By today’s standards, the streamline Tenshodo passenger cars were imperfect. They are too short, measuring 62 scale feet in length instead of the more correct 85 feet. They had elemental interiors instead of today’s higher level of detail. But, for the time, they fulfilled a portion of the model railroad market and were modestly successful, with thousands being imported into the United States.
In the mid-1950’s, there were few choices available to the H0-Scale model railroader. Companies such as Kasiner, American Beauty, Mantua, Sampson and Herkimer offered kits. Many of these kits were comprised of an extruded aluminum shell with wooden floor and cast metal ends. In the case of early Mantua, the cars were made of wood (roof and floor) with lithographed acetate sides. In any case, a lot of work was necessary to produce a credible model.
One turning point came when Athearn (originally Globe) introduced its injected plastic passenger car kits, both streamlined and heavyweights. These cars were based on both Southern Pacific and Santa Fe prototypes, but had been shortened for better appearance on the typical model railroad curve of that time. Later passenger cars would grow longer as model railroads grew bigger, but there also was a niche for Tenshodo.
Tenshodo’s “Model Section” had been formed immediately after World War II, in 1945. The company began producing model trains in 1949. These trains were manufactured by a number of family based small production facilities. Production was initially oriented toward both the domestic Japanese market and but also with the export market in mind, primarily to North America. Exports raised hard currency which was vital to Japan’s recovery after the War.
In that era, the typical brass model train manufacturer could very easily be described as a “cottage industry”. Most of these companies had facilities on the first floor of a building, with the owner and their family living upstairs. Many had been in the watch making business prior to the War, so they were familiar with precision mechanisms comprised of brass and other cast metals. Tenshodo already knew many of them because of their long standing position in the Japanese watch and jewelry industries. So, switching over to model train production was a fairly simple matter.
In the immediate postwar era, a number of American individuals were in direct contact with Tenshodo to develop the export market. Early pioneers such as Max Gray (Perfection Scale Models), Levon Kemalayan (Kemtron) and William Ryan (Pacific Fast Mail) were all working toward a successful export market.
In the early days, Max Gray was visiting Kemalayan’s office in Fresno, California when he spotted some early Tenshodo prototype passenger cars. Ultimately, much of Tenshodo’s export production would go to Ryan’s PFM, but there also was plenty of model railroad demand in Japan. And enough production capacity to satisfy several American importers. Ryan, who owned a Cadillac automobile dealership in Washington state, devoted considerable effort toward improving Tenshodo’s models and we all have benefitted.
While somewhat of an oddity in our modern era, the Tenshodo passenger cars fit a niche comprised of those who wanted a nice looking passenger car but did not want to devote the considerable effort toward making one from a kit. Early production of these cars began at some point after the Tenshodo Model Section was formed, with the Japanese market being the initial consumers. Tenshodo manufactured a number of train sets for the domestic market that included trains, track and transformer. The earlier sets were of Japanese prototypes, but eventually the “D” sets arrived on the scene (and into Kemalayan’s office).
There was some tentative importation into the North American market in 1955, with a few additional cars in 1956 and 1957. Importation of significant numbers of cars began in 1958. Ryan died in 1964; his son continued operations for about 1 1/2 years further until the company was sold to other owners, who continued PFM’s operations until very recently (early 2000’s). Passenger car importation continued until 1968, with a small quantity imported in 1969. At that point, importing the Tenshodo passenger car product line was discontinued.
The production information, quantities and such have been derived from the book “Pacific Fast Mail - 25 Years of Fine Models”, compiled by Phil and Ruth Kohl, published by Craftsman Press of Seattle in 1979.