Dad's Freight Train - 1957 to 1960
Around the time I was born my dad built a small layout and some freight cars from the mostly metal kits available at the time. I grew up with these cars as "dad's cars", and there was never much doubt because all of mine were plastic. The world changed very quickly and what was available after that was mainly the Mantua/Tyco and newer Athearn stuff. I have at least some remains of most of my dad's freight cars, a few are somewhat intact but most are just junkbox fodder now. A few of the cars were never operational in my memory. I've been bidding on ebay lately for examples of dad's cars in good solid condition. Actually aiming for built cars more so than unbuilt kits. I don't want them necessarily in mint condition, which is about impossible anyway.
As of today 2/12/12, I have six cars that I've acquired and have up and running. I toyed with the idea of using Mantua couplers - and some of the vintage cars come with them installed, but TBQH I could never stand the things. Ditto horn hook couplers. Dad's cars had a mix of the two, but were the first to get converted to Kadees around 1963-64 once he discovered them. So vintage can include Kadees - and I do want a train I can run at some point.
Hopefully I will be able to conclude this little binge into the past fairly quickly and get the basic cars done. In addition to the 6 cars you see here, I need to build an Ulrich N&W rib side hopper, acquire and build an Ulrich Erie offset-side hopper, get at least one Athearn metal red "Roller Freight" box car to run better than trash, acquire an Athearn metal Southern 50' flat car, acquire an MDC metal PRR caboose, acquire an Athearn metal "Mobilgas" tank car, and an MDC metal C&O gondola.
Until I started scanning ancient slides, I had no idea this picture existed. This is probably Christmas of 1957, when I was only a few weeks old at my parents' rented house in Indianapolis. We moved to Cincinnati just a month or so later. The Christmas layout was a 4x6 board propped up on cinderblocks, and the tree sat on top of that. Visible in this photo on the forward track: Mantua B&O Pacific, Athearn Monon double-door box car, and two John English/Hobbyline metal passenger cars. Behind the passenger cars you can see the top of the International Niagara with its mismatched UP Big Boy tender. Behind that you can see the top of a Mantua Shifter sticking up and it appears to be pulling a freight train. The first car is hidden but the second is the Great Northern box car - confirming the door was painted black - followed by the Athearn UTLX black 3-dome tank car, then the "other yellow box car", the Katy, and the MDC Pennsy caboose.
My mom was from Monon territory, so no doubt this Athearn double door box car was for her. I found this one in nearly identical condition to dad's original one, as of the time it last operated in the early 1960s. The Athearn box cars of this era, which overlapped their early plastic production, had tinplate sides, ends, roofs, and structural blocks inside with a wooden floor. It has Lindberg trucks, which I am not thrilled with as they seem a little new, but I don't have enough vintage Athearn trucks to cover them all, yet. It had Mantua couplers which were easily replaced with modern Kadee #5s.
I had almost forgotten this car, until I stumbled across this example on ebay. One of three gondolas, this MDC Roundhouse N&W low side car was a big pain in the ass. The trucks fell off, the sides fell off, the ends fell off. This one (which cost me 25 bucks PLUS shipping!!) didn't disappoint, it fell apart as I took it out of the box. But I have one weapon in my arsenal that dad didn't have: super glue!! A little Cyanopoxy dots here and there, some new truck screws, some Kadee #4 couplers to give it that bounce, and it's runnable if a little lopsided. I'm not trying for perfection, just to duplicate dad's train and I'd be willing to bet my low-side runs better than his ever did.
Another car that, at my earliest memory was already consigned to the junk box. Athearn metal-bodied tank car made mostly of tinplate. At some point my brother and I needed an "exploded" tank car for a wreck scene, and bashed the black 3-dome with a blunt instrument. I still have the remains, but consider this my amends - it's nice and rusty just like our old one, but came completely intact, with horn-hook couplers. All I had to do was pry off the coupler cover and remove the elaborate coupler springing system, stuff a Kadee #5 in there, and use a dot of super glue to hold the cover back on. Height even works out. This car also has spring-loaded truck mounting screws which may or may not be trouble.
