A guide to 1920s era HO scale plastic freight cars

Many modelers inquire about available plastic models appropriate for pre-Depression era model railroads. The general perception among a large number of hobbyists is uninformed and many feel there are only a few models appropriate to represent railroads of the 1920s. With the help of several pre-WW2 model railroaders, I have assembled this guide to illustrate the possibilities of a 1920s freight car fleet using HO scale plastic models. As of this early 2013 posting, these are all currently available HO scale, injection molded plastic products appropriate for a 1920s modeling focus. Not all of these products display the appropriate paint or lettering to reflect a 1920s prototype freight car.

Reference detail is included on several models to encourage the reader to seek out published articles featuring additoinal prototype details. The Railmodel Journal articles are currently available to view on line at the TrainLife website. The search function is easy to use in finding the specific issues.

Several Railroad Prototype Cyclopedia volumes are highly recommended, but not all are readily available. Check the hobby shops listed on the publisher website to track down a copy.

The images featured here are of freight cars in my collection and may have had detail parts and weathering added in the building process.

Accurail

Accurail USRA hopper

2400 and 2500 Series USRA 55 ton twin hopper – 25,000 prototypes built under USRA control from 1919 to 1920 and assigned to 23 different railroads.
Railmodel Journal May 1995 – USRA Twin Hoppers
The 2400 Series hopper models are supposed to be decorated with USRA “as built” lettering schemes and are packed with Andrews trucks. The 2500 Series models carry later lettering styles and are packed with ARA cast steel side frame trucks, commonly called “Bettendorf”.

Accurail composite coal hopper

2700 Series 55-Ton Wood Side Twin Hoppers – These models closely match a series of Nickel Plate Road hoppers built in the early 1920s.

Accurail USRA double-sheathed box car

4600 Series USRA 40 ton double sheathed box car – 25,000 prototypes built under USRA control from 1919 to 1920 and assigned to 24 different railroads.
Several models in this 4600 Series are decorated with “as-built” lettering styles. Compare prototype images with the product images on the Accurail website to ensure a model with lettering for your era. All of the 4600 Series models are packed with Andrews trucks. A data only version of this model is also available with lettering following the original data arrangment.
Railmodel Journal May 1998 – USRA 40-foot Double Sheathed Box Cars
See Railroad Prototype Cyclopedia Vol. 16 for more prototype details.

Accurail 8-panel single sheathed box car

4100 Series 40′ Single Sheath Wood Boxcar w/Wood Doors & Ends

Mostly similar to Canadian National and Grand Trunk Western prototypes built just before and after WW1. Consult the article for additional prototype details.
Railmodel Journal February 1993 – 40-foot Single-Sheathed Box Cars from Accurail & Sunshine kits

A simple upgrade can be done by installing some strip styrene to make a straight steel centersill. This change can make these models better resemble a couple of prototypes. One or two additional modifications and the model would resemble a series of 3700 Atlantic Coast Line cars.

Accurail 8-panel single sheathed box car modified

4300 Series 40′ Single Sheath Wood Boxcar w/Wood Doors & Steel Ends
4500 Series 40′ Single Sheath Wood Boxcar w/Steel Doors & Steel Ends
While the 4100, 4300, and 4500 series models are reflective of several prototypes built in the 1920s, these are NOT USRA design box cars.

Accurail wood sheathed refrigerator car

4800 Series 40′ Wood Refrigerator Car – very similar to cars installed by the FGE Companies in 1925 and 1926.

Accurail 6-panel single sheathed box car

7000 Series 6-Panel Wood Boxcar w/Wood Doors & Ends
These models hold similarities to Illinois Central and Milwaukee prototypes, but are a bit too tall to match specific freight cars.

7100 Series 6-Panel Wood Boxcar w/Steel Doors & Steel Ends
7200 Series 6-Panel Wood Boxcar w/Wood Doors & Steel Ends

Not all Accurail paint and lettering schemes are proper for a 1920s era freight car. Several Accurail products do have paint and lettering accurate for the 1920s and early 1930s time period. I recommend comparing the products with prototype images. Brake systems on nearly all of these Accurail models will need to be backdated by installing a KC or KD system.

Athearn/Roundhouse

Roundhouse short flat car

30-foot flat car – Similar to Milwaukee Road and Pennsylvania Railroad prototypes built for special hauling of naval gun barrels and heavy loads.

Roundhouse milk refrigerator car

40-foot Pflauder milk car – Don Valentine sent along additional prototype details:  The “40-foot Pflauder milk car” shown in this list is a GPEX car by acquisition only. It is in fact a model of an MDT constructed car, many of which were later acquired and operated under lease by General American – Pfaudler Corp. just as their own General American constructed cars were. These cars from the Athearn “Roundhouse” line are, however, accurate to model from the mid-1920′s on into the early 1950′s.

