Guide To HO Brass Locomotives

Brass is a metal alloy that is fairly cost-effective, has decent strength, and is easily cast, formed, machined, and soldered. This makes it a great material from which to fabricate small runs (typically less than 500) of complex models. Today's brass models sometimes include more than 1000 parts, and they are very labor-intensive to build. However, the strength of brass and its ability to take on extremely fine details in casting, means that brass models can have much more detail than plastic models, without sacrificing durability. However, where a prototype can generate enough market interest to warrant production runs of several thousand to several tens of thousands of models, highly engineered die-cast plastic and steel models become economically feasible at a much lower retail price-point than hand-built brass models, and the mechanism and detail accuracy from model to model is greatly enhanced. In particular, highly engineered mechanisms have the prospect of longer life that hand-fitted instances of mechanism parts whose tolerances just cannot be delivered to the same accuracy.

In general, if there's a plastic model available for a prototype of interest, with a decently engineered drive and acceptable detail level, that would be preferred over a brass model - especially in preference to an early or mid-era brass model. Brass is for representing those prototypes that don't generate enough market interest to warrant production runs of 5000 or more models.

Conversely, if ultimate detail is your highest priority, or you desire a model of a little-known prototype, then a brass model may be your best bet.

What follows reflects my personal experiences with, and observations of, over 1400 brass models. Of course, your mileage may vary - especially in view of the fact that each brass model is literally hand-built by skilled (but human) artisans, and is therefore unique.

Lastly, if you want to buy brass intelligently, you are going to have to gain a lot of knowledge that isn't always easy to come by. If possible, get to know knowledgeable brass collectors and operators, and keep them on speed dial, just in case you come across a deal that looks hot!

-- Eric Bott


AHM - Associated Hobby Manufacturers

AHM is one of a few of the genuinely "old school" pioneer importers of brass models. AHM did not last into the era of even moderate detail level, and most of their models look very crude by today's standards. You will probably not find a model from AHM that came with a can motor.

One serious problem with early imports is that zamac castings were used for some parts. Zamac is an alloy that expands and fractures with long term exposure to humidity. This is especially problematic when zamac was used to cast driver wheel centers, as the expansion often destroyed the insulation between the tire and the wheel center on the "insulated" side of steam locos, or just cracked the spokes in some cases. And when zamac was used in gearboxes, the expansion could lead to improper mating of the gears, causing bad running and premature gear wear. All of these zamac-related problems are extremely difficult to remediate, and not to be undertaken by most modelers.

Although collecting these early brass models is a personal choice, it is not recommended for modelers whose main focus is running and operating, or for modelers who don't have a personal machine shop and lots of idle time on their hands.

-- Eric Bott

1 Other Comments

  • On 2021-12-14 James van Bokkelen wrote: In the early 1970s AHM picked up a lot of B&M R-1d 4-8-2 models also usable as L&NE locomotives. I understand these were quality rejects ordered by GEM.

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American Scale Models

ASM mostly focused on O-scale models, but their HO offerings were uniformly outstanding. In particular, check out their C&O boxcars with "art deco" ends. Oh, and check out the interior paint and lettering in their boxcars and milk cars. Build and paint quality uniformly high.

-- Eric Bott

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Akane Model Railroad Company (1958-1964)

Akane is one of a few of the genuinely "old school" pioneer importers of brass models. Akane did not last into the era of even moderate detail level, and most of their models look very crude by today's standards. You will probably not find a model from Akane that came with a can motor. Their older models will also have open gearing.

One serious problem with early imports is that zamac castings were used for some parts. Zamac is an alloy that expands and fractures with long term exposure to humidity. This is especially problematic when zamac was used to cast driver wheel centers, as the expansion often destroyed the insulation between the tire and the wheel center on the "insulated" side of steam locos, or just cracked the spokes in some cases. And when zamac was used in gearboxes, the expansion could lead to improper mating of the gears, causing bad running and premature gear wear. All of these zamac-related problems are extremely difficult to remediate, and not to be undertaken by most modelers.

Although collecting these early brass models is a personal choice, it is not recommended for modelers whose main focus is running and operating, or for modelers who don't have a personal machine shop and lots of idle time on their hands.

-- Eric Bott

11 Other Comments

  • John Patton wrote: I bought an Akane B&O EM-1 2-8-8-4. This thing is a MONSTER. It will pull a house! It tips the scale at 7 pounds, 14 ounces (engine), 15.5 ounces (tender)! It is nicely detailed for the year of manufacture -- 1958. I have revised some of the more "generalized" details to the newer, more refined details of today in brass. The locomotive wasn't painted, so that was left up to someone who bought it in 1959, with a little work, refining of detail, good paint, and decals, the engine will look pristine! Outside of what details it came with, I only added brake hangers that are for the time period built. It also has completely sprung and equalized drivers and pilot and trailing truck wheels. It will run on the most imperfect track! Not that the old motor was troublesome, it wasn't by any means, a little noisy, (but my "noise" standards are quite high) I installed a new Canon Flat can motor, which runs almost silently! My next item to put into this little gem, is a sound system!
  • Larry Hampton wrote: I have had 25 brass engines for many years. Most of them are Akane or Tenshodo. They run very well and are powerful. I also have the Erie triplex by LMB. It has two motors with one in the tender. It is noisy but runs very well. The old motors in them have been very reliable over the years.
  • Mike Klink wrote: I just bought a B&O Akane Q4b Mikado. The open frame motor, gears, wheels and linkage all run smooth and it's the nicest loco I've ever had! A few appearance details like the B&O Capitol dome herald, reverser cylinder on the engineer side, etc. are missing. I'll get them from Cal-Scale. It'll be really something to crow about. One thing for anyone who has any trouble with the drawbar dropping off the tender pin. Take two pointed nose/needle nose pliers and bend them up slightly. I had to do this with Rivarossis and BLI and 1 PCM steamer.
  • Tom White wrote: I have 3 Akane Missabe M3-4 Yellowstones. The first was given to me as a birthday present in 1965, the other two I have purchased used on consignment in the past several years. The detail is not as 'fine' as other importers (Westside, PSC, PFM) but the locomotives are sturdy, handsome, and the Akane mechanisms are absolutely INDESTRUCTABLE! They are extremely smooth running--yes even with the exposed driver gears--powerful and very responsive. Two of the locomotives have their original open-frame motors, the third (and the first one I got) has had a NWSL can installed to replace the original motor, but they are wonderful runners, and extremely powerful. Probably the most powerful brass locos I have on my MR (and most of my steamers are brass). Very good locos, and considering their average age (well over 40 years old), they do what they're supposed to--haul freight and lots of it. To add to the Akanes, I also have two Southern Pacific AC-8/12 Cab Forwards, and they are the same. Remarkably well constructed, and extremely good looking. I'll respectfully disagree with your 'scale' for them. On a scale of 1-10, I have no problems placing the Akane's at about an 8, simply for their running qualities and their longevity. They may not be the most 'detailed' brass I own, but I RUN my locomotives, I don't get up close with a camera and count the rivets, LOL! Tom
  • bob corson wrote: john pattons comment on his akane em1 is off the wall,no ho gauge loco ever weighed 7 pounds even if you filled every crevice with liquid mercury and having been in ho and o scale for over fifty years i dont believe akane made anything in o gauge.
  • Forrest wrote: Akane brass models were well made for operation, although a few dimension details may not be 100% accurate to allow the model to operate on tight (24" radius) curves, but these are hardly noticeable. I believe all of their models had the Open Frame Motors as they were made from the late 50's into the mid 60's, but my USRA 2-10-2 runs very quietly. For those running DCC, upgrading to a Can Motor is an easy process as the disassembly & reassembly is very straight forward. Due to the numbers produced and good (but not exceptional) level of detail, collectability value is limited. I consider them more of an operational model.
  • Scott Schwartz wrote: I had bought a Gem (Jonan) 2-4-4-2 and later traded it for a cheaper, earlier run (1962) Akane version. I find the Akane detail superior to the Gem or the later Samhongsa. Having owned an Akane B&O EM-1 and P-7, both from the early 60's, the quality of the castings on the 2-4-4-2 is better, there is more piping, and the dimensions seem close to prototype. I suspect they used different builders, similar to PFM and other conglomerate companies.
  • Howard Eggenberger wrote: I have several brass locomotives including some Akane (love the PRR J-1) but I have one complaint about all of them. None of them have piping going to and from the air compressors. This is very obvious especially where they are mounted on the smokebox front. I have had to carefully drill holes and bend brass wire for just about every brass loco I have.
  • Jake Bechtel wrote: I sold Akane before I bought one in the late 50's. Since then I owned severa of them. Every one was an exceptional runner and the detail on them was superior to most other brass of their day. If I remember correctly, (Al Zheimer sometimes gets me confused.), Akane was not only the importer but also the manufacturer. The Tenshodo model of the same time did not run as well and they were not as detailed. Back in the 40's & 50's, Mr. Tenshodo actually built the models himself. When PFM started importing Tenshodo models the company (Mr. Tenshodo was a jewelery maker and seller)developed a model building branch. Personally, of all the brass that I have owned in the last 60 years my favorites have been the Akane models and the Olympia models imported by Gem.
  • Donald Davis wrote: I own one Akane loco, an SP AC-11. It runs beautifully with a Soundtrax DCC decoder and with the original open frame motor. The construction is clean and robust with good detail. My only complaint is that it has the road number (4272) below the cab windows and "Southern Pacific Lines" on the tender etched as raised lettering like an old Revell or Aurora plastic kit from the 50s.
  • On 2022-05-05 Ken Draper wrote: Hello, I guess I've become a collector by default. Not intentional, but the cost of brass models has plummeted in recent years. I've always bought models to operate, and have several older PFM, Tenshodo and a few Oriental Limited "Powerhouse" USRA Light Mikados. The Powerhouse Mikes are SUPERB runners, not overly detailed, and not fully brass but a brass-zamac hybrid. They run very smooth and can be found on eBay very often; usually for less than $200. OK... Sorry to ramble, we're here to discuss Akane. I recently purchased on eBay a lot of brass "junkers" consisting of 7 B&O Mikados, mostly Akane, my first ever "hands-on" experience with Akane. The older (circa 1962 and before) B&O Q-4b are definitely crude by the standards even of that time, and yet they are durable good runners. Let me elaborate: The brass sheet in their construction is thicker and harder. Whatever solder they used appears to be very high temp ... Silver Solder? The Motor and Drive train employed in their design is probably "state of the art" for the time, and frankly pretty good even for 2022. Based on this experience, I recently purchased an Akane USRA 2-6-6-2 that had been re-powered with a can Motor. This was a latter Mallet (1964) with both engines powered, and runs very well and somewhat quietly, and was amazed at how well it runs, with no more modification than an upgraded motor.

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Alco Models

Alco Models was around for quite a while, and spans the transitions from low-detail to medium detail, and Japanese production to Korean production. They did not persist into the era of high detail or factory painted models.

Still, some of their models are very worthy of consideration, being decent runners with decent detail at a price point 1/3 of the modern equivalent factory painted model. Their GE/UP Steam Turbine and N&W Jawn Henry Steam Turbine models are two examples in point, though the driveline on the JH is noisy and can be annoyingly difficult to tune.

The best general advice with Alco Models is that the ones produced by Rok-Am should be viewed with a wary eye, while those produced by Samhongsa are more likely to be satisfactory. That said, all of their diesel models had tower drives, which are notably noisier than modern drives, and modelers used to good mass-production diesel models will hate the higher noise level.

-- Eric Bott

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Alpha Models

Generally for every model that Alpha and NJCB or Alco Models did (must have been some kind of grudge matches!), the Alpha is preferable. Alpha did quite a few PRR electric locos, including excellent painted versions of the R-1 and L-6a. They did unpainted versions of at least the B-1, E-2b, E-3b, E-2c, and L-6. Alpha also did some rolling stock models. As I state below, I think their Westinghouse pilots on the E-3b and E-2c are more accurate than Railworks'.

-- Eric Bott

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Broadway Limited Hybrid Brass

BLI's early brass hybrid models should probably be avoided. I'd put their UP TTT 2-10-2 and their NYC Mohawk in that category.

On the other hand, their NH I-4 and I-5 models, and their T&P I-1, UP 4-12-2, GN S-1, and SP&S E-1 brass hybrid models are outstanding deals, worthy of collecting and operating. I'm a bit less enthusiastic about their C&O L-1; it's an outstanding value, but the finish is not up to PSC's 2nd run of L-1s (which costs 3x the BLI price.)

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Balboa Scale Models, San Diego, 1964-1974

Balboa was one of the earlier importers of brass. They focused primarily on SP and UP steam, with some Colorado narrow gauge mixed in, plus slews of passenger cars that were fairly accurate for one railroad but then apocryphally painted in many railroad's schemes. Their Master series was, like PFM's Crown series, intended to offer premium detail at a premium price. That said, the premium detail of their day was a far lower level of detail than modern era "standard" brass. Often operators find Balboa mechanisms require work (sometimes serious amounts of it) to yield acceptable running results. Most of Balboa's offerings were redone with more modern model technology, but sell at 2-5 times the price that Balboa models command. Worth consideration for a model of a prototype you really want to represent, but my recommendation is to see it run before striking the deal.