Of the entire original set of cars, the GN box car remains in the best shape of the bunch. Our GN car was boringly reliable, not unlike the Mantua Pacific. It was one of the first cars designated as a "conversher", originally from Mantua to horn hook, and then later from horn-hook to Kadee. It saw a lot of service and it's still more or less intact but missing its doors. This one came pretty much like you see it, but had Mantua couplers and about .050" worth of truck spacers to make it pass for a Lionel. I just ground off the remaining coupler pads until I got a decent height, glued on some KD #5s in new boxes, and put the trucks back on with Kadee red washers and the height comes out about right. These MDC Roundhouse box cars are solid die cast metal. Sides are in two pieces, the ends, roof and floor are separate. It's a bit tricky to put it all together with screws so that every locating tab is in the right place. Also nice to have the doors moveable, but not so loose they fall out.
Dad's Katy yellow box car would still be intact if I hadn't disassembled it some years ago and stripped it to be restored. In the mean time, I picked up a brand new unbuilt kit and decided to pretend it was 1957 and build the thing up. Well the first thing I found out is, you have to prime pot metal. Second thing is, Floquil reefer yellow isn't a good match for MDC 410-M yellow, but Floquil reefer yellow isn't a good match for Floquil reefer yellow anymore either. Anyway, a lot of flash to clean up. Trucks are what came with the kit. I installed Kadee #4 couplers and stacked two red washers on each truck to get the height to work out. This box car is identical to the GN, other than the paint scheme and the alterations performed by the previous owner on the GN's coupler mounts.

Interesting story of my persistence... when I was about 3-4, I had this clear memory of their having been another yellow box car - one that was solid yellow, not black and yellow. Mom said you're mistaken, there's only that one (the GN). My dad was a little less deceptive and mumbled something about it needed to be fixed.

Anyway, one day I decided to go on a quest to find "The Other Yellow Box Car", the one mom claimed didn't exist. In the basement there were some wooden shelves built into the staircase and lots of nondescript boxes, plain unmarked things. I just picked one out - on the top shelf. I climbed up the shelves like a ladder, hauled myself up and peered down into the box on the top shelf and there it was. In the first place I looked. I remember deciding right then and there to always trust my nose for finding things, and never buy into parental BS trying to derail my quest... LOL.

Anyway, there was nothing at all wrong with The Other Yellow box car, and it joined the fleet. I still have it, in pieces, but decided to build a new one from a kit I bought at a show long ago.

I've always been a sucker for drop bottom gondolas, and this transcends all eras and even scales (yep, I have a PBL Sn3 drop bottom gondola awaiting a whim to build it). And it all started with dad's Ulrich M&STL green GS style gondola. It was hands down the most detailed of these 1950s freight cars - all of the hatches work! Even the new Red Caboose plastic versions don't have that feature, nor do my Challenger brass ones! Anyway, I spotted this on ebay and grabbed it, good thing because I found parts of dad's original and they've pretty much succumbed to zamac rot. This car arrived in the best condition of the bunch, the weirdness being it had old style, non-magnetic Kadees on it and the boxes had been modified. I did a few tweaks and managed to fit #5s into the existing boxes, and everything set right up.
Finished this one 2/20/12. This is a slightly newer issue - probably early 70s, of the Ulrich rib side 2-bay hopper. Has plastic wheels anyway but the basic kit is identical to the original 1950s version right down to the flash-laden sides and ill fitting tinplate slope sheets. Like the MDC box cars, only the sides came painted and lettered - right over the flash - so the ends and underframe had to be cleaned up and ultimately painted. I wound up just sticking some tape over the side lettering and shooting the whole car with some Floquil engine black from a spray can, and it's a dead match. I found a little Chinese fortune cookie piece of paper inside the kit declaring it had been painted with Floquil engine black. At leat that's one Floquil color that still matches its original shade - the rest of them sure don't. Anyway, a lot of sanding and globs of Cyanopoxy held this thing together decently enough. I was able to install #4 couplers after sanding down the center pin a bit to give them some motion, and the height is close enough using the original plastic bushings and mounting screws. I'm patting myself on the back though for my decision to try and find these cars already built - assuming in decent condition and well done - rather than taking on building every one myself. It's interesting to tackle these old blacksmith kits, but if I had to build all of them, they'd never get done. Stay tuned as I add more cars, and maybe even a period locomotive.
This Mobilgas tank car is one of the nicest vintage examples I've come across yet. The tinplate is still bright and shiny with virtually no rust or pitting. The diecast frame is intact and not crumbling. I had to pay probably 10x what dad paid for his to get this one, but it's worth it. All I did was replace the Mantua couplers with Kadee #4, touch up the black paint in a few places where it had been chipped, and oil the journals. This is an Athearn kit that I bought on ebay already built - after losing out on two earlier attempts.
