Collecting Lima Model Trains

Model railways have long been a popular hobby amongst both the young and old, and over the years there have been a number of notable companies producing a wide range of products. Today the numbers may have been much reduced because of financial issues, and the market is now dominated by the likes of Hornby and Bachmann, but look back a few years and there were other firms producing models for layouts of all scales, one of these firms was Lima.

One of the first railway models that I ever owned was an n scale coach in the Lima firm’s distinctive silver, red white and blue box. The history of the Lima model railway firm though goes back a long time before I was born. Lima in fact did not start out as a toy manufacturer but was rather a 1946 Vicenza based firm supplying FS-Italia, the Italian state railway with full size aluminium castings. Within two years though FS-Italia had started making their own aluminium parts and so Lima found that they no longer had a market to supply. Quickly though, the management of Lima made use of their aluminium knowledge to move into the production of small aluminium toy boats, cars and trains. These early toys were simple items with little detail and few have survived into the current day.

Quickly though, the quality improved and soon Lima was competing with more established model railway manufacturers throughout continental Europe. Lima though found that they had an advantage over their rivals as even though the quality of models was the same they could produce models much cheap than Dutch, Belgian, French and German firms. Lima had to improve their range as well though to truly compete and so instead of Italian models such as the D342 and E424, they also started producing models based on trains from nearby countries. Lima proved to be so successful that they even forced the likes of Dressler, Distler and Bub out of business.

By the 1960s, Lima had become one of the dominant model train makers in Europe and some parts of the rest of the world. In Europe Lima have been credited with introducing many people into the whole model railway hobby, mainly due to their inexpensive products. The range had expanded so much that a whole layout could now be produced just through purchases made from Lima. Australia also benefited with models produced especially for their market, and although the Lima models were not the highest models available again the cost involved made them popular.

Lima also managed to gain a strong foothold in the North American and UK markets. In North America Lima proved to be more successful with the N scale models than the HO, with N scale produced under the AHM brand name. For serious railway model collectors though Lima models proved to be too simple when compared to the more complex model trains on offer from their rivals. As a result by the 1980s, Lima was focusing much of their output on the British market. Lima found that by altering their castings to make HO/OO models they could undercut many of the more established British firms like Hornby. Lima were also able to produce much more quickly and with fewer numbers in the production run. Similar problems though existed for Lima, as British collectors also questioned the quality of some of the models. Lima realised that they needed to increase the quality of the model trains in order to retain a good market share, and so better production methods and model train technology were introduced in the early 1980s. These improvements were enough to consolidate Lima’s market share.

For twenty years, Lima continued to be successfully, making inroads into most marketplaces, but they found that competition was increasing, especially from the Far East. Lima were almost forced to merge with other model railway firms to consolidate their position, and although Lima remained the dominant partner, the company now included Rivarossi, Joeuf, Picher and Arnold. Arnold made N scale European models; Picher were a manufacturer of die-cast vehicles; Joeuf made mainly French HO scale models; whilst Rivarossi were manufacturers of Italian and North American HO model trains.

Lima, like many other toy and model manufacturers though were struggling financially, and by 2004 the firm was no longer in existence. At this point Hornby came along and offered the Brescia administrators EUR8million for what remained of the company, in the form of moulds and toolings. Hornby have done the same thing for many big name firms in recent years, including the likes of Airfix, Humbrol and Corgi Toys, something I personally think is a good thing, as although there may be less manufacturers the historic model making names are at least being kept alive.

With the purchase of Lima, Hornby moved the whole manufacturing process for Lima, Jouef, Rivarossi, and Pocher to their manufacturing plant in China. As a result, Lima model trains, coaches, rolling stock and buildings can be purchased through the main Hornby internet site. Additionally most major model railway retailers will stock new Lima products alongside their ranges of Hornby, Bachmann and the like. There has certainly been a notable improvement in the overall production quality of Lima models since the move to China, and new prices are in line with the other main manufacturers.

There is of course also a strong collectors market for older Lima models, including models manufactured under AHM, Model Power and Minitrain brands. In the main second hand models are of a comparative price with the likes of old Graham Farrish, Hornby or Peco models. There are also plentiful sources of supply with swapmeets in the UK and eBay offering hundreds of models at any one time. Lima collectors though are also blessed with the search for much rarer models, including those initial offerings from the 1950s. Lima when in production mode were well known for producing models in limited runs, and whereas Hornby had to produce four thousand models to make a casting profitable, Lima were able to produce as few as five hundred. This allowed for some models to be truly limited, and as a result have proved to be much rarer. Some of these limited run models now can produce really high prices ranging over a GBP100 where a normal Lima locomotive would be in the order of GBP30.

The new Lima collector though will be able to start their collection relatively simply as more common Lima Locomotives in N scale or HO/OO are normally available for around GBP25, Lima coaches at about GBP10, and Lima rolling stock for slightly less. There is also a wide range of models available and the UK market alone produced some three hundred different castings, so a collection can be as small or as large as finances allow.