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Notes on the Development

of the Aster Marque

1975 to 1997

by John van Riemsdijk



(G1MRA Editor’s Note.  This is a transcript of the talk given by JvR at the Jubilee Extravaganza in July (1997).  We are grateful to John for allowing us to publish the transcript in full.  Although John has written on many occasions about the Aster / Fulgurex partnership, in these notes he brings the story up to date and fills in some of the gaps in this remarkable association.)


One afternoon late in the 1960’s Antonio Giansanti-Coluzzi, founder and owner of Fulgurex, was sitting after lunch in my garden in Hertford watching a Gauge 1 stream train rolling around the lawn.  He asked me whether I thought there might be a market for a Gauge 1 steam loco made in quantity – several hundred examples – and whether I would be able to help with the technical aspects if he decided to try the idea out.


The only Fulgurex involvement with Gauge One at that time was in replicas of the best Marklin coaches, the 56 cm. series made very briefly just before the last war and very hard to find.  The replicas were very nice indeed, made by a firm called Wilag in Switzerland.  But we agreed that live steam was a different market: in fact it was only in the U.K. that one could be sure of selling a few hundred models and so a British prototype was to be preferred.  A 4-4-0 might be able to get round quite sharp curves, and would be cheaper than almost anything else.  We toyed with the idea of a Midland Compound, but eventually decided on the Southern “Schools” class because the type of outside cylinders would be widely applicable to other, larger, and possibly continental European locomotives, if things went well.


Antonio sent the head of Wilag to see me, and I told him what we wanted and gave him a lot of technical detail.  Then there was a long silence.  It seems that Willebordse, the head of Wilag, felt this was beyond him, and decided to subcontract the whole thing to Felix Spring, because they wanted to make a Bavarian Pacific rather than a “Schools”.  In due course a beautifully made gas fired, but highly temperamental Pacific appeared.  It was much too expensive and some people never managed to light the burner at all.  I found what I had to do to make my own example run, and it could give an impressive performance, but from the Fulgurex point of view it was a financial disaster.


Antonio did not give up the idea, though.  Tenshodo in Japan had made electric models of fine quality for Fulgurex, in the smaller gauges, so Antonio asked Tenshodo to help, and they found Aster for us.  It all fell out very luckily, because Aster were makers of mechanical business machines – machines which were able to withstand continuous hard use – but were facing competition from the new generation of electronic affairs and did not want to go electronic themselves.  They were diversifying (they still make special wrapping machines) and wonder of wonders; they had two keen live steam modelers on their staff. 


The first Aster Schools reached me from Lausanne, just before Christmas 1975.  It was essentially to “L.B.S.C.’s design and ran very well.  I sent It back to Antonio with a full confidential report, of which I fortunately sent a second copy of the report through the post.  The engine, with a copy of the report, was fully packed and sealed and put in the hands of a maker of traction engines who was delivery a couple of these to Antonio.  At Christmas, Antonio rang me up, and mentioned that this person had delivered the traction engines but not the loco. I was furious.  A few days later I went to the Model Engineer Exhibition where I found the Schools on the stand of the traction engine merchant, with a label describing it as “our new Schools class” and inviting enquiries!  This particular crook has long since disappeared from the scene.  He had broken the seals and had shown the confidential report to all sorts of other crooks: they were sniffing round it like flies and I half expected to be knifed when I took possession of the model and marched off murmuring threats of legal action.  It seems quite funny now.


I rang Antonio, and he told me a second Schools had arrived and he wanted me to keep the first.  That historic little machine is alive and well and living in Devon.  Some 3000 Schools locos were made, and I suspect that if Aster reissued the model now, mostly unchanged but with a type C boiler and a tender hand pump, they would sell another thousand quickly.


Aster found they had a home market, for which they quickly produced a Japanese 2-6-0 with a single outside working cylinder, exactly as described by Norman Dewhirst in “A Steam Locomotive for O Gauge”, but slightly enlarged.  Thereafter they began to develop productions which were not commissioned by Fulgurex, but the Fulgurex connection was for many years the most important aspect of their model locomotive business, and provided the stimulus and know-how for more and more advanced models. 


