Shelton resident's train shows bring vintage hobby to the kids of today

Ludwig Spinelli of Shelton is gearing up for the model train show season.

As the owner of Classic Shows LLC, he puts on four train and toy shows a year, and he must unpack boxes and boxes of train cars, engines and cabooses that he stores in his home.

Some of these railway cars made up a train that ran around his Christmas tree during the holidays.

“This is my hobby,” said Spinelli, who is CEO of Optimus Health Care, based in Bridgeport. “The trains are a nice diversion from the challenges my position presents.”

At the shows, people come to buy, sell, test, and trade model trains, and they’re interested in both new and older versions.

'Put them back together'

Spinelli, who specializes in American Flyer trains, said youngsters who attend the shows find the model trains entertaining.

Some older attendees bring him trains that have rusted or broken through the years. “I get the parts and put them back together,” he said.

Spinelli started doing shows in 1980, and Classic Shows became a “family LLC” in 1995, he said. His wife, Christina, helps with the shows, as do his sons Matt, 36, Geoff, 34, and Justin, 25. “They grew up with trains,” Spinelli said.

“He started [the shows] because of his love for trains,” Christina Spinelli said. “He thought it would be a good way to meet other people interested in trains.”

Classic Shows LLC runs the shows and rents display tables to vendors selling toys, die-cast cars and trucks, artwork, and baseball cards.

A lifetime of trains

Spinelli’s interest in trains started when he was a child growing up in New Haven. “We were in a fertile area for trains,” he said.

His aunts worked at the A.C. Gilbert Co., which produced American Flyer trains and was for decades the second largest employer in New Haven.

The Ives Manufacturing Co. in Bridgeport also manufactured model trains, and Lionel trains were made in Hillside, N.J.

“A lot of people worked in the factories, and there was an emphasis on the local economy,” he said. “I lived one house away from the train tracks. I loved going to New York City by train.”

Spinelli, who collected American Flyer trains, and a friend, the late Mike Martino, who collected Lionel trains, started their train show business in New Haven.

Changes in pastime

Spinelli has seen a shift in focus over the years, as youngsters moved away from playing with model trains, complete with the villages, trees and bridges that made up the miniature landscapes.

“Hobbies changed dramatically,” he said. “Most people who are active model train collectors are in their 40s and 50s.”

Model trains have “taken a back seat to computer technology,” he said. “Trains have been displaced by computer games.

“There are very few hobby shops left in Connecticut,” Spinelli continued. “You don’t see trains in toy stores. Baseball card shops have closed; comic book stores have closed. Fads come and go.”

Technology changes and quality issues

However, there’s a new technology slant, he said, and some more expensive model trains are equipped with internal computers and cameras. The transformers that power the trains are digitally controlled, so their acceleration is more realistic.

“Trains aren’t what they were in the 1940s and 1950s,” Spinelli said. “Every train is manufactured overseas.”

For example, Bachmann Trains is a U.S. company, but the trains are made in Germany, and most other model trains and parts are made in China. “It’s unfortunate,” he said. “It’s taken away a lot of jobs.”

The quality of the trains has suffered, Spinelli said, and plastic has replaced metal and other materials.

Older model trains have whitewall wheels and headlights, and they chug and emit smoke as they travel along the tracks.

Through the generations

Spinelli’s sons have worked at the train shows for most of their lives, helping with security, cooking for food vendors, and selling products.

“It’s been a nice experience,” said Matt Spinelli, who’s passing his father’s love of model trains to his three children.

Rather than “looking down at their cell phones,” the children are learning how to set up the trains and repair them, and they help set up the Christmas tree train each year. “It’s a nice thing to pass on to kids,” Matt Spinelli said.

Classic Shows train and toy shows will take place from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 8, at Zandri’s Stillwood Inn, 1074 South Colony Road, Wallingford, and Sunday, March 15, at the Trumbull Marriott, 180 Hawley Lane, Trumbull. Find out more at