-- Eric Bott

8 Other Comments

  • Michael W P Ball wrote: Balboa imports are very good models mainly built by Katsumi (KTM) of Japan. Even though they came with opened frame motors they ran well. When the owner of Balboa got into trouble over a contract with the Japanese they dropped him and Westside Model took over Westside imported many engines built by Katsumi.
  • Tom White wrote: I have three Balboa steamers, all Southern Pacific. A GS-4 4-8-4, an MT-4 4-8-2 and an ex-Boston and Maine/SP 2-8-4. All have had their motors replaced with NWSL cans, and all are very smooth and quite powerful locomotives. The MT-4 is a particularly handsome model, well balanced and beautifully detailed. My only complaint is that the SP 2-8-4 has a very strange drawbar arrangement between loco and tender--the drawbar is connected not to the loco cab, but to the trailing truck of the loco, and has caused problems with the wiring from the drawbar to the motor inside the cab. Otherwise, all 3 locomotives are very nice representatives of the prototypes and good runners. Tom
  • Bob Schaefer wrote: Balboa represents a kind of Golden Era of KTM brass imports, especially of Espee prototypes. Engines like the MT-3 and MT-4 had been imported previously by Max Gray, but the drive train was significantly improved for the models imported by Balboa. In addition, Balboa adopted all brass construction of these imports, whereas Max Gray used steel for the chassis and running gear. Like the prototype, the Balboa MT-3 is one of the most strikingly handsome engines ever made. In addition to an all brass construction, the Balboa KTM imports have a native brass finish, and in mint condition are quite beautiful. Westside picked up where Balboa left off, but Westside never ran the MT-3s or MT-4s again. They did do an Espee MT-5. In general, the MT-5 has some deficiencies which make it less desirable than the Balboa Espee mountains. First of all, the finish of the MT-5 is brass paint, unlike the lacquer of the Balboa pieces. The brass paint finish is essentially done to cover up sloppy soldering. Second, the detailing of the MT-5 is very basic. True, its about the same as that of the Balboa MT-3, but the detailing of the live steam pipe that runs along the top of the boiler on an MT-5 is just plain crude. The MT-5 would have been a different engine with just a couple of additional lost wax castings, especially a casting for that external steam line. Compare the castings on a Custom Brass SP P-13 to the castings on a Westside MT-5, and you'll see what I mean. Expect to pay about $325 for a Max Gray MT-3, $425 for a Balboa MT-3, and maybe $325 for a Westside MT-5.
  • Walter Clark wrote: I have a Balboa SP GS-4, the first brass engine I bought (right after graduating high school in 1967). It is a solid, good looking and good running locomotive, my only complaints are the cab roof doesn't correctly model the cab vents and the air piping is, shall we say, creative? For example, the pipe that should be from the air out (based on where it goes) is connected to the steam exhaust of the air pump. Not a big problem, I currently have the engine dismantled and will re-pipe as I re-assemble.
  • Chris Reed wrote: WRT Tom White's comment on the ex-B&M 2-8-4: the "strange" loco/tender drawbar connection on the Balboa SP B1 is prototypical. The B&M had trouble with derailments when backing these locos. Early Lima 4-wheel trailing trucks were articulated to the main frame, which ended behind the rear drivers. The drawbar link went from the trailing truck to the tender. I've never seen the prototype (sob!) so I can't say how authentic the Balboa version is. I bet the model is also derailment-prone when backing a heavy train; any experiences with this?.
  • John Ford wrote: I have long heard that a funky divorce was the underlying cause of the demise of Balboa. Remember, Westside was already importing KTM models before Balboa quit. Without question, the finest SP piece brought in by Balboa was the AM-2. I don't think it was built by KTM, but it oozed detail for a model built in the mid '60's.
  • Achim wrote: I have a Balboa ATSF class 1480 Atlantic, manufactured by Kumata. The level of detail is good to very good. It has been converted to DCC, with some added pick-ups in the tender. It runs well and pulls OK if you have short trains and a level track (just like the prototype).
  • Rob Nesbitt wrote: I have a 1970 Balboa models "Old Time" porter 2-6-0, made by Katsumi. It lacks the fine detailing that is evident on my other Balboa models, and is consistent with something made in the late 1950s. I found the original advert in July 1970 Model Railroader, and close inspection of the picture shows that the tender of the locomotive is fitted with a Bakers coupler, even though the boxcar it is coupled to has a kadee. Old unsold models found in a warehouse and subsequently offered for sale is my guess. Certainly the $29.95 price in 1970 was quite cheap, although the Balboa quality is just not there

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Beaver Creek Models

Beaver Creek models generally feature high detail level, good running qualities, and sound build quality. I can't testify as to their paint quality. Their models generally command high respect and high prices.

-- Eric Bott

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Challenger Imports, Ltd., Des Moines, IA, 1990-2005

Challenger was the follow-on to Oriental Models, but at a higher price and detail point. All of my Challenger models run very well (with one definite exception), and are well detailed (with one possible exception.) Their C&O F-19 and J-2 are excellent models, and were over-produced, so they can be had for well below what you would pay for other models of similar detail. Their B&O EM-1 sets the high water mark for that model, hands down. Other Challenger models that set the high water mark for models of a given prototype: CB&Q O-5b and S-4a; CNW E-4. There is some question about the slide valves on their version of the GN M-2's. Their PRR S-1 is a gorgeous looking model, but impossible to run unless your minimum radius is ~48". Their unit train Zephyrs are also the best available, but beware that they produced some with interiors and some without-- and there is (should be) quite a price differential between those sets. Running qualities (except for the d*** PRR S-1) and finish are generally excellent.

I'm less enthusiastic about their diesel models, which tended to have older Samhongsa mechanisms, and good detail - but unless you are looking for a very special paint scheme, or demand perfection in differentiating detail, or looking at one of their very late diesel models/sets, first see if you can live with an Athearn Genesis or BLI set.

Challenger's passenger car models are good-to-excellent, but anybody in the market for passenger cars should do some detailed research before buying. Challenger's exterior detail, including underbody and all paint, was always of high quality. However, the earlier models did not come with interiors. So, for instance, their Loewy-painted NCL sets don't have interiors, whereas their later Pine Tree NCL sets do. Their CRI&P / SP Golden State set is superb in all respects. If I were looking to run, or even static model, a Denver or California Zephyr, though, I would go with the BLI cars. And if I were looking for a model of the Sam Houston Zephyr, I would most certainly go with the absolutely superb Eagle Imports set. The foregoing notwithstanding, my favorite passenger set is the Challenger GN HWT Empire Builder, which was imported factory painted, with full interior and interior lights.

-- Eric Bott

7 Other Comments

  • Forrest wrote: I do not have any knowledge of early Challenger (CIL) models, but their later models made by Samhongsa have an incredible level of detail (even down to the bell rope showing the rope twists), ultra smooth and quiet motors / gearboxes, and magnificent factory paint jobs. Consider this line of models "collector grade" especially since Challenger has suspended their operations and Samhongsa is out of the brass model train business, making them even more desirable. Expect to pay $1200 - $1800 for these models as of 2008.
  • Anselmo wrote: Three or four years ago I brought a brand new GN S-2 steam HO scale made by Samhongsa. It's a fantastic and superb model. The level of detail and the quality of every single part is simple breathtaking. I've taken some pictures of this locomotive in my layout and many people didn't notice it's a scale model. The can motor is also 1st quality. My only remark is that it is somewhat light in weight, so it slips a lot when pulling over any grade. I'm considering to open it and check how to add some weight, although I would not like to maculate such beautiful model.
  • Norm Silver wrote: I have purchased three Challenger SP Ho locomotive models. All are suprb and the best runner I have ever seen is the SP-3 (4-10-2) three cylinder loco and that was out of the box. I also have a GS-4 painted in Daylight (unskirted #4439) and an AC-8. These model will not sell at cheap prices. My brother has a C-9 and C-10. Both of those are superb too.
  • Bob Lichtenberger wrote: Expensive and sometimes quite difficult to locate as of 2011, but always amazingly well detailed models. I'm a Pennsy fan, and although only relatively few classes of PRR locomotives were imported, all are beautiful to view & to run; my only quibble is the lack of a three man doghouse on any of the straight M-1 class (very typical in the post-WW2 period), but this is a small complaint.
  • Richard J. Murray wrote: I own one. Thanks to my wonderful wife and Uncle Dave/John Gurdak! The PRR M1a is gorgeous! The best (and last?) of Samhongsa.
  • David Reed wrote: I have a Samhongsa HO Triplex 2-8-8-8-2,fantastic loco,detail, paint,just brought,even has tiny grease nipples on the driving rods,with faint red colour,so you can see them,would like to put DCC in,but not sure if i want take apart Dave,UK.
  • On 2020-12-30 Richard Pontius wrote: CIL: I have a dozen or so. It appears they picked up some of the late Oriental Ltd. projects and their early diesels had fair gear boxes. Their post 1994 steam is nice, but their later runs are exceptional. The SP 4-10-2 was deemed the most accurate Espee steam loco ever made at that time by the SP Historical & Technical Society. They are truly amazing. I like their SP Consolidated & GS series and they are accurate and good runners. Definitely collector quality.

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Crown Custom Products / Railworks

One of the most underrated brass brands around. CC was a project of the same family that did Railworks, and they produced some very worthy models. Generally, both CC and Railworks focused on PRR, NH, B&M, Rutland, Lackawanna, and LIRR models, with a few others thrown in for good measure. Their research was generally impeccable (though I haven't found any photographic corroboration of their 14 window Erie Stillwell cars), involving the appropriate historical societies. Their NH Besseler, Comet (both paint schemes), and Mack FCD (both variants / paint schemes) models are excellent and run well; the former and latter are unavailable from any other source; they actually helped Con-Cor with research in doing the Comet in plastic. Yes, they are genuinely nice people. Do check the nylon gears on the Mack FCD units if you want to run them.

Their NH I-2 Pacifics (CC) were some of the earliest of the Boo Rim products, and some of my finest running models. Under the Railworks name, they brought in a number of PRR locos, including at least I-1s, K-4, L-1, H-6sb steamers-- all good runners with good detail. But their PRR and NH electric locos under the Railworks name deserve special attention; they did the DD-1 in both PRR and LIRR, in both as-built and "sports model" variants; E-2b, E-2C, and E-3b (PRR, obviously), and EF-1, EP-1, and EP-2 (NH, obviously). The DD-1s should be seen running before purchase; some apparently had minor quartering issues, albeit they look excellent. The rest of these models are excellent runners as well as excellent lookers. Their NH electrics are far, far superior to the MEW and NJCB versions in all respects, and easily equal to the quality of Overland's EP-3. Factory paint is of high quality on all CC and later Railworks models, however a recurring complaint about the PRR locos is that Railwork's Brunswick Green (or "DGLE") is too light for some people's taste. All of the NH model colors are dead on, as far as I can tell. The E-2b, E-3b and E-2c were also produced by Alpha Models. I'd say that Alpha got the pilots right for the E-3b and E-2c (Westinghouse) locos, but Railworks got it right for the E-2b (General Electric) locos. Check photos, to see what you think. Despite this, I prefer the Railworks models of all three types. Pantographs are a bit fragile, but the same can be said for the gorgeous Alpha Models PRR R-1.

Railworks and CC often came factory painted but unnumbered, so that the owner could apply numbers of his/her choice. The early models came with normal decals for numbering, but the later Railworks and maybe all of the CC models came with really cool decals with the film on the outside of the numbers. You apply them the same way as for normal decals, except that after drying, you can peel of the film and leave the numbers behind. Superb!

The CC models of the "State of Maine" box cars (both NH and BAR color schemes offered) are excellent (i.e., accurate and well detailed), if pricey. The earlier Railworks rolling stock was a bit hit-and-miss for rolling qualities, although almost always correctable. However, beware that their NH NE-3 (the only model I can think of for that caboose) has truck/steps interference issues, and should probably be considered a static model. On the other hand, their NE models are superior to Overland's, and equal to Challenger's in my opinion. Railworks had the distinction of being the only one of the three to offer MOW versions (two!) of the NE, both with working headlights. Their B&M cabooses (even the McGinnis blue buggies) are absolutely gorgeous, and their LIRR cabooses far superior to the NJCB versions of the same models. Their Rutland and Vermont Rwy wood cabooses and passenger cars are excellent, as are their Lackawanna 8- and 4-wheel wood cabooses. Their Rutland clerestory-roofed milk cars, B&M double-door wood milk cars, and Lackawanna 42' wood milk cars (with and without end doors, but none factory painted) are gorgeous; Railworks also did a nice MOW bunk version of the Lackawanna milk car, if you are modeling later than the milk train era. Their GM&O transfer cabooses (3 variants) are also gorgeous models; you will find yourself scratching your head over why they chose to produce those models, but you'll be proud to own one. I don't know enough about PRR cabooses to offer a definitive opinion, but the models seem well detailed - no factory painted versions that I am aware of, though. Their Lackawanna Boonton cars (all unpainted) are excellent. Their Erie Stillwell coaches are far superior to NWSL's in terms of detail, but my previous comment about their longer 14 window version not easy to document with photos might be taken to heart. Their MP-54s, MPB-54cs, and MB-62s are far superior to Alco Model's, having correct underbody detail for both the AC (PRR) and DC (LIRR) versions - and they run very well. The B-60b and BM-62 models are excellent (many variants of the former, making it worth considering collecting a few to go with your Walthers versions), and come appropriately in PRR and LIRR (Tuscan and Tichy gray) factory paint as well as unpainted. Among the many other (mostly unpainted) rolling stock, check out their PRR troop sleeper variants, which add a LOT of character to a train with the typical Hallmark or Walthers troop sleeper and kitchen models, or in a train with some PRR tuscan-painted Pullmans for the officers. The Railworks PRR clearance car (especially factory painted) is very cool - paint scheme is "PRR-understated" compared to Overland's vivid B&O clearance car paint scheme, but showing them together earns attention to each. Railworks seemed to do nearly every PRR flat car that Rail Classics didn't, but these models must be taken individually, as not all are good runners. Not many were factory painted. Exceptions included their later production of the Queen Mary flat (much more detailed than their first run, and factory painted), F-22, F-38, and F-40 flatcars - all of which are excellent, good-running models.

Beware that Railworks also did two runs of the Aerotrain. The second run is very much preferable, with better detail, interior, and glazing. Both run well.

-- Eric Bott

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Division Point

Generally excellent to superb, but with a few lapses. A broad range of locomotives both diesel and steam, some passenger cars, a few MOW pieces. Except for the lapses, better than any other versions of the same models that have done. In particular, their Jawn Henry was a strong advance over the adequate Alco Models version, while their Baldwin center-cabs were light-years ahead of NJCB's in running quality. Their N&W articulateds are better than the rest for detail, finish and running quality. Their N&W, DRGW (lightweight), and D&H passenger and head-end cars are excellent in detail. They have done excellent series of Alco RS models in a huge variety of paint schemes and detailing, but it's a bit hard to contemplate the price when there are outstanding plastic models available. The interesting thing is DP's continued emphasis on mid-size steam from a wide variety of railroads - well worth looking into.

One model to be very careful about is their C&O M-1 steam turbine. While the finish is gorgeous, the promised cab interior "detail" is extremely disappointing, the nose doors do not open, and I was not impressed with the semi-factory sound system. A good runner, though. I wish I had found one of the Overland models of this.