A major landmark was the French PLM Pacific, which Antonio commissioned largely because of his own childhood and later memories of these engines in real life.  It was the first quantity produced model with a proper Walschaerts valve gear.  Bassett Lowke had produced small numbers of LNER Pacifics and “Royal Scots”, which had a sort of Walschaerts gear but this did not function correctly and was really only cosmetic, while providing the sales advantage beloved of the toy makers” a reversing lever in the cab.   The PLM Pacific was and is a different kettle of fish, with a correctly designed long travel, long lap valve gear, able to be notched up a long way and giving a fast and economical performance.  Also, so 800 were built.  Of course, it was a two cylinder simple: we were not ready to make working compound models of compound locomotives.  Also it had a Smithies boiler, reliable and free steaming, but traditional in model work.  But that was 20 years ago.


The next year saw the arrival of the 4-6-4T’s: the heavy Prussian engines, some of which came to France after the First World War.  An attraction of this model was that it could be offered to both the French and the German markets, in two different liveries.  Again it had a good Walschaerts gear and was a very good runner, but it needed a line side water tank and pump to refill its boiler under steam: the side tanks were empty.


The French/American Mikado, the 141R, came out with a type B boiler.  This engine had a valve gear almost the same as the PLM Pacific.  With smaller wheels a heavier boiler, it proved able to take very heavy trains, if not quite so fast. Only on the other day, on a friend’s railway in France, I saw one tirelessly pulling a long goods train with most satisfying noises, then later and notched up more, wheeling around with an express train at express speed.


Aster fitted a type B boiler to their C57 – a Japanese Pacific for the home market, which was an excellent performer – but for their next Fulgurex commission they reverted to the Smithies boiler because it was easier to make.  The engine was the German 01 Pacific, was about the only loco for Fulgurex about which I knew nothing till it appeared.  I was not even sent the drawings for vetting.  Why this was I have no idea, but it was a mistake which was not repeated.  In the circumstances you would expect me to say that there were faults in the design, and I will not disappoint you: there were indeed, but not fundamental ones.  Graham Colover brought one of the first to me saying it would not steam and I found the draughting was wrong, so that some exhaust was blowing back.  Aster had tried to cure this poor steaming by fitting a four-wick burner instead of the usual three.  I did the necessary on Graham’s loco – it did not take long – and it ran beautifully.  So I sent a drawing of a modified chimney petticoat to Aster and asked them to fit it on all models still in stock, and to send me a couple of dozen for my friends.  This they did and all was well, but there must still be quite a few of these engines around with a short wide petticoat which needs changing.  Otherwise, this loco was a very fine piece of modeling and had a good valve gear ensuring a proper express performance.  About this time I learned that I had a nickname in Japan: “Mr. Performance”.


I am really only talking about the Aster production for Fulgurex, which is what I know most about, but I think that I should mention one or two things that came in between.  The “King Arthur” model, of which only some 300 were made, was devised to use up a stock of spare parts left over from the “Schools” production.  More or less simple as the “Schools”, it benefited from its longer boiler and slightly greater weight.  It was a truly excellent little machine, and is now a great rarity.  Perhaps that is the engine that Aster should reissue, but it really is time they did an L.M.S. loco.  They also made a Japanese 2-6-2T, essentially the Schools type of cylinder and valve gear, but smaller in the bore, and the Smithies boiler of the Japanese 2-6-0.  This was truly a delightful little machine with a first class performance.  I made a sketch for Newsletter showing how it could very easily be turned into a LMS or BR type 2.  Mike McDonald, and possibly others, took up the challenge.  Mike’s is a most convincing and lively specimen.  Bob Symes took up the notion and made an Austrian suburban tank out of his.


