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A History of 

For more than a quarter of a century, the Aster Hobby Company 

has presented the romance and glory of the steam locomotive

 

Nothing captures the power, grace and the advance of technology, like a steam locomotive.  They are the substance of dreams, holding not only memories of the past but also hopes for the future.  Steam locomotives symbolize the growth and advancement of a nation and the unity of a common purpose.  The human spirit is reflected in the churning of the side rods, the thunderous cacophony of the exhaust, and the fiery breath emanating from its very heart and soul.  It is no mystery that many mourn the passing of these giants into the annals of history.

 

 With such an aura of romance and nostalgia we understand the popular appeals of the model locomotive, and especially the live stream model.   Regardless of class or culture, this is a hobby for everyone.  In this endeavor, the Aster Hobby Company is grateful to all who have supported them for nearly three decades.

In response to the request of our customers, we would like to review our past and share some of our history.  As we remember our beginnings, we reconfirm our original pioneering spirit.

 

Before 1974: Preceding the Aster Live Steam Renaissance

 

Aster had its beginnings in 1955 as a manufacturer of mechanical cash registers (MCR).  During the early 1970’s a dramatic transition occurred in the cash register business.  An evolution was underway from mechanical cash registers to electronic ones with limited mechanical parts.  We decided to both continue in the development of new electronic cash registers and to preserve our mechanical engineering division through the exploration of new ideas.  During this same time, Japan’s dependence on Middle East oil triggered serious domestic inflation. This was in sharp contrast to the booming economy and expanded growth of the previous decade.

 

Amidst this time of economic of difficulty and corporate transition one of our engineers happened to be making small-scale live steam engines as a hobby.  This was a hobby enjoyed by a few, the expert machinist or the wealthy able to employ their services. This engineer suggested we consider production of such models as a business to fill this niche.   Even though production of such a hobby item was unprecedented in Japan, we decided to give it a try.

 

Our basic idea here was to provide live steam locomotives in prefabricated kit form simple enough to be assembled by a novice using only the most basic hobby tools.  While the prevailing model railroad gauges of “O” and “HO” were more popular at the time, it was agreed that Gauge 1 represented the smallest scale to which live steam principles could be practically applied. This larger scale offered a more comfortable size for the hobby newcomer to handle, as well as an ideal display size.  In this pioneering spirit our engineers decided to resurrect the then practically defunct No. 1 gauge for our venture 

 

1975 - 1976: The First Steps

 

Amidst excitement and with trepidation, Aster Hobby in 1975 announced two models to the world market.  One was Great Britain’s Southern Railway “Schools Class;” and the other, a JNR Mogul “8550” built by the American Locomotive Company.  When these models first appeared in hobby shops around the world, people were surprised that a working live steam locomotive was available at such an affordable price.  This was partially achieved by production runs of 3,000 each of these first engines.

 

The former mechanical cash register business was on its way to becoming a successful hobby manufacturer.  Thanks to our customers these two models proved a great success and prompted a demand for two new engines.   Following the prosperous path of the “Schools” and “Moguls; ” the V&T “Reno” (4-4-0) and “Old Faithful (0-4-0T) were born in 1976,

 

1977 - 1978: The Advancement Toward “Scale”

 

In the first two years our models were aimed at good steaming and easy assembly.  In 1977, Count A. Giansanti Coluzzi of Fulgurex S.A., in Switzerland, gave Aster some good advice.  He encouraged us to pursue “fine scale” modeling in order to better capture the feeling of the model’s larger prototype counterparts.

 

With this in mind and full backing of Fulgurex, we began production on our first “scale model” the PLM 231 Pacific.  This, our 5th model was widely received by the public and the collector alike, because it truly conveyed the ambience of a turn-of-the-century European classic.  This engine was then to become the forerunner to such successors as the BR 78/SNCF 232TC (1978), SNCF 141 R (1979), DB 01 (1980), BAYERN S 2/6 (1981), SBB Eb 3/5 (1983), etc.