Lapses included miss-lettering of some of their N&W-painted Train Masters, an odd blue hue on some of their B&M RS units, some finishing lapses on one recently imported passenger train, and some reportedly bogus liveries on several models, including the Baldwin center-cabs. There may have been a few others, but they are not prevalent. I haven't heard of a DP model that disappointed on running quality or build quality - I've only seen the finish lapses noted above.

-- Eric Bott

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3 Other Comments

  • Forrest wrote: Division Point models have an incredible level of detail, smooth operating motors / gearboxes, and beautiful factory paint jobs. The Rock Island R-67a/b 4-8-4 is a magnificent model. Consider this line of models "collector grade", as usually total production runs for a model are in the 100 to 120 piece quantity, with usually several variations within that total, so a specific model may only have a 20 or 30 piece run (Ex: The Rock Island R-67b 4-8-4 had a production run of 100 total pieces, with #5003 with Booster and Coal tender being 30 of these). Another nice touch from Division Point is that they post production quantities prior to production, so a collector knows how rare of a model they are purchasing (Note: on their web site Archives section, production quantities are available for past models as well, very nice!). Expect to pay $1200 - $1800 for these models as of 2010 (new or used).
  • Richard J. Murray wrote: Superb models of PRR N5(b, c).
  • Achim wrote: I have three ATSF class 885 2-8-2s and two class 900 2-10-2s. These are gorgeous models, looking and running extremely well. The production run for the 885 class was 100, in 4 different models; for the 2-10-2s, I do not have the precise numbers, as they included the 1600 class. As models, they are extremely accurate (judging by photos provided by DP), and show the variations that a specific class might exhibit. What I especially appreciate is that DP did not go for the larger prototypes, but instead chose to model rather smallish 2-8-2s and 2-10-2s. The class 885 Mikados are especially useful if you have space restrictions; they run on 18" curves without any problem. The 2-10-2s are happy on 22" curves.

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E Suydam

Suydam focused almost exclusively on trolley cars, and 85% of those were of Pacific Electric prototypes. Other than Trolleys, Suydam produced a few Gas Electrics. I believe that all of Suydam's powered models incorporated a spring-belt drive. These were innovative, in that they eliminated tower drives with their growling sound, but the spring belts added stiction and therefore starting hesitancy to operation, and they eventually wear out and have to be replaced (this becoming more problematic 60 years after many of these models were built), and they are not as quiet as the modern brass drives with individual axle enclosed gearboxes and universal joints. The spring belt drives allowed the models to readily negotiate 90 degree radius (HO scale) turns, allowing very compact and realistic street trolley trackwork and scenes. For the demanding (and well healed) modeler, swapping Stanton Drives into Suydam spring-belt drive models (other than the IT Class C motor) is fairly straightforward and involves minimal fabrication for remarkable results (and DCC compatibility), though the models with very short wheelbase trucks (6' and less) just cannot be done with Stanton drives without significant compromise.

Suydam was another importer who imported multiple runs across many years of the same prototype, and their technology advanced over time. Their original imports had unplated brass wheels (the despair of operators everywhere, as the oxide of brass does not conduct electricity), while the later ones had plated wheels. In particular, their Illinois Terminal Class C models were first imported with 4-axle drives and unplated wheels, while the last import runs had 8-axle drives and plated wheels. Know what you are buying!

-- Eric Bott

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Gem Models, 1958-1982

Gem Models is one of a few of the genuinely "old school" pioneer importers of brass models. Gem Models did not last into the era of even moderate detail level, and most of their models look very crude by today's standards. You will probably not find a model from Gem Models that came with a can motor. Some of Gem's later models (notably their "Ruby" Series) are sought after and worth a look, but principally as targets for arcane collectors rather than operators.

One serious problem with early imports is that zamac castings were used for some parts. Zamac is an alloy that expands and fractures with long term exposure to humidity. This is especially problematic when zamac was used to cast driver wheel centers, as the expansion often destroyed the insulation between the tire and the wheel center on the "insulated" side of steam locos, or just cracked the spokes in some cases. And when zamac was used in gearboxes, the expansion could lead to improper mating of the gears, causing bad running and premature gear wear. All of these zamac-related problems are extremely difficult to remediate, and not to be undertaken by most modelers.

Although collecting these early brass models is a personal choice, it is not recommended for modelers whose main focus is running and operating, or for modelers who don't have a personal machine shop and lots of idle time on their hands.

-- Eric Bott

5 Other Comments

  • Forrest wrote: Most GEM models were well made for operation and are usually good runners, although a few dimension details may not be 100% accurate to allow the model to operate on tight (24" radius) curves, but these are hardly noticeable. Earlier models had the Open Frame Motors, but Later Models had Can motors. GEM Models were usually made in large (for brass) quantities of a few hundred per model, but their Factory painted models are rare, as are their Ruby series models which were the first batch of 50 models used as "pilot" models (each of these Ruby Models are either engraved or stamped with a serial number on the driver retainer plate). Ruby models are considered "collector grade" and usually sell for $1,000+ each as of 2008.
  • Frank Gerschwiler wrote: I have a couple of Ruby Signature Big Boys (also f/p Emerald Heirloom version). Considering they were made around 50 years ago I still find the level of detail and workmanship amazing. If I had to choose I would probably rate the Gem RS Big Boy ahead of my Tenshodo Signature Big Boy from about the same period. But then there are other Gem models that do not excite me so much. I also have the Gem Ruby C&O J2 and Reading T1. They are of similar similar build quality to the Big Boy. However, I also have three Gem Olympia HO GWR King George V 4-6-0 (British) locos. Gem Olympia one in red velvet Ruby box marked 2027 (Fulgurex numbering?) one of 30 made according to certificate signed H Tagaya. Another is in green velvet Olympia box. In contrast to the USA Gem Olympia models these UK models are NOT very accurate - not as good a model as the later Fulgurex KMT/KTM? model in OO scale.
  • Clifford E. Carter wrote: I have a New York Central #999 4-4-0. I think I bought it about 3 years ago and paid $150. It was poorly painted, (re-did that) no lettering (installed) and intermittent running (took some doing). It has an open frame motor and open gear box. Runs like a "scalded cat" and is hard pressed to pull any kind of "NMRA" weighted train
  • Gareth Edwards wrote: I have one of the Little 0-4-2T Vulcan's. I just love it. Could use a little more detail, but I can do that. Unique wheel config and even better a small brass locomotive. May remotor...
  • Frank Gerschwiler wrote: I have an HO UP Challenger #3905 in wood box labelled Takeno. Gem/Imp Imperial?? It has a massive KTM motor in the cab and reasonable detail. Maybe someone somewhere knows a bit about these. I also have a brass UK HO A4 Mallard 4-6-2 similar build quality to the Gem HO King George V mentioned previously. The A4, like the King, appears to have undersize driving wheels and to have been sprayed overall in brass color (or was it lacquered?). It seems to me that Gem did produce a few models of UK locomotives possibly marketed in Europe by Fulgurex in the early 1960s but no-one seems to know anything about these..... certainly not Fulgurex I do know Coluzzi (of Fulgurex) had a Gem Olympia handbuilt SNCF 2-4-1P in OO scale NOT HO -- one of five made.

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Glacier Park

GPM has not produced that many models, but everything they have done is superb in every way with the exception of the UP Big Boy model, which was imported with some serious issues, apparently mostly involving the DCC electronics. If you want the best model of a prototype they have done, nothing else will measure up. You will pay handsomely for them, but probably end up glad you took the plunge.

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2 Other Comments

  • Forrest wrote: Glacier Park models have an incredible level of detail, ultra smooth operating motors / gearboxes, and beautiful factory paint jobs. The P&LE A2 2-8-4 is a magnificent model. Consider this line of models "collector grade", as usually total production runs for a model are low (the P&LE A2 2-8-4 had a total production run of 110 pieces), with usually several variations within that total, so a specific model may only have a 20, 30, 40, etc. piece run (the Passenger Painted P&LE #9401 A2 2-8-4 had 20 pieces made). Expect to pay $1200 - $1800 for these models as of 2010 (new or used).
  • On 2020-12-30 RP wrote: IMHO: These are the best quality brass steam locos you can buy. The detail is phenomenal. The running qualities nonpariel. Their Big Boy set that standard for what can be done. The pinnacle of Boo-Rim's master crafstmanship. Jimmy Booth takes great pride in the models bearing the GPM name. Expensive, yes. Worth it, absolutely.

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Hallmark Models, Dallas TX

Hallmark was one of the more interesting importers, willing to do some very unusual models. While their early models were crude by current standards, and haven't stood up as well as the United and Tenshodo Japanese models, there are some prototypes for which Hallmark remains the only choice. But you probably should be willing to do some driveline tuning and some brass repair in order to be happy with these.

That said, Hallmark did some eye-popping specific models throughout the company's lifetime. You have to do a LOT of research to figure out which models these are, but it is worthwhile to do so. Bobbye Hall generally hit it out of the park with her T&P models; the P-1b and M-1 models in particular are just covered in detail. Beware, however, that getting a T&P paint job done is a costly project, if you can find a painter to take them on in the first place!

Later in Hallmark's tenure, they did a series of models in a series they called "Super Crown". These are typically excellent in detail, finish, and running quality - and I have not had any durability issues with them. If you're a fan of later ATSF steam power, check out their various Super Crown versions of 4-6-4, 4-8-4, and 2-10-4 locos. I'd say the only competition for these would be the Glacier Park Models of ATSF 3461 (superior to the excellent Hallmark 4-6-4s) and maybe Global Outlet's or The Coach Yard's 2-10-4 Madam Queen.

Both of Hallmark's Super Crown Blue Goose versions far surpass the Tenshodo models. I haven't seen PSC's versions, which are reputed to be outstandingly detailed, but I have some issues with PSC models (about which see below.) Also check out their Super Crown ATSF high-level passenger train. Finally, they did a Super Crown version of SP / T&NO C-24 which is excellent.

-- Eric Bott

3 Other Comments

  • Richard J. Murray wrote: I have most of the East Broad Top HOn3 brass produced by Bobbye Hall's Hallmark Models. I have seen the real thing and these models are the best (and only) models of EBT locomotives in HOn3(circa 2012). Very accurate, run beautiful. Some of the freight and passenger equipment has been produced in resin or plastic. Hallmark's is still the one by which other's quality is to be judged.
  • John D. Mock wrote: Some of the earlier Hallmark models were of uneven running quality though well detailed. This may have been a reflection of the era as production was shifting from Japan to Korea and the Korean builders had not yet come into their own. However, my comments here will be limited to the outstanding Super Crown Series steam engines produced during the late 1980's and 1990's by Samhongsa. I owned 3 of the magnificent Santa Fe 2-10-4's which I had purchased from Howard Zane, and I was able to look through his entire collection (which at the time included several Hallmark pilot models as well) and examine them in great detail. The Santa Fe 4-6-4's, 4-8-4's and 2-10-4's were all of exceptional quality at the time of production. I appreciated the coasting drive very much as it helps to smooth out train handling in plain DC. These engines all had exceptional painting, finishing, etc. and ran as well or better than anything else in brass that I have ever seen. They compare very favorably with the best Key/Samhongsa steamers.
  • James L. Sims wrote: I have nine IC 900 Class 2-8-0s, they are beautiful! None of them run! The drivers were all casts using an inferior mix of pot metal alloy for casting the drivers for these locomotives as well as my two MOPAC 2-8-0s. Some major rebuilding of the drive train and new driver sets would cure this. I also have a Hallmark IC 2500 Class 4-8-2 that runs great, and a Hallmark, I believe Crown, Frisco 4200 Class 2-8-2 that also is a good runner. All of these models are beautiful, considering the era, but there's no excuse for the all the defects.

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Key Imports, Tiburon, CA, 1975-2008

Key, like OMI, has been in the business for a long time. So Key's early models, like OMI's, are crude compared to their later models. And there was also a time when Key's quality might have slipped. That said, Key has imported some outstanding models in recent years. Also I should add that I own one of Key's first imports (an ATSF Prairie), and it is a good model.

The most important thing to know about Key is that they often produced several levels of models in their middle years through current times (although Key doesn't seem to be producing much of anything in HO over the past several years, in favor of O-scale only production.) Their "non-series" models were typically detailed models for their time, with standard mechanisms. Their "Classic" series models seem to be a step down in detail, with standard mechanisms. Their "Custom Series" models, starting after maybe CS-50 or so, are a significant step up in detail. There was a "Super Classic" series, which was another cut above (they maybe did 20 models in this series), and a "Benchmark Super Classic" series which had the best model technology, detail and finish that could be found at the time. The point is, again, you need to do your research about Key models to understand what you are looking at and how much it is worth. Don't "wing" it!

Everybody looking at a Key model should also understand what a "coasting drive" is, as most of their steam loco models have this feature, as do a few models from a few other importers. It is gearbox technology that decouples the worm gear from the worm and motor if the model is being pushed, allowing it to coast freely. And when you reverse direction or after coasting, it requires several revolutions of the motor to re-engage the worm gear and worm. Some people hate this in a model - usually people whose layouts have steep grades and are chagrinned when their train pushes a "coasting drive" loco across a switch to foul a track that was expected to remain clear. Some people love the coasting drive, because of the drifting characteristic or because it makes spotting a locomotive by hand a very simple proposition. The point here is that if this is a Big Deal to you either way, you need to know whether a particular Key model run (or any other steam loco model) has a coasting drive or not.

