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A Train of Thought by Nigel Roth

Dernière mise à jour : 9 janv. 2022

It’s nineteen-twenty.

Along the avenues, Parisienne railway workers loiter, having struck against capitalism, and the damage they perceive it doing to their lives. Few trains are running in Paris, and people are forced to walk or cab around Georges-Eugène Haussmann's city.

But, in the workshop of Robert Marescot, they are running, and they’re about to exit a dark, dismal tunnel to change the world.

The world of model railways, that is, the one that counts.

Marescot, I venture, was fairly unique.

Because when other famous companies like Marklin and Hornby were creating model locomotives and coaches that resembled awkward rolling bricks of metal, his eye for style, accuracy, and scale was almost unique.

Today, we’d take our talent online and be crushed by the weight of those lying-in-wait to banish individuality and innovation, but back then, the same year the United States returned control of American railroads to the original railroad companies for them to develop, evolve, and flourish in their own way, Marescot did the only thing he could do.

He formed a company, and began crafting models with the right proportions.

Of course, other manufacturers would become the big guns of the Twenties and Thirties modelmaking scene, because they quickly worked out that the market consisted mainly of less demanding and educationally-lackluster consumers who delighted in watching a tinpot tinplate chunk plod around an ugly rounded rail steadied on odd metal plates, while whooping hooray or hourra or hurra, or just grunting.

So, for companies like Marklin, Bing, Hubner, Georges Carette, and Karl Bub in Germany, Hornby and Brimtoy in the UK, Paya in Spain, JEP, LR, Charles Rossignol, and Edobaud (who actually appear to have produced the wrong scale trains altogether, maybe getting confused with US standard gauge) in France, and Lionel, Knapp, Beggs, Marx, Voltamp, and Elektoy in the US, only a passing resemblance to a train was needed to win hearts and change signals.

Moreover, when it came to carriages or cars, what those in-the-know refer to as coaching stock, most modelmakers just gave up altogether.

Even when they produced locomotives to a higher standard, though still not exactly to scale, paying attention to things like having the same number of wheels as the prototype, or windows for pretend engine drivers to see out of rather than lithographed abominations, they often regarded coaching stock as a necessary sideline that warranted very little attention.

For example, the JEP organization, which was actually a democratic collective of artisans from disciplines like tinsmithing, watchmaking, and toymaking, who came together to compete more aggressively and get cheaper advertising via a single catalog, created a fairly accurate, though certainly foreshortened, model of the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français (SNCF) BB 8101, just flung some tin together to create pseudo-coaches, which look a little like kindergarten-painted baked bean tins laid on their sides.

Earlier tinplate coaches were even more appalling attempts at the real thing, bereft of any semblance of the correct style, and reliant only on having wheels set at a standard track gauge (the distance between the rails that these failures ran on) to see them through to success.

Probably the worst culprits were the American manufacturers, whose blatant disregard for proportion, accuracy, and style was celebrated by toymakers like Lionel, Knapp, Beggs, Marx, Voltamp, and Elektoy. They created models whose blueprints might've been crafted in opium dens. At the end of the night.

Lionel never really recovered much sense of style, and their inability to find the right ‘feel’ clearly plagues them to this day. Bigly.

But in his small atelier Marescot concentrated even more on getting the stylistic elements right.

There were some companies, of course, that did determine scale was important, and they strived to reproduce existing coaching stock in the correct liveries (the special design and color scheme for that railway company or line), creating wooden and metal models as exact as they could. Bassett-Lowke, Exley, Leeds (LMC), Mills Brothers (Milbro), Bonds O’Euston, and Bowman in the UK, all made models somewhat faithful to the real prototypes, in mainly 0 (around 1:43-48 in scale) gauge, though early models also included gauge 1 and 2.

But in reproducing in this way, they almost always forgot about the style. That may be more of a comment on 1920s Britain than on the likes of the modelmakers sweating away in gray overalls in gray buildings under gray skies in Greyfriars.

But I digress.

For Robert Marescot, the undisputed champion of finescale - a term used to differentiate models of finer details and proportion from those of less or, in many cases, no resemblance whatsoever to the prototypes they claim to be based on - nothing was more important than the piece feeling right.

His models, which sold at a premium to most other companies offerings, had both proportion and realism, replicating the coaches of the État and the NORD, the PLM and PO lines, that ruled the tracks before the SNCF grabbed them all in a first step to eradicating nuance and celebrating homogeneity.

And, his coaches were just as important to his artistic perfection as the exceptional locomotives he built, and he gave them equal attention, creating beautiful models in metal, with the correct color schemes, with the right scale of size and gauge, and a subtlety that epitomized the French style of the 1920s, sitting uniquely at the confluence of proportion and magic.

Other companies tried.

Like Herkules in Austria, who manufactured very few examples, and Elettren and Inco Giochi Rivarossi of Italy; Hag and BUCO of Switzerland, but none quite got all the components right.

Hornby' attempt at this was their No2 Special Pullman Coaches, which were offered in classic brown and cream livery and were a little more realistic than their typical tin-cans, and served as the very narrow and thus more expensive flagship of the Hornby coaching range in the late 1920s, though even they had fake windows with celluloid inserts with images of lamps and curtains to entertain the less-discerning British collector.

And Marklin’s mid-century range of forty centimeter coaches, of which there were only a few variations, were distinct from their rather squat and ugly siblings, and offered a level of scale and detail that felt right, but were often a little Germanically-robust, one assumes to survive the rigors of running and play.

But Marescot, and later Marescot-Fournereau, when Jean-Edmond Fournereau added his name to the company in the 1930s, forgot nothing.

After being threatened with being drafted into the army, Parisienne railway workers quickly went back to work, because greasing nipples for low pay is better than being physically-dismantled by a Browning M2.

Whether any of that affected Marescot is unknown, but he certainly never stopped in his quest to create refined and gracile, proportionate and accurate models that captured the style of 1920s France, and the memory of a time now long-gone.

Marescot coaches had a short production lifetime, which ended in the mid-fifties. But they can still be found today and, despite all the advances in modeling since Robert Marescot sat in his workroom over one-hundred years ago thinking his models through, are still more right than most of today’s plastic attempts, mass-produced with an eye only for sales.

Photo by Kevin Bidwell

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