In 1978 Aster produced what they no doubt thought was the ultimate in Gauge 1 steam, for their home market.  It was the C 62-2, the larger Japanese “Hudson”, and the model was coal fired, and had a mechanical lubricator, ball bearings and was built to a high standard.  Its design had nothing to do with me, but I acquired one.  I have it still: its runs superbly, but I had to make quite a few changes, notably to spirit firing because the firebox was too small and shallow, and the fire-hole too low and difficult to reach because of controls in the way.  The mechanical lubricator emptied all over the engine in the first five minutes, so I had to give way to a normal Roscoe type, and I altered the valve gear to improve the economy, which goes to show that one can improve a masterpiece: a most beautiful thing with just a few predictable faults in the design.  13 years later, when the French compound Baltic was built for Fulgurex, such mistakes were not repeated and that engine is to my mind unbeatable, using coal or spirit.


In 1980 we had our fun with the oscillating cylinder 0-6-0Ts: one of my periodic efforts to get something cheap on the market for dads to give their children, or to entice new addicts into Gauge 1 steam.  We made 800, but I don’t think anybody made any money.  At first Aster took liberties with my design, not realizing the importance of every feature to achieve success.  Their first specimen would hardly turn a wheel, and they had already ordered a lot of parts, which had to be scrapped.  These errors were all rectified in the production series but in those diecast driving wheels – excellent in themselves – were not properly fixed on the axles, which involved Aster in supplying hundreds of complete new wheel sets, complete with bushes, axles and gears.  Meanwhile I was re-fixing wheels on new axles for everybody who wrote to me about it.  In the end, most of these engines settled down to give a new performance, but there are probably still quite a few lying abandoned or covered to battery electric.  This engine was a correct scale model of a French prototype, but several British engines were virtually identical, if one cut down the chimney a little.  The GER. version, however was an afterthought, more less against my wishes, and it looks too bulky to my eye.


1981 was a dramatic year.  Antonio had rung me up some time before and told me he was going mad, quite mad, totally and dangerously mad: he wanted Aster to make a Big Boy.  This was the only American locomotive Fulgurex ever commissioned from Aster.  I did a preliminary layout to make sure it could get around reasonable curves, and drew up a coal-fired boiler.  With that huge, but relatively shallow grate I decided to block off a short front section with a vertical wall, thereby providing depth for the fire and a combustion chamber.  I felt that the usually W cylinders would be too big.  I foresaw that the front engine would be likely to slip, and felt that, unless one put at a least forty bogie boxcars behind the loco, it would not puff hard enough to draw up a coal fire without help from the blower.  Aster thought other, but they made two prototypes, one with each size cylinder.  They also wanted to provide gas firing as an option.  The production series had W cylinders.  I don’t know anybody who actually coal fires this engine, so it hardly matters.  This is one engine I did not have: though it would not have cost me anything.  I felt it was just too big for my layout, and did not have the space to store 40 boxcars anyway.  But if I had a vast layout like Robert Head’s, I would enjoying the best out of this huge machine, with coal, and I would certainly line the cylinders to make her puff – mean to make HIM puff.  As it is, I don’t know whether Aster put in that wall in front of the grate.  This was something used occasionally in real practice, sometimes called a Gaines wall.  No doubt Gaines was American, but the excellent Italian two-cylinder compound 4-8-0s had this wall.


The other event of 1981 was the Bavarian 4-4-4.  I was in Lausanne inspecting the two Big Boy prototypes and the first of these 4-4-4s.  My abiding memory of that trip is on Antonio admiring the incredibly delicate driving wheels – the finest I have seen by far – and saying “They are fine, but they must be finer”.  Poor Mr. Sasaki, who, it must be said, is the real genius of Aster, going upstairs to the Fulgurex workshop and filing half the spokes down on a sample wheel, just to show what difference could be achieved.  Sasaki is still the presiding mechanical genius, and Antonio is still the perfectionist, as well as being the historian and romantic, presiding over Fulgurex. 


That beautiful 4-4-4 was gas fired, because Aster wanted to make it so.  I converted mine to spirit, with the same boiler, which was an improvement.  The design of the boiler was done first by Aster, but I had an alteration made to protect it better from burning out with careless handling.  Their own design of gas fired boilers went into the Pennsylvania Pacific and the NYC. Hudson, both for the American market, and some of these have been converted to sprit recently, with good results.  I had nothing to do with those two engines and ever possessed either, but I believe that the Pacific was the first loco to incorporate a feature which has reappeared in recent Aster productions.  This is sort of a labyrinth interposed between the port face and the cylinder, which connects the front port to the rear of the cylinder and vice versa.  The object is to make it possible to connect the combination lever of the Walschaerts valve gear to look as though the valves were inside admission piston valves, instead of outside admission slide valves.  This device enables a more correct external appearance to be achieved, and makes little if any difference in the performance.