7 Other Comments

  • Tom White wrote: I model mostly Rio Grande standard-gauge steam, and Key has imported some very fine models of Rio Grande locos. I have two M-63 4-8-4's, one M-68 4-8-4, two M-75 3-cylinder 4-8-2's and their K-59 2-8-2. All are very well detailed, smooth running and good haulers. The only minus I could give them is that they do need additional weight and balancing to improve their hauling capabilities. Other than that, they're very nice, quiet, handsome locomotives. Tom
  • Forrest wrote: Key Imports models have historically had smooth mechanisms and excellent detail. Also, several of their models operate well on moderate radius curves (their 4-6-2 PRR K-5 Pacific will operate on 24" radius), so operation of their models is possible on many layouts. Detail is very good, but their models are usually "light" in weight, so if you plan to operate them plan to add additional eight depending on how many cars you wish to pull. Most Key Import models command prices in the $500 - $1000 range as of 2008, very rare models can even command higher prices (such as their PRR S-1 6-4-4-6 which is $2,000+ as of 2008). Since Key Imports offered many of their models as Factory painted or in Natural Brass, if you are looking for Natural Brass models to display Key offers many prototypes to choose from. I consider most of my Key Import models as collector grade as the ones I own have appreciated over the years, and their production numbers are usually on the lower side.
  • Scott Schwartz wrote: The detail on these models is beyond spectacular. However, if you've ever tried to connect the telescoping steam pipes on one of their articulateds (the D&RGW L-96 in particular)you're in for an evening of total frustration. Interesting how many photos of this model have a ribbon tying the front section on so as not to move! I keep mine in a Train-Safe case so it can't undo the pipes. Once done, the model looks gorgeous!
  • Ray Del Papa wrote: Loved that PRR Buick T-1 4-4-4-4, the best looking model I ever owned. What could have been better, a Sharknose steam locomotive with those Buick Porthole and Coasting Drive!
  • Clifford E. Carter wrote: I have two articulateds. A GN R-2 all weather cab f/p and a U.S.R.A. 2-6-6-2 painted for GN. The U.S.R.A. has a tendency to disconnect the forward steam pipe on tight curves. I think I need more "nose weight". Both run quite well.
  • bob cooke wrote: I have two KEY C.P. HUNTINGTON'S. One is factory painted in the colorful paint scheme as the Huntington appears in the museum in Sacramento and the other is the KEY HUNTINGTON in the "unpainted" version. I think these Huntington's are gorgeous and I have both displayed in the front of my lighted glass case. I have never put either on the track as I just display my collection. For any S.P. collector I would think a Key Huntington would be a must. thanks bob
  • Wayne Taylor wrote: I have over 30 HOn3 brass locomotives and the ones from Key are consistently among the best coming close to the PSC factory painted models. All of mine came with can motors installed which make them smooth running. Also, most come with a delrin/nylon idler gear which make them quiet. All of their C&S locos come with sprung drivers (except #71) which is a rarity with the smaller HOn3 locos. Their D&RGW C-18 factory painted high grade model is by far the best of all the narrow gauge brass locomotives I've ever

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L. M. Blum

L.M. Blum is one of the genuinely "old school" pioneer importers of brass models. These companies did not last into the era of even moderate detail level, and most of their models look very crude by today's standards. I can't think of a model from any of these importers that came with a can motor.

One serious problem with early imports is that zamac castings were used for some parts. Zamac is an alloy that expands and fractures with long term exposure to humidity. This is especially problematic when zamac was used to cast driver wheel centers, as the expansion often destroyed the insulation between the tire and the wheel center on the "insulated" side of steam locos, or just cracked the spokes in some cases. And when zamac was used in gearboxes, the expansion could lead to improper mating of the gears, causing bad running and premature gear wear. All of these zamac-related problems are extremely difficult to remediate, and not to be undertaken by most modelers.

Although collecting these early brass models is a personal choice, I cannot recommend it for modelers whose main focus is running and operating, or for modelers who don't have a personal machine shop and lots of idle time on their hands.

-- Eric Bott

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Lambert

Lambert generally hugged the low detail end of the spectrum, though their build quality was sound. One exception to the detail level was their "Platinum Series" C&O C-15a 0-8-0 (not to be confused with its "Silver Series" version of the same prototype), which was a very fine model with early built-in sound (but not DCC.) As the C-15a was their only entry in their "Platinum Series", confusion should be minimal.

-- Eric Bott

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M. B. Austin

M.B. Austin is one of the genuinely "old school" pioneer importers of brass models. These companies did not last into the era of even moderate detail level, and most of their models look very crude by today's standards. I can't think of a model from any of these importers that came with a can motor.

One serious problem with early imports is that zamac castings were used for some parts. Zamac is an alloy that expands and fractures with long term exposure to humidity. This is especially problematic when zamac was used to cast driver wheel centers, as the expansion often destroyed the insulation between the tire and the wheel center on the "insulated" side of steam locos, or just cracked the spokes in some cases. And when zamac was used in gearboxes, the expansion could lead to improper mating of the gears, causing bad running and premature gear wear. All of these zamac-related problems are extremely difficult to remediate, and not to be undertaken by most modelers.

Although collecting these early brass models is a personal choice, I cannot recommend it for modelers whose main focus is running and operating, or for modelers who don't have a personal machine shop and lots of idle time on their hands.

-- Eric Bott

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Submit A Comment About MB Austin Steam Locomotives

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MTS

MTS imported some of the finest (most detailed, best power trained, highest finish quality) traction models available even today, and command commensurately high prices. However, a few of their factory painted models (most notably their CNS&M Tower Car) didn't follow prototype livery, insofar as I was able to research the topic. As always, do your research.

-- Eric Bott

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Max Gray Perfection Scale Models, Santa Clara, CA, 1962-1965

Max Gray is one of the genuinely "old school" pioneer importers of brass models. These companies did not last into the era of even moderate detail level, and most of their models look very crude by today's standards. I can't think of a model from any of these importers that came with a can motor.

One serious problem with early imports is that zamac castings were used for some parts. Zamac is an alloy that expands and fractures with long term exposure to humidity. This is especially problematic when zamac was used to cast driver wheel centers, as the expansion often destroyed the insulation between the tire and the wheel center on the "insulated" side of steam locos, or just cracked the spokes in some cases. And when zamac was used in gearboxes, the expansion could lead to improper mating of the gears, causing bad running and premature gear wear. All of these zamac-related problems are extremely difficult to remediate, and not to be undertaken by most modelers.

Although collecting these early brass models is a personal choice, I cannot recommend it for modelers whose main focus is running and operating, or for modelers who don't have a personal machine shop and lots of idle time on their hands.

-- Eric Bott

Web

3 Other Comments

  • Joseph Nichols wrote: I bought two or three HO Max Gray locos when they first hit the market. As I recall, they were the first HO brass locos to have brake shoes for the drivers. They ran great right out of the box. Max Gray was more famous for importing O scale locos.
  • Tom White wrote: I acquired a Max Gray MT-3 (without the 'skyline casing') two years ago at a train show. Pretty remarkable detail for its age, and though the old open-frame motor is going to need replacement soon, the locomotive itself is a MONSTER! It must weight at least 7 pounds, and it will haul anything you want to put behind it. Very nicely detailed and quite handsome. And even with the old open-frame motor, it's very responsive to control. I like it a lot. It's easy for me to see how Max Gray got the fine reputation it had back in the ealier days of brass imports. Tom
  • Dr. Barbara Ganson wrote: I am the niece of the late Max Gray who was quite a remarkable individual, having grown up in Cleveland, Ohio, as one of five children of immigrant parents. He loved to photograph trains with a brownie camera, as a child. He turned his passion for trains into a highly successful importing business from Japan using his detailed model train designs. He is the attributed to be the inventor of 0 gauge trains. He learned Japanese and would travel each year to Japan on a DC 6. He was definitely right about his marketing plan for Perfection Scale Models. He always maintained that high quality brass trains would keep their value. His trains have maintained their, despite the years. Uncle Max passed away in 1965 due to a heart attack.

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New England Rail Service (NERS)

This was a small importer that probably did fewer than 20 projects, all of them of New England prototypes, all of them steam. Their quality was excellent, and they featured some premium attributes. Among the latter was the use of solid nickel-silver tires, which meant that there was no wheel plating that could be worn through over long service life. Fidelity and detail level, along with running quality, were very good on all NERS models I have seen.

-- Eric Bott

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NJ Custom Brass, Korea

Nick and Jack Custom Brass was an interesting enterprise. They did a fair variety of projects, mostly aimed at Eastern roads. With a few notable exceptions, they aimed for the middle-of-the-road market, doing limited prototype research and opting for moderate detail. In fact, their range of models doesn't seem to include many that would have involved lots of new-pattern lost-wax castings. The very notable exception to this generalization are a series of models they did with GOM (the Custom Royale series), which incorporated some state of the art level of detail, including early examples of full cab interior, on maybe half dozen steam prototypes. These models still bring good prices, and are well worth looking at.

I've heard from competent authority that Nick and Jack weren't necessarily meticulous about accuracy. (This from an LIRR modeler of significant repute.) I haven't gone on a rivet-counting crusade, but if absolute accuracy is a priority for you, you might bring some sound prototype drawings with you to compare to the model you are considering buying.

I have both very good and really frustrating NJCB models. With some notable exceptions, robustness seems good. Their New Haven electrics all seem to be pretty good - not equal to Railworks, but with good mechanisms (though noisy) and detail. Similarly, the GN Y-1b model is good. However, their model of the GN three-phase "tunnel motor" electric has an utterly crappy mechanism with major durability issues. Their model of N&W LC-1 is very good.

Their model of the VGN AE 2-10-10-2 fetches astounding prices these days, despite having moderate detail and an absolutely wretchedly designed drive train - and it costs a small fortune to mitigate. The same driveline issue seems to be true of their PRR HC-1. Other steam models seem to occupy the lower middle range of brass of their era, except for the GOM models noted above.

NJCB also did a number of PRR passenger and freight cars, most of which have been surpassed by plastic models. However, their B-70a and B-74b scenery and horse express cars fetch astonishing prices these days, for cars with modest detail. No plastic equivalent. The NJCB models of the NH "American Flyer" cars has been completely outclassed by Rapido's plastic cars, except for the club car variant.

NJCB did the only brass versions I'm aware of of the NH MU cars (from open platform steel HWT, to closed vestibule HWT, to Washboards.) These are still the best option out there (I find the Washboards preferable to the Island Models resin models). They also did a rather decent set of PRR / Reading Seashore MU cars. None of the MU cars had interiors, and the NH closed vestibule HWTs only came unpainted. All came in 3-car sets, with only one truck of one car in each set powered - beware if you have a layout with steep grades and sharp curves. By the way, if you are looking for a NYW&B MU car, the only option I'm aware of is the very rare Metro Models brass version.

-- Eric Bott

7 Other Comments

  • Scott Schwartz wrote: NJCB, like PFM, were built in Korea but also, for their upscale Royale series, in Japan by GOM. I have 5 of their models on display, 4 of them Royales, so I won't comment on running characteristics. I have not seen better detailing even on modern brass, especially in the cabs, and these all came out in the late 70's, about the time that a backhead was all you could reasonably expect. Absolutely glorious! They tend to be rather sturdy, yet have bell cords, electrical conduits, and other fine details. Their C&O H-7a is a classic, as is their H-4. These are uncommon prototypes, well-built, and at a price half or a third of the newer versions. Great stuff.
  • Forrest wrote: NJ Custom Brass (NJCB) came out with many fine models, especially for eastern railroads such as Reading, Lehigh Valley, Western Maryland, NYC, C&O, and Erie. While NJ Custom Brass did have a "high end" collectable line known as the "Royale Series" of models, some of their other regular run models can command $900+ prices (such as the LV 4-8-4) since no one else has produced the same model as of 2010. However, most NJCB models can be purchased in the $400 - $600 range as of 2010. All of my small and mid size locomotives (WM 2-8-0, WM 2-10-0, Reading 4-6-2, Erie 2-8-4) will run on tighter curves (24" radius), and all of the ones I own are smooth runners. I consider their level of detail to be very good on their regular run models. I believe most (if not all) NJCB models were only offered in natural brass as I have yet to see one that was "factory painted".
  • Frank Gerschwiler wrote: I have a few GOM Royale models and my C and O H7a in all respects (running, build quality, accuracy and level of detail) is perhaps my favourite model and is unsurpassed by any other model in my collection. I recall the photo showing Goto San standing proudly outside his "shed", his eyesight was failing, his son was not interested in following in the footsteps of his father and so came to an end the career of one of the most outstanding model builders. If he had made jewelry his products would surely be amongst the most sought after - and amongst the most expensive. I still do not understand why GOM Royale models are not more expensive. They certainly seem excellent value for money.
  • Ray Del Papa wrote: If you loved PRR models you had to love NJ Custom Brass. What model did they not come out with? they even did a CC-2 0-8-8-0 as well as the Horse Car, Scenery car, the RT-624 and all those K-4's. You will never see many of these models in brass again.
  • Bob Noaln wrote: In response to Frank Gerschwillers thought on painted NCJB models, one was offered as NJCB #ST 820, B8a, 0-6-0t, (PRR). There were a total of 500 (one of NJCBs higher runs) of them imported in 1978. The painted version sold for $160,unpainted $140. The models serial# is no different than the painted/unpainted versions,so you don't know what you have till you open the box! A good photo of one is in NJ Custom Brass Second Edition Catalogue. NJCB makes some of the nicest (in my opinion) models to display ,the PRR versions are tops!!
  • Richard J. Murray wrote: I wish I could have latched on to some of these, may still. Beautiful models. Prices today getting a little ridiculous though (circa 2012). Agree with Ray Del PaPa and Bob Noaln comments.
  • Don Walsh wrote: I have the ST-270 C&O Super Hudson 4-6-4- Class L2 "Baker". It is one on the most beautiful models I own. Exceptional quality and details Made by DMC in Korea. A real treasure. I marvel at the low prices for these classics compared to many other importers...

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Nickel Plate Products

NPP generally hovered at the lower end of the detail spectrum for its time, and its drive mechanism sophistication generally lagged its contemporaries. However, if you want to model the CSS&SB, or early era IC commuter lines, you will eventually have to own NPP Models. Same for certain DL&W, D&H, and NKP steam. With work and not inconsiderable cost, the NPP models can be considerably improved in appearance and running quality, as their "bones" are generally solid.