I ended up buying a total of three of these Roller Freight cars. I guess I now remember why the original was such a junkbox queen. Athearn must have changed their chassis over time, but the RF car is basically set up to have the wheels scrape the crossmembers unless you put a fairly thick washer on the bolster. The first RF car the bolsters were just too messed up and no matter what I did the car listed badly to one side. Deja vu there. I bought two more in another ebay auction, both better cosmetically. One of them had an Athearn blue-box era plastic underframe! I don't know if Menzies made them this way in the 70s or if someone did this on purpose. Big improvement in rolling quality but... not vintage. So I tweaked the other one an swapped trucks from some other Athearn metal box cars until I got it working. We'll see how it performs, but based on past experience this car should be called the "Sparkler Sled", not "Roller" anything.
Another car I almost forgot. I remember the brown MDC metal stock car, and how it rumbled around and also how it kinda tilted and listed... and I think I remember watching it teeter off the far side of the layout and hearing it crash to the floor, and I remembered seeing the bits and pieces of it in the junkbox. I don't know for sure if it was a Santa Fe car, but this one came along and seemed in pretty good shape. It had ultra bizarro trucks on it, so more swapping to get them reasonable. I really want to keep this train vintage but the condition of some of these old trucks makes me want to reach for the Kadee #500s. Not yet. Only a few more to go.
The C&O gondola is an MDC die cast car. I actually found another one I bought probably 30 years ago, and it has a rounded end. Apparently they made the C&O car in both variants but I didn't check the numbers to see if they are the same. This car came from ebay intact, and unlike the slim low-side gon, it holds together just fine. About all I did was blow the dust off of it, add Kadee #4 couplers, and oil the journals.
Dad's Southern flatcar is actually in pretty good shape in the junk box. No trucks or couplers, but I could probably get it on the rails if I wanted to. But this project is about replicating the train, not restoring it - I want to keep the originals as they are - and yes, I will put pictures of them up soon too! I bid and lost several times and finally had to buy a 3-pack to get this car. Two of the Southern flat cars plus a Rivarossi plastic car I may re-bay. One of the flats was missing its wood deck, the other was missing the stake pockets. The stake pockets are a metal strip insert that goes behind the car side. It was easier to just chisel the wood deck off the one car - it had been glued with some kind of black tarry substance, and clean it up. It was also painted tuscan for some reason so I sanded most of the paint off, as far as I could go without completely obliterating the scribing in the wood. A little truck tweaking and some #4 couplers and it's good to go.
I got this rectangular side ore car as an unbuilt kit. The paint was difficult to match - originally it was painted with MDC 410M tuscan. 410M was a solvent based paint that had a smell that gave me an instant headache and made my eyeballs hurt. It seemed to be acetone based. At any rate, paint mismatch is part of the charm of these old kits - I have yet to see a single MDC built car where the builder successfully match the color on the unpainted parts to the pre-lettered sides. I ended up using Floquil roof brown out of a spraycan, which the flash reveals isn't even close, but in normal light it's not so bad. It took 3 hours just to clean the flash up. I know now why dad's ore cars were in the junk box most of the time - this things are a pain. The only good thing about them is they weigh as much as a normal size freight car, so I don't expect any operating grief from them. Oh yeah, when I masked the sides to spray the rest of the body, the tape pulled half the paint off on one side - it fortunately was primed in black, so it's not bare metal. I photographed the "good" side. More vintage charm.
I bought this MDC Great Northern slope-side ore car already built and pretty much as you see it, sans couplers. I wound up dropping some Kadee #148 couplers into the boxes and securing them with a washer and a small screw. Amazingly they work. If I knew back then what I know now, fewer of dad's old cars would have been in the junk box all the time. Then again, if I'd had *good* thick metal-effective super glue back then, all kinds of things would have been possible. I know Eastman 910 was invented in the 50s, but I'm talking about CA that works on metal for more than a couple seconds.
The last revenue car arrived today 3/10/12 while we were at the WGH show. It came pretty much as you see it, I didn't even have to tweak the couplers. It also came with a homemade coal load which looks pretty good, but dad's cars never had that so I am omitting it for the official portrait. Like the other Ulrich hopper, this appears to be a 1970s re-issue - it has sprung trucks but plastic wheel sets.
Last car: MDC Roundhouse Pennsy caboose. Have seen two on ebay, both of them too junky to bid on.
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