The Evolution of N-Scale Rolling Stock Models

Jenna Apr 5, 2018

  1. Jenna

    Jenna TrainBoard Member

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    Author: gdm

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    UPDATE:
    Thanks to feedback from readers and more information acquired from the field, we have made several updates / revisions to this blog article since its original publication in the summer 2017.

    April 2018-- We have updated this article based on feedback (2009 not 2015 saw the beginning of the 3rd generation of rolling stock) we received from a fellow member of the TrainBoard.com forum. Thanks Metro Red Line for your comments on our blog.

    January 2018 -- This blog has been updated based on chats with n-scale manufacturers at the January 2018 Amherst Train Show.


    This summer I was excited to get my hands on a new n-scale model from Bluford Shops: a 2-Bay offset side open hopper. I model the northeast and was pleased to see a model made for a more obscure road name (in this case, South Buffalo…I spent my formative years growing up in the City of Buffalo, once known as Buffalo Creek). I was also happy to get this car because I appreciate Bluford's typical attention to historical accuracy for this model, whose prototype first appeared in 1934 and hauled coal, ore and track ballast for a number of railroads including the Lehigh and New England, Baltimore & Ohio and New York Central

    While looking over these hoppers, something occurred to me. N-scale models are in yet another period of evolution.

    At TroveStar we spend lots of time looking at older models. Given that n-scale was born in the 1960s and that TroveStar was built to handle every mass-produced model ever made, we get our hands on lots of different models representative of over five decades of n-scale manufacturing. Normally, over time, things don't seem to change that much. Starting around 2009, that was no longer the case. We are continuing to see what might be called a 'third generation' of n-scale rolling stock.

    First Generation (approximately 1960 to 1990)
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    In the 1960s, all rolling stock was made from what we would now consider fairly crude (die-cast metal) toolings. There were two phases to First Generation. In the early phase, manufacturing took place in Europe (except Bachmann, which produced products in China). In the later phase of First Generation, manufacturers brought toolings back to the U.S. and in some cases to Japan. The quality of these products did not change dramatically despite these changes. It was difficult to produce thin stirrups and ladders; separately-applied detail basically meant a brake wheel. Couplers were mostly attached to the trucks and the wheels were mostly nickel-silver plated pizza cutters. The advent of the knuckle coupler produced by Kadee in the 1970s set the stage for a number of different changes that occurred over the next few decades.

    Second Generation (approximately 1990 to 2009)
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    In 1990, most American manufacturers moved their production operations to China and toolings got sharper as did the graphics. The move to China resulted in better detail; it was now cheaper to make toolings in China so more money was spent on detail. This, in conjunction with better technology, fueled the Second Generation of n-scale products. We saw magnetically operating knuckle couplers replace those from Rapido (Germany) and most wheels became low-profile plastic pieces that would run quietly and reliably over Code 55 track. Separately-applied detail parts made opening doors, applied ladders, roof-walks, end platforms, brake detail and much more possible.

    Improved Graphics. This Second Generation of rolling stock also sported sharper, crisper graphics and numbers and letters (only legible with a magnifying glass)—all thanks to advances in the computer software used to create and edit graphics. Artwork and graphic design evolved from hand-drawn (using Rapidograph pens, wax and Bristol Board) to digitized in large part due to powerful desktop Adobe software (Photoshop and Illustrator). This allowed for the creation of more refined, higher resolution graphics to be used in the pad printing process where logos, road name graphics and reporting marks are added to model trains. Notice the fine printing on the 2000-vintage Atlas tank car above. (Thanks MicroTrains for sharing some of the history behind graphic design and model trains.)

    We all became accustomed to these new models and even older molds were being re-released with higher-quality trucks and wheels.

    Third Generation (approximately 2009 to present)
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    But these new hoppers from Bluford made me realize we are just now seeing another leap forward. These cars have body-mount couplers. That reminded me that Horizon is now retro-fitting body-mount couplers and metal wheels on their Roundhouse toolings, which were re-released under the Athearn brand. New Micro-Trains bodies are also equipped with body-mount couplers -- such as the new husky-stack well car. The Bluford models also have metal wheels. Metals wheels, just a year ago, were considered a 'premium' feature. Now, modelers expect to see them on all new releases. The profile on these new chemically blackened wheels is as tight as can be managed to look good and still run well on track. The wheels on the Bluford model reminded me of Eric Smith, MicroTrains President/CEO telling me all about the company’s new offering: user-installed metal wheels. Lastly, though the Bluford models do not have this feature, we now expect to see etched metal detail parts (beyond just the brake wheel) used where extreme precision is warranted -- such as see-through roof walks and end-platforms.

    This shift to more detailed and prototypically-accurate models began with BLMA Models, which began producing higher quality HO, N and Z scale models in 2000. This model train manufacturing company (whose toolings and inventory were purchased by Atlas in 2016) can be considered the pioneer of the latest generation of rolling stock manufacturing. Thanks to BLMA, other manufacturers stepped up their game and features once considered premium are now offered by many n-scale model train companies.