-- Eric Bott

3 Other Comments

  • Forrest wrote: Nickel Plate Products (NPP) models almost fall into two categories, those made in the 1970's and those made in the 1980's, as the level of detail, operation, and overall quality (in my opinion) are quite different. NPP also seemed to concentrate on modeling the north east and north central railroads. The 1970's models mostly had open frame motors, basic details, and were in some cases rather "fragile" as the soldering could come apart on the detail parts (I have used super glue a few times to reattach parts on my DL&W 4-8-4 and B&LE 2-10-4). However, their models from the 1980's mostly had can motors, a good to excellent amount of added detail, very good operating qualities, and have commanded some $1,000+ prices due to rarity. Their Reading 2-8-2, Reading 2-10-2, and DL&W 4-6-2 are excellent examples of their quality, as these models run smoothly and will operate on tighter (24" radius) curves. Furthermore, these models are rather rare. While most NPP models from the 1970's are usually priced at $300-$500 in 2009, their models from the 1980's can range anywhere from $600 (WM 4-8-4) to $1400 (Reading 2-10-2 w/twin sand domes) in 2009.
  • jack shaw wrote: While stationed in Korea in 1984-85, I visited a brass model factory in Seoul. It was over a local cafeteria and the smell of various Korean dishes filled the air. While talking with the owners, thru their nephew interpreter who was a student at a nearby college, I found out that there was no stock on hand to sell. They got an order for 500 locos; they made 500 locos. In current production was the SoPac 2-6-6-2, and I said I wanted one. "No problem..we make 501." Sure enough, two months later I got my loco. So I reckon you just had to be there for the deal. And it was.
  • On 2020-07-09 Ken Hough wrote: That division in quality was due to one man, H. Arndt Gerritsen. He was Doc Simons' draftsman. He was fastidious beyond belief. After NPP closed, Arndt worked for years drawing for Overland Models.

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Northwest Shortline (NWSL)

NWSL imported a couple of handsfull of brass models, many of them problematic, and most of them crudely detailed. However, unless you are willing to go to a fabulously expensive PSC model, or a Mantua cast boiler model, NWSL is worth a look for some of their Baldwin logging models. However, they fairly often need gearbox replacement, and I can't think of an NWSL model that was imported with a can motor. NWSL used Toby to produce several models. These usually came with solid drives, but very modest detail.

The best recommendation here is to See It Run before buying, as a gearbox replacement is an expensive proposition, especially on a model of an articulated locomotive.

-- Eric Bott

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Oriental Limited

Oriental models often do not command the price that I think their quality deserves. Some exceptions to this are their PRR Passenger Sharks, their Woodard Lumber 2-6-2t, and their Sugar Pine Lumber 2-10-2t, all of which command strong prices. About 70% of Oriental's models were built by Samhongsa (a very good thing, in that era), but about 7% were built by Kumata (mostly passenger cars, a handful of diesels, and a dozen or so trolleys.) The Kumata passenger cars were typical for their times. The trolleys were a bit better than the E Suydam trolleys of the time. If you really need an E-2A or E-2B diesel, the Oriental/Kumata offerings are worlds cheaper than the Overland, but had much noisier drives.

-- Eric Bott

2 Other Comments

  • Richard J Murray wrote: Picked up Oriental Limited PRR M1 a few years back. Very nice. Comparable to Key quality. Challenger's superior to these in detail. Paint of all three importers very fine. All three of the models by these three importers of the models in my possesion were made by Samhongsa. My sincerest compliments to their artisans.
  • John K. wrote: I picked up an Oriental Limited Powerhouse series 2-8-2 that was just painted but unlettered. Not sure which owner I am but it is stock. Not a ton of detail on these so if you are looking for highly detailed then this is not for you. These are meant to run and boy does it run. Ran smooth. Stutters at slower speed but overall a nice locomotive. I highly recommend it for running as long as you do not need every little detail to be correct for whatever railroad you are modeling.

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Overland Models, Inc. Muncie, IN, current

I have a love-hate relationship with OMI. They imported over 10,000 different models (if you count all the paint variations), which is close to what everybody else put together produced in terms of variety. The early models were crude by comparison to their later models, as is to be expected. I believe they took some shortcuts in their middle years to cut costs, and imported some disappointing models (models with disappointing construction and durability) in that era. The point is, buyers need to do some research about the particular OMI model they are considering, and decide whether they can tune/repair if required. Generally, the later Ajin-made models were decent, but the Rok-Am and early Ajin models should be carefully evaluated before purchasing.

The good news is that OMI also produced a lot of fine models, and models of lots and lots of prototypes for which there is no competing model. They also produced the best models of many prototypes that other companies produced models for. For example, if you want a brass model of a UP turbine prototype, OMI's later runs of these models stand head and shoulders above the various Balboa, Westside, NJCB, and Soho models. But this is a perfect example of why you need to do research before buying an OMI model: OMI did several runs of the Standard, Veranda, and Big Blow prototypes, and while all of their runs are better than Balboa's, OMI's later runs are very significantly better than their earlier runs. One could get stung by that difference, if one didn't know what price differential makes sense between the runs.

A serious complaint I have of Overland is that they did not always research their paint and livery specs, or took short-cuts with them to hit a price point. Among the worst offenses were the "Custom Painted OMI" sets of the IC articulated Green Diamond train (on which OMI failed to spec the aluminum trim ring paint around all 104 windows), and their Erie Marion Class tugboat models, which had numerous livery problems (and which they also put a factory-painted Lackawanna scheme on, which is utterly bogus.) Yet these models are not available from any other source. So, one could find oneself buying more unpainted Overland models than factory painted, and having these models custom painted. Decals can be a serious problem, though.

Do your research.

-- Eric Bott

5 Other Comments

  • Joseph Nichols wrote: I bought one of the early HO Overland brass models, which was an Atlantic Coast Line R-1 4-8-4. It was a beautiful model but the mechanism was terrible. The gears had very tiny teeth, to make it run quiter I suppose. After about an hour the teeth wore off. Overland sent me at least 3 or 4 new gears with the same results. I put in a new North West Short Line gear box and it is till running without a problem. There were many other problems. There are some cooling pipes along the right side on the front 8-wheel tender truck. These were soldered too close in and wedged against the tender side frames so there was no swiveling at all for the front tender truck. But after I had corrected all the mechanical problems it has been a great locomotive and a joy to run. And it still runs flawlessly. Later Overland models I have bought I have been very pleased with. They make some great models.
  • Forrest wrote: Overland Models (OMI) have historically had smooth mechanisms and excellent detail, at least the ones manufactured by Ajin that I am familiar with. Also, several of their models operate well on moderate radius curves (their CNJ 2-8-2 mikado will operate on 24" radius), so operation of their models is possible on many layouts. Most Overland Models command prices in the $500 - $1000 range as of 2008, very rare models can even command higher prices such as their Milwaukee Road 4-6-4 Hiawathas ($1,500+ as of 2008). Since Overland offered many of their models Factory Painted or in Natural Brass, if you are looking for Natural Brass models to display Overland offers many prototypes to choose from. With limited production numbers I usually consider most (but not all) Overland Models collector grade, as Overland usually made several variations of a particular model.
  • Everett wrote: I bought an Overland HO scale DRG&W narrow gauge steam loco several years ago. It was a beautiful model but the quality of brass Overland and Ajin Precision used to make brass engines and rolling stock is lousy. Plus, to keep the cost of the the models down, Overland had some parts that would normally be made of brass made from plastic instead. The tender for my DRG&W steam loco had sideframes made of plastic! I was very disappointed with that. And the brass used to make my steam loco was soft and easily bent. I found a damaged brass detail part on my loco that wasn't easy to repair. It wasn't easy to see at first, because there are so many features on a steam loco. I returned it the hobby shop, but I couldn't get an exact replacement because they were all sold out. Overland make great looking brass models, but the models are not high quality. I also had problems with an Overland HO scale brass New Haven EP-5 engine. It was factory painted and the soldered parts were coming loose. I've giving up on buying Overland brass models. I'm sticking with pre-owned Suydam HO scale brass traction models. Might as well, I'm strict traction guy. Suydam knew how to make high quality brass models.
  • Jon wrote: I have a pair of overland New York Central H5t mikados both have had drive train issues with the diecast gear boxes. When I called to see if they had knowledge of this I was told they indeed knew about it and their solution was sending out an entirely different geared axle/gear box, at a cost to me! These were not inexpensive locomotives-beautiful detail but poor mechanical execution.
  • Frank Gerschwiler wrote: I have the two versions of the Overland Erie ANGUS L1 0-8-8-0 made by Ajin in the 1990s. They are more detailed than my earlier Custom Brass Dai Young model from the late 1970s. I have always been fascinated with the Erie RR and their (generally unsuccessful) attempts to get the most out of their horrible local anthracite eg Triplex (LMB) my first ever mallet. As with most brass models since the 1990s you have to check that the model is perfect (no bits dropped off, damaged) since in my view build quality is simply not as good or robust as Japanese models of the 1970s to 1990s although recent models are more accurate and usually better runners. Having said that, later Ajin models are generally good manufacturers.

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Pacific Fast Mail, Edmonds, WA, 1954-2007?

PFM was the longest-lived and most prolific importer with the exception of Overland, but its time period was about 15 years earlier. So in general, PFM and Van models are less detailed, but had more durable mechanisms that Overland's. PFM was one of the few importers that made successful transition from Japanese builders to Korean builders. The later Japanese models are generally highly sought after, but my favorites are the later imports from Korea. The earlier Korean imports could be problematic, during the time PFM was training up the Korean workforce in the art of brass.

A problem with PFM and Van (who used the same builders in Japan and Korea) is that both did multiple production runs (sometimes as many as 10!) of many of their models. They placed annual production orders with their builders, sometimes making no changes in the model spec for the previous year, sometimes with minor changes, and sometimes with major upgrades - but never with changing the model number, and often not changing the box in any way. So it is very challenging to research (and keep firmly in mind) the differences when one is considering buying a particular model - and these changes drive the market prices to very different outcomes to the cognoscenti who do know the nuances. And there are less than scrupulous sellers who will obscure the provenance of a model to try to get more money for it than the market should bear. Once again, research is crucial to prudent collecting here.

Another problem is that PFM's and Van's different production houses worked to different quality ethics. In general, Fujiyama and Tenshodo were at the top of the quality stack, though both tended to be conservative and a bit behind the curve in adding detail, incorporating can motors, etc. But they are noteworthy for having mechanisms that deliver decades of good operation. The later models from SKI in Korea seem quite good in general.

