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Should You Buy a Brass Locomotive?

April 16, 2009

There’s always that one part of any well stocked hobby shop, it’s probably a glass case behind the cashier’s register, or perhaps it’s a commercial fishtank sized glass case with row upon row of gleaming brass locomotives. Some are unpainted with their meserizing golden-brass hue, some with their meticulously researched and accurately applied paintjobs. What they match in their high detail and impeccable craftsmanship is a price tag that will scare off any sane penny-pinching modeler, but should you be scared off by a high pricetag?

CS&CCRy 2-6-2 in Brass by Ajin Precision of Korea, built from plans in a 1974 Model Railroader Issue

In the Defense of Brass Locomotion

Brass models can provide many things that plastic models have yet to achieve in the 60 years they have inhabited the same part of the hobbyshop. Only recently have plastic models begun to provide affordable, well detailed and accurate competition to brass models, but there are just some things the major manufacturer’s won’t ever make in plastic, and that’s where brass has always held an edge.

For instance, the extremely obscure railroad of the Colorado Springs & Cripple Creek District Railway owned a locomotive identical to the one pictured above, it was apparently built in their shops in 1901, or so the builder’s plate reads. It’s a small and light 2-6-2, and I’d bet the pony and trailing trucks aren’t to distribute firebox weight, but to deal with poor trackwork. The sloped tender suggests a local or switcher locomotive, it ran on coal and sports Carbon-Arc or Kerosene lamps fore and aft. The attractive boiler tube pilot is similar to a road locomotive, but it’s modest footboards at the rear suggest otherwise. This tiny locomotive of an equally tiny and obscure road that barely made ends meet in the quarter century of it’s existance certianly was overshadowed by such fabled neighboring roads as the quixotic Colorado Midland and the much revered DRGW. The only reason this model was produced was probably due to the plans for this little loco being run in a 1974 issue of Model Railroader. The CS&CCD Ry’s story having been enshrined in HO scale brass is one of the reasons why brass is an interesting way to build model locomotives, there’s no chance that would ever be made in plastic by any manufacturer with any degree of sanity.

Because brass locomotives don’t have to worry about the high return on investment that plastic models always have to strive for (think of why in the last 50 years there has been over a dozen models of the Union Pacific 4-8-8-4 big boy, yet there remains only a handful of well-detailed plastic 2-6-0’s 2-6-2’s 2-8-0’s 4-4-0’s and other small steam.) more unique models have been produced to fill in niche markets.

Logging prototypes in both narrow gauge and standard gauge have always been popular brass models. Westside shays and heislers, Uintah 2-6-6-2’s, Baldwin logging 2-8-2T’s, 2-8-2, 2-6-2’s and the wide variety of oddities like the Vulcan duplex, Willamette geared steamer, gypsy winch 0-4-0’s, and the Climax A, B & C models are often found on some of the more involved model railroader’s layouts.

Famous prototypes have also been popular. Southern Pacific Cab Forwards, NYC hudsons, and almost every streamlined locomotive has been produced in brass at one time or another. Smaller locomotives of the larger roads have been popular too, like CB&Q pacifics and Wabash moguls.

Brass is the only way to get some diesels that are too obscure to ever be produced in plastic, like the beautiful Fairbanks-Morse H-20-44’s or the Early EMD TA’s, Baldwin “babyface” cab units, or even small industrial diesels like whitcomb and porter models. SP SD-40T-2’s were popular models in brass for many years until the recent Athearn RTR offering eclipsed the detail of many previous brass offerings. I’m imagining that SD70ACe models are selling quite well as nobody has released one in HO yet.

Most Mass Produced Brass Locomotive: The AT&SF 1950 class 2-8-0 by United.

The quality of the running gear found on the “average” brass locomotive varies wildly so this is where it gets tricky. Some companies were all about the looks and only put a “token” drive inside thinking that the collectors of brass would never run such a highly detailed locomotive as it may hurt the value. These clumsy arrangements often had underpowered open-frame motors flimsily attached with shrink tubing to a poorly built worm-gear assembly like the AT&SF 1950 class locomotive pictured above. This was the most mass-produced brass locomotive ever made, and although the detail is acceptable, it ran terrible. Early Ken Kidder mallets had only the rear set of drivers powered, making them gutless locomotives barely capable of hauling their own weight. Some of the gearing was so poor that it would only be able to attain ridiculously high speeds thanks to a lack of reduction gears. Although not a total loss, they would be worth sending off to an experienced rebuilder of brass like master machinist at DTA Models . (no commercial affilation, but I’m quite impressed with his work.) It seems a great deal of early Japanese brass is like this.

On the other side of the spectrum is the newer Korean brass, like my CS&CCD 2-6-2. It’s built by Ajin precision of Korea and has a fantastic drive train. Featuring a sagami can motor, it has solid driveshafts linked to sturdy machined metal gears with the gear tower solidly attached to the frame. It runs silky smooth. NWSL (NorthWestShortLine) brass has been revered for decades for it’s rock-solid dependable drives and adequate detail. Don’t forget that brass locomotives are heavier and if the drive is solid, they pull much better than a plastic locomotive, especially if the locomotive is small to begin with.

So, should you buy a brass locomotive?

-Yes you should, IF: You’re modeling a really specific prototype or if you absolutely must have an accurate and highly detailed model of a steam or diesel locomotive that would be too difficult to kitbash or scrathbuild. Always comparison shop though, as most brass is expensive, usually more than $300.00 now, with most brass well exceeding this price.

-No you shouldn’t IF: there’s a nice offering in plastic of the same model. It would be a waste of your money. A good example would be a Brass GP7 or SW1500 model, nice detail but unless it was severly modified by the home road (e.g. a unique chopnose like on the WM GP9’s) the Atlas, Proto 2000 or Athearn offering are quite adequate.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Ken permalink
    May 14, 2009 7:01 pm

    Interesting article, with many good points made. I’d disagree with with you however regarding the PFM 1950 class 2-8-0. At the time of it’s introduction the drive was about the best available, truely state of the art for the 1950-60’s. The motors were high quality Pittman’s, and in my opinion ran pretty well. I have four of these, two re-motored, and two stock and after 40+ years still run very well, although just a little noisy by modern standards.

    • May 14, 2009 7:28 pm


      It seems I stand corrected! Thanks for the info on the PFM 2-8-0’s. I guess I just had bad luck with mine, because after I bought it second hand the drive desentigrated on me and I had to remotor and gear it with NWSL parts (not that that’ a bad thing mind you!)

  2. Bill Fornshell permalink
    February 14, 2010 3:12 am

    Hi, I am trying to find the magazine you reference about the Colorado Springs & Cripple Creek Railway 2-6-2. You listed MR – 1974 and I have looked in the on-line index but find no such reference to that engine in any MR for 1974. It maybe they use a title that I can’t connect to the this engine.

    Do you know the month of the article.

    Thank you.

    Bill Fornshell

  3. Mike permalink
    February 14, 2010 9:25 am

    I collect anything with a pantagraph so other than HHP-8’s, C60’s and a couple of Bachman E-33’s or a good GG-1 it’s brass or nothing. I don’t run my motors so old drives are not really an issue. Cost is an issue and the prices swing all over the place from 300.00 to well over 500.00. There is no rhyme or reason for it, if someone feels he wants “that one”, price is no object. By the way, I find the new plastic from Broadway limited and Bachman is just about equal to any brass if you do some minor detailing, and they run if that’s what you do.

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