Updating an Old Model Train Car

  • 01 of 12

    Pittsburgh and Lake Erie "Breadbox" - Updgrading Toy Trains

    The starting point for this model is a Bachmann coil car. The same models were made by Lionel, AHM and Life Like. Although out of production, they can be easily found used for around $5.00
    Ryan C Kunkle

    In spite of the many beautiful scale models on the market today, there is still a huge market for older "toy train" cars. While these cars typically have less detail, fantasy paint schemes and less-expensive trucks and couplers than today's models they can still be a great starting point in the hobby. And with some work, they can be made every bit as good looking and operate as today's scale masterpieces.

    If you are just getting started detailing model trains, the steps shown in this article will work on just about any car. And with the low cost and abundant supply, there should be no fear about learning from mistakes.

    As with any project, this one starts with a little prototype research.

    Rare Prototype - Common Model

    In 1966, the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie ordered 50 new covered gondolas from Evans. These unique cars had large covers which opened like clamshell doors. The covers offered protection for coil steel loads and, because they were permanently attached to the car, could not be lost or switched with hoods from other cars at the mills - a common problem with other gondola and coil car covers.

    Nicknamed "Breadboxes" for their unique shape, the cars received a lot of attention and press upon their delivery. Unfortunately, the innovative roofs did not last long.

    Rather than manually closing the doors as designed, mill operators frequently tried to use cranes. This damaged the mechanism, causing the doors to spring open suddenly at the next destination. It wouldn't take too many occasions like that to make a worker think twice about opening the cars - or companies from agreeing to accept them.

    After a few short years of operation, the covers were removed and the cars remained in service as open coil gons for about 20 more years. The distinctive car sides and ends made them easy to spot even in later years, however. Without their hoods, the cars were suitable for less-sensitive steel coils and other machined loads. The cars retained their coil troughs, so they were not used in general service.

    With only 50 cars produced, it is highly unlikely that this unique car will be seen as a new model anytime soon. However, amazingly it was mass-produced decades ago by a number of manufacturers. Since these models were produced when the cars were new, it is likely that the model manufacturers jumped on the publicity of the innovative cars - faster than the railroads themselves. And with its interesting opening roof, the car made a fun addition to train sets.

    Lionel, AHM, Life-Like and finally Bachmann each produced models of the "Breadbox" - apparently from the same set of tools. The models featured working covers and sides which were reasonable representations of the prototype.

    Beyond that, however, the models were clearly designed for the toy train market. Long "horn hook" couplers were mounted to the trucks. The interior and underframe were complete conjecture and bare no resemblance to the prototype. And while most of the companies did paint the model for the P&LE, they took liberties with other paint schemes as well.

    Nevertheless, if you want a model of this unique car - with or without its hoods - this old model is your best starting point. They can still be easily found at swap meets and online auctions - usually for about $5.00.

    Follow along over the coming pages as this $5 toy is transformed into a scale model.

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  • 02 of 12

    Stripping Down the Model

    Remove all of the details on the car - from the big hoods to the molded-on grab irons
    Ryan C Kunkle

    The first step in the upgrade of this model is removing everything that is not correct. Since the finished model will reflect the car later in life, that includes the hoods. Toss the hoods in the scrap box. You never know what they might be useful for in the future.

    You'll also want to remove the brake wheel and stand and the plastic platforms from the ends.

    The trucks have to go. On the model used here, they were simply held in with press-pins.

    The underframe and interior will also require heavy modification. Those will be covered in later steps.

    When you're done, there will not be much left of the original model but four sides and a floor.

    Remove the other cast-on details as well. Use a chisel blade in your hobby knife to carve off the molded-on grab irons. In addition to being rather clunky, they are in the wrong places. If you've never tried this before, an old gondola is a great place to start. Nobody will question a few extra scratches!

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  • 03 of 12

    Stripping Paint

    The paint literally fell off of this car in sheets after just a few minutes in a bath of alcohol
    Ryan C Kunkle

    In addition to all of the details, the old paint also has to go. A few minutes in an alcohol bath were all it took to erase this car's old identity.

    Nearly all of the paint on this car removed itself from the model. A little light scrubbing with a toothbrush was all it took to finish the job.

    With the paint removed, you've taken this car down about as far as it can go. It's time to start building.

