In 1966 the man who invented OO Live Steam, Richard Hallam had an idea and began work on a new modelling concept.
The idea was to bridge the gap between miniature live steam and scenic model railways and over the following 25 years he developed a complex system to run and remotely operate an OO gauge locomotive with the power and precision of 12v models.
It drew electric power from the track to heat the water and also to then superheat the steam. The superheated steam is fed through a rotary valve to two double acting cylinders and powers the two pistons which drive the connecting rods and turn the wheels, just like a full size locomotive.
The prototype locomotive chosen was a Princess Coronation class named “City of Nottingham”.
In the late 70s David Taylor established Steamcraft and made simpler gas fired models for sale. Each one was hand-built, initially replacing the electrics in Japanese 12v brass models with a single oscillating cylinder powering a gear train to turn the wheels. The rods were cosmetic. Most were controlled by the heat of the flame so had to be forcibly stopped to make any speed adjustment, but some were radio controlled.
Eventually, with YTS recruits (the then Government scheme to get young people into jobs) David set up a production line using cast brass bodies.
Steamcraft sold 180 A4 Mallards and a smaller number of several other models using this method of construction. The retail price was £240 in 1981 for a ready-to-run unpainted model.
Brian Caton, better known for 009 live steamers also hand-built some ready-to-run OO gauge locos. Fully finished to a magnificent standard they cost well into 4 figures.
Richard Hallam continued to refine his system and by 1990 he had developed it to a level he considered suitable for commercial production and a patent application was filed.
In 1997 he produced a promotional video and began circulating it to manufacturers. BRM (British Railway Modeling) magazine requested an article but it was to be a further three years before it was actually published.
In 1999 work began on the “Black Five” to see if the mechanism could be fitted into a smaller body.
In 2000 the BRM article was finally published, Hornby were contacted, and after viewing OO Live Steam on Richard's scenic layout expressed the view that "everybody will want one of these!" Hornby then declared their interest in writing and the “Black Five” was completed and dispatched to Hornby’s producers in China for assessment and development for manufacture.
Eureka! (a magazine for Design Engineers) published an article on the subject and items appeared on local BBC and ITV news networks
In 2001 the prototype "City of Nottingham" was re-bodied and re-named as "City of Carlisle" in BR Maroon.
In 2002 negotiations resulted in Richard licensing his system to Hornby for 10 years. The Chinese manufacturer produced some initial prototypes and Richard was given a sample to re-engineer in order to produce comparable performance with the original. He also went with Hornby to China to finalise details with the Chinese development team, culminating in a short production run of 30 examples for evaluation followed by a production run of 30 examples.
Development proceeded in great secrecy and then in September 2003, at the Goodwood Revival Meeting hosted by Pete Waterman, Hornby launched the OO Live Steam Mallard set for £525 to great acclaim and the race was on to get stocks in the shops for Christmas. Four other A4 models followed, then two A3 models at £325 including Flying Scotsman, the latter also produced as a set for £520. A Flying Scotsman Double Tender was added in 2008 marketed as a numbered special edition. The A3s had revised front end mechanics to suit the conventional boiler shape.
Sales boomed at first but within a year fell rapidly as the models got a reputation for unreliability and being difficult to control.
This was an undeserved reputation, not helped by what (with hindsight) has been identified as errors, omissions and incorrect advice in the original instruction book and the accompanying DVD.
A4 production ended barely a year after it started and most A3s were built in 2005/2006. The A3 line was restarted in 2008 for the limited run of 1000 of the double tender Flying Scotsman but despite a significant drop in retail price to £225 for individual locos and massive discounting by dealers it took until 2011 to sell out.
During the 2008 financial crisis the venture became commercially unsustainable for both Hornby and the Chinese manufacturer who closed down in the same year. However, almost 14,000 were built, over 8000 of them sets and today most appear to lie dormant. The product line was discontinued in 2011 as the manufacturing licence expired, just as the OO Live Steam Club was being formed.
Since then Hornby has maintained a superb after-sales service but their recent corporate troubles seem to have impacted on this. Fortunately the OO Live Steam Club (now with over 500 members) should be able to support owners to ensure that they can continue to maintain and run their locos for many years to come and one of the club aims remains to see the product line brought back into production. Any opportunities will be explored.