Updating a Bowser GS Gondola

Bob McGlone shared an interesting model update on a discussion list earlier this year. He added drop bottom doors to a Pennsylvania Railroad gondola. Click on any image to review a larger size.

I’ve always been interested in circa 1900 steel freight cars. I find them fascinating but there are few plastic models commercially available. One model is the HO Bowser GS gondola which follows a Pennsy prototype with 32,700 cars built starting in 1903.

The prototype

There were a few subclasses of these cars with different features.

  • GS – Fixed ends and flat steel floor
  • GSA – Fixed ends and drop doors on floor
  • GSC – Drop ends and drop doors on floor
  • GSD – Fixed ends and drop doors with a slight slope
Plans of the car with drop bottom doors from the 1906 Car Builders Dictionary.
A GSA class car with latches and some underframe detail visible. AC&F builder photo from the Westerfield Models Collection.

The plans and photo illustrate the arrangement for the pre-safety appliance grabs for a GSA car. The Bowser model has the solid floor and has been available with a variety of road names, several of which are suitable for a car in the 1902-1910 years.

Underframe modifications

I first built one with original PRR lettering and changed the grabs to reflect the early configuration. Since I model a coal hauling railroad, I soon realized that the GSA drop door version would be more suitable to my needs. I asked if Bowser was going to make one and decided to bite the bullet after their negative response. The conversion was pretty easy once I figured out the details. The hardest part is not messing up the original factory lettering if you want a model for the early years.

Here’s where we start with the drop doors. The first thing to realize is that the drop doors are in the fourth open areas from the end. The space looks really narrow because the thick underframe cross members are mis-located. We will need to move them.

Remove the four cross members with a jeweler saw at the center sill joint. Also cut the two brake system mounting pads at the cross ribs. Locate the two end weights and center them on the car body. Use a Sharpie to mark the sections of the end weights that need to be removed for the door areas. Cut these with a hacksaw and file smooth. There is no need to cut the center weight.

The cross members need to be reattached to the center sill. Install them toward the car center until the distance from the next thin cross members is three feet. The brake support pads will need to be trimmed for the large cross members to fit. After the parts are secured, set the end weights in place, add the underframe, and trace the rectangular openings for the drop doors.

Use a #51 bit to drill holes in the floor to allow the passage of a jeweler saw blade and cut out the openings. File everything smooth once the material is removed.

Here’s the car body with the drop door openings. Try to leave a little lip between the floor and the side ribs for the hopper sides to rest on the underside.

Installing the door details

The hopper pieces area cut from 0.020 x 0.25-inch styrene strip. The photo shows the dimensions except for the hopper bottom opening, which is 2-feet. Notice when you cut the sides that you need to leave a little flat piece on the bottom edge of the sides. Cut one side piece and then use it as a master for the other seven pieces.

Glue the side pieces against the cross members with the bottoms resting on the ledges you left around the sides of the floor openings. Attach the outside hopper pieces, trimming the length to fit. DO NOT glue these pieces to the car body but only to the underframe.

Make four floor pieces from 0.020 x 0.25 styrene about a scale 3-foot, 3-inches long. I scribed the inside across to represent doors. Trim to fit and glue in place. See the following two images.

Here’s the view from above the car.

Now, for the outside doors, cut eight pieces of 0.020 x 0.188-inch styrene and glued them in place over the bottom pieces that were just installed.

The prototype had flanges around the doors and these two layers represent this effect.

Finally, add eight pieces of 0.020-inch diameter wire to simulate the door hinge pins. An alternative would be to add small pieces of 0.010 x 0.030-inch styrene to represent the hinges but I didn’t do that.

Next, add four sections of 0.060-inch styrene channel to go across the doors. These connect to the mechanism that opens and closes the doors. On the prototype, a chain comes down from a wheel between the center sills and fastens to these channels

Car side details

Here is how the model looks at this point. Our attention turns to the details on the car sides. We need to determine the location of the ratchet and pawl hardware on the car sides. These details operate the doors and are on the fifth panels from the ends. The ratchet wheel is closer to the doors than the pawls and centered on the lower panel below the floor. The pawls are located on the center of the panel between the ribs. I chose to locate mine on the opposite side of the air brake components, which puts the brake wheel end of the body to the right when looking at the side.