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  • 04 of 12

    Detailing the Ends

    Details added to the ends of the car are easy to see prior to painting. This is the "B" or brake-wheel end of the car. The brake wheel itself, along with other fragile parts, will be added after painting
    Ryan C Kunkle

    With the doors removed, the ends of the car need the most work. Working from prototype photos is a huge help here. You can find some online (search under P&LE number series 42250 through 42299.) A book on P&LE gons published by the P&LE Historical Society (P&LE's Gondola Cars by Jerry Gorzoch, Jack Polaritz and Joe Sparico, 2003) also provided a number of great photos of these cars throughout their lives as well as historical data.

    The ends of the model are flat. Photos clearly show some welded plates here on the prototype. These are easy to add with .010 styrene cut to shape. Cut the two triangular plates and the small rectangle in the center and glue to the end with styrene cement.

    Next, come the many grab irons on the end and the car sides at the ends. Commercial detail parts can be used for some of these, but the various length hand-holds can be easily handmade using wire. Again, use photos to help determine the correct length and position.

    For the ladders, commercial ladders were cut down to the proper height. A housing for the handbrake wheel was pulled from the scrap box for one end of the car (there are aftermarket parts for this too if you don't have one on hand.)

    Photos show that when the doors were removed the end platforms were also modified or replaced. These replacements varied from car to car. On this model, a Plano etched-metal walkway was used. Wire grab irons were added to the ends of the platform as well.

    The largest detail change to the ends is the addition of a new cushioned draft gear box. A Detail Associates part was used for this important detail. In order to get the proper position, use a scale ruler to measure the appropriate 62'2.75" length of the car over the ends of the draft gear. Subtract the difference between the length of the model body, divide by two and that's the amount of overhang you'll need.

    Center the draft gear on the car body between the sides. Secure it with CA glue and a screw.

    The other details here around the ends - coupler cut levers, air hose, couplers, and steps - are all very fragile and will come after painting.

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  • 05 of 12


    Since most of the underframe is normally hidden, modifications to the car were confined to what would make an impact when the car is on the rails
    Ryan C Kunkle

    Clearly, when the original models were made, the engineers had no photos or drawings of the actual underframe. The models are designed as if the car had a dropped floor - matching the profile of the "fishbelly" side sill.

    While nearly everything on the bottom of the car is wrong, those dropped sides really work in our favor. Unless your trains regularly run over a mirror, you'll never know what's going on under the car. So you have some options here.

    If you want an accurate underframe, cut out the entire floor of the car. Replace the floor with a solid piece of .060 styrene. A "new" underframe from a Walthers HO coil car will give you very close dimensions to this gondola. You'll have to make a few small modifications to get the right length.

    If you so desire, you could go so far as to add all of the brake components and piping as well. There are plenty of good commercial parts for the hardware and the rest can be bent from the wire.

    On the other hand, if you are happy with a model that will look just as good from trackside without all the work, get out that chisel blade again and start cutting.

    If you trim off any part of the molded underframe which drops down in the center, the effect from normal viewing angles will be as if the frame stays straight as it should.

    Lacking detailed plans of views of the car, and not having reflective ballast, we opted for the latter treatment on this model as seen in the photo above.

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  • 06 of 12


    With its roof gone, there is no hiding the interior. Parts from another old kit made the modification easy, but this would also be a simple task to build from scratch
    Ryan C Kunkle

    Without the hoods, the interior of the car will be very visible. It too was originally modeled without any reference to the prototype.

    There are numerous ribs along the sides of the car. These must be removed. A cut-off disk in a motor tool is the most efficient way to get at these parts. Clean up the scratches with a chisel blade in a hobby knife. (Don't worry about a few stray scratches - this is the inside of a gondola after all.)

    Next, level off the floor with a sheet of styrene. Leave the weight in the "drop frame."

    Finish off the interior with a trough for the coils. Again, the Walthers coil car would offer a great solution to this. The cradle seen here was salvaged from an old Con-Cor gondola. You could also easily build your own from styrene and basswood if you don't have/want to hack into one of those other models.

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  • 07 of 12


    A wire hanger makes a great paint handle. Nothing too complicated about this paint scheme - black
    Ryan C Kunkle

    With most of the detail work now completed, the model is ready for paint.

    These cars wore several schemes even after the tops came off. For this model, the later P&LE black paint with yellow and white lettering was chosen.

    First, gently wash the model in warm water to remove any fingerprints and oils.

    Spray the car with gloss black paint. Why gloss? Decals will adhere much better to the gloss paint. After decaling and coating again with clear gloss, the car can be aged.

    To help hold the car while painting, a simple handle was made from a wire coat hanger. Just uncoil the hanger and insert the ends in the bolsters on the underframe.

    Allow the paint to cure for at least 48 hours before adding decals.

