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Right on track

John Seelmeyer

Not long ago, a tiny model rail car created by John Claudino of Carson City a model that sold for $26.50 new drew a bid of $188 at auction.

It’s not unusual for collectors to quickly bid up the prices for the model rail cars produced by Claudino at his Aztec Manufacturing Co., and the cars decorated in the colors and logos of the nation’s microbreweries have become a nice little niche business for Aztec Manufacturing.

Not that Aztec’s primary business is much of anything but a tiny niche to begin with.

Aztec, a one-man operation, advertises that it produces the “World’s Finest Track Cleaner.” Model railroaders, Claudino explained the other day,must keep the tracks clean in their layouts to ensure good running.

By hand, it’s a time-consuming and mind-numbing job.

Aztec Manufacturing, however, produces tiny model railcars that house a cleaning mechanism either a roller made from a rubber abrasive or a scrubbing head made from canvas that’s wetted with a cleaning fluid.

Model railroad hobbyists pay anywhere from $60 to about $150 each for one of the 25 models of track cleaner made by Aztec, and Claudino is so busy that he’s often running two machines in his shop simultaneously to keep up with demand.

And he’s doing it by himself.

Claudino had been running a Bay Area machine shop, handling lots of prototype work for high-tech companies, when he and his wife, Karen, decided in the mid-1970s that they wanted a better quality of life.

They settled on Carson City.

Claudino, who’d been making model railroad gear to fill in slack times at his Bay Area machine shop, decided to devote fulltime to the specialty.

And he decided he’d had enough of being a boss.

So these days, he watches over the largely automated machine operation.He runs to grab the phone when a customer phones an order.

He watches the company’s Web site for more orders.

A half dozen times a year, he loads up the car for model railroad shows from the Pacific to Milwaukee, often driving long hours straight through and leaving his booth only long enough to grab a hot dog.

“When I’m not here, the machines aren’t running,” Claudino explained.

He won’t sell through distributors.

The margins are too small, and there’s a worrisome possibility that sales would grow to the point that Aztec Manufacturing would need to hire another employee.

While the track cleaners account for more than 70 percent of the sales of Aztec, the company has gained fame in the model railroading community for the careful detail on its line of painted railcars.

Starting with cars decorated with the logos of Hershey and Clark candy bars, Claudino and his wife a graphic artist decided to move into cars decorated with the colors and logos of microbrews.

The cars are about the size of a man’s index finger.

Some of the printing is readable even though it’s about 0.01 of an inch high.

One tiny car was printed with a 3-D image, and Claudino shipped a pair of plastic glasses with each car.

“Why do I do a 3-D image on a 3-D object? Because I can,” Claudino laughed.”But I got a lot of press with it.When you’re a little guy like me, you’ve got to get a lot of press.”

He further stimulates demand by carefully limiting the number of painted rail cars he produces.

Each production run totals 200 or 250; the company introduces about four cars with the colors of brewers ranging from Goose Island Brewery to Fat Weasel Porter.

And the payoff comes in many ways.

Asked what it would cost to produce a model railcar for the Napa Valley Wine Train, Claudino flippantly responded,”A ride in the locomotive.” The Wine Train got its car.

And Claudino these days gets to ride up front whenever he wants.