The world’s most famous tank engine will steam into 2013 with a multi-million-dollar makeover as the “King of the Railway”. The American licence owner of Thomas the Tank Engine, a character beloved by millions, believes the time is right to relaunch the character for a new generation, and that he could be a cash cow in markets from China to Argentina.
Young Thomas fans – and their parents – should expect a deluge of new merchandise, initially including a bigger line of wooden trains. Three more seasons of the Thomas & Friends television show have been commissioned, as well as an hour-long animated film titled King of the Railway.
A character rooted in the steam age, Thomas will have a strong presence in the digital era, with his own online portal and four more apps to add to the existing 15.
Mattel, the toy giant that bought Thomas’s parent company in 2011, believes the gentle steam train stories can be made more relevant to modern children, and “some of it needs livening up a little bit”.
Thomas hauls in about $1bn (£600m) a year worldwide, although the executive vice-president of Mattel’s Fisher-Price brands said it was “a brand that has been pretty bereft of investment”. David Allmark told The New York Times: “We really believe that we can grow this on a worldwide basis, particularly in Latin America and Asia.”
The marketing team has even saddled the engine with a new tagline, “Anytime is Thomas Time”.
Another Mattel executive said he feared Thomas may have become “part of the woodwork”, and that young people might need reminding why they love the character.
Thomas, Percy, Gordon and friends retain their appeal despite being more than 65 years old.
The characters were dreamed up by the Reverend Wilbert Awdry to amuse his son Christopher, who had been struck down with a bout of measles in 1943.
After his wife Margaret urged him to publish his stories about the engines Edward, Gordon and Henry, Awdry wrote to the publisher Edmund Ward, and The Three Railway Engines was published in 1946.
Thomas, the name of a toy train he had given Christopher, first appeared a year later in his own standalone story.
Awdry went on to write 26 stories about Thomas and his friends. Christopher followed his father in 1983 and wrote “Really Useful Engine” stories for his own son. He went on to write 14 books.
Thomas’s small screen debut came in 1984, with narration by the former Beatle Ringo Starr, and quickly gained 8.5 million viewers on ITV.
Hit Entertainment, which owned other children’s favourites such as Bob the Builder, bought the rights to Thomas in 2004.
It had already updated Thomas, replacing the old-style animation of the original television show with computer graphics. The trains also spoke to each other for the first time.
Mattel bought Hit, whose characters also included Fireman Sam and Barney, in October 2011 for $680m.