Aster then slipped in a simple model of a Swiss 2-6-2T for Fulgurex, with Walschaerts gear and a Smithies boiler.  The 2-6-0 tender equivalent was designed but not made, which was rather a pity as it could have the basis for a British 2-6-0.  But the British market was to receive something very special the following year.


It has always seemed to me that “Mallard”, which appeared in 1984, make a watershed in the history of the commercial model steam locomotive.  Up to then, all production models had outside cylinders only, though the Shay had three set vertically on one side, and the Big Boy had four cylinders outside.  But all “normal” locos, regardless of prototype, had two outside cylinders, and open the way for three cylinder locos and ones with four, both simple and compound.


When Antonio wanted to produce a new loco for the British market, the Gauge 1 international scene had so changed, in the eight years since the “Schools”, that now it was not a matter of making a British because that was the only certain market.  It was a matter of making a British loco which would be sure to sell well outside Britain.  Enthusiasts for the Great Western, the Southern and the L.M.S. will have to forgive me when I say that by far the best known of British locomotives, worldwide, were “Mallard” and the Stirling eight footer.  By this time it had become clear that bigger engines sell better, so “Mallard” it had to be.  But there was no way I could bear to have a model of a Gresley Pacific with only four exhaust beats per turn of the drivers.  Moreover, the model had to be superbly visually and immense pains were taken to get that streamlined casing right.  The finer the model looked, the more important the whole personality became, and a slightly syncopated exhaust was essential, and that discreet burbling from the double chimney as she got away, so different from the Great Western bark or the solemn thud from the chimney of a “Duchess”.  So “Mallard” had three cylinders (which some kit builders had some difficulty in getting right) and a double chimney – another innovation for production models.  It also introduced Aster to the type C boiler, and the axle pump under the tender.


All this novelty in one loco was combined with an effort on my part to keep the cost down and to make kit assembly fairly straightforward.   The type C boiler is cheap to make and immensely strong.  The three-cylinder system used the standard cylinders and avoided the complication of a full inside valve gear or a derived gear.  The axle pump under the tender was an optional extra and simplified the main chassis.  Aster never did a better job than this.  They took the innovations in their stride and to get the bodywork right they came to York with me and the then Fulgurex office manager, together with Mr. Satoh of Tenshodo, who interpreted. We went all over Mallard and went through masses od drawings, while Mr. Sasaki took hundreds of photos.


There were 250 “Mallards”, 150 “Sir Nigel Gresleys” (slightly less fine because the removal of the valances revealed the reversed connections to the combination levers and the lack of valve rod guides), rather more than 60 “Silver Links”, with single chimneys and so somewhat louder in the exhaust, and a little less free steaming, but some people consider this the most beautiful version of all.  These engines were a technical and commercial success, and at this point the involvement of Tenshodo came to an end.  They had brought our relationship with Aster to a high point, and felt no need to remain on the scene.  It meant, for me, losing Mr. Satoh, who had become a good friend, but of course the Tenshodo/Fulgurex link remained for other gauges, and I was to see Mr. Satoh and his chief gain in Lausanne.  Now our friend Toyoki Inoue entered the state, and he spoke English.  His command of English made it worth while for him to join our Association, and he has become a most helpful friend to many of our members.  And I might here also pay my tribute to the owner and head of Aster, now more or less retired, Mr. Kenichi Fujii, who I met in Lausanne and whom I still regard with feelings of great respect and warmth. 