    At the January 2018 Amherst Train Show, Eric Smith discussed how MicroTrains is revamping older toolings to bring them up to date with metal-etched detail parts and body-mount couplers. The company will begin re-tooling its existing (out-of-date toolings that harken back to the 1970s when the company first started in n-scale) boxcars beginning with 50 foot cars and then moving on to 40 foot cars. “Customer expectations are higher and MicroTrains is responding to that,” said Smith.

    In summary, we have just recently moved from a world where these three features (body-mounted couplers, blackened metal low-profile wheels and etched metal details) stopped being premium and are now considered 'standard.' This is not new or revolutionary, but rather a testament to how changes in manufacturing technology, consumer demand and more competition between manufacturers have forever changed the world of n-scale.
     
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  2. Hardcoaler

    Hardcoaler TrainBoard Member

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    Third Generation body mounted couplers look great and provide some operational advantages, but they could be an impairment to those of us with small layouts and lesser radius curves.

    I'm appreciative of Eastern Seaboard Models including a suitable caution regarding their new Despatch Shops 50' Boxcar, Class X65 with body mounted couplers, noting that "Operation of this model over curved trackage of less than 10-inch radius is not recommended." Happily, my minimum radius will be 11 Inches and I'm thinking about acquiring one ..... in Lehigh Valley of course. (y)

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    Last edited: Apr 6, 2018
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  3. Metro Red Line

    Metro Red Line TrainBoard Member

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    I learned that the hard way as an HO scaler. 18" radius was an absolute curse.
    But in N scale, 18" radius is a blessing. And that's why I'm an N scaler today :)

    I do agree that it should be mandatory for all manufacturers to print the minimum curve radius on the boxes of all their rolling stock. I got burned a few times in HO scale, especially in the middle of building a kit :(
     
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  4. nd-rails

    nd-rails TrainBoard Member

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    IMO, it's about time that archaic minimalist specifications were voided and avoided in manufacture, and they set standards of excellence suitable to the rest of their design, not be limited by history/ precedent.

    Too bad (for those) if miniature layouts have to stand still, the rest of hobby design does not.
    regds davew
     
  5. scottryan

    scottryan TrainBoard Member

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    I’ve found most manufactured metal wheels and trucks to be garbage. The only ones I am satisfied with are Kato and BLMA.
     
  6. Thomas Davis

    Thomas Davis TrainBoard Member

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    I think I have to take exception to your "generation" system. While you note the Kadee coupler being introduced to N scale in the 1970s, in terms of N scale freight car manufacturing generally, it was the introduction of the N scale Micro-trains freight car line a couple years later that transformed N scale. Kadee quality in molding was such a vast improvement over everything then on the market. It was those cars that made me an N scale modeler. I would agree that what we are seeing coming from manufacturers today is an improvement over that, but it is pretty clear to me that the "second generation" began with the Kadee Micro-trains 20010 boxcar. Of course, since then, Micro-trains was spun off as a separate company, but is still a leading (arguably the leading) company in N scale freight and passenger cars.

    The REASON why manufacturers adopted more detailed designs is BECAUSE of Micro-trains, and any serious history of N scale needs to recognize that contribution. Even though they never moved to China.
     
  7. bremner

    bremner Staff Member

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    Thomas, you said it better than I could've
     
  8. Point353

    Point353 TrainBoard Member

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    Who made the OP (or TroveStar) the authority on this subject?
     
  9. Hardcoaler

    Hardcoaler TrainBoard Member

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    I think Trovestar is merely seeking to sketch in some interesting N Scale history without any sort of authoritative claim. They edited this contribution several times to include additional information and may choose to do so again. I admire their interest in our N Scale heritage and their willingness to accept and include recommendations from other modelers.
     
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  10. Doug Gosha

    Doug Gosha TrainBoard Member

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    The Kadee N scale coupler was introduced in 1968. The first Kadee N scale freight car was introduced in November of 1972.

    Doug
     
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  11. Metro Red Line

    Metro Red Line TrainBoard Member

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    That's what I see too. Outside of model railroads, I'm also a part-time freelance writer, and a good deal of that is writing about history. I consider myself an expert on the history of the neighborhood and the city I live in. If you want to see history written the way you want to see it, then you've got to research and write it yourself.
     
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  12. Doug Gosha

    Doug Gosha TrainBoard Member

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    Yeah, I see it as more informational and not so much authoritative, too. It's difficult to have too much information about trains, particularly N scale.

    Doug
     
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  13. nd-rails

    nd-rails TrainBoard Member

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    Seems a categorically challenging statement- any further 'proof' forthcoming? I'm not in the (wheels) race but many, many others crow about other manfrs.
    Don't think I've ever heard Kato are so good. And they don't multi-pack etc. either do they or versatile for other cars?
    dave
     

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