-- Eric Bott

18 Other Comments

  • David Barron wrote: Don Drew owned and operated Pacific Fast Mail until his recent death, November 2008. He was very friendly, honest, ran a first class business and always had time to share with a railroad fan. I purchased my first PFM brass locomotive in 1963, a MA & PA 2-8-0 for $34.95. Over the years I wrote to him many times and always received the part I needed or advice on how to fix something. I was fortunate enough to visit him at PFM HQ in Edmonds not more than 2 years ago. Although PFM has officially been closed and has not imported anything since the mid 1980's Don still maintained a full schedule, displays of PFM Models, books, the perminant layout, traveling layout, work shops, reference libruary, and parts. He had been an intrigal part of any brass locomotive fan for decades. He was and still is considred a friend.
  • Joseph Nichols wrote: I agree with David Barron. Don Drew was a nice guy and ran an excellent company. For years PFM was THE brass model locomotive inporter. I bought a United NYC Niagara in 1958 and it is still running well. The center drivers were blind. That was also the case with a United SP Daylight which also is still running. I probably have 20 or so United models, all of which are sill running. The United SF 4-8-4 was one of the best models United ever produced. So was the Nickel Plate Berkshire. PFM was also the importer for Tenshoda, but I don't think I ever bought one of those models. PFM also imported some Crown locos, built by Fujiyama. Crowns were very limited productions, usually only a few built. The NP A-5 4-8-4 and the MoPac 2200 series 4-8-4 may be the finest and most beautiful HO brass model locomotives ever built, in my opinion.
  • Tom White wrote: I own five PFM models and like them a lot. Very sturdy, nicely detailed, and with a little work, very smooth runners. I have 3 PFM articulateds (two Rio Grande L-131 2-8-8-2's and one Denver and Salt Lake 2-6-6-0) and I have to admit that they have the STRANGEST reduction gearing I've ever seen on any brass loco--an exposed double-gear that probably only be replaced by a NWSL gear-tower and replacing the gear on the locomotive driving axle. This makes them fairly noisy when they run, but they are extremely smooth and powerful. If you don't mind the 'coffee-grinder' sound, they perform beautifully. My other two are a Rio Grande 4-6-2 (beautiful) and the ubiquitous Santa Fe 1950 2-8-0, which is the first brass locomotive I ever acquired in 1960. It's still a little charmer. I've replaced the original open frame motor with a NWSL can, but it still rambles around the layout with a lot of style. Tom
  • Forrest wrote: Pacific Fast Mail (PFM) offered very reliable models with very good detail and operating qualities. Early models had Open Frame Motors, later models had Can motors and an exceptional level of detail (such as their C&O J3a 4-8-4 done in 1981). Many PFM models can operate on tighter radius curves (their RF&P 4-8-4 will operate on a 24" radius). Many PFM models were made in large (for brass) production runs of several hundred models per prototype, or in some cases several thousands. This makes many PFM models usually available and at reasonable prices (usually $250 - $750 in 2008). PFM did though have a "collector grade" product line, known as PFM "Crown" models (usually noted on the box, or with a serial number on the model itself). While some Crown models did have several hundred made, other Crown models had quantities of 100 or less making them collectable. Expect to pay $750+ for a crown model, with very rare Crown models (P&LE 2-8-4, N&W 4-8-4, C&NW 4-8-4, NYC 4-6-4, CB&Q 4-8-4, C&O 4-6-4) getting $1,500 - $4,000 in 2008. Two other collector grade PFM model lines are the ultra rare Hand Built models of which usually less than 15 were made (a C&O 4-6-4 Hand Built model went for $10,000 on eBay in 2008), and the Nickel Silver plated models for advertising photo purposes of which only 1 was made (no pricing available for these, but I can only assume they would fall in the "if you have to ask you cannot afford it" price level). Some PFM models were only offering as Factory painted, while others were only offered in Natural Brass.
  • Mike Toney wrote: I own 2 early run PFM's and one mid run PFM. The two early models are a NKP Berkshire and a Southern PS4. They both run smooth with just the slightest motor noise from their original Pittman motors. The Berkshire needs 22" radius min, she wont even think about 18" curves. The PS4 Pacific will handle the tighter curves if the track work is clean. My mid run PFM is another PS4 Pacific with brake shoes, the early runs lacked the brake shoes. I paid $100 for the Berkshire with its box as it needed some minor TLC, $175 for the early run Southern PS4 Pacific with its box, and I swapped some Marklin stuff for the later run PS4 that is painted for the Crescent Limited. He wanted $200 for the model without the original box, I had $50 invested in the stuff I swapped for it. I can highly recommend PFM/United models for modelers that wish to operate the engines. Even with thier original Pittman motors, the Berkshire pulling 10 heavy passenger coaches draws between 1/2 and 3/4 amp on straight DC power, amps vary depending on the terrian she is traveling. PFM models have a heft and more substantial feel to them over other imports of the same time frame. Most all will run, even after years of storage and with only some basic maintance. The early run PS4 was new in the box, had absolutly no wheel wear. Using a 9vt battery I tested to see it would run, it did. A full relube ect was done prior to layout use. Its a shame PFM didnt survive to current day.
  • Scott Schwartz wrote: I have a number of articulateds by PFM including a rare unpainted GN R-2 by Tenshodo. It is a real shame that Tenshodo didn't put cab interiors in until quite late, if at all, even on Crowns. The models are otherwise cutting edge for their time and have a sturdiness not often seen in modern better-detailed Korean imports. Comparing my old L-131 with a PSC import costing several times more, the PFM engine holds its own!
  • D. R. MacDougall wrote: If you look at the back cover of any MR or RMC magazine of the latter half of the 1960s to well into the 80s (maybe more but I dropped off the scene for some years about then), you'll notice that PFM/United had another address in Vancouver Canada. I grew up within walking distance of that store. Van Hobbies was THE place for serious modelers in those days. Ron & Phil always had some new jewels on the shelves at the rear of the store. I had to be contented with the surplus custom Cal-Scale fittings they had from this run or that, but there were always members of the local NMRA in discussing various virtues/faults of the various runs. I was told that the Japanese models were contracted to jewelry manufacturers where the brass parts were cut out by men, and soldered together by teenage girls due to their superior hand-eye skills. It was widely believed that the shared orders with the Edmonds store that the US got the cream of the runs, because of the greater competition in the US market. When the cost of Japanese imports went off the charts they started dealing with Samhongsa.I have a few of these Korean engines and upon recently dusting off my treasures and getting back into the hobby, have found that all have motor couplings which have failed (14guage electrical wire insulation works ok as a replacement if soft enough). The first run of Tenshodo H1e Royal Hudsons had a number of errors, most of which were addressed on the next Samhongsa run, but the cylinders were wrong on the Korean offering, and very challenging to paint the interior cab details. I have one of these, and had ample opportunity to refer to the prototype and blueprints as I was the first hourly employee hired to restore it. I can't speak for the following runs as I have no experience with them.
  • Norm Silver wrote: I am the proud owner of two (2) PFM Fujiyama SP GS-1 Crown steam locomotives. Later I purchsed a D&RGW M-64 by built by Toby and then a GN R-1. All are in new condition and are great representatives of what great model craftsmen could produce back in the '60's and '70's. Don Drew insisted on quality and he got it. So did I as a discriminating HO modeler.
  • Bill Garry wrote: I have been collecting and operating PFM engines for years. They are sturdily built, have reasonable details, and represent a broad spectrum of prototypes. The United Crowns are my personal favorites, but even some of the standard issues - such as the later Hi-Grade runs - are beautifully detailed. Excellent values for the money.
  • Jim Crawford wrote: Two of the three PFMs I own are fine runners, although being built to pre-NMRA standards don't particularly care for code 83 rail; trackwork needs to be very good or they'll find the flaws. One is a GN Q1 that a previous owner filled with lead; it runs well and will pull 30+ cars up 2% easily. The second is an ATSF 3800 that also pulls well, but the flanged center drivers look wrong (did anyone ever make a proper blind set for this model?). The third is a gorgeous GN Z6 (NP or SP&S were also options) that takes a lot of tinkering to keep running reasonably well, and she's still noisy at speed. I do miss PFM, as they brought in reliable locomotives for everyday use on model railroads rather than display cases. Many others look lovely, but when put to work on a mountain railroad their beauty fades in a hurry.
  • James Alton wrote: I have recently purchased quite a few late 70's PFM crowns that were owned by Don Drew. I have also purchased a number of new PSC models lately. The PSC models, although very detailed and painted or plated very nicely, do not hold a candle to the PFM models when it comes to performance on the track. As far as I am concerned, PSC shouldn't bother putting motors and lights in there Models, because the only thing there good for is the display case. I wish I had known Don Drew, I would have liked to tell him how impressed I am with PFM models. Also, If PSC is reading this, you should take a lesson from Blackstone Models for instructions on how to build engines that run as good as they look!
  • James Alton wrote: I would like make a comment about my previous comment on this column. I did not intend to sound so harsch to PSC about their latest models. I realize that most people collect brass models to display and not run. Also, I should note that my most recent purchases: The Aeolus, the texas and pacific, and the Dryfuss Hudson all run very smooth on straight track and probably wide radius track. At this time I do not have the room for a large radius track layout, and those models cannot take my 25" radius track. I also have dual gauge turnouts using fast track templates which can be made with extremely tight tolerances. Even though the PSC models are not as forgiving on the operational side, they are of exceptional detail and painting.
  • Rob Nesbitt wrote: I recently acquired a Northerm Pacific S4 4-6-0 ex Don Drew Collection. This model was built by Samhongsa in 1975. It included a can motor, but no backhead. However, what I found unusual, was accoring to my references, that the S4 production run had open frame motors. The wheel treads on my model were pristine, but when I put it on my track, it ran backwards, which sort of confirms it was never used in anger. So my theory was that this model had a can motor installed as an experiment to see what the logistics were for future production. Does anyone else have can motors factory fitted prior to this date?
  • Loren Martens wrote: To Jim Crawford, The rumor that the S.F. 3800's had blind center drivers has been corrected by retired Santa Fe employees. You can get a brass disc driver (SP HEAVY) from GREENWAY PRODUCTS that is close to the LFM disc main drivers that were used by Santa Fe. SP 5021 at Pomona has an LFM disc main driver.All of Santa Fe's 4-6-2's, 4-6-4's, 4-8-4's receiving larger drivers, were LFM drivers.
  • Justin Dampier wrote: I own several PFM's. Impressive runners and nicely detailed. All of mine are United models. They're my best runners.
  • Gerschwiler wrote: I too have a collection of PFM mallets (Fujiyama, Tenshodo,Toby, United, inc a few Don Drew specials) Superb models in their day (and always good runners) but lacking the extra detail of Korean models (eg cab detail) from late 1980s I think. (echoing Scott's comments) Just for comparison I recently obtained a very early 1950? Tenshodo Santa Fe Texas #5008 built to last a lifetime still going strong.
  • On 2021-01-21 Lou Adler wrote: I owned and operated two United Western Pacific 2-8-2's for over 40 years. Both ran very well out of the box. I did replaced the gear tower in one with an idler gear tower. The other remained untouched. Both engines ran on a series of operating layouts and each probably had well over 800 hours of operation since they were my primary freight motive power. I never had a problem with either loco. Both are operating on a friend's layout and still doing well.
  • On 2021-03-04 Alfred Fickensher wrote: According to my journals, during the 18 years 1967-1985 I bought and ran, painted, brass-bashed and played-with, and eventually sold off 14 PFM brass locos. One was a Tenshodo, one was a Crown by Fuji, and the other 12 were Uniteds. The Tenshodo and Uniteds were all built like the proverbial brick outhouse and still today, I hold them up as the gold standard (along with Max Gray/USH in O Scale). Since the eighties brass models keep looking prettier and prettier but just not as substantially well built. I have no PFM HO brass today only because I've changed scale and interest.

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Precision Scale

I don't understand this company at all. Early on they sold brass kits, based on their (astonishing) array of cast brass detail parts, which they produced for many builders/importers. (N.B.: The original Prescision Scale Company was wound up, however its detail parts business was purchased by the Prantl family in Washington State, and is very much in business.) Then they started getting into assembled/unpainted brass, and then moved up to fully finished brass. There were some build quality issues along the way, even after the finishing started to become first rate.

PSC was by far the most active of the brass importers in its later days, and produced models across a wide variety of interests. And they have produced some outstanding models over thir last eight years or so of importing.

But buyer beware! Of the last two PSC models I bought, both were brand new, recent production. The level of detail and quality of finish were simply outstanding. But one (NYC Commodore Vanderbilt) shorted frequently, and both (the other was a MILW G-6ps) ran backwards! Apparently the production runs these models came from had about 50% incidence of the reverse wiring flaw. And in the case of the Commodore Vanderbilt, apparently the reason some of the models that didn't short is that some just had slightly thicker paint on the trailing truck frame. So there are going to be a lot of operator/purchasers of the PSC Commodore who are going to be bummin' when they wear through the paint. (Hang on to your Key Mizuno Commodore, or hope that the BLI Commodore gets done right!)

There are some PSC models that just seem to be unimproveable - for example, unless all you want is a display model do NOT EVER buy a PSC NKP/PM/C&O/VGN Berkshire (Kanawha). (The valve gear is just terrible in durability and running quality.) Or one of their first-run C&O L-1s (although their 2nd run seems to have a good reputation.) And don't expect the paint finish to withstand the underlying solder flux on some of PSC's Southern PS-4s. And... Oh, well. I should note, though, that PSC paint and finish has seemed competent since the mid 1990s.

OK, now that I have ranted about PSC quality lapses, I will state that I have some PSC models that have been perfect from Day 1. That includes just about any model that they contracted Boo Rim to build for them.

The problem is, I don't see a pattern in the quality issues PSC has had, so I can't point to some research that would keep a buyer out of trouble with PSC models other than the point about Boo Rim being a positive indicator. I think PSC used a wide variety of manufacturers in Korea, including a number of start-ups, over the years, and didn't pay a lot of attention to quality control. (They still don't, as far as I can tell.) Some of the manufacturers were apparently self-disciplined, and some weren't. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that PSC has historically been very closed-mouthed about who they have build particular models. So it's hard to know, and it's hard to research. In fact, I bought the NYC Commodore model because I was told that PSC was having Boo Rim manufacture them. It turns out that PSC changed builders without telling any of their retailers - and the quality suffered, and buyers got hurt. The ONLY recourse with PSC models appears to be to carefully inspect and run EVERY PSC model that you might be interested in buying - and I mean the specific model, not the run, and not the prototype. And I recommend that you compare its running direction with that of a competent mass-market plastic model on the same track to make sure the PSC model runs in the correct direction, if that is important to you.

-- Eric Bott

Web

6 Other Comments

  • Forrest wrote: Precision Scale (PSC) models have historically had smooth mechanisms and excellent detail (the Western Maryland 4-8-4 and 4-6-6-4 models were extremely well done), and some models even have operating marker lights. Also, some of their smaller models operate well on moderate radius curves (my N&W 4-8-0 M2 will operate on 24" radius). Most PSC models command prices in the $600 - $1200 (used) or $1200 - $1800 range (new) as of 2010. Since PSC offered many of their models as Factory painted or in Natural Brass, if you are looking for Natural Brass models to display PSC offers many prototypes to choose from. I consider most of my PSC models as collector grade, but since some used models can be purchased for reasonable prices (NKP 2-8-4’s are in the $600 range as of 2010) they do make exceptionally detailed operator models should one plan to run them.
  • Mike Norton wrote: I have a PSC Milwaukee Road F-6 4-6-4. It is factory-painted and lettered as #138. The detail is outstanding. It is a smooth runner, though I have only test-run it a couple of times. My only criticisms are that the smokebox front and the feedwater heater access panel came silver, which is not prototypical on the Milwaukee, and the red Mars light is on all the time. Fortunately, I was able to get the silver areas painted the correct black by the late Ed Abbott, a retired road foreman of engineers on the Milwaukee. The Mars light will have to wait for a DCC installation; it should only go on when there is an emergency on a double-track main. I think PSC was playing to the same kind of folks who lowered the pitcher's mound in baseball with the silver paint.
  • Gerschwiler wrote: I have a couple of the PSC DMIR Yellowstone M3 and M4 first series models made in 1993 for PSC by Samhongsa in orange boxes #15466/15468. They are incredible models in every respect detail, running quality suspension coasting drive etc I have to say they are better in these respects than my Tenshodo M3/M4 although my early unpainted DMIR M4 models (Fulgurex United Toby) from 1960 almost match the detail of the PSC models 33 years later (if you ignore the error of spoked wheels on the Toby models)
  • Gerschwiler wrote: I should mention that the PSC DMIR M3/M4 2nd series 17xxx gold boxes by Iron Horse Hobbies are not quite as desirable as the 1st series 15xxx. HOWEVER O gauge WOW I have the PSC H8 and PSC DMIR M4 incredible models yet the PSC O gauge Big Boy early/mid 1980s (in my opinion) is not as good a model as the Key O Gauge Big Boy Custom Series one sold by Brasstrains $3995 unpainted also $3775 f/p
  • Ed wrote: Beautiful detail, but varying operating reliability. I have an SP 2-10-2 (among my many other PSC models) that seems to have a burr on a driver, causing it to derail on curves. Another SP 2-10-2 has operated just fine. The operating quality seems to vary, even within the same run. A 4-6-0 seems not to be adaptable to DCC operations. I'd say they're generally display pieces, rather than for operation. With exceptions ! Or, inconsistent operating reliability.
  • On 2021-07-06 Tom Stamey wrote: PSC engines over the years have been of high quality. I have owned several. During the upheaval of manufactuers of brass engines there were a couple of builders who did equal the expected quality but Mark dropped those builders. And I believe he is partially responsible for the high quality of Samhongsa (in later years) and most of all Boo-Rim

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Rail Classics

Absolutely every model that Rail Classics produced just sweeps the field - check them out. Their PRR cabooses have interiors and interior lighting, and their flatcar models and R-50 reefers are outstanding. Everything they did was superbly researched and impeccably built.

-- Eric Bott

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Railway Classics

Not to be confused with Rail Classics (previous). Railway Classics was a follow-on venture to Shoreham Shops. Both concentrated on lightweight passenger trains, generally producing entire trains plus extra cars. Railway Classics produced a few associated diesel locomotives, notably E3A, E6A, the streamlined shovel nose EA and EB units of the CB&Q, and the EA unit CRI&P used on the Des Moines Rocket. The latter are vastly better than the Oriental versions, and correspondingly pricier The Shoreham Shops passenger cars did not have interiors, whereas the RC cars did'and generally better paint and exterior detail, as model technology had advanced significantly between the start of the two ventures. RC also produced the best detailed versions of quite a few CB&Q caboosesi - very nice.

