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The tale of the whale in N scale

Read the N Scale Insight column from the January 2019 Model Railroader
In 1970 Atlas offered this N scale model of a unique prototype tank car built by GATX in 1965. No railroad bought any, so if you own one you own the whole fleet. They go for about 40 bucks on eBay.
Bill Zuback photos

I thought about calling this column “What on earth were they thinking,” but that wouldn’t have made a good title because someone looking at the table of contents would have had no idea what the article was about.

The “they” in my unused title was Atlas, which had the N scale whale-belly tank car shown in the photo manufactured for them by Roco in Austria. I’d ask the folks at Atlas what they were thinking, but I doubt if anyone who was involved in product development in the late 1960s is still there. It seems impossible, but this model is almost 50 years old.

The car hit the dealer shelves in 1970. The suggested retail price was $4, which only seemed fair considering you got twice as long a body and twice as many wheels as the typical cars that usually went for about two bucks. Besides the model shown here, Atlas made one painted for Texaco, and another for Wanda Petroleum.

First off, at 97 feet long, the prototype was the longest freight car ever built. For the foreseeable future, it will remain so – in the 1970s the Federal Railroad Administration ruled freight cars could be no longer than 89 feet. (As a consequence, today flatcars and auto racks are that long and no longer.)

The whale-belly car had a capacity of just over 60,000 gallons. (The biggest tank cars we see in service nowadays hold about half that amount.) It was built by General American in 1965 and the production run was short – GATX 96500 was the only one General American ever built. It was designed to carry either anhydrous ammonia or liquid petroleum gas.

If you’d like to see the prototype, it’s beached at the Museum of Transportation in Kirkwood, Mo., just outside St. Louis. A similar car, UTLX 83699, was built by Union Tank Car in 1963, but it carried 10,000 fewer gallons.

What sort of modeler would buy such a thing? I don’t really know, but somehow I ended up with two of them, and I doubt someone slipped into my house and planted them there.

I don’t recall ever trying to run these cars, and I doubt they could’ve dealt with the 93⁄4"-radius curves on the 3 x 5-foot layout I had then. Just getting all 16 of those wheels on the rails at the same time would’ve been quite a challenge. Definitely you’d want to use the N-scaler’s best friend, a rerailer.

The way we were. Today, I believe a manufacturer would be quite hesitant to introduce such colossal models, even though today there are probably more large N scale layouts with broader curves that could accommodate them. And of course, in today’s railroading, longer cars and locomotives have become commonplace. My layout has 18" minimum-radius curves and the big equipment would be happier if they were larger.

Fifty years ago model railroaders, regardless of scale, didn’t think prototype nearly as much as we do today. Today many manufacturers, including most of our N scale makers, bill their offerings as models of specific cars built by specific builders. They tell us when the cars were built, the railroads that bought them, and offer them in paint schemes that were actually out there on the rails.

Half a century ago this wasn’t the case – and it’s not entirely the case today – but in 1970 a manufacturer tended to offer, let’s say, 40-foot boxcars in single-door and double-door versions, the same for 50-foot boxcars, and they’d paint them with roadnames they knew would sell.

As the saying goes, you could slap a Santa Fe herald on anything and it would fly off the shelf. The models would probably actually have a prototype because the makers needed some kind of drawings to work from, but that fact wouldn’t be considered important enough to point out.

Another important point is that in those early days, we fledgling N-scalers were starved for product and would buy just about anything as soon as it came out.

Baffled as someone like me might be by the appearance of models that seem impractical and unmarketable, these cars were certainly distinctive and interesting, and for all I know, Atlas sold a jillion of them. I hope they did.

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