 

1978 - 1979:  Moving on to More Complicated Engines

 

The BR 78, mentioned above, was designed specifically for radio control and won “Model of the Year” in Eisenbahn magazine in Europe.  Then in 1978, “Live Steam,” an American publication, cited our Ali-San Shay’s side mounted “marine engine” as jewel-like.  The success of this locomotive launched a whole series of geared locomotives such as the Climax (1982), the Western Maryland Shay (1984), and the Greenbrier, Cheat, and Elk RR Shay (1990).

 

Now real live steam enthusiasts insisted that the only true way to capture the live steam feel was through coal firing.  They repeatedly said this would fulfill the complete sensual involvement in the live steam model.  This encouraged in 1978 the development of our first coal fired, locomotive type boiler in JNR’s famous passenger locomotive, the C62 Hudson.

 

This achievement laid the pathway for future JNR locomotives, C57 “Noble Lady,” D51 “Mikado” Japan’s favorite freight engine, C12 “Tiny Stars,” and C11 2-6-4T, to the delight of Japanese modelers who were increasingly being attracted to the hobby.  1978 marked a year for engineering achievement through critical acclaim of Aster’s BR 78/SNCF 232TC and JNR C62.

 

1980 - 1981:  Aster Live Steam Reaches Full Bloom

 

Aster’s original intention was to create models in limited editions, not only for the collector, but also to keep us fresh and alive by not repeating ourselves over and over.  However, as our popularity grew, some asked for reruns of earlier engines, Schools, Ali-San Shay, JNR Moguls, etc.  In keeping with our original commitment it was decided to develop different locomotives on those old designs, thus were born, Southern “King Arthur,” JNR C12 “Tiny Stars,” and Americanized Moguls and Shays.

 

In 1980 three different European 0-6-0T engines were developed on the same chassis, the GER for the U.K., and the ETAT and QUEST for France, along with a Baldwin 0-4-2T for the American and Japanese markets.  We now had produced locomotives of virtually every level of complexity from simple beginner’s versions to more complicated and authentic engines.

 

In response to European requests for alternative fuel supply, in 1981 we developed our first butane gas burner.  This was applied to the previously mentioned Bayern S 2/6.  However, this beautiful model almost went unnoticed at the 1981 Nuremberg Toy Fair and for a good reason. It was forced to share Fulgurex’s unveiling of our grandest achievement yet, the Union Pacific Big Boy. 

 

This locomotive, based on upon the operating practices of the prototype, employed a locomotive type boiler fitted for either coal or gas firing, articulated main frames, and steam distribution to all four cylinders.  It is said that upon its initial presentation there was a pronounced silence, followed by a sustained applause. 

 

1982 - 1983:  Famous American Railroad Locomotives

 

Before 1982, with the exception of the Big Boy, all of the locomotives modeled for the United States were either narrow gauge or a non-scale standard gauge such as the Reno.  Following the success of the Big Boy, American enthusiasts requested a typical standard gauge locomotive.  Our choice was the popular New York Central J1 Class Hudson.  Aster produced the J1c in live steam and the J1e as a 12-volt DC electric model. 

 

The success of this endeavor led us in 1983 to create the prototype Hudson’s closest competitor, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s K-4 Pacific.  The K-4 was painted in Brunswick green with a pin striping on the tender and cab.  Today, this locomotive is considered as one of Aster’s most authentic and detailed model.  Following these two champions of America’s Golden Age of Railroading, we went on to build an electric version of the Hudson, the “Commodore Vanderbilt.”

 

With the Eastern United States well represented, attention was turned to the West with its share of modelers to be satisfied.  Southern Pacific’s GS-4 “Daylight” locomotive had been restored for the U.S. Bicentennial’s “American Freedom Train” and then repainted in its original Southern Pacific scheme.  Based on its popularity, we produced a model of that great locomotive in 1987. 

 

The “Daylight” model employed for the fist time a new type of alcohol burner using wicks and a vaporizing action in a locomotive type boiler.  This improvement, along with large fuel and water supplies in the tender, made possible a continuous running time of 50 minutes on a single filling.  The SP Daylight represented the first time that engine-tender “quick coupling” was employed.  This feature would continue on subsequent locomotives.  Aster now offered a wide array of locomotives representing America’s “Zenith of Steam.” 