Trains included CNW 400, IC City of Miami (2 versions), CRI&P Des Moines Rocket, NH Merchant's Limited (several versions), Nebraska/Twin Cities/Texas Zephyrs, MILW Olympian Hiawatha, and some NP NCL/GN EB/SP&S head-end cars.

I have seen two flaws in Railway Classics models. The first was a paint flaw on a Merchants Limited car, and modest in impact on the model's appearance. The second was a significant de-soldering of a Texas Zephyr car side from the car end. This was a Big Deal, but was fixed by an expert brass repair person. Everything else I have seen has been of outstanding quality. Their locos run very well.

-- Eric Bott

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Crown Custom Products / Railworks LTD

One of the most underrated brass brands around. Crown was a project of the same family that did Railworks, and they produced some very worthy models. Generally, both CC and Railworks focused on PRR, NH, B&M, Rutland, Lackawanna, and LIRR models, with a few others thrown in for good measure. Their research was generally impeccable (though I haven't found any photographic corroboration of their 14 window Erie Stillwell cars), involving the appropriate historical societies. Their NH Besseler, Comet (both paint schemes), and Mack FCD (both variants / paint schemes) models are excellent and run well; the former and latter are unavailable from any other source; they actually helped Con-Cor with research in doing the Comet in plastic. Yes, they are genuinely nice people. Do check the nylon gears on the Mack FCD units if you want to run them.

Their NH I-2 Pacifics (CC) were some of the earliest of the Boo Rim products, and some of my finest running models. Under the Railworks name, they brought in a number of PRR locos, including at least I-1s, K-4, L-1, H-6sb steamers-- all good runners with good detail. But their PRR and NH electric locos under the Railworks name deserve special attention; they did the DD-1 in both PRR and LIRR, in both as-built and "sports model" variants; E-2b, E-2C, and E-3b (PRR, obviously), and EF-1, EP-1, and EP-2 (NH, obviously). The DD-1s should be seen running before purchase; some apparently had minor quartering issues, albeit they look excellent. The rest of these models are excellent runners as well as excellent lookers. Their NH electrics are far, far superior to the MEW and NJCB versions in all respects, and easily equal to the quality of Overland's EP-3. Factory paint is of high quality on all CC and later Railworks models, however a recurring complaint about the PRR locos is that Railwork's Brunswick Green (or "DGLE") is too light for some people's taste. All of the NH model colors are dead on, as far as I can tell. The E-2b, E-3b and E-2c were also produced by Alpha Models. I'd say that Alpha got the pilots right for the E-3b and E-2c (Westinghouse) locos, but Railworks got it right for the E-2b (General Electric) locos. Check photos, to see what you think. Despite this, I prefer the Railworks models of all three types. Pantographs are a bit fragile, but the same can be said for the gorgeous Alpha Models PRR R-1.

Railworks and CC often came factory painted but unnumbered, so that the owner could apply numbers of his/her choice. The early models came with normal decals for numbering, but the later Railworks and maybe all of the CC models came with really cool decals with the film on the outside of the numbers. You apply them the same way as for normal decals, except that after drying, you can peel of the film and leave the numbers behind. Superb!

The CC models of the "State of Maine" box cars (both NH and BAR color schemes offered) are excellent (i.e., accurate and well detailed), if pricey. The earlier Railworks rolling stock was a bit hit-and-miss for rolling qualities, although almost always correctable. However, beware that their NH NE-3 (the only model I can think of for that caboose) has truck/steps interference issues, and should probably be considered a static model. On the other hand, their NE models are superior to Overland's, and equal to Challenger's in my opinion. Railworks had the distinction of being the only one of the three to offer MOW versions (two!) of the NE, both with working headlights. Their B&M cabooses (even the McGinnis blue buggies) are absolutely gorgeous, and their LIRR cabooses far superior to the NJCB versions of the same models. Their Rutland and Vermont Rwy wood cabooses and passenger cars are excellent, as are their Lackawanna 8- and 4-wheel wood cabooses. Their Rutland clerestory-roofed milk cars, B&M double-door wood milk cars, and Lackawanna 42' wood milk cars (with and without end doors, but none factory painted) are gorgeous; Railworks also did a nice MOW bunk version of the Lackawanna milk car, if you are modeling later than the milk train era. Their GM&O transfer cabooses (3 variants) are also gorgeous models; you will find yourself scratching your head over why they chose to produce those models, but you'll be proud to own one. I don't know enough about PRR cabooses to offer a definitive opinion, but the models seem well detailed - no factory painted versions that I am aware of, though. Their Lackawanna Boonton cars (all unpainted) are excellent. Their Erie Stillwell coaches are far superior to NWSL's in terms of detail, but my previous comment about their longer 14 window version not easy to document with photos might be taken to heart. Their MP-54s, MPB-54cs, and MB-62s are far superior to Alco Model's, having correct underbody detail for both the AC (PRR) and DC (LIRR) versions - and they run very well. The B-60b and BM-62 models are excellent (many variants of the former, making it worth considering collecting a few to go with your Walthers versions), and come appropriately in PRR and LIRR (Tuscan and Tichy gray) factory paint as well as unpainted. Among the many other (mostly unpainted) rolling stock, check out their PRR troop sleeper variants, which add a LOT of character to a train with the typical Hallmark or Walthers troop sleeper and kitchen models, or in a train with some PRR tuscan-painted Pullmans for the officers. The Railworks PRR clearance car (especially factory painted) is very cool - paint scheme is "PRR-understated" compared to Overland's vivid B&O clearance car paint scheme, but showing them together earns attention to each. Railworks seemed to do nearly every PRR flat car that Rail Classics didn't, but these models must be taken individually, as not all are good runners. Not many were factory painted. Exceptions included their later production of the Queen Mary flat (much more detailed than their first run, and factory painted), F-22, F-38, and F-40 flatcars - all of which are excellent, good-running models.

Beware that Railworks also did two runs of the Aerotrain. The second run is very much preferable, with better detail, interior, and glazing. Both run well.

-- Eric Bott

1 Other Comments

  • Navin Huddle wrote: I own a PRR D16sb made by Samhongsa, released by Railworks released in 1989. It's still the best D16sb in HO with a smooth drive, outstanding detail and excellent factory paint.

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Red Ball Scale Model Trains

Red Ball is one of a few of the genuinely "old school" pioneer importers of brass models. Red Ball did not last into the era of even moderate detail level, and most of their models look very crude by today's standards. Red Ball was somewhat advanced for its time, though still very crude in general; some of its last models might have been imported with can motors.

One serious problem with early imports is that zamac castings were used for some parts. Zamac is an alloy that expands and fractures with long term exposure to humidity. This is especially problematic when zamac was used to cast driver wheel centers, as the expansion often destroyed the insulation between the tire and the wheel center on the "insulated" side of steam locos, or just cracked the spokes in some cases. And when zamac was used in gearboxes, the expansion could lead to improper mating of the gears, causing bad running and premature gear wear. All of these zamac-related problems are extremely difficult to remediate, and not to be undertaken by most modelers.

Although collecting these early brass models is a personal choice, it is not recommended for modelers whose main focus is running and operating, or for modelers who don't have a personal machine shop and lots of idle time on their hands.

-- Eric Bott

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Sunset Models, Campbell, CA, 1975-today

Another importer that started early, and is still importing brass models. So, the early models were crude, and Sunset deservedly got a reputation for lower quality than some other importers. Nevertheless, they produced some unique and fine models, though research is required to identify them. Generally (but not universally), models they had produced by Samhongsa are decent. Sunset's "Prestige" series should probably be avoided, as that was their line of less expensive, less detailed, less well-tuned mechanisms intended to hit a low price point against their competition.

-- Eric Bott

9 Other Comments

  • Craig Bisgeier wrote: I have owned several Sunset brass locomotives. I would only rate then at 4-6 depending on the model. In my experience they aren't very well engineered, often lack fine detail and usually don't pull very well. Some are better than others.
  • David Schoedel wrote: I recently received a Sunset Models 4-6-4 steamer. I would rate it at a solid 8-10. To me it seems to have a lot of detail to me. It is an exceptionally smooth runner on straight track. I could not get it to go around my 18" radius curves because it seemed to be too long. I did put a train of 8-10 cars behind it on a straight and level piece of track and it pulled it just fine. Personally, I think that buying one of Sunset's models would be a good inclusion to your locomotive roster.
  • Tom White wrote: I have two Sunset models, both Southern Pacific prototypes. An AC-6 4-8-8-2 Cab Forward, and a 2-8-0. The 2-8-0 is incredibly smooth, beautifully detailed and a fine hauler. The AC-6 on the other hand, took a lot of work with weighting and balancing to get it to run smoothly. However it has turned into a fine-running model. However, I have had to re-solder some of the finer details on the loco--it seems to have been designed by the Mfr. as more of a 'display' model than an actual running loco--and I buy my brass to run. But aside from that, it's a very nice loco (after some major work). Tom
  • Forrest wrote: Sunset models has historically offered smooth running, reliable models with anywhere from a modest level of detail (for a brass locomotive) on their Prestige line, to a higher level of detail on their primary line (no name given to this line). Also, many of their models operate well on moderate radius curves (their CB&Q S4 4-6-4 Hudson and N&W K3 4-8-2 will operate on 24" radius), so operation of their models is possible on many layouts. All Sunset models I have came with Can Motors. Most Sunset models are a little light in weight, but usually the included boiler weight is sufficient, however other models need additional boiler weight added if you plan on pulling long trains. Some Sunset models were offered only as Factory Painted, while others were offered only in Natural Brass. Since Sunset does not have a "collectable line" in name, pricing is usually based on production runs and desirability. Expect to pay between $300 - $600 for a Sunset model, with rare models commanding $750+, and some very rare Sunset models (such as the B&O 2-6-6-4) commanding well over $1,000+ in 2008.
  • Scott Schwartz wrote: I think that Sunset Models attempts 2 levels of quality, (and price of course!)and this explains the divergence of ratings. I'm lucky enough to own 3 of their better models ~ a B&O 2-6-6-4, a SP AC-9, and a UP 4-12-2. These are beautifully detailed. However I've seen photos of their "Prestige Line" models, which ironically are of a lesser level of detail, but rather less expensive. You may remember earlier attempts at bringing out less costly, less detailed brass (the "Spartan Series" comes to mind) and this may be an attempt to move in the same direction, in a relatively more expensive way. I find that almost all Korean Brass models, even the most expensive ones, need some tinkering and rebending of distortions, so these models may be OK if it's your thing.
  • Clifford E. Carter wrote: I only have 1, a GN F-1 PTD LT/WEA. Darn thing spun a driver, threw a rod, fried the motor and got a driver short. Re-quartered the driver, fixed the rod, new dinky motor and used super glue to fix driver short. It runs but hasn't a lot of "guts". Not bad detailing.
  • stefan wrote: I am quite happy with the newer models; they have a good smooth mechanism, sprung drivers, and detail is OK; so far I have: PRR 2-10-0, 2-8-0 (H10 and H6), PRR 4-6-2, 4-8-2, an N&W 4-8-0, Russian 2-10-0. All run well, look good, may need weight added, I have put DCC/Sound in most real easily.
  • Barry Appel wrote: I recently purchased a 2-10-4 Selkirk from Sunset from my supplier. The model was from a special order that came immaculately painted in the Canadian Pacific Tuscan. It is my first brass locomotive. I have been modeling in HO for about 30 years and am very impressed with this product. It pulls my Dominion of 10( combination Walthers and Rapido Cars) up my 2.5 % grade with no problems and sounds great doing it. Super slow speed performance. The only minor inconvenience is the plug from the tender to the locomotive. If not seated properly there is erratic performance. I paid $1300.00 with tax and duty for it, but am completely satisfied.
  • John M. Uscian wrote: I own 5 Sunset models; these include the 2-8-8-4 NP Z5 Yellowstone (my personal favorite), 4-6-6-4 NP Z8 Challenger, 4-8-4 NP A3 Northern, 4-8-8-4 UP Big Boy, and 2-10-10-2 Virginian. I believe that all of these models are excellently detailed. Scott and Marcy Mann stand by their products. They are also very good about trying to find discontinued models at estate sales and such (got my NP Z8 that way). Sunset repaired my Big Boy once as well (excellent workmanship) and had it back to me in perfect/as new condition. I don't usually run my models too much. Prefer to display them in cases/shelving. When I do run them (if at all), these Sunset/3rd Rail models seem to be very smooth. However, I do not usually pull any car loads when running. Highly recommend Sunset/3rd rail to anyone desiring highly detailed brass models in O Gauge (I have no experience with their models in other gauges).

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The Coach Yard

TCY seems to have evolved through three distinct corporate strategy eras. They have mostly produced passenger cars, but have produced a very few locomotives as well. They did a gorgeous-looking EA model in both ATSF and B&O paint, but word is that it needs 48" radius or so minimum. They also did an ATSF Valley Flyer train with loco, and this is a very nice set.

Their first products (mostly fluted/plated passenger cars) were not very much more sophisticated than the Soho passenger cars of similar prototypes, with very basic detailing, and no paint, lettering, or interior.

Then they started into some HWT passenger models with greatly improved exterior details, no paint, no lettering, no interiors.

Then they made a major shift in their strategy, and focused entirely on painted, lettered models with interior and glazing - a dramatic move to the upscale end of the market. In the past few years, they have added very sophisticated interior lighting (with even the table lamps illuminated!) to their models. Their current strategy seems to be to throw in absolutely everything that the latest model production technology can accomplish. So as of this writing (early 2021), I don't believe any newly offered single passenger car in their catalog lists for less than $799.

That probably sounds insane to 99.9% of everybody who reads this. I guess it does to me, too. But objectively speaking, I can easily believe that there is as much material and workmanship content in the latest brass passenger cars from TCY and DP as there was in the best non-articulated brass steam locomotive models of 10 years ago. Every modeler should probably try to go to a show at which TCY is displaying its latest models'just to see what is possible these days.

All of TCY's models that I've seen seem to be of high quality. Even the early models were true to their strategy of the time, decently built fair models for a fair price. The latest models are amazing. However, a significant downside of the latest passenger car technology is that each car weighs a ton. Don't expect any prototypically accurate locomotive lash-up to pull these cars up a typical model railroad grade!

