Crash, bang, whoosh; the Tri-ang Battle Space story

It’s funny how perceptions of collectables change over time. Often the toys we disliked or ignored when they were current take on a different identity when viewed after a period of time. For model railway enthusiasts, one such example is the range of military toys which were produced under the Tri-ang, and later Tri-ang Hornby, brand.

To fully understand the context of Battle Space we need to take a step back. Despite the large number of model railway manufacturers in the post war period, by the late 50s the two dominant companies were Meccano with Hornby-Dublo and Lines Bros with Tri-ang trains. In simplistic terms, Dublo was worthy, expensive, conservative and built to last from diecast metal and tinplate. Tri-ang on the other hand was flamboyant, cheaper, and adventurous, making use of new plastic technologies wherever possible.

While staid Dublo endeavoured to be as realistic and prototypical as possible, the annoying younger brother was not averse to catering to the more yobbish tendencies, while retaining plenty of realism with the rest of the range. So it was no surprise that if one of the competing companies was going to take a simple spring loaded rocket launcher and put it on a flat wagon, it would be Tri-ang. This free lance model was launched (literally) as early as 1957.

This used the rocket launcher from the Minic push and go series, a typical example of the creative way Tri-ang were able to re-purpose and adapt products.

A well wagon bearing a tank followed in 1960, with a helicopter launching wagon in 1962 which was extremely successful in sales terms. The helicopter did spring into the air and the rotors did actually turn, sort of; the drop back to earth was quick and inevitable, but it did do what it said on the tin.

Like the rest of Tri-ang's operating accessories, they were mechanical rather than electrical, so they could be operated with levers and catches rather than wires, switches and electricity.

The NATO models

The gestation of what was to become Battle Space continued with a bomb transporter (the kind which took caps which went bang if you dared to throw it into the air to land on a hard floor), a searchlight wagon (the beam powered from the track) and a four rocket launcher. The latter has the distinction of being banned from being sold on eBay as it contravenes the firearms ruling, being technically capable of firing a projectile.

These models carried a green livery with NATO markings, and the range was completed with green and cream ambulance carriage, and a red exploding wagon, both adapted from the Transcontinental (TC) range. The exploding wagon even had a sprung hammer which took caps so it would fall apart AND go bang. It fell apart easily enough but would only go bang if you hit the right spot, preferably with the rocket launcher from the other side of the layout.

The arrival of Battle Space

The range moved up a gear in 1965 when the models were designated 'Battle Space' and the green livery changed to a khaki colour. This really suited the models, and was accompanied by extra full page spreads in the catalogues. This coincided with Tri-ang becoming Tri-ang Hornby. The relaunch under the Battle Space name saw the introduction of two locos; the trusty 0-6-0 Jinty tank got a khaki repaint along with the Battle Space roundel, and the 0-4-0 diesel shunter in red. These were only available in sets. There was also a new Catapult Plane Launching Car (powered by elastic band and the aforementioned trip mechanism) and an Assault Tank Transporter.

Having taken care of the battle element, the space department saw the Spy Satellite Launching Car and a weird Radar Tracking Command Car. This looked like a blue loco tender and used a band driven mechanism to turn the radar when in motion. Of course, the satellite launched, using a similar mechanism to the helicopter.

The Turbo Car

The final flourish of the Battle Space launch was one of the wackiest and most charismatic models in the Tri-ang Hornby range; the Turbo Car. For serious model railway enthusiasts this was the most ludicrous model yet. The red body had retro deco styling with silver stickers representing the windows and bumpers, as well as two go-faster side flashes. This ensemble was topped off with a yellow plastic spike sticking out of the front! This started life as solid plastic, which was sensibly changed to a more flexible rubber version. (Fifty years on many of the safety oriented rubber spikes have deteriorated and not aged as well as the hard plastic version.)

But the coup de grace is the propellor at the back. This actually powers the car; the chassis is split with the two halves isolated. The four wheels run free and pick up the current, transferring it to the chassis halves and thence to the motor. This radical design really works; the propellor drives the car forwards, and it continues to coast alarmingly after the propellor stops. Throwing the prop into reverse helps to slow it down a bit, like a boat, at which point it will go backwards as efficiently as it goes forwards.

Words cannot do justice to the demented howl this thing makes in operation. The car tends to gain speed and eventually fly off the track if not moderated on curves. Although it's within loading gauge and will go where normal trains go, the propellor will blow over figures, trees, signs and anything else which is not glued down. All in all a most successful fantasy rail vehicle with a Scalextric type motor and a unique design. What once caused howls of derision is now a popular collectable worth £60 upwards if boxed and not already wrecked by a previous owner.

Peak Battle Space

1966 also saw the introduction of six Commando figures. These were available separately as a set, and were later included with some of the wagons to boost sales.

The Battle Space range peaked in 1967 with the Q car, which was a khaki version of the exploding wagon containing a tank. This is one of the rarest items in the range. The Command Car was an adaptation of the TC mail coach, while the POW car used the TC stock car, a model which might be considered in dubious taste by modern sensibilities.

A particularly fun model was the Sniper Car, which was based on the operating Giraffe Car, with a sniper popping up and down instead. The TC Crane Car was adapted into a Tank Recovery Car. A couple of static Ground to Air Missile sites with expanded polystyrene bases, and an Honest John rocket pad using a Dinky Toys rocket, completed the range.

Game over

As can be seen, most of the Battle Space range was adapted from creatively recycled models, which meant development and tooling costs were minimal. Just as well, as having sold well at the outset, sales unexpectedly collapsed as quickly as they began, leaving a large rump of unsold stock. One possible reason which has been put forward is that the duller khaki colour scheme just did not appeal to kids like the earlier mid green models. Being totally shunned by the more serious modellers would also have contributed to its short reign. It also coincided with a recession in the toy train market.

Some of the models were re-released in the early 80s using brighter colours in a pair of Task Force Action sets. These included the tank transporter, exploding wagon and helicopter car.

The 1971 catalogue saw the last appearance of Battle Space. But the combination of Sci-Fi, military models and trains has proved to be a potent collecting combination. Unsold stock meant that more of the diorama picture boxes survived to bolster their desirability. Crossover appeal with war gamers is another outlet, as well as the growing collectability of Tri-ang Hornby.


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