It seems a good idea to follow up the success of the A4s with another three cylinder simple expansion locomotive, and looking at the total European scene it was clear that the most distinguished candidate was the German standard 2-10-0, class 44, one of the greatest freight locomotives of which some 2000 were built.  It also was built in France during the German occupation and those engines all came into the hands of the SNCF after the war, so the model could be made in two liveries, with slight other differences, and would appeal to two different markets.  This model repeated the three cylinder system of the A4’s, but the chimney had to be single, and with five coupled axles there was no problem about fitting the axle pumps on the engine itself: moreover, it had a bogie tender, less suitable for fitting an axle pump than the LNER rigid eight wheeler.  I had, and still have, the first of these models, a French one, and I well remember testing it on my layout in Hertford.  It roared around at high speed with a train of 50 4-wheelers, weight 100 lbs., while I walked after it with a jug of water to keep the tender full.  I have never heard adverse criticism of this model.  


The next model nearly killed me.  I had designed a working 4 cylinder compound model of the Nord Super Pacific.  As sometimes happens, this design was met with a deafening silence.  I really do not know exactly what happened, but I think the office manger at Fulgurex, Urs Egger, being Swiss while Antonio is Italian, felt that a Swiss engine was needed, and decide on the lovely little compound 4-6-0 which first appeared on the Jura Simplon Railway and went on to become the main Swiss steam express engine.  From photographs it no doubt appeared that, apart from the close-set trailing wheels and larger boiler of the French engine, these two types were closely similar, and the original prototype of this model came to me with the cylinder sizes proposed for the bigger engine.  It also had, of course, a type C boiler, and the axle pump was now on one of the tender bogies.  This engine was much too powerful and on my test bed I obtained by, adding extra adhesion, 12,000 scale horsepower!  On the track it was almost impossible to stop it slipping, and this was a bad business because the tender axle pump was not being driven as fast as the driving wheels, so the small boiler ran dry.  I was running all round the garden until my troublesome heart beat forced me to drown the engine and sit down.  I really did feel ill. 


This engine also had inside valves driven from the outside ones, by straight rocking levers.  I proposed slip eccentrics.  The delicate outside gear was not rigid enough for the job and, under stroboscopic light, I saw very irregular things going on.  I asked for a reduction in cylinder sizes on the production models, and this was agreed. The engine eventually came out as manageable and a delightful performer, but still definitely not for beginners.  I had to train several owners in management!  I took my example as a kit, and put slip eccentrics in for the L.P. cylinders, suppressing the rocking levers, which are not prototype anyway.  I also took the opportunity to paint the boiler dome, cylinder lagging etc, in a blue color to represent the blue planished Russian iron with which these engines, like many other Swiss ones (and the Glasgow and South Western Baltic tanks) originally appeared.  This was a really lovely little engine, though still not for beginners.  It now runs with John Waggott’s blue Gotthard coaches, on David Jenkinson’s superb track.


So we were into compounds, and the Chapelon Nord Pacifics appeared, with my original cylinder dimensions and slip eccentrics on the low pressure side, a type C boiler and the axle pump on the engine.  One of these ran for an hour non-stop at the Lucerne exhibition without the tender being refilled, but only pulling four Waggott Wagon-Lits.  This engine is heavy to handle, but I find that with about ten heavy continental coaches, it runs better on a dirty track – once the polish appears, it starts slipping and had to drop three coaches or so.


We are now coming to recent history.  At that same Lucerne exhibition, the other track was occupied by one of the new German 2-8-2Ts, which was giving a half an hour of non-stop running with twenty Marklin four wheeled wagons, or even thirty.  This engine was last attempt to at getting a lower priced engine made.  I built the prototype to try out the system of marring the scientifically designed shrouded pot boiler with an efficient slide valve arrangement to use steam economically.  The other engine I built was in fact not the German 86, but the first European 2-8-2T, which ran in Switzerland.  Mine ran very well so I sent the essential drawings for three possible types to Lausanne.  The German engine was chosen as having the largest market.  The Mallet was conceived as a compound, with the high-pressure cylinders at the rear, where the back half was solid with the boiler, and low-pressure cylinders, fed via a flexible joint, at the front.  That was over 100 years ago, in full size, but it makes sense in a model too, whereas the “Big Boy”, being a four cylinder simple, had to have modern flexible joints to avoid high-pressure leakage.  The simple Mallet was more or less unknown in Europe – it only appeared in America after the bore of low pressure cylinders had reach no less that 4 feet and one could go no further – still higher powers required simple expansions just to get the cylinders within the loading gauge.  But the compound Mallet was widespread in Europe, especially as a tank engine.  Most of these were meter gauge (and quite a few are still running on preserved lines) but there was a once celebrated standard gauge series, the Bavarian double 0-8-0 and Aster made this engine for Fulgurex in 1989.


