Thursday, February 21, 2008

Kato's Iconic Models

Kato approaches the American market differently than most other manufacturers, and the "typical" American modeler.

Most American modelers center their interests around a specific railroad in a specific era: The Pennsylvania during World War II, Conrail in December of 1985, the Santa Fe in the Transition era, or even a freelanced road in the 1970s. Most manufactures marketing plans (mainly product choice and promotional materials) mirror this approach by providing a variety of models that span a variety of eras that can be used by the largest number of modelers with the widest variety of interests. Kato, however, does not seem to do this. Instead, their marketing plan stems from a different mindset. Instead of simply producing workaday trains, like the perceived "normal" modeler wants, Kato goes after iconic American trains to sell in Japan, and also in America if possible.

I believe this is because Kato's main market is not the typical American modeler. Instead, they aim primarily for their home market of Japan. It has been mentioned by a number of (off the record) sources that Kato USA is not an easy company to work for. It is a traditional Japanese company operating in America, and input attempts by the Americans working there to align their marketing with typical American tastes and approaches often falls on dead ears.

This is not an attempt to discredit their models in any way, in fact, most of Kato's products are incredible modelers. The angst that often gets leveled at them has nothing to do with the models they do produce (well, except for the mis-spelled California Zephyr car), instead, it springs from modelers desire for Kato to make models that they would be interested in. This creates a cognitive disconnect, where people don't understand why this highly esteemed company doesn't seem to "get it". Instead, they do "get it", it's just that the "it" that they get is a different it than modelers expect.

As I have said, Kato aims to build models of iconic American trains. When viewing their model selection from that angle the following model choices make complete sense.

The SD80mac

There were only 30 SD80macs produced, and at the time that Kato first made the models (2001), they only wore a total of 3 paint schemes (5 if you count Conrail paint with NS or CSX patches) for 3 railroads. If Kato based its choices on the number of North American modelers who would have interest in a model, the SD80mac (and this hurts to say because I bleed Conrail Blue...) would not have been a smart choice.


The Conrail SD80mac has a big story to it. It (and the its 90MAC bretheren) were the biggest and baddest engines around. They were the diesel equivalent of the UP Big Boys. They were also the engine that were emblematic of Conrail's ascent from a government supported wreck to highly prized takeover target.

Kato's own marketing copy supports this with phrases like "The SD80MAC is one of today's most powerful locomotives, seen throughout North America on Class I mainline railroads.", "Weighing in at more than 400,000 pounds and with a length in excess of 80 feet, the SD80MAC is one of the heaviest and longest single diesel locomotive in the world.", and "The behemoth SD80MAC can generate up to 5,000 horsepower." further illustrates this.

These models were not one of Kato's most stellar selling models, and a number of them were, up until recently, if not currently, still available from Kato. This is also evident in the small number of re-runs that they have done, only offering one more run of these after the initial one, and that of the remaining paint schemes that they wore. Since that time one more scheme can be added to the list, but I would be very surprised to see these being made again any time soon.

The Zephyrettes

The Budd RDC falls squarely into Kato Japan's core competencies. They make a large number of RDC like Japanese trains. It is very logical therefore for them to make the North American equivalent. What seems to puzzle many North American modelers was their roadname choice. In this case, Kato went for flashy paintschemes or big stories, like the Western Pacific's "Zephyrettes", or the rugged appeal of the Alaskan Wilderness. This is the only way to make any sense out of their choice to make them in Northern Pacific (who had fewer than 10 RDCs), but not in Boston & Maine (the proud owner of nearly 100 of them).

As a result of their tendency to make models of standout prototypes, many modelers claim that Kato has a strong bias toward western roadnames. I think that while they may seem to make a disproportionate number of models for western roadnames, it is not that they favor these individual roads, but that these roads simply have more "drama" that can easily be sold in their home market of Japan.

The California Zephyr

The California Zephyr set was Kato's first real attempt to bring the approach that they bring to Japanese models to an American one. Most every dealer that I have talked to labels these, without a doubt, a real commercial success. Instead of only marketing individual models, with the CZ, Kato offered a model of a "train". They produced the cars and packaged them in a way that sold their iconic status, and touted the story and drama that made the real CZ interesting. They then also produced the assorted locomotives that pulled the train. With these locomotives, they didn't aim for the widest cross section of modelers, instead, they aimed for the ones with the best story to be told.
Although Santa Fe's red and silver "Warbonnet" may be the most recognized PA, there were many other notable paint schemes. Delaware & Hudson purchased four second-hand PA locomotives from Santa Fe, simply replacing their blue for Santa Fe's red. Two have recently been repatriated from Mexico and are undergoing restoration."

The Coalporters

Kato initially waded into the American freight car market with ACF covered hoppers. These cars were not found to be a commercial success, so for their second foray into this crowded marketplace, Kato came out with something that initially puzzled many modelers: the Bethgon Coalporter. Why would Kato come out with a model that had three other competitors? Deluxe Innovations, LBF and Athearn were all either making or planning on making these models. None of them were truly perfect models, but they were all good enough to make many modelers very happy.

Kato, however, saw a chance to package these cars (in peoples minds) with a number of existing and upcoming locomotives. These cars are iconic in the modern era, with strings of them being used from coast to coast. They tied in perfectly with Kato's existing AC4400s, SD70s, SD80 and 90macs, and planned (at the time) modern era (because of their ditchlights) SD40-2s. Kato was able to market these cars by selling the idea of "hauling the precious black diamonds which drive the majority of North America's heating and power services" (taken from Kato's CoalPorter mini-site) instead of just "these are coal cars".

Given the number of times that Kato has "gone back to the well" with these cars, they must be seen as a financial success, and as more evidence that their marketing plan works.

The Maxi Stacks

Kato followed up their successful foray into modern freight car production with another iconic model: The Gunderson Maxi-IV Well Cars. These cars are an integral part of modern railroading, enabling, in conjunction with coal traffic, railroads to reach new levels of efficiency and profitability. Combine this prototype importance with the imagery of modern day big time railroading, and you find an easy package to sell.

So what does this mean?

Kato seems to get a bad rap with a lot of modelers for seeming to only be making western models. While this is an over reaching generalization, the truth is that the models that Kato ends up producing are not geographically biased, but are biased toward models for which a story can be told or have some flash. It just so happens that these tend to be models of western prototypes.

It's interesting to note that when I had started writing this post about 6 months ago, in this very space I predicted a PRR Broadway Limited set being made. It turns out now that this is the case, but I'm leaving the post as it was below.

I would not be surprised to someday see a model of the Pennsylvania Railroad's Broadway Limited, but if it appears, I would also not be surprised if a follow on model of the New York Central's 20th Century Limited was also produced, because their races between New York City and Chicago could prove to be a good story to tell. I could also see models of a New York to Florida passenger train, like the Champion, being made. However, I would be very surprised to see a model of something like Pennyslvania's other passenger trains, like the Liberty Limited that linked Baltimore and Buffalo, or even the Congressional which linked Washington DC and New York.

When you view Kato's releases in this light, a lot of their seemingly strange behavior becomes completely logical (like Algoma Central SD40s). What this understanding may still never be able to help, however, is many modeler's disappointment when their beloved prototypes don't seem to be iconic trains in Kato's view.

One other thought

Then again, the other explanation for Kato's perceived western road bias could simply be that they have reviewed their sales numbers, and find that ATSF, BNSF, UP and CB&Q consistently sell out, while models like their Southern E8s collect dust on their warehouse shelves.

Image credits

Conrail Cadillacs: The SD80MAC -
Kato USA: