Collecting vintage live steam locomotives

With their nostalgic charm, these feats of engineering are pulling in a new crowd, says Simon de Burton

7¼in B1 Class Mayflower, £25,000 from Steamdays
7¼in B1 Class Mayflower, £25,000 from Steamdays | Image: Steamdays

For those looking for some relief from the pressures of daily life, the answer could be found in letting off a little steam – of the model engineering kind, that is. When meticulously crafted, fully working steam locomotives exude enormous nostalgic charm, whether displayed in an expansive drawing room or puffing between the rose beds of a country house garden.

London Midland & Scottish Railway Duchess of Buccleuch, sold for £170,800 at Dreweatts
London Midland & Scottish Railway Duchess of Buccleuch, sold for £170,800 at Dreweatts | Image: © Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions

Scale models of locomotives have been produced since the early 1800s for industrial purposes, but it was only in the early 1900s that Stuart Turner of Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, became the first firm to offer the basic cast-metal components required to produce scale replicas for pleasure. Measuring up to 2.5m long and weighing as much as half a tonne, models were often built to the original plans of full‑sized steam trains by renowned masters such as Louis Raper, James Stanley Beeson and Harry Powell, whose “real” job was that of chief coppersmith at the Crewe Locomotive Works during the 1960s.

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In 2012, Powell’s exquisite rendition of London Midland & Scottish Railway’s Pacific Class Duchess of Buccleuch fetched a record £170,800 at auction house Dreweatts. It was part of the 18-lot, £530,000 collection of the late Jack Salem, a Lancashire linen tycoon who sold up and moved to Switzerland, where he spent his retirement running his beloved locomotives around an 800m track in his garden. Another enthusiast is music impresario Pete Waterman who, over a period of more than 50 years, has built up a world-class collection of live steam locomotives, 56 of which – around a tenth of his collection – he put up for auction in April 2015 through Dreweatts. The sale realised around £650,000, with two lots selling for £124,000 each, including a Great Western Railway 7¼in gauge Beyer goods locomotive.

Great Western Railway 7¼in Beyer goods locomotive and tender, sold for £124,000 at Dreweatts
Great Western Railway 7¼in Beyer goods locomotive and tender, sold for £124,000 at Dreweatts | Image: © Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions

“The size of a locomotive is based on its gauge, the width between the wheels,” explains Michael Matthews, a model engineering consultant to Dreweatts. “It all started with 0 gauge, but as lathes became bigger, modellers were able to increase first to 2½in and then to 3½in, 5in and 7¼in. Locomotives built to the 3½in gauge and upwards will easily pull rolling stock and passengers.” In Dreweatts’ September sale a 7¼in model of the once ubiquitous French 2-8-2 SNCF Class 141R tender locomotive, built in 1948, fetched £57,000, but a ticket to the world of live steam locomotives needn’t cost this much, adds Matthews. “An entry-level price of £1,000 to £1,500 should buy a 3½in gauge tank locomotive of the type used to move freight, whereas models of main line locos start at around £3,000 to £5,000. Values, however, are going up all the time.”  

French 7¼in 2-8-2 SNCF Class 141R, sold for £57,000 at Dreweatts
French 7¼in 2-8-2 SNCF Class 141R, sold for £57,000 at Dreweatts | Image: © Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions

Collectors tend to fall into two categories: those who buy locomotives to run, and those who buy them for their aesthetics and engineering excellence. The latter tend not to “steam” their models, as the resulting heat, smoke and soot quickly detracts from the pristine paintwork and running gear. Indeed, top makers are known to spend thousands of hours completing a model before steaming it once to prove that it works – and then dismantling it for cleaning and repainting.

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For those who love to see their trains in action, but without their own private lines, tracks are available to use through model engineering clubs. In the UK, most are listed on the website of the 7¼ Inch Gauge Society, a hub for enthusiasts and a source of advice, information and items for sale. Another good place to buy is Antique Steam, run by train driver-turned-antiques dealer Graham Jones, himself  “an obsessive collector”. He currently has a 5in Coronation Duchess Pacific-style streamliner, modelled on the 1938 locomotive built by Crewe Works for the London Midland & Scottish Railway, for £25,000, as well as a fine 7¼in gauge version of the LSWR Adams B4 Class-superb, built by JGS Clarke of Denbigh, for £6,450.  

“The 7¼in gauge has become really popular because it is so similar to full-size locomotives and can easily pull 40 people or more, but to run one in public you must have a valid boiler safety certificate and liability insurance,” says Roy Gregson of Lancashire-based dealer Steamdays, which is offering a splendid 7¼in gauge model of the B1 Class locomotive Mayflower for £25,000. “Values have started to rise as there are now fewer people capable of making models to the standards of the past,” he adds.

For celebrated interior designer Tim Gosling, however, the appeal of live steam lies not only in engineering excellence but in nostalgia and romance. “I have always loved steam trains and, as a boy, used to help out on the Canterbury to Tenterden railway, driving and cleaning real steam engines. Four years ago I acquired a beautiful live steam model called Nord. It is a scale replica of the super Pacific Class locomotive that pulled the Orient Express, and I’m gradually buying carriages to go with it,” he says. “I’ve steamed the Nord twice, but usually she sits on display in my library. The thing is just so beautifully made I can look at it for hours.”

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