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  • 08 of 12


    Decals from multiple sets were needed to complete this car
    Ryan C Kunkle

    All of the lettering on the gondola came from decals. Six different sheets were used on this car.

    Apply the decals normally. They should lay well over the gloss finish. The only challenge with this car was finding the right combination of letters and numbers. In the end, much of the data had to be pieced together and in some cases, a little creativity was in order.

    For example, the decal sheet used for the reweigh data didn't have any dates modern enough to be right for this car. It did have a 7-68 date, however. By cutting and flipping the last numbers, a perfectly plausible reweigh date of July of 1989 can be had.

    One sheet used also came from deep down in the decal box and the older decals had become quite fragile. If this happens to you, coat the sheet in a light spray of clear gloss. Once dry you can cut and transfer the decals as normal.

    After applying all of the decals, spray the entire car with a clear gloss. If you want to model this car as if it were just shopped, you can skip the upcoming step on weathering.

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  • 09 of 12

    Trucks, Couplers and Final Details

    Steps, cut levers, couplers and the air line complete the fragile details on the ends of the car
    Ryan C Kunkle

    Once you have the decals applied, it is safe to add the final details to complete the model. Leaving these off as long as possible help prevent accidents during all the handling the car must endure while you complete the project.


    New trucks were substituted for the originals. Walthers 100 ton roller bearing trucks were selected as an exact match for the prototype. These trucks also had new replacement metal wheels added from Intermountain. 33" wheels are appropriate for this car.


    Install Kadee No. 158 couplers in the draft gear. These must be filed slightly for a proper fit per the instructions in the detail kit. Before screwing on the cover plate, drill a No. 74 hole for the air line casting.


    The train line air hose and pipe come with the draft gear and can be added per the instructions. Just glue in place with CA then paint.

    Stirrup steps were added to the corners on the sides of the car. Although these parts are plastic, they can be added as you would other detail parts. These are very fragile details and should not be applied until after the trucks have been attached.

    The coupler cut levers were the most challenging. Plano levers were used. To make them more like the prototype, the end brackets which attach to the end of the side sill were modified and the levers themselves were bent to match prototype photos.

    A little black paint on the hardware and you're ready for weathering!

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  • 10 of 12


    Weathering the car inside and out is a must for an old gondola like this
    Ryan C Kunkle

    Gondolas don't stay clean for long. With their coil loading troughs, the sides and ends of these cars would have been spared the abuse caused by less-contained loads, but years of service would have left their mark nonetheless.

    Begin by applying an even coat of clear flat finish over the entire car. Why spray clear flat after just spraying clear gloss? The gloss coat acts as a seal on the decals. By adding this before the flat, the edges of the decals will be nearly invisible.

    There are a variety of weathering techniques you can use to finish the model from here. What you choose is up to you and the level of finish you want for your model. Here is what was done in this particular case.

    First, the model was sprayed with thinned grimy black paint using an airbrush. The technique is similar to what is described here in fading paint through the black-on-black is more to flatten and dull the finish and add a general layer of grime than to suggest faded black paint.

    The trucks were brush painted with grimy black as well.

    The weathering was finished using weathering powders. Color photos showed several of these cars with a dark orange rust covering the interior. This feature was duplicated on the model along with some light rust and more grime on the exterior. A mixture of dark rust, dark gray and grimy black powders were used in combination.

    Seal the car in multiple light coats of clear flat finish to protect the weathering.

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  • 11 of 12

    Add a Load

    Coils plus associated scrap make a complete load. A load like this is easy to make but adds a lot of "charm" to a gondola
    Ryan C Kunkle

    Whether you run the car loaded or empty, the interior of the gondola can benefit from a little more detail.

    These cars were designed for steel coils, so a steel coil load is an obvious choice. There are also pictures of these cars carrying other machined loads. These are often carried under tarps making them another easy modeling project.

    Either of these loads will add a lot of character to the model. Even empty gondolas often have scrap (like old banding from previous coil loads) littering the bed. Whether or not you load the car, these details belong in the interior.

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  • 12 of 12

    Final Results

    The finished model looks almost nothing like the original. The best feature is the pride you get from a job well done
    Ryan C Kunkle

    The photo above shows the final results from all the hard work. Compare this to the picture on page 1. Yes, it really is the same car!

    While the detail parts, paint, and decals certainly aren't free, this car is proof that even the most inexpensive of trains can be converted into a beautiful scale model with a little work. Whether or not you decide to take on this specific prototype or another car that is laying in your parts box the steps are the same: research, detail, paint, decal, and weather.

    At the end not only do you get a new model that you won't see on every other layout, you get a great sense of pride in a job well done.