 

1984 - 1987:  Expanding on the Simple, to Complex and Compound

 

Secure in the success of simple 2-cylinder locomotives and encouraged by our supporters, from 1984 to 1987 we began concentrating on 3 cylinder engines.  This led to the development of the LNER A-4 class “Mallard/Gresley” Pacific and the German BR 44/SCNF 150X, named the 1985 “Model of the Year by Europe’s Eisenbahn / Modelbahn.”   These developments directed our production of a 4-cylinder model of GWR’s “King George V” in 1990.

 

Many believe the greatest achievement in the history of Aster has to be the development of the 4-cylinder working compound in Gauge 1, 1/32 scale.   This was first accomplished in a commercial model in 1986 with our Swiss SBB A 3/5.  Even though there was no evidence to think this was possible in such a small scale, Aster engineers persevered.  Using pistons and parts from former engines, they first built mock-ups for experimentation.  The success of this first compound led to the building of our model of the great French engineer, Andre Chapelon’s compounded “Nord 231” in 1988. 

 

1988 - 1989:  Two Diverse Aster Model Engineering Achievements

E.P. Lehmann, the German toy manufacturer and producer of LGB Trains approached us with a proposal.  Build a live steam engine in “LGB scale” using the simplest operational outline so it could be run by the average model train enthusiast.  Of course, making something simple for operation does not always mean a simpler design.  In fact, making a smaller and simpler engine required new engineering design and thought. 

 

After studying their choice of prototype, the “Frank-S,” it was decided the way to implement a simplified operation was to employ a reverser block and piston valves.  This was instead of our conventional D-slide valves and any of the various valve gears.  This classical method used in toy trains of the past provided a basis for our redesign and improvements.  In this manner, we achieved a locomotive which was simple enough for the beginner but with appeal for the live steam veteran.

 

By contrast, Fulgurex was asking us to consider a “Mallet” for the first time.  These 4-cylinder compounds with tandem engines on an articulated chassis are considered to be among the most complicated of locomotives.  This initiated our BR 96, 0-8-0 + 0-8 – 0T, tank engine in two versions, the Bavarian Gt 2 x 4/4 in “Bavarian” green, and the DR BR 96 in a conventional black scheme. 

 

This Mallet model was brought to completion through the careful combining of two previously perfected technologies, our 4- cylinder compounds (SBB A 3/5, and Chaeplon’s Nord) and articulation (Big Boy).  This powerful locomotive tested out nicely pulling 22 British passenger coaches.   We added an axle feed water pump, which draws water from the working side tanks and then pushes it through a pre-heater before injecting it into the boiler. Such sophistication marks this locomotive as one of the finest engineering accomplishments in the history of our production.

 

1990 - 2001:The Thrill and Romance of Live Steam Continues

 

1990 gave us the Great Western Railway King George V authentically expressing its distinctive Victorian styling and a 4-cylinder drive utilizing the same valve gear configuration as the original.  This model found enthusiastic acceptance by even the most discriminating Great Western Railway fan.

 

In 1990 we released Colorado and Southern “Mogul” No. 22 for the narrow gauge market in 1/22.5 scale.  Earlier, we had produced narrow gauge locomotives, but for the most part they were industrial types such as the Climax, Shay and Baldwin 0-4-2T.  Responding to the popularity of “G” scale trains in the United States coupled with the constant love of Colorado’s 3-foot narrow gauge, we decided that an authentic “road engine” was needed.  Such authenticity is reflected in the C&S Mogul detail with its distinctive Ridgeway “Bear Trap” spark arrestor and unique cross mounted air tanks on its boiler, topped with a bell.

 

Looking back at our first engine, for simplicity sake, we replicated the “Schools” 3-cylinder prototype with an easier 2-cylinder action.  Then, some 16 years after the original model, we chose to duplicate the 4-cylinder drive of the GWR King George in a manner authentic to the full size engine.  That kind of progress is evident in many other technical facets of our Aster locomotives today.

 

By the autumn of 1991, Aster presented the SNCF 232U1, another authentic and faithfully reproduced scale model.  It was a 4-cylinder compound mounted on a locomotive type boiler containing a burner convertible to either coal or alcohol firing.   This locomotive embraced every aspect of the true aficionado’s interest, the elegance of steam, the smell of coal, the bark of exhaust, mechanical fidelity and authentic detail.   