Roundhouse 50-foot, single-sheathed automobile box car

50-foot single sheathed automobile box car – Follows Texas & Pacific and Western Pacific prototype cars.
Railmodel Journal July 1995 – 50-foot Single Sheathed Box Cars from MDC’s kit

40-foot pickle tank car

ARA 70-ton offset side quad hopper – Details on this model more closely match B&O W-2 and subclass cars with ladders versus grabirons, but the model suffers from overly thick operating hopper doors
See Railroad Prototype Cyclopedia Vols. 5 and 14 for more prototype details.

Not all Athearn/Roundhouse paint and lettering schemes are proper for a 1920s era freight car. Brake systems on nearly all of these Athearn/Roundhouse models will need to be backdated by installing a KC or KD system.

Roundhouse truss rod car

This truss-rod, double wood-sheathed, refrigerator car is a model many model railroaders believe is appropriate to use if modeling the 1920s or 1930s. A similar box car and stock car has also been available. After reviewing many prototype photographic images taken in the 1920s, I feel these Athearn/Roundhouse 36-foot box, reefer and stock car models are more appropriate for an earlier 1905-1920 era with the truss rods and wood roofs. With some alterations and modifications, these freight cars can be used for the 1920 era, but it may be easier to scratch build the same model.

Atlas Model Trains

Atlas AC&F refrigerator car former Branchline

40-foot AC&F/URTX wood refrigerator car
This model was a former Branchline Trains product.
Railmodel Journal May 2000 – AC&F “Type III” Wood Reefers built 1927-1931

Atlas meat refrigerator car

36-foot General American Car Company wood reefer

Several Atlas products do have paint and lettering accurate for the 1920s and early 1930s time period. I recommend comparing the products with prototype images.

Bowser Manufacturing

Bowser GLa coal hopper

GLa 2-Bay Hopper – Thousands built for the PRR and many near copies built for other railroads. This model can be used as a stand-in for those railroads with fleets of the 1905 Common Standard Hopper.
Railmodel Journal February 2002 – PRR GLa Hoppers from Westerfield or Bowser kits
Model Railroading June 2002 – Bowser GLa Twin Hopper

Bowser H21 coal hopper

H21 Clam Shell 4-bay hopper – Thousands were built for Pennsylvania Railroad service. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad had a few thousand very similar hoppers in their W-1 class.
Railmodel Journal November 2000 – B&O Class W-1 Hoppers from Bowser kits
Railmodel Journal May 1993 – PRR Class H21 Hoppers from Bowser kits

Bowser H22 coke hopper

H22 Clam Shell 4-Bay Hopper – Often used in captive service between coke operations and steel mills. These were being rebuilt into H-22a cars through the 1920s.

H22a 4-Bay Hopper – rebuilt H22 cars.
Railmodel Journal May 1994 – PRR Class H22a Hoppers from Bowser kits

Bowser GS gondola

GS Gondola – Thousands built for PRR and subsidiaries and used to haul a variety of loads
Railmodel Journal April 1999 – PRR GS Class Gondolas

Several Bowser products do have paint and lettering accurate for the 1920s and early 1930s time period. I recommend comparing the products with prototype images.  Brake systems on nearly all of these Bowser models will need to be backdated by installing a KC or KD system.

Broadway Limited Imports

New York Central Steel USRA steel boxcar
Initial releases of the product reflect a prototype that was upgraded in the late 1940s with new hardware. I hope BLI produces a version that more closely follows the original design.

Central Valley Model Works

Northern Pacific 40’ stock car

Intermountain

Intermountain USRA composite gondola

USRA Composite 50 ton Drop Bottom Gondola – 20,000 prototypes built under USRA control from 1919 to 1920 and assigned to 25 different railroads.
Railmodel Journal February 2000 – USRA 50-ton, 41-foot 6-inch Composite Gondolas

Intermountain Caswell gondola

AT&SF Caswell Gondola – Several classes have been available representing a few thousand in-service cars.
Railmodel Journal March 2000 – General Service Gondolas

Intermountain AT&SF SK class stock car

AT&SF SK stock car – Several classes have been available, but only the K brake equipped SK-R is accurate for the time period.

Intermountain has labeled some of their products as to the era represented by details, paint, and lettering. I recommend comparing the products with prototype images.

Precision Scale Company

UTLX Frameless Tank Car – 6500 gallon tank cars originally built between 1908 and 1912.

Red Caboose

Red Caboose X29 box car

X29 and ARA 1923 Proposed Standard Steel Sheathed box car – Thousands of the prototype box cars were built for PRR and B&O. Slight variations in prototypes were made available with individual model versions.
Railmodel Journals of August, 1997, June 1998, November, and December 2001
ARA 1923 Proposed Standard steel-sheathed box car and PRR X29