By Tony Lucio
Do you ever see the fine print in a catalog that says, “actual product may vary from shown” and wonder about that statement? Have you noticed something in a classic catalog that is substantially different and think about what happened to the pictured concept model? Do you ponder why some items saw the green light of production’s blessing (sometimes against better sense) while others didn’t? And hey, what about those abandoned projects? How many cool things were proposed, but ultimately never made? Ever daydream about the mayhem and creativity you’d unleash, if given the keys to a factory’s resources and R&D department for a day? The answers, such as they are, may be found in the true rarities of HO collecting: factory prototypes, pre-production samples, and one-off proposals. The challenge lies in authenticating such examples, if at all possible.
In the end, model manufacturing is a business, and few businesses are concerned with documenting R&D rejects for the whims of future collectors. Most conceptual items are destroyed or recycled into other projects. Sure, we hear about the “fringe benefits” brought home to children in addition to dumpster finds, but such items are rarely if ever documented near the start. Absent the employed authority of folks who were there, authenticating and even identifying candidate pre-production items decades afterward is a tricky task, which requires arcane attention to many details. Production techniques, product revisions, market prospects, model plausibility, and contemporary trends both within and external to a given manufacturer, are all items for consideration. Eventually, the confidence meter will begin to sweep one way the other.
Too Good to Be True?
In 2011 a collection of alleged rarities, one-offs, and factory-prototype TYCO trains turned up on eBay. I had some prior knowledge of this collection as its owner made a splash in the collector community upon acquiring it himself a few years prior. The backstory alleged that a mysterious “former TYCO employee” absconded with a ton of archival stuff (probably when the Woodbury Heights plant was sold and shuttered in 2001) and indeed, there were some interesting things therein… But unfortunately none of it was information. Whose hands made them? When? Why? And why such a varied and rag-tag lot?
I dutifully brewed no small amount of controversy at the time: owing to my own experience creating one-offs and what-ifs, and comparing a suddenly very interesting second-hand custom item in my own collection, how could all or even any of it be proven to be as claimed? Unfortunately, my attempts to unearth more details and satisfactory info weren’t fruitful. While I had a gut feeling that some items were legit, the sheer volume of questionable items in the overall collection was enough to give me pause, owing to a lack of information.
TYCO never produced a GG1 model in this shade of olive green. The green hue is indeed questionable, but overlaid is the very same screen-print striping, lettering, and road number TYCO used on its standard run of “Black” (#251-01C) or “Red” (#251-01) GG1 models. They’re not decals, and they’re not hand-painted, meaning it’s not the handiwork of a mere hobbyist, or even a TYCO employee rendering a quick R&D mockup. It went through the same finalized production process as all the standard units.
Nonetheless, when the collection was broken up and offered for sale, I corralled several items of personal interest and left the rest to scatter hither-and-yon, birthing their own legends to be whispered in some flea market or online listing in the future. Once in hand, they proffered a large dose of surprise via illumination and, admittedly, a small side helping of crow. Most of what I obtained sports a good scent of authenticity.
This first series installment illustrates my take on alleging authenticity, while answering the questions above in the absence of affidavits. Still, it remains a shame the original employee who parted with these didn’t provide more history or background behind them, and the previous owner was neither versed enough to know what to ask, nor willing to assist. These are the challenges a collector faces when presented something outside the norm!
Before continuing, I must indulge an effort to coin a term, as the context of the word “prototype” becomes somewhat confusing here. In scale modeling, “prototype” usually means the real-world, 1:1 scale item being reproduced. In manufacturing and production, “prototype” usually refers to rough drafts, mockups, test shots, and prove-outs of engineering and design concepts as a product is nurtured from an idea on the back of a napkin to finished and packaged items on dealer shelves. Therefore, when considering mockups of model trains we can literally be discussing prototypes of prototypes of prototypes, which quickly becomes far too meta for clear discussion.
“Preproduction somethingorother” is a mouthful. I’m coining the shorthand “preprod” and using it to mean “A pre-production mockup or prototype of a model which may or may not have been released in standard production, with or without any fidelity toward an actual real-world prototype.” Whew! “Preprod” is a lot shorter, isn’t it?
With that shorthand now defined, let’s explore some of the “preprods” I’ve acquired over the years. The mine of HO-scale train collecting is vast and cavernous. The overlap of “my limited resources” and “luck” found me planted into the TYCO niche, which is admittedly not the most lucrative one. However, these concepts and interest apply to R&D aspects from all manufacturers, including those which are likely more lucrative, arcane, and nuanced than what I can stumble into at the moment. With that in mind, my intent here is a general approach for evaluating candidate preprods. I’ll explore more TYCO specifics in future installments. Meanwhile, our readers are invited to expand on these concepts and share interesting rarities from all manufacturers!