In my sketch design for this engine I followed the Chapelon quite closely as regards cylinder ratio and type C boiler, but this time Aster had to fit side tanks carrying water – another “First” for them.  The linking of the two sets of valve gear in an articulated locomotive was not difficult – it had been down in the “Big Boy” anyway – but was of course expensive.  I drew out a proper system of lateral spring control for the front engine, which they did not fit into their prototype, but I did when it comes to me for test.  That was the last prototype that I tested in Hertford, and a production model was the first new acquisition for my railway in France, as Antonio brought me one early in 1990.  Proper lateral control was fitted to all the production engines.  To see those tiny wheels whizzing round at a scale ninety, with sixteen heavy continental bogie coaches thundering along behind, is, of course, a highly ridiculous spectacle, but I still enjoy it from time to time.  30 coaches at a sedate speed is perhaps more impressive, but that means a tail of Gresley teaks, which is not altogether suitable – and also entails a risk of pulling the lot off on some of the curves.  The free running, the power, and the economy of the compound models proves yet again that what hold for the full size can hold for the small model as well.


From the sublime to the ridiculous: the development of the big Mallet tank was paralleled with that of the Frank-S for L.G.B.  This was an opportunity for Aster to repeat the production number of the “Schools”, and some 3000 were made.  I had nothing to do with the except for a few distressed telephone calls from Japan, in the very early morning (just before they left the office on the other side of the World) and a few drawings sent with a call for help.  I don’t suppose I was much use, as I am no guru on gas firing or radio control, but I am told that this ugly little brute has given a lot of pleasure.  It annoyed me, because I had just fully drawn out a far more elegant (but more expensive) tank engine for the L.G.B. size, as Antonio and I felt that this market deserved a model of Aster quality.  My full set of drawings was never used in production, but such has been the fate of other projects too.  Aster could not be expected to produce a rival of their own product for a new market.


The next major even was “King George V”.  This locomotive was perhaps the first in which Aster rejected a major feature of my basic design, the essential difference between us being that I wanted something cheaper to make: though equally effective but they wanted to follow the prototype closely.  I wanted this first four cylinder simple (apart from the “Big Boy” which is quite a different matter) to be made single acting, to a design that I had used successfully in two locomotives and which I believe to be technically superior to four double acting cylinders in a single expansion locomotive in a small size.  But I respected Aster’s desire for authenticity, and this trend has continued.  I had set up at temporary track early in 1990 to test the “King” prototype.  It had some faults which I had warned them of when I received the drawings but, as always, they were pressing on in a hurry and had already made most of the sample.  They had that first one back with a list of suggestions, which they carried out in the production series, and in due course a kit came my way, which enabled me to see exactly how they had made it in the end.  I only one tiny alteration of no great significance, and I think this engine has been a great success.  Again, I must emphasize that this is the first quantity produced model to have four high-pressure cylinders.  It will be interesting to see how many miles they will run before wear starts to show in the inside valve gear, because these engines tend to be run hard by their owners. 


The latest, and perhaps last, compound was the French streamlined “Baltic”, SNCF no. 232 U1.  Baltic, not Hudson; the first 4-6-4 tender engines were also built for the French Nord main line, in 1911, and called “Baltics” because that was where the trains they were meant for end up.  16 years later, the Americans took the 4-6-4 wheel arrangement and called it a “Hudson”, but the U1 is definitely a Baltic.  The real engine proved one of the greatest locomotives of all times, and is on view with one of the original Baltics in the Museum in Mulhouse.  The model is unsurpassed and perhaps unsurpassable.  It has only two sets of valve gear, but this is extremely robust and closely copies the same arrangement on the real engine.  As compared with the Chapelon Pacific, the cylinder sizes are the same, but the greater weight of the coal fired boiler improves the adhesion and allows higher working pressures to be used effectively.  There are drain cocks on the L.P. cylinders, but I find it clears itself without their use. In fact you can tie it on a very heavy train, then raise steam and when at full pressure, gently open the regulator and the great engine will quietly move off with its load, the puff only becomes audible when the cylinders warm up.


