THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE
ERTL DIE-CAST RANGE 1984 - 2004
Launching in 1984, the ERTL Die-Cast range became the main toy brand associated with the new Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends television series. After the first series was televised in 1984, ERTL released a die-cast model replica of Thomas. By contrast with what would follow, the initial Thomas had a white running board, as opposed to the red one which would follow later, and, as opposed to the 3D plastic faces which later became the norm for the toys, he also came with a decal sticker sheet, which would allow children to alter Thomas’ face to make him either happy or sad.
Soon afterwards, the Thomas model was released in a 3-piece set with Henry and James, although they featured no alternate faces. Also released in this year was a larger, motorised version of Thomas.
In 1985, ERTL’s range started over. There were no longer any decal sheets included, and Thomas, Henry and James were all given red buffer beams to replace the older white ones. ERTL also released models of Percy, Toby, Bertie and Annie & Clarabel this year, although Annie & Clarabel could only be purchased in a 3-piece set with either Thomas or Percy.
ERTL now further diversified their product line, by adding larger die-cast, motorised, models of Percy, as well as two large plastic models of Thomas, one that was a moneybox, and the other that was remote controlled.
In 1988, two more models were added to the collection, Edward and Gordon. But ERTL was now facing demands from the general public to produce more characters.
ERTL listened to these demands in 1990, by releasing Duck, Diesel, Trevor, The Fat Controller (Sir Topham Hatt) with a Porter, and the Troublesome Trucks. This year also marked the end of the sticker-faced engines. They were no replaced with plastic faces, as were the previous releases from previous years. This was most likely due to the fact that the sticker faces were prone to falling off.
Around this time a new sub-range launched, featuring miniature models of the more well known characters, such as Thomas, Edward, Percy, James, Toby, Duck, Diesel, Bill, Ben, Trevor, Harold, Annie, Clarabel, and the Troublesome Trucks.
These were released in packs of 3, as well as with play sets, which could be collected and connected. Popular as the range was, the Miniatures did not last very long, and were soon out of production.
In 1993, the entire Thomas brand was given a re-vamp. Due to this, ERTL models were now packaged in a different way from this year onwards. The packaging now featured a highly detailed painting the engine on the packaging, featuring artwork by Owain Bell, and, dependent on the type of vehicle that the character represented, had a differing background.
Models were now released every year, averaging 6 new models annually, in correspondence to those new to the TV series, with “oddities” such as Sodor Soft Side truck being released to fill gaps between television series releases and new characters coming into the fore.
In 1995, the Railway Series celebrated its 50th Anniversary. In commemoration of this, ERTL released a limited edition gold plated Thomas model. In 1998, ERTL released 4 more limited edition models, this time, with gleaming metallic paint. The models were: Thomas, Percy, Duncan, and Rheneas.
In 1999, a further four metallic engines were released, the engines being: Lord Harry, Duke, Rusty, and Sir Handel. In 2000, the year of the millennium, ERTL release a platinum plated model of Thomas to celebrate. During this time, the ERTL miniature range came back for a short while, however, they were now a key ring range, and did not feature Bertie, Annie, Clarabel, or the Troublesome Trucks.
During the release of Thomas & The Magic Railroad in 2000, also, there were a selection of character models released in Magic Railroad packaging, with new models including Diesel 10, Lady, Splatter, Dodge, and a special release with Thomas and Mr Conductor.
The set soon totalled over 70 models. At this time, the Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends brand was renamed Thomas & Friends. Once this was done, the packaging changed again, and now matched every other piece of Thomas & Friends merchandise. This packaging was to house almost 30 new models, until Gullane (owners of the Thomas & Friends brand) were brought by HiT Entertainment.
This caused the packaging to change yet again. This fourth style is the currently used one, and has managed to bring the total of models to over 100.
However, by this point, all major TV Series characters had been created as ERTL models, and the makers were relying on non-televised Railway Series characters such as Neil, Bear, Catherine the Mountain Coach and Isabel the Auto Coach to help further develop the brand. Most of the new Railway Series related ERTLs appeared toward the end of the run in 2003, alongside characters from Series 6 and 7.
However the newer models would only be released in the UK, as from 2001, the ERTL range had been discontinued in North America, and instead the Thomas Take-Along range was moving in to take its place.
The UK would also see production ceased by 2004, but before this happened, the Miniatures Range was re-released in new style packaging with new models such as Henry and Mavis. The ERTL range also changed the style of coupling that had been employed for nigh on twenty years, from the “hook and eye” style, to a new “U – hook” style, believed to be more sturdier, and last longer.
However, once production had stopped on the ERTL range, and collectors were scrambling to complete their collections, the value of some rarer models shot up. Emily, Jock and Spencer became particularly valuable if they remained in the original packaging, fetching up to £40 and £50 on e-Bay, given the short supply they found themselves in.