Fe 1950 class 2-8-0 every year from 1956 until 1965. The retail price remained $39.50 during this entire period. As PFM continued importing this model every year until 1972 (except 1969 and 1971), the price climbed to $87.50.

Builders added lost-wax cast headlights in 1959 and improved other parts along the way. They added better motors, but they were still open frame and many protruded beyond the cabs. Passenger cars were factory painted, but often did not reflect any particular prototype. Westside and PFM imported passenger cars in a variety of popular roads, but they did not resemble the actual cars owned by those railroads.

Some of the early importers, such as Max Gray, Akane, Olympia, Lambert, and Balboa, had already disappeared by the late 1960s. New importers replaced them, such as Westside. PFM imported their first models in 1954, and would continue importing until the early 1980s.

Japanese models reached their zenith during the middle 1970s and early 1980s. They had can motors, backheads, sprung tender and trailing trucks, and lots of castings. The accuracy of the models also improved, but there was no attempt at modeling any specific locomotive within a class, as is done today. Factory paint jobs became more common, but more models arrived unpainted than painted. Some steam locomotives came with sound cams and pre-drilled holes in the tender floors for the speaker. Some imported passenger cars copied a specific prototype, but the trucks generally did not roll and might even be prototyically incorrect.

The improvements brought higher prices. PFM imported 700 Santa Fe 1950 class 2-8-0s again in 1975, but the price went up to $175. PFM imported 300 Union Pacific Big Boys in 1972 for $345. When PFM imported 190 Big Boys again in 1977, the retail price had risen to $1,085. The price increases reflected more than improvements in the model quality. They also reflected the change in the value of the U.S. Dollar relative to the Japanese Yen.

As the Dollar continued to slide, the importers, including PFM and Westside as early as 1975, tried to keep prices down by importing models from Korea, which will be covered in the next installment. However, the Korean imports were generally of poor quality, so these importers went back to the Japanese builders with their higher prices.

By the 1980s, importing of Japanese models had almost ceased. Modelers were now able to get Korean-built 4-8-4s for $350, while the Japanese versions were $525 to $800. Modelers and collectors were asking whether it was reasonable to pay for a rerun locomotive at double or triple the price. Twenty percent interest rates on inventory that was not moving killed the importers of the Japanese built models. Meanwhile, distributors were selling the lower-priced Korean models in smaller quantities. It was all over by the middle 1980s; the last two importers of Japanese brass, PFM and Westside, had stopped importing brass.

Japanese-built models did improve over about 35 years of importing. However, plastic diesel locomotives operated better than almost every Japanese-built diesel. The trucks on both Japanese passenger and freight cars barely rolled, so that the modeller often had to look for replacement trucks. However, Japanese-built steam locomotives are still pulling many model trains, even today--probably more than Korean steam locomotives.