We felt that coal firing had to be available for this engine, and I was able to sketch out a fairly deep firebox with a high fire door clear of obstructions, remembering the problems of the Japanese 4-6-4.  The modeling of the difficult streamlined casing, as in the case of the A4s, is quite superb, and it was far more difficult.  Aster can hardly ever improve on the quality of this model.  It is the high point of the whole development.  But it was expensive.  We were also worried that no new German engine was in the pipeline.  Aster was getting bogged down in the design of the Beyer-Garratt, fine, impressive machine and a great achievement if it could be pulled off without financial ruin, because it certainly would never make anybody any money.  It was a challenge that had to be met – at whatever cost.  To keep things going in a small way Aster produced the Pannier tank and the Glaskasten, with which I was not involved, but which have produced excellent results, and that Grasshopper, which seems to have sold modestly and amusingly.


I wanted the big German trailing tank 4-6-4 to be made.  I thought, in my simplicity, that having only two cylinders and no tender it might not be very expensive, and I worked out boiler, tank and spirit capacities, and behavior on curves.  It was a long time coming, but those who have seen it will see that what Aster might have saved in construction cost has all been lavished on perfection of detail: it even has working electric lights – as per prototype – under foot-plating, to light up the motion when oiling round at night.  It is a truly magnificent looking locomotive, which also runs well and sounds great.  It makes me wonder why I still try to build engines myself and I suppose the answer to that is that I persist in incorporating innovations in design and construction. Quite a few of these ideas have been included in Aster’s standard practice over the years, so perhaps it is worth pottering, and I should not allow the Aster perfection to discourage me.


I have not mentioned anything like all the Aster range, and I have mainly talked about the ones I have been closely involved with.  There may be no more of these.  I have given Fulgurex designs for a Nord Super Pacific and a Chapelon 4-8-0, some years ago, but they may never see the light of day.  My last involvement has been the Stirling Single, for which I provided prototype drawings and color samples.  There are no official drawings of No. 1 as she ran during most of her service, as she was greatly altered just after building, and the later engines were to several different drawings.  As preserved No. 1 has suffered in various ways, and she has the wrong tender.  Aster has made her as she appears in the beautiful official photo taken when she was retired – her finest and definitive condition.


In my preliminary technical sketch for this engine, I solved the problem of getting her round curves and getting a scale boiler between the drivers by planning her as a 2-6-0, with flangeless driving wheels and so a greater back-to-back to take the boiler.  They disagreed and kept the flanges, fitted a smaller boiler and made her a 2-4-2, giving side play to the trailing truck wheels.  This is a matter of taste:  Aster clearly felt the flanges were more important, but to me that boiler looks too thin.   The Stirling Singles were powerful and reliable engines in their day, not just pretty faces.  Aster’s model is very pretty, but when I made up my kit I put a lagging sheet over the boiler – not a simple job, but less work than making a new boiler and turning off those flanges, though the extra 15% of boiler capacity might be an advantage.


Then I wanted slip eccentrics, not just to keep cost down but also to provide bigger wearing surfaces and because I did not think a Stephenson link motion was practical in the space.  Aster has very cleverly put one in.  It looks good but it cannot behave like a real one for strictly dimensional reasons.  However, it is closer to the prototype.  Yet they have fitted a totally anachronistic superheat, which no Stirling Single ever had.


So they we are.  The Aster marque has grown up, stands on its own feet and follows it own ideas.  And that is how it should be.  I await their future creations with confidence and curiosity.


Long may Aster thrive!


Permission to post this article authored by John van Riemsdijk to the Southern Steam Train website has been graciously granted by the Gauge 1 Model Railway Association.  Originally published in the G1MRA Newsletter and Journal (176/6) December 1997. 



A collection of columns by

John van Riemsdijk

are published in the G1MRA series

Modelling in Gauge 1 - Book 2

John van Riemsdijk’s Contribution”  

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