Mid-life excess

Rocketing demand for `boys' toys' from men old enough to know better is rejuvenating several industries. Terry Kirby investigates
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The Independent Online
THEY ARE the toys for older boys. While twentysomethings may be devoted to their iPods and PlayStations, Britain's forty- and fiftysomething men are fuelling a boom in leisure pursuits they lacked the time and money to indulge in when they were younger.

According to Hornby, the model railway maker, middle-aged men looking to their childhood passions helped the company to their best Christmas sales figures since the Seventies.

Frank Martin, chief executive of Hornby, said: "We call it the Harley- Davidson effect, because it's cheaper for the older generation to buy one of our train sets than a big motorcycle.''

He said that more than a fifth of sales were for boxed sets costing several hundred pounds, and that most were sold to adults for themselves.

Last year, Hornby sold around 110,000 train sets - as opposed to extras and accessories - a figure that has almost doubled since the Eighties. Seventy per cent of their customers are adults - although many will be buying for children. But around a fifth of those sales are for sets at the top end of their range - between pounds 150 and pounds 500 - the latter coming with its own working steam engine.

Mr Martin added: "It's impossible to be precise, but we believe most of those are men who are taking up the hobby late in life; some will be returning to something they enjoyed as a child, but others will be doing it for the first time.''

So many of their customers are adults that Hornby is trying to market itself more to children.

Meanwhile, many other professional men are discovering - or rediscovering - the pleasures of playing guitars, or outdoor pursuits such as surfing, motorcycling, mountain-biking and high-risk sports.

According a recent survey by the market analyst Mintel, the baby-boomer generation now has more spending power than any other age bracket - an average expenditure of pounds 213 a week for households headed by 50- to 59- year-olds, compared with pounds 135 a week for all other age groups. Other research shows that their disposable income is 56 per cent higher than the national average, and their spending power has increased by almost 30 per cent in the past five years, making them the wealthiest in Europe.

A spokeswoman for Mintel said: "Many [fiftysomething] men are enjoying their increased leisure time by taking up a new hobby or returning to an old one. These cover a wide spectrum and include things like car restoration, wood-turning, wine appreciation, model engineering and learning musical instruments. In many cases they involved learning new skills and required significant expenditure.''

This is also a generation that, thanks to early retirement and downshifting, has increased time on its hands. The men feel proud of the social changes they helped to bring about during the 1960s, and, because they became adults when youth culture first appeared, find there is less of a gap between them and their own children.

Significantly, attention to appearance remains at a steady level from the thirties through until the sixties.

The attractions of model railway have not entirely dissuaded others from the joys of being a "born-again biker' - middle-aged men who suddenly feel the need to buy a set of leathers and set off into the middle distance on a Harley-Davidson, often as part of a mid-life career or marriage crisis. The exploits of the actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman, who rode around the world on motorcycles, are only likely to fuel the ambition of many other men.

Most Harley owners buy a bike in their early forties and are definitely male, but the company has been keen to stress that it now runs courses that try to encourage more women riders. Sales of Harleys have increased twofold over the past five years.

Simon Wilkinson, chief executive of the British Motorcycling Federation, said: "It is a fantastic outlet, with only modest expense and hassle. You can set off on a drive on a Sunday morning, feel the wind in your face, meet some like-minded friends and still be back for lunch and mowing the lawn.''

The suggestion that such riders are responsible for rising accident figures is firmly rejected. "Older drivers are far more responsible and careful and it is just not borne out by the figures.''

Over at Stuff magazine, the glossy lads' mag devoted to the joys of "everything with a battery or plug", the managing editor, Adam Vaughan, said: "The older reader is a very significant part of our readership. They have more disposable income than twentysomethings, who are more likely to just lust after the latest gadget they cannot afford. The older consumer knows what they want - whether it's the latest hi-fi or plasma screen or mobile - and can go out and buy it.''


`I formed a band at 15 - then marriage and work took over'

LIKE TONY Blair and thousands of other fiftysomething men raised on the joys of rock and roll, Peter Bridger has always fondly remembered those carefree days when, in his teens and early 20s, he led his own group, rehearsing in bedrooms and garages.

But the pressures of building a career and raising a family kept getting in the way of his youthful passion.

It was not until the age of 49, and after separating from his wife, that Mr Bridger was able to rediscover the delights of jumping on stage with his trusty Telecaster and a group of like-minded friends in a smoky pub, and, well, just rocking and rolling the night away.

When not indulging himself in such a fashion, Mr Bridger, 55, is the managing director of Bell and Colvill, the country's biggest Lotus dealership, in Guildford, Surrey.

