On visiting a swapmeet recently, one of the items noted for sale was a Tri-ang Hornby Giraffe Car set in the original attractively illustrated box. My immediate thought was, ‘this is something everybody should have for their layout’. Anyway, knowing the notorious reputation of this particular item, I hoped that all the parts would be included in the box? On opening it, the presentation of the contents was extremely scruffy and the cardboard box and card insert had the distinctive aroma of dampness about it, so I was not particularly confident. Miraculously though, it seemed, everything was present and correct.
The Giraffe Car was complete with all adornments and the operating mechanism seemed to be in working order and the magnet was still attached. The telltale mast with base and droppers and even the two actuating rails with the two clips for each rail were present. The giraffe even had both of its ears still intact - one in yellow and one in brown. After negotiating a fair discount for good old fashioned cash type the purchase was made.
Now for a bit of background history. The R348 Giraffe Car set was introduced into the Tri-ang Railways catalogue in 1963. Eventually, in the 1966 Tri-ang Hornby catalogue it acquired the slogan 'Watch the way Georgie ducks to save hitting his head on bridges'. The price was 16/6d. The giraffe car is based on the R126 Transcontinental Stock Car but without the opening doors. The really ingenious part about it is the mechanism by which the giraffe's head and neck delicately recedes into the stock car just as an obstruction is detected. On passing the hazard, the head and neck elegantly return to their previous position of observation. No, the giraffe doesn't look out for bridges and tunnels by itself but relies on the assistance of the layout operator placing an actuating rail at the critical location for the giraffe to duck. Being a product of the clever men at Margate, the actuating rail is simply a piece of inverted rail from a Super 4 standard straight track section held by two clips between the running rails. Below the giraffe car is a magnet connected to a system of two balanced levers and a spring which lowers the giraffe's head when the magnet is attracted to the centre rail. Remember that Super 4 track is solid steel rail coated with nickel silver. Crucially, the magnet does not make contact with this centre rail as contact would seriously impair the car's motion, therefore a small air gap is maintained at all times. No independent power supply is required as operation is by the movement of the vehicle.
In 1969, Georgie the giraffe seems to have been taken to the Margate vet (toolroom?) for an operation, as the slogan in this year's catalogue was now changed. and stated 'Watch the way Georgina ducks to save hitting her head on bridges'. Just what modification was made to the giraffe I leave entirely to your fertile imagination. It would appear that the operation was none too successful as neither Georgie nor Georgina were illustrated in the 1970 catalogue. The Giraffe Car set was however listed in the price list at 18/6d. It was also indicated that this item was suitable for Super 4 track only. The Giraffe Car reappeared for a final time in the 1971 catalogue but this time the gender of the incarcerated giraffe was not specified.
Restoring the Giraffe Car set to reliable operation was really quite straightforward. The giraffe operating mechanism was cleaned and lubricated and much rust was removed from the telltale mast top arm to allow the plastic droppers to swing freely. The most serious corrosion was to the two actuator rails, so after carefully removing the plastic clips, the rusty rail sections were replaced by rails from a regular Super 4 single straight track section which had lost its fishplates. In fact, most of the restoration work required was to the box insert, which was seriously damp and had no doubt been the main cause of the corrosion of the actuating rails. The card insert was fitted back together with gum and then laid out in the sun to dry out.
The Giraffe Car set is one of the many wonderful and ingenious accessories made by Tri-ang Railways and Tri-ang Hornby back in the days when model railways or train sets were actually fun. This is an accessory that brings much amusement to paying customers at exhibitions and even provides fun for the layout operators as well. I am sure that if some serious fine scale modellers wished to bring entertainment value to their layouts, an operating Giraffe Car could even be converted to EM or P4. What a thought.