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Brilliantly Old Fashioned, The Story of ACE O Gauge Trains, by Allen Levy

(Published by New Cavendish Books in association with ACE Trains, 2005)

Reviewed by Bryant Booth

I blame Allen Levy, the author of the book “Brilliantly Old Fashioned, the Story of ACE O Gauge Trains” for my long term attraction to European ‘O' gauge trains. I have been interested in three-rail, “O” gauge trains for many years but I am particularly interested in European three-rail ‘O' gauge trains, such as Marklin and Hornby. I discovered the brightly colored Hornby trains in the early 80s and started searching for more information on, and sources of, these and other European manufacturers. One of the first places I turned to was the “London Toy and Model Museum ” which, I had read, had an extensive toy train collection. In response to my letter, a Narisa Levy graciously provided the titles of several books that addressed European trains and started me on my research path.

In 1984, during a vacation to London, my wife and I visited the “London Toy and Model Museum” and there I saw my first Hornby Princes Elizabeth, Marklin Crocodile, as well as locomotives from Bassett-Lowke, Fulgurex, etc. I can still recall a large display of models of the famous Flying Scotsman locomotive in a variety of gauges, resplendent in their apple green liveries. In the back of the museum, a gauge 1 Aster live steam locomotive sped around a large elevated garden layout. We must have spent half a day in that small museum. It's unfortunate that it no longer exists.

Later on that trip we wandered into the huge FOYLES Book Store on Charing Cross Road and there I found the wonderful book “A Century of Model Trains” by an Allen Levy. Over the subsequent years I have pored over this book so much that I've had to buy a second copy. Two subsequent books published by a New Cavendish Books fed my appetite for European trains; “The Hornby Gauge O System”, which had to set a standard for comprehensiveness in reviewing a line of toy trains, and the great “The Trains on Avenue De Rumine” with its pages and pages of pictures of tinplate and fine scale models.

For some reason it took me some time to “connect the dots” and realize that Allen Levy, the author of “A Century of Model Trains” was married to Narisa Levy and they were the founders of the London Toy and Model Museum , and that the same Allen Levy established New Cavendish Books which published those great books on toy trains. By this time I was hooked on European trains and I started to pay attention to the name Allen Levy.

So in 1996 when Allen Levy started writing “ACE Notes” in the journal of the Hornby Railway Collectors Association and introduced his new line of “three rail ready-to-run” “O” gauge tinplate trains, I was very interested to observe his success. And he was successful. By 2002 ACE Trains had produced over 10,000 British outline coaches. In the last ten years, ACE Trains has been in the forefront of the resurgence in the popularity of “O” gauge trains in Europe . Their new die cast steam outline locomotives are beautiful.

“Brilliantly Old Fashioned, the Story of ACE O Gauge Trains” describes these last ten years in an entertaining, easy to read manner. The book actually integrates and presents several “stories” or themes together throughout the book. First and foremost Levy explains, in a first person narrative, how ACE Trains came together and how he and his partner/cohort Andries Grawbowski developed the initial products, such as the “Hornbyish” 4-4-4 E/1 tank locomotive series. Their arrangement where ACE Electric Train Company Ltd of London buys and distributes 100% of the trains produced under the ACE name by Adries Grawbowski and his ACE Far East Company in Thailand has proved to be highly successful.

The book provides a fascinating view into today's global economy as Levy describes how and why the production started in Taiwan and migrated from Taiwan to India and then to Thailand with subcontracted parts and services coming from England, Wales, Japan, and Taiwan, while the ACE Trains range expanded to include tank wagons and the recently released and gorgeous A4 and A3 (Flying Scotsman) 4-6-2, die cast locomotives in 1/43.5 scale.

The book is 136 pages in length, but only sixteen pages are what one would call “chaptered narrative”, where Levy chronologically relates the ACE story through four chapters. But the book is profusely illustrated and a substantial amount of the information presented in the book is conveyed in the captions and the illustrations. The reader might sometimes think that he is paging through a large scrapbook of advertisements, engineering notes and drawings, concept sketches, prototype models and mock-ups, memos/memoranda, letters, photos of ACE trains, production tooling, ACE Notes, and pictures of the people employed around the world in the production of ACE trains.

Although the book provides a full listing of all of ACE's products through 2005, it is not a comprehensive photo catalog of ACE trains. Many of the ACE coaches and several of the locomotives are not pictured. This is probably due to the wide variety of paint schemes and lettering that ACE Trains provides. For example, their A4 Pacific (e.g. Mallard) was produced in at least seven colors and with at least thirty different engine names!! Photos of ACE trains on layouts in Germany , railway shows in the UK , the Fortnum & Mason department store in Piccadilly and even Brandywine , Pa. are presented throughout the book.

“Brilliantly Old Fashioned, the Story of ACE O Gauge Trains” is also a condensed autobiography of Allen Levy with some history of British outline three-rail trains from the late 60s to the present thrown in. Starting with his professional career as an accountant, his efforts with Bassett-Lowke, the Museum, and New Cavendish books are all briefly addressed. The reader will also observe his interest in antique autos, sailing, and even learn that his first wife, Narisa Chakrabongse Levy was the Great granddaughter of King Chulelongkorn of Siam . You know him; he was the king in the movie “The King and I”!!

A glimpse into future ACE products is provided. The tinplate sides of freight wagons and brake vans are shown prior to being folded and formed into the wagon and a new series of 0-6-0 tender locomotives, such as a Fowler 4F, and a Great Western Castle class 4-6-0 locomotive are mentioned. A “Warship” class diesel is envisioned. And the book promises the construction of a large three-rail layout in Austria , to be called the Muhlkreis Junction Railway that will be open to visitors. The expected track plan is pictured. One expects that some famous toy trains can be seen in operation when the layout is finally open to the public.

For the train enthusiasts that are more inclined towards Continental models vice British models, there is a fascinating series of pictures from an evidently annual event in Germany called the “Tuttlinger Fahrtagen”, which the author calls “the great annual gathering of all contemporary three-rail personalities and products”. On large, portable, layouts, one can see Marklin Cock O' the North and Elettren Pacific locomotives as well as several here-to-fore, unknown to me, three-rail electric and steam outline locomotives operating in the company of ACE trains. One wishes the author had written a bit more about this event.

“Brilliantly Old Fashioned, the Story of ACE Trains” by Allen Levy (ISBN 1-904562-07-8) can be purchased from for the very low price of $16.50 at the time of this writing. It is a great book and should be of interest to all collectors and operators of three-rail trains. I would think it is a “must have” for anyone interested in European model trains.

ACE A3 LNER Pacific "The Flying Scotsman"

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