Upgrading Plastic – MTH USRA hoppers

A transformed HO scale MTH USRA hopper.
A transformed HO scale MTH USRA hopper.

Dave Parker returns with his techniques to upgrade the MTH HO scale USRA hoppers.

About three years ago, I purchased an MTH ready-to-run USRA twin hopper with the intention of kit-bashing it into a Boston & Maine car. The B&M bought 100 used twins from the C&O in late 1934 but, after squinting at several photos, I decided it was a no-go. The C&O cars were USRA-like, but had noticeable differences in overall structure and in the details. The MTH car came lettered for the Erie, and can be seen in the 1920s plastic freight car summary, but it is a foobie – the Erie never owned any USRA twins.

The model itself is nicely done. It is dimensionally correct, and the ABS casting is fairly crisp. It has scale grabs that I miked out at 0.010-inches, which is interesting. BLMA sells 0.008-inch thick grabs, and all the others (e.g., Tichy) that I have seen are 0.0125 inches. Perhaps, MTH “rolls their own” scale-size hardware in China. The KD brakes are correctly positioned and exceptionally well detailed. The model has the original USRA reinforcing gussets and cross-brace in the middle. The two “outboard” cross-braces are supplied as an option, and I installed them.

A look at the detail on the b-end of the model.
A look at the detail on the b-end of the model.

Curiously, despite what can be seen in most MTH catalog images, the model did not come with the USRA-standard Blackall brake lever, but instead a stemwinder hand brake. Also, all the USRA builder’s photos that I have seen show Carmer uncoupling levers, but the model has rod-type uncouplers.

Last year, I started casting about trying to find a good use for this otherwise fine model. In perusing my 1925 ORER, I noticed that the Delaware & Hudson cars had an extreme height of
11-2 1/4, or 6 1/4 inches higher than the top of the car rail. Eureka! They most likely converted to a stemwinder brake early on, although a 1919 builder’s photo shows the Blackall lever was used originally. It is less clear how long the D&H cars typically bore their Carmer uncoupling levers, which can be seen peeking out at the far end of car 44725 in the prototype photo, but I decided to leave the rod-type uncouplers as is. The model has Enterprise door locks, and the photos that I have suggest that these were not replaced with Wine locks (a common practice) until sometime after ca. 1940.

Photo from the Rensselaer Model Railroad Society collection (LINK: http://nebwrailroad.com/index.php?title=NEB%26W_Railroad_Heritage_Website).
Photo from the Rensselaer Model Railroad Society collection.

So, I felt I had a reasonably good prototype match, and was off and running. The D&H received 1000 of the USRA twins in 1919, originally numbered 44000 to 44999. It is a bit murky as to exactly when, but sometime around 1933 or 1934, the cars were renumbered into 3201 to 4200. That is what appears in my July, 1935 ORER, so I decided to letter it as a renumbered car. I model 1934-35.

Perhaps regrettably, I decided to try and strip the lettering from the black ABS body (which is otherwise unpainted). I found the plastic somewhat soluble in 91% isopropyl alcohol and in brake fluid (DOT 4). Also, the model has some painted metal parts (underframe, grabs), so a prolonged dunking seemed inadvisable. I settled on the brake fluid as my primary weapon, along with judicious washes with both 91% and 70% isopropyl and lots of water. It took a lot of scrubbing with miniature Tamiya Q-tips, but eventually almost all of the white lettering came off. Interestingly, even after some healthy sand-blasting you can still see “ghosts” of the original lettering (see photo below), presumably because the paint penetrated into the ABS to some degree. But, after a coat of Pledge/Future, decaling, and Dullcoat, this residue largely disappeared.

A ghost of the original lettering can be seen after stripping and scrubbing.
A ghost of the original lettering can be seen after stripping and scrubbing.

The only period decals for the D&H that I could find are in Tichy’s set 9029, which also includes Wabash, C&O, and NH lettering. These decals are for Tichy’s 4029 panel-side USRA hopper, a later rebuild of the original flat-sided cars. The Tichy set provided much, but not all of what I needed for this car, notably the stylish “The D&H” herald, the combined monogram and reporting marks, and a suitable number for the renumbered series. The CAPY and tare data were also correct and, with trimming, could be wedged between two ribs as per the prototype – but just barely! Many roads split the weight data on either side of a rib, but not the D&H. Their sign-painters must have used stencils with a compressed typeface. I also used the Tichy marks for the car ends, although these were, disappointingly, much closer to three scale inches than the standard four inches. Overall, I found the Tichy decals not nearly as crisp as others on the market.

