Wednesday 25 April 2018

Treasures: Go loco for live steam

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column

Brass beauty: A highly coveted Birmingham Dribbler
Brass beauty: A highly coveted Birmingham Dribbler
1934 Ford Model Y

Eleanor Flegg

If you were a very lucky child, and lived in Victorian England, someone might have given you a Birmingham Dribbler.

This was an incredibly exciting toy. Birmingham Dribblers were spirit-fired steam locomotives. They were a type of handmade toy, rather than a brand. Most were made in Birmingham, the heartland of steam manufacture, usually of brass and around 17 inches long. They ran across the floor, rather than on rails, and were also known as carpet engines.

To get a Birmingham Dribbler on the move, the young engineer would fill the brass boiler with water. Beneath it was a container of methylated spirit. Once ignited, this would heat the water. When the water came to the boil, it circulated through a pair of oscillating cylinders that turned the wheels. Then off it went!

Birmingham Dribblers (or Piddlers) left a trail of water on the floor behind them, which is how they got their name. Later models were fitted with safety valves, following the explosion of the earlier ones. They also had a piercing whistle, now much coveted among collectors. When the Dribbler got up steam, the whistle and safety valve became extremely hot. Some later models had angled wheels, so that the Dribbler ran in a circle, but the earlier versions had no steering. A runaway Dribbler, according to the Brighton Toy Museum, "with fuel and a naked flame, hitting a wall at an angle and tipping over out of reach of the owner, would be a good way to start a house fire."

A 19th-century Birmingham Dribbler is a coveted collector's item, astronomically expensive and extremely rare. Over the years they've been so enthusiastically reproduced that genuine antiques can be hard to identify. In the 1970s, they were reproduced as self-assembly kits by Maxwell Hemmens Precision Steam Models of Selby in Yorkshire. These are also collectible, especially with the original packaging and instructions, and can sell for around €300.

"Thrill to the hiss and puff of steam, the flash of moving pistons and the smooth rhythm of the revolving flywheel." This comes from a 1950s advertisement for a model steam engine, made by Mamod in Birmingham. The engine came from a time when burnt fingers were considered a salutary lesson. It was marketed as a child's toy as "absolutely safe." Safe, in the context of live-steam engines, is a relative term! Now, notions of the risks that children should be exposed to have changed, but the magic of steam hasn't gone away.

"I can't keep up with it!" says Alex Chamberlain of Vinyl Republic in Kilcrohane, Co Cork. He's just back from the Innishannon Steam and Vintage Rally, a celebration of steam-powered machinery of all shapes and sizes. With so many steam enthusiasts in one place, it was difficult to keep up with the demand for vintage live-steam models. "The vintage toys are a part of the whole scene," he says. "They're a good outlet for a person who can't afford €50,000 for a full scale traction engine."

Many of early model steam engines were stationary (rather than locomotive). The German company Bing produced a steam engine that powered Meccano before the First World War, after which Meccano made their own. Mamod also made engines that worked with Meccano. "Mamod fits your Meccano - own one and be proud of it" proclaimed a 1938 ad.

The most expensive steam engines from Vinyl Republic were made in England by Stuart Turner in the early 1900s and can sell for between €400 and €900. Those made by Mamod (from the 1930s) and by Wilesco in Germany (from 1950) are much more affordable. Both these companies are still going, so spare parts are easy to come by. Vintage stationary engines sell for between €60 and €120.

In 1958, Mamod introduced the ME1 and ME2 marine engine, designed to power a model boat. The ME2 must have been a slow seller. It was in 1965 after a production run of around 1,500 units. It's now a very rare engine, especially in its original box, with prices ranging from €300 to €400.

Traction engines, which run along the floor, are a far more exciting prospect. The Mamod TE1 and TE1a models from the 1960s are considered classics. "There's very little to go wrong on them and the older they are the better they were made," says Chamberlain, who describes live steam models as "the ultimate boys' toy." Most (but not all) of his customers are male. "About half the people who buy live steam models actually use them," he says. "The other half just keep them for show, but personally I'd rather see a model work than just sit in the box." For safety reasons these now run on fuel pellets rather than methylated spirit, which burns with a dangerously invisible flame.

Find Vinyl Republic above the post office in Kilcrohane or on Facebook. See also

In the salerooms

City auction rooms

1934 Ford Model Y

"I will build a car for the great multitude," said Henry Ford. "It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for." The Ford Model T was the realisation of his dream - a simple, sturdy car that was "so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one." A 1920 Ford Model T (est. €12,000 to €16,000) is among a collection of vintage vehicles to be auctioned by RJ Keighery tomorrow, July 8, at 12 noon.

The auction will take place in the Boland Garage in Newrath, Co Kilkenny. Other vintage Fords in the sale include a 1933 Ford Model B (est. €10,000 to €15,000); a 1934 Ford Model Y with spoke wheels (est. €5,000 to €8,000, pictured above); and a blue 1959 Ford Zephyr with many accessories (est. €10,000 to €15,000). The sale also includes a 1952 Triumph Mayflower, a small, stylish luxury car (est. €4,000 to €6,000). All the vehicles came from a single collection, which ranges from a 1982 Puch Moped and a 1962 Puch motorbike to a number of vintage tractors: a Fordson Model F (est. €5,000 to €8,000); a Ford model 8N with beige and red paintwork (est. €3000 to €5000); and a Ford 4000, recently restored (est. €4000 to €5,000). Viewing continues today in the Boland Garage, Newrath, 11am-4 pm with full details on


If you're in the market for affordable artwork by artists that you may have heard of, there's much on offer at Whyte's Summer Art Auction which takes place at Buswell's Hotel, Molesworth Street, Dublin, on 17 July at 6pm. Although the dreamy poster-piece for the sale, John Skelton's White Pony, Summer, Co Meath (1981) is estimated to sell between €2,000 and €3,000, the vast majority of works in the auction carry estimates of between €100 and €1,000. Fans of the prolific Markey Robinson will not be disappointed as the sale includes 26 works by this artist including some unusual unframed acrylics based on the icons of the Orthodox Church (est. €150-€300). See

Antique & Vintage Fairs

There will be an AVA Antique & Collectors Fair on Sunday 16 July at Downpatrick Cricket Club, Co Down. Expect the usual arrange of antique and vintage art, jewellery, silver, clocks, glass, porcelain, lamps, posters and prints, books and other curiosities. The fair runs from 11am-6pm and entry costs £2. There will be no admission fee at Hibernian Antique Fairs' next event, The Kilkenny Fair, which runs in The Newpark Hotel, Kilkenny on Sunday July 23. "This is the 27th year that we've run this fair," says Robin O'Donnell. "We're waiving the entry fee to thank our loyal Kilkenny and Carlow customers." The fair will run from 11am-6pm with at least thirty stands. It will be followed by a fair in Acton's Hotel, Kinsale, Co Cork, on Sunday July 30.

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