-- Eric Bott

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IMP - Takara

IMP-Takara is one of a few of the genuinely "old school" pioneer importers of brass models. IMP-Takara did not last into the era of even moderate detail level, and most of their models look very crude by today's standards. You will probably not find a model from IMP-Takara that came with a can motor.

One serious problem with early imports is that zamac castings were used for some parts. Zamac is an alloy that expands and fractures with long term exposure to humidity. This is especially problematic when zamac was used to cast driver wheel centers, as the expansion often destroyed the insulation between the tire and the wheel center on the "insulated" side of steam locos, or just cracked the spokes in some cases. And when zamac was used in gearboxes, the expansion could lead to improper mating of the gears, causing bad running and premature gear wear. All of these zamac-related problems are extremely difficult to remediate, and not to be undertaken by most modelers.

Although collecting these early brass models is a personal choice, it is not recommended for modelers whose main focus is running and operating, or for modelers who don't have a personal machine shop and lots of idle time on their hands.

-- Eric Bott

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Tenshodo Co. Ltd., Japan, 1949-today

Tenshodo is both a brass manufacturer and an importer. Their models are of higher quality. I would rate them somewhere between 6-8 (out of 10). I used to own a Tenshodo Great Northern class O-8 Mikado. It was well detailed, quiet and a great puller.

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  • Bob Schaefer wrote: Tenshodo was tied to PFM for many years, and many PFM crowns are Tenshodo products. They specialized in factory painted, highly detailed engines from the mid-50's forward. Tenshodo crowns like the Big Boy, the Challenger and the Cab Forward represented for many years the pinnacle of HO modeling. For me, the period from about 1972 to 1979 or so represents the golden age of Tenshodo production. During this period of time, the paint had a wonderful luster to it, that I find quite striking; however, it was also the subject of criticism by scale modelers. Around 1979 or 1980, Tenshodo went to an "eggshell" finish which I find quite disappointing. I have a 1979 NP Z-8 which has a finish somewhere between lustrous and eggshell, and a weird green-gray color for the smokebox. I am having the Z-8 repainted to provide the finish I enjoy so much. From 1982 forward, Tenshodo production dropped as the exchange rate moved in favor of Japan. They produced less and less with each run, and finally ceased all US prototype modeling in the last year or two. Collecting Tenshodo pieces has one very serious drawback--a problem with rotting foam rubber in the boxes started manifesting itself about 7-8 years ago, and now is quite pervasive. The culprit is always the center foam, which decomposes as the model sits in storage. The decomposing foam is caustic to the paint. Many, many, many Tenshodo engines have been ruined by foam damage. If you have any Tenshodo pieces, make sure you keep engine and tender wrapped in plastic, and throw away the center foam. If you are buying a Tenshodo piece, be sure to look for and rule out any foam damage. The foam damage seems pervasive especially for production years from around 1970 to 1980. This is an unfortunate association with the period of time I refer to as the golden years, 1972 to 1979. Another factor to consider when buying a Tenshodo piece is the gear train. Around 1975, Tenshodo started using quiet gears for their models. Prior to that, Tenshodo pieces tended to range from noisy to rocks-in-a-blender noisy. I have several Tenshodo engines, including a last run GN O-8 2-8-2, a last run SP AC-12 and last run GN Q-2 2-10-2.They are beautiful. I'm currently having a GN R-2 2-8-8-2 custom detailed in a glacier paint scheme. I speak frankly about some of the problems with Tenshodo engines, but they are still my favorite builder.
  • Bob Corson wrote: Over the years ive owned dozens of united and tenshodo locomotives and must admit that overall their quality was equal to any other builders. I never liked the fact that Tenshodo would make his models a little oversize so as to put full size drivers (as for instance on the up big boys), but their running quality was great as was their companion buider United.
  • Frank Gerschwiler wrote: I own a few Tenshodo eg ATSF 2-10-4, DMIR M3 and M4, NP Z6 , UP Signiature Big Boy (incredible for a 1959 model) and last run Big Boy, UP 3977, also models made for Fulgurex in Europe. The assembly and running quality ALWAYS seemed excellent if noisy on early models , level of detail and paint finish variable (eg I felt my Key 4-12-2 was a more detailed model than the Tenshodo model - although I would still like to get the tenshodo model! Likewise I find my PSC DMIR M3 M4 1st series models were more detailed than my Tenshodo M3/M4s) and they (PSC) had coasting drive with 3 point suspension on drivers. The Tenshodo/Fulgurex European models always seemed to have an excellent and accurate paint finish - and all my Euro Tenshodo models run well. As with Bob Schaefer despite some imperfections on certain models - overall Tenshodo remain my favourite builder. Re the foam - I would immediately throw away any original foam - even if you wrap the loco carefully in plastic I understand that the foam as it degenerates produces a gas which may well get through the plastic wrapping to react with the model surface. GET RID OF THE FOAM.
  • Clifford E. Carter wrote: I have a pair of Tenshoda's, A GN O-8 unsprung and an S-2 FP sprung. The O-8 fried the motor, so I put a huge can in the firebox. It was called "Frankenstein" by the club members because it found all track screw-ups! Both run quietly. Neither have foam boxes, but each component is in a separate box. I have a feeling these are a bit old because there are loop & hook couplers with them!
  • Jake Bechtel wrote: United was a totally separate company from Tenshodo. United was formed by PFM and consisted of a number of subassembly builders and another group that did the final assembly. Overall the United models were well done - but in most cases the skill and knowledge of the original selling dealer makes the difference in how good of a model you get. My contract with PFM required that I do all final adjustments and repair any defects found. There was no warranty and no factory support from PFM to the dealer. The latest information that I have got ahold of tells me that Tenshodo models are now a part of Kader Industries. Kader is the parent company of Bachmann Industries. But fear not, Kader also buillds RR models for about 60 other companies and they got control of Sanda kan at the end of 2008. Sanda kan had been their closest competitor. Kader Industries now has over 18,000 employees. That's right, over 18 Thousand! and over 2000 of them are engineers and tool and die makers.
  • Frank Gerschwiler wrote: Just a slight update on earlier comments. YES my Tenshodo 4-12-2 is NOT quite as detailed as my Key model.Also - I have a suspicion that when Tenshodo produce a DMIR M3 it is simply an M4 renumbered (and perhaps painted grey) same with Z7 - possibly simply a renumbered Z8. I have tried to check the details of the full size locos. All I can say is that my Z7s + Z8 look identical likewise my M3 + M4s (apart from grey livery on M3). I cant believe the full size earlier and later locos were exactly the same. Also - liveries I have green pilot models Great Northern N3 1967 and R2 1969 Glacier Park etc but while they are attractive models I dont think that the livery is valid on these artics. NEVERTHELESS great models...

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Union Terminal Imports

UTI was formed by two modelers who craved completely finished models of (mostly LWT) passenger equipment. They also did some diesel projects, notably Krauss-Maffei diesel-hydraulic locos and Alco PAs. Detail, finish, fidelity to prototype, and operating characteristics are universally high cross all their products.

-- Eric Bott

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W&R

With a few exceptions (e.g., road-specific variants of their Brill gas-electric model), W&R focused on Union Pacific, Northern Pacific, and SP&S prototypes. Generally their models are of exceptional running and finish quality, and fidelity to prototype. In some cases, they leave aspects of finishing off a model that is annoying at their price-point (e.g., marker jewels on a $2600 UP "Bull Moose" "special edition" model), but can be remediated fairly straightforwardly. I have never heard of a quality lapse on a W&R model.

-- Eric Bott

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Westside Model Company, Los Altos, CA, 1964-1982

Westside is another company that started early, importing some pretty crude models, but stuck around a long time and produced some very good models along the way. I'd strongly recommend staying away from their geared locos (Shays in particular), as their driveline designs are poor and difficult to remediate and not much they did in this area wasn't available in more reliable form from some other importer.

Westside mechanisms for rod-locos are generally very durable, and their gearboxes highly respected. Be wary of their ATSF 2-10-10-2 (which is about as appealing a model as ATSF found their 2-10-10-2 prototype.) Be mindful that their earlier models are cruder than their later ones. Westside was later than many importers to shift to can motors and to add backhead detail.

Many of their models were manufactured by Katsumi Mokeiten of Japan.

-- Eric Bott

14 Other Comments

  • David Barron wrote: Dick Trusdale owned and operated Westside Model Company for decades as well. His well known model railroad, Halfhollow & Huntington sported a logo of a wine glass depicting his love of fine wine.
  • Joseph Nichols wrote: I have two Westside locos. They imported a very good model of the Union Pacific FEF-2 (UP had 3 series of Northerns and the FEF-2 was the middle series). In its day, it was a very good model, but no comparison the the super-detailed model by Overland many years later.
  • Tom White wrote: I have two Westside models, their Rio Grande L-105 4-6-6-4's. Extremely smooth running models, very powerful, and nicely detailed. I particularly like the fact that they have 'reduction' gear towers, so that even with an open-frame motor (I've replaced one of them with a NWSL can) their speed range is quite good. Very responsive locomotives, and they are HEAVY! I certainly wouldn't pose one on a plastic railroad bridge too long for photographs, LOL! Very nice locomotives. Tom
  • Scott Schwartz wrote: I think the quality of workmanship is extremely variable on these products. I have a DM&IR M-4 which has a fantastic level of detail, some of the best on this particularly popular engine. The same goes for their GN N-3, gloriously sporting wide open windows to look into the beautifully detailed cab interior. I am a huge fan of the D&RGW L-105, an incredibly proportioned engine, and I went through 2 Westside models, rather unhappy before settling on an admittedly much more costly Key product, but with a great deal more refined detailing.
  • Ray Del Papa wrote: The thing I liked about Westside is they brought in a lot of PRR steam. The Q-2, J-1, K-5, N-2, are amoung the ones I owned. They were all good runers and for their day had good detail. The Q-2 and the J-1 could also pull their weight. It was always impressive to have 25 to 35 cars behind one of these locomotives. If there was one thing I hated was a $1,000.00 locomitive sitting on the tracks spinning its wheels trying to pull a 20 cars.
  • frank gerschwiler wrote: I find Westside products variable in terms of detail/build as one would expect with a company that has produced such a vast range of models from different bulders over many years. At the top end are master builders such as Nakamura (eg Rio Grande narrow gauge models) and Mizuno (eg Craftsman series NYC Hudsons). I have found the build quality of these to be flawless, level of detail excellent (as with GOM Royale). Earlier Westside models such as the 1981 Katsumi PRR Q2 (a favourite) were in their day excellent models. good detail for the time, well made, good runners, - they looked right - and in my view still represent great value for money. Today if you want the best you can buy the (slightly) better 1998 Key (Samhongsa?) Q2 but it is THREE TIMES THE PRICE.
  • Brandon wrote: I have one Westside steam engine; a PRR #1223 D-16sb 4-4-0 by Samhongsa. I find most of the detail to be very well done and finely made, although some details (like the bell cord) seem rather heavy, and pictures of the prototype (which still exists) show that some details aren't as accurate as they could be. The tender's coal bunker is dissapointingly shallow, but a coal load can cover that up. The entire model was covered in a brass-colored coating, which had absorbed some red dye from the original foam, and it had to be painted over before the model could look good. The construction is nice and heavy, making it both durable and as powerful as a 4-4-0 can be. Mechanically, it's well engineered and runs very smoothly and quietly, but the coreless motor used was very underpowered and had to be replaced. Overall, I'd give it a 7 out of 10.
  • sy wrote: I have a PRR 4-4-0 D16; woefully underpowered; I got rid of the motor, got a new larger one that fits in the tender, used NWSL universal set to drive the gearbox, and added boiler wt; now it runs nice and pulls up to 20 cars.
  • Richard J. Murray wrote: Only importer to produce PRR K2 & K3 4-6-2 Pacific classes. PRR had many of these running for a long time alongside K4s. Models produced in 1970s. I have one K3. Detail of some parts is primitive (air hoses). Springs could be a bit softer. I can't speak of their paint as mine probably was painted/decaled poorly by a previous owner. Foam in box rock hard. Thank God for plastic sheet protecting model. But still nice model to have once I correct issues!
  • George T. Galyon wrote: I have WS K-5, M-1, and Q-2 locos (all Pennsy). They are great runners on DC but on DCC stretch zero control (Digitrax feature) they buck..which is something none of my other brass engines do. The Q-2 developed a gear train problem trying to get around curves of about 32" radius..the rear engine now "slips" (i.e. drivers don't rotate)...I think the worm may have loosened up. They all really pull well. They run so well they are worth putting on my "DCC" build list.
  • Cort Elliott wrote: I have a Westside NYC J1e Hudson (Craftsman Series No. 2 by Mizuno) -very good build quality, silky smooth running, well engineered and easy to disassemble for painting and DCC sound installation. The ease of removal and reinstallation components for cab interior shows much care put into design and construction to assist the purchaser/owner in adding crew or painting details. The model really captures the "look" of the classic NYC J1e Hudson.
  • Dee Das wrote: I have a Westside DM&IR Yellowstone. The level of detail is excellent, at least comparable to the MTH HO DM&IR Yellowstone. It runs like a swiss watch with excellent low speed control. I was able to pull sixty Walthers Ore cars and a caboose. It would have pulled more but I was out of ore cars. This is a model made by Samhongsa, I believe.
  • On 2021-01-21 Lou Adler wrote: I owned several Westside SP steam engines, including the GS-6, P-13, T-31 and TW-8. All ran flawlessly right out of the box. I did not have to install an idler gear tower nor re-quarter the drivers, which was common back in the 1960's-1980's. The T-31 and TW-8 did require the addition of some sheet lead to give them better tractive effort for my 2+% grades. Otherwise, all were superb engines.
  • On 2022-07-04 Steve Wysowski wrote: I have 5 Westside Model C-16’s.(Kodama). I re-motored all of them and they run superbly! They are DCC equipped with Keep Alives and run at a scale speed of 3 to 7 scale mph on my narrow gauge layout, they are perfect for switching. While they required “tweaking” they did not present a problem in terms of durability and ease of access. They are small but worthy engines. I believe that the late Jim Vail published an article in the Narrow Gauge Gazette about how to re-motor these fine runners. They are now hard to find and command a very high price when you find one for sale.

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