 

The United Kingdom’s ubiquitous Pannier Tank engines, an 0-6-0T were reproduced in Gauge 1 during 1992 – 1993.  Six different liveries of this sturdy locomotive were offered: the GWR 3738, No 5762 and No. 5764 in green; British Railways No. 8763 in black and No. 6400 in green; and the London Transport No. 90 in crimson.

 

This was followed by a novelty locomotive, the “Grasshopper.”  The design replicates an 1832 locomotive, the “Atlantic,” displayed in Baltimore, Maryland, at the B & O Museum.  The “Grasshopper” features a vertical boiler, two cylinders driving an overhead beam powering a crank mechanism geared to the front axle.  With its bobbing beams and rods, this early locomotive resembled a huge grasshopper walking along the track, therefore its popular nickname. 

 

On the heels of the Grasshopper came another unique locomotive, the “Glaskasten” (0-4-0T).  Nicknamed the "Glaskasten" (Glass Case), this locomotive has two outside cylinders with a blind center axle between the drive wheels.  The cab completely surrounds the boiler with three windows on each side.  The prototypes for this model operated in Germany as well as in Austria, Switzerland and Norway. 

In the tradition of the Big Boy, another highly prized Aster locomotive was rolled out in 1993, the Australian Garratt AD60.  This 4-8-4 +4-8-4 standard gauge Bayer Garrett prototype and model represented the latest state-of-the-art in steam locomotive design. 

 

Responding to their domestic market, Aster produced during this period both the JNR C 56 (2-6-0) and the JNR 9600 (2-8-0).  The European market was favored with KPEV T3 / BR 89 (0-6-0T) and a DR/DB BR03 (4-6-2).

 

The United Kingdom influence was reflected in an elegant GNR Stirling Single (4-2-2) and the Jumbo (2-4-0) in a variety of paint schemes.  Another locomotive in the novelty category was the Lion (0-4-2).  This model represents one of the oldest steam locomotives in the world.  The ‘Lion” available in two paint schemes, (as preserved and as seen in the movie, The Titfield Thunderbolt) has special appeal to the beginning small-scale live steamer

 

Ushering in the 21st century, a light USRA Mikado (2-8-2) in black and Southern Railway Green were released.  Aster also modeled the BR38 in three versions: Deutsche Reichsbahn (early), Deutsche Bundersbhan (late) and the K.P.E.V.  P8.   Both of these locomotives are being praised both for their prototypical appearance and flawless mechanical operation. 

 

Looking Ahead

 

On the horizon is a recreation of the Chesapeake & Ohio H-8 Allegheny.  This 2-6-6-2 promises to be Aster's grandest and greatest achievement both in detail and quality.  With a Baker Valve Gear, the Aster Allegheny will literally be a fully functioning museum quality piece.   The boiler design accommodates both alcohol and coal firing.  

 

From a single oscillating cylinder to a 4-cylinder compound, from a slip return crank to fully operational Walschaert’s valve gear, from a pot boiler to a locomotive type boiler, from slide valve to piston valve, alcohol, to butane and to coal firing  – The Aster experience now encompasses more than 53 different types of world famous steam locomotives. 

 

Since 1975, the mission of the Aster Hobby Company has been to restore the hobby of Gauge 1 live steam locomotives.  We do this by providing fine commercially available models that are within the skill level and price range of the average customer.

 

To this end, Aster will continue to supply our products in kit form; each consisting of anywhere from 300 to 800 fully prefabricated and painted parts.  Although this method is more labor intensive and design sensitive, it is in keeping with our goal of providing a superior quality Gauge 1 live steam locomotive.  Each engine offers personal fulfillment for a mechanically minded person and enlightens the appreciative locomotive owner about the workings of a live steam locomotive. 

 

The name – Aster Hobby – represents excellence, authenticity and quality among collectors and operators of small-scale live steam locomotives around the world.  Remembering our past, focused on the future, ever mindful of quality and authenticity, our commitment continues in the production of locomotives known for their precision, history and beauty.

 

 

 

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