"I learnt to play on an acoustic guitar when I was 15, using the Bert Weedon book, like everyone else," he says. "I formed my first band when I was 15 and played in various little bands until I was about 22 when marriage and work took over.''

He took up playing again in his thirties, bought himself a Telecaster and from then on, always kept a guitar around. "They were bedroom guitars really, just something to play on for yourself.'' But then he began to add to his collection and now has about a dozen, valued at more than pounds 25,000.

Six years ago, returning to his home town of Guildford, he got together with some friends - all middle-aged and mostly divorced or separated - to form what was eventually called Table 22, after the table at the local Italian where they ate after rehearsals.

He says: "We play the music we were raised on really - Beatles and Stones, Tom Petty and Peter Green. It's really nice to play with my friends and its great fun.''

He buys all his guitars from Anderton's in Guildford. Lee Anderton, the co-owner, is the third generation of the firm founded by his grandfather to help him out. He says people like Peter Bridger account for more than 50 per cent of their sales.

"It was these kind of people that made us re-think the shop from being the kind of spit and sawdust place to something more comparable to, say, an upmarket hi- fi store," Mr Anderton says.

"They want to relive the dream they had when they were younger - after all, people of that generation they grew up in an era when live music was at its coolest and it was the thing to be in a band. Although some of them do get into bands, quite a lot still play in their bedrooms - which have now been transformed by the advent of things like online backing tracks. They can make you sound just like the guitarist on Pink Floyd.''


`Mostly, it is people my age who remember steam who like trains'

JOHN COCKROFT, 54, came back to model trains because he needed a hobby while at home looking after the children.

An enthusiast as a child, he had lost interest at university. "I studied in Sheffield and I was more interested in women and drinking than in trains," he confessed.

"But I always had an interest in model trains. I got my first set as a child for Christmas, a clockwork Hornby. Back in the Fifties, people of my age group all seemed to be interested in trains."

His hobby was partly reignited through his work. "I was a historian and curator at the Nottingham City museum," he said. "I had to deal with a lot of exhibits that involved trains. I spent a lot of time checking for accuracy in the displays we were putting up, so slowly I got back into the old hobby."

Fatherhood prompted Mr Cockroft to take up modelling seriously: "It seemed unfair on the wife to expect her to stay indoors while I went out. I used to stay at home in the evening to look after the children. Rather than just watch TV and become a couch potato, I started to look at what Hornby were producing. I would remodel the engines to make them more historically accurate".

Mr Cockroft has turned his hobby into a cottage industry. "I went part- time and started doing four-day weeks. The fifth day is when I make models on a semi-commercial basis. Most of all though, I do it out of love of the hobby."

His love of trains has, to his regret, not been passed on. "My daughter didn't want anything to do with it and my son, who is 15, has got into playing electric guitar. Mostly it is people my age who remember steam who seem to be most interested by trains."


`When you finally own the bike, you really feel like you belong'

FOR DAVID Holden, owning a Harley-Davidson was the realisation of a boyhood passion fuelled by admiration for his father's motorbike.

But the 58-year-old, who is now chapter head of the Bridgewater Harley- Davidson Owners Group, only felt able to shell out for his bike once he had paid off his mortgage, 25 years after he first dreamt of owning his own set of wheels.

"I saw bikes early on as my father was engineer for Rolls-Royce up in Crewe. He kept his bike in tip-top condition," he said.

Following a successful 25-year career in the Royal Navy as a Petty Officer, Mr Holden bought his first Harley in 1993. "Previously, there had been the pressure of family and a mortgage to pay. Also coming out of the Navy meant I had time to enjoy going riding. But it is definitely true that owning a Harley is a big financial decision. Most days you can see people standing in front of the Harley dealership in Bridgewater trying to work out if they can afford one," he said.

Owning a Harley is a luxury, with maintenance needed regularly. The average age of owners, 42, means only people with spare cash can really afford to own one: "A Harley is definitely seen as an older person's bike; most of the Bridgewater Chapter averages in their 40s but all the social groups are represented from dustmen to kings," Mr Holden added. "In our chapter, we have retired bankers right through to serious bikers".

The exclusivity extends right through to being able to join the club: "With the HOG club, you have to actually own a Harley in order to be allowed to take part in any events.

"When you finally own the bike, you really feel like you belong to something and a bike gives you so much freedom".

Mr Holden has been Harley Chapter head for Bridgewater for the past seven years. He said: "It's a real social scene and we have monthly meet ups", adding that that his generation seemed to be making the running in buying the bikes.

"We have certainly seen the chapter grow in the past few years. There are 150 people waiting to become members".

Asked if he was going to buy any more Harleys in the future, he smiled and said wistfully: "I would love to but the wife has the casting vote. I usually lose that one".