Game's up as toy firm targets bigger boys

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The Fat Controller had a middle-aged spread, Thomas was most likely tanked up on lager, and the Flying Scotsman was probably speeding home to play with his train set.

We had always suspected that toys were not for the boys, but yesterday Hornby Railways confirmed it: For years they have been making train sets not for little lads, but for their fathers.

The admission, which will make many a doting dad blush, was made by the company yesterday when it also admitted targeting Scalextric at men and not their sons.

Announcing its half-yearly results, the company said its marketing strategy now involved aiming for serious enthusiasts with serious money - mature adults. They are the ones who can fork out on lengthy, complicated stretches of track, decorative stations and elaborate landscaping.

While the image of the toy railway (below) is still one of wide-eyed youngsters in shorts and 1950s haircuts, the reality is quite different. The boys might get a look-in for five minutes, but they soon get elbowed out of the way by dad.

Peter Newey, the company chairman, said most railway sets are no longer sold through toy shops but through model stores where adult modellers and collectors congregate.

"How do you define a toy?" he asked. "In the main they are bought by mature men, not by children. They go to collectors or enthusiasts who put them into model layouts.

"Most of our sets are bought by men for their sons in anticipation of playing with them themselves, I am sure."

The models have changed as much as the marketing strategy. Nostalgic 14-year-old schoolboys can still buy the Flying Scotsman, but the most popular train is the Inter-City 125. And, in deference to privatisation, it now comes in the livery of Virgin and GNER.

Your Thatcherite realist is able to buy a gleaming model of the Eurostar, although it is not clear whether the company makes slow stretches of track for the imaginary British side and faster rails for the French section.

For serious anoraks, privatisation junkies or plain old sad purists, there are also models of suburban Networker carriages done out in the livery of local stretches like the Chiltern Line.

Scalextric, too, is being aimed at the more serious collector of longer, more complicated sections of track. The models are produced with meticulous attention to detail - in all but one respect. The company would never carry tobacco advertising on its Formula One cars, not even for a pounds 1m bung from Bernie Ecclestone.

"Absolutely no way," said marketing manager Simon Kohler. "We stopped that round about 1972 with the JPS [John Player Special] car. Last season, there were some cars carrying very subtle advertising, like an R with a question mark for Rothmans. We wouldn't even do that. It's much too near the mark."

It is the trains, however, that still cause the hearts of many a middle- aged man to miss a beat. And they are realistic in more ways than one; they even reflect the financial ups and downs of life in the public transport private sector. Hornby's pre-tax profits fell from pounds 1.1m a year ago to pounds 973,000 in the half year to 30 September. Sales were down from pounds 13.1m to pounds 11.1m. Business, page 26