These details have a left orientation [ratchet on left side, pawl on right side] and a right orientation [pawl on left and ratchet on right]. They are installed directly on the car side. I have no desire to build these from scratch so I used a Shapeways part “HO ratchet and pawl.” The parts are a frosted material and hard to see in the above image. They are available in right and left orientation and created for a wooden hopper car side with a metal backing plate. They look a little clunky on the model but I used them anyway.

K brake detail

This car used a split-K air brake (KD) through the service life. The kit comes with AB brake parts. You can either buy a Tichy KD brake part or modify the kit parts to look like one. I chose to modify the kit parts. First, review the updated brake system photo. The brake cylinder can be used as is on the mounting hole or modified as per the photo to add the levers. Use the existing hole for the brake cylinder pointing towards the brake wheel end of the car. I needed to add a piece of 0.040 x 0.125-inch styrene to widen the pad for the KD brake components to fit.

For the air reservoir, cut off the circular ring around the tank and cut the tank shorter by removing some of the plain end. I drilled the end with the 2 ‘bumps’, added a piece of wire, and covered that with a blob of epoxy (I will pay for this in modeler’s hell…) to represent the K control valve. That also points toward the brake wheel end. I used the Pennsy XL boxcar plans in the 1906 CBD which seems to have a similar brake arrangement. Either way, mount the air reservoir next to the air piston on that mounting pad.

Grab irons

Now, the kit car with the grabs is correct for much of the post-1912 era when freight cars needed to follow the 1911 amendment to the Safety Appliance Act. If you are going to model before 1912, you really should remove the grabs and add a second brake wheel. I trimmed away the grabs with a cut down #17 X-Acto blade.

All the prototype photos I’ve seen from pre-1912 shows grabs installed as in the above image, and two brake wheels. You will see that my model doesn’t have that second brake wheel in some of the photos. At the end I finally bit the bullet and added the second one.

I used 0.020 x 0.125-inch styrene about 2-feet, 9-inches long for the brake platform. Scrap styrene was used for the support brackets. A Tichy brake wheel was mounted on a length of wire. It doesn’t match the detail on the other end of the car but is close. You could order Bowser brake wheel (part #74304) and brake platform (part #74309) if you wanted an identical match.

Paint and finish

It’s finally time to paint the model! I painted the underframe with Scalecoat Railroad Tie brown. It’s a nice grungy brown color that I also used to paint the inside of the car body. First paint the underframe by itself. Remember, it comes out at this stage. I masked the bottom and the top of the sides and sprayed the inside of the body and the recessed bottom where the weights are. I let that dry for a day or two.

I also painted the trucks. I used a set of Tahoe Model Works #103 5-foot, 6-inch wheelbase AC&F arch bar trucks, painted with Scalecoat Pennsy Freight car color. The wheels were painted with the Railroad Tie grungy brown.

There were several places to touch up with the new grab irons and the shadow of the removed grabs. I applied Scalecoat Pennsy Freight car color with a fine brush to those spots.

Finally, I found a resin coal load in my scrap box. It was originally for a 36-foot hopper car, so I added two pieces of filler wood on each end. The load was painted a gloss black to represent shiny anthracite coal. Bituminous coal is flat dusty black. I now have a neat removable load for the car.

After everything dried, I sprayed the outside of the car with Dullcoat to blend the spot painting with the factory paint. The paint match isn’t bad but some exterior weathering would be the final touch. I’ll leave that up to you folks.

I hope you have enjoyed this article and found some useful tidbits of information. – Bob McGlone

Many thanks to Bob McGlone for sharing his fine work. I find this prototype and conversion fascinating, even when modeling 1926. There were 8,700 GSA class gondolas originally built. The Pennsy began rebuilding the GSA class with tight floors, eliminating the drop doors, in 1923. Quite a few would be in service into the 1930s before being rebuilt.

The image is from the W&LE archives in the special collection room of the Michael Schwartz Library at Cleveland State University.

Here’s a photo taken along the Wheeling & Lake Erie’s Cleveland Division in the mid-1920s. The gondola on the left is PRR 298913 and stenciled with GSD class. The shallow hopper doors are slightly visible below the side sill. The weigh date is September 1924 with a build date stencil of August 1906. The gondola on the right is PRR 324530, a GSA class car yet to be rebuilt into a GS class.

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