PECORAMA – home to the Beer Heights Light Railway – attracts thousands of visitors every year, but many won’t realise that the manufacturing business PECO, always busy behind the scenes, is really where it all began.
PECO began trading in 1946 when many young men were looking to start a new career in the difficult days of post-war Britain. Among them was Sydney Pritchard, whose innovative thinking and life-long passion for model trains set his new company on the right track.
It all started when Sydney was inspired to create a new design for an impractical coupling device for the new Hornby OO railway system. After trying several prototypes, he found a solution and arranged for a patent.
Meccano of Liverpool agreed to use the coupling device for its OO model railway locomotives, offering a royalty of a farthing for each unit sold, which was enough to get the Pritchard Patent Product Company off the ground, later being nick- named the P. Co and eventually PECO, as it is known today – 72 years later, just two years older than the NHS.
With a particular interest in train track, inspired by a childhood spent studying the railway lines surrounding his home in London, Sydney got to work creating a variety of new products and building up relationships with traders.
Today, PECO has developed more than 1,000 products and proudly considers itself to be the world’s leading manufacturer of track, offering its range in about 400 model railway shops across the country and exporting to 34 countries. Perhaps not quite what you’d expect to find set high on the hill above the quiet East Devon village of Beer.
It was actually in Seaton where the business was first based but, with restricted space at PECO headquarters, the company took on its current site in Beer to construct a purpose-built factory, opened over Easter 1971, and in 1973 the offices followed suit.
The new offices were designed to incorporate an exhibition of model railways, to inspire enthusiasts to pursue their hobby at home no matter what space they had available. It was hugely popular and it soon became apparent that PECO could also make a name for itself in the tourist industry.
A year later, Pecorama was born, with the 71/4″ gauge Beer Heights Light Railway opened by the Reverend Wilbert Awdry, creator of Thomas the Tank Engine.
Having started as a short line, the track now runs a mile around the Pecorama grounds – which also include gardens, play areas, mini golf, an outdoor stage, restaurants – and, of course, still commands the same stunning views across Lyme Bay.
It was during the exciting times of the early 1970s that Sydney’s son Michael joined the company, and so started a family dynasty which has continued to this day.
Michael moved up the ranks, eventually taking over as managing director and then took a step back to become chairman of the company. His nephew Ben Arnold has now taken over, moving the business into the next generation, while still retaining its charm and the values first instilled by Sydney in the 1940s.
Taking after his grandfather, Ben has always had an interest in engineering and joined PECO in 2003 having studied automotive engineering. He learnt the production process and worked in the design office, eventually becoming manager of the engineering department, production manager, engineering director and, finally, managing director.
Ben says that being able to see PECO’s products through the entire production process, rather than just playing a small part, is what he enjoys most about the job, adding: “Even if it was not the family business, it’s the kind of place I would want to work at.”
It seems his sentiments are shared by many, with staff at PECO often remaining loyal to the company for many years, some for their entire careers.
“Always different, always the same” – that’s how they describe PECO, a traditional, family- run company but one that’s always looking to the future.