For the build date and cubic feet data, I cadged some decals from the excellent Mount Vernon Shops set for the PRR class GLd hoppers. The MVS set also provided the reweigh data; I faked the “O” (for the Oneonta shops) with a zero. I also applied one of the MVS repack stencils but, to be honest, I cannot really read it under any magnification, before or after application. I think it says “PRR”, but perhaps only because I know that it should. Finally, the HT class marking came from Rail Graphics generic data set for 1940-1960s, although it too is closer to three scale inches than to the desired four.

Interior gussets and bracing.
Interior gussets and bracing.

The Andrews trucks that came with the model are nicely cast, and have “Kadee-like” brake hardware. They are similar to the excellent Tahoe Model Works USRA Andrews trucks, although not identical. I upgraded the trucks with semi-scale (0.088-inch) wheels from Intermountain, which provided a good match to the axle length. The model came with semi-scale couplers, but I didn’t like the brown plastic and replaced them with Kadee #158 “Whisker” couplers (trip-pin removed).

I only have couple of minor criticisms of the MTH model. The underframe is cast white metal and painted black, I suppose to help add weight. It was not well-adhered to the plastic body at the outside corners, and some minor warpage left some gaps at those corners. The other issue is the train line (which is otherwise a nice detail). In a review in the Autumn 2011 edition of The Keystone Modeler, Bruce Smith opined that the routing of the train line at the car ends is in error. Having looked at a number of early photos of USRA twins, I only partly agree. At the B end, the train line should indeed run parallel to the car’s long axis, about a foot behind the sill step, and out to the end sill where it makes a 90 degree bend before terminating in an “El” connection with the angle cock. This arrangement facilitates the connection with the triple valve located on the end of the reservoir. At the A end however, I think the model is wrong. After the train line disappears under the car body it should run up and over the center sill to the left-hand side, but and run alongside the sill and straight into the rear of the angle cock (see next photo). I haven’t worked up the nerve to snip and/or reroute the train line at the A end, but I likely will (someday).

A look at the air brake piping.
A look at the air brake piping.

I am still pondering how to best weather this car. The overall lettering scheme exactly matches that of a prototype car with a 1930 reweigh date. When the D&H renumbered the car in ca. 1934, did they repaint the entire car, or just the road numbers? If the latter then should I mask off the numbers, and grime up the rest of the car, leaving the numbers (and perhaps the reweigh data) as relatively fresh paint?


Overall, this upgrade has been another great learning experience for me.


Many thanks to Dave Parker for sharing another freight car modeling experience. We will feature more of his projects in future blog posts.

Feel free to share a comment in the section below. Please follow the instructions so your comment can be posted. All comments are reviewed and approved before they appear. To subscribe to this blog, enter your info for a comment and check the last box to notify of new posts by email.

8 thoughts on “Upgrading Plastic – MTH USRA hoppers”

  1. I have never even seen photos of the MTH model so this is very valuable in educating me about it. My interest would be cars stenciled for the L&N, Clinchfield, NC&StL, and Tenn. Central, all of whom had USRA built cars or copies or both. Thanks Dave for doing this informative article.

    Bill Welch

  2. Beautiful model Dave!
    Thanks for the detailed and entertaining post.
    Eric, top notch as usual!

  3. I love these cars. I purchased a B. & O. and a P. & L.E. painted version. I model the “Pennsy” in 1955. I’m not sure which roads might be the most correct for my modeling era. I agree with Bruce Smith that “Pennsy” modelers don’t need many of these hoppers lettered for “Pennsy”. You can see some U.S.R.A. hoppers in the Herron Rail Video DVD Don Krofta’s Diesels and Steam on the the Pennsy in Ohio. Quite a few U.S.R.A. hopper cars were still lettered for C.& O. and L.& N. in that video. The thing I like most about these cars is that they already have their hand grabs installed.

  4. I think that these cars were built with a variety of equipment, including some with “stem-winder” brakes, so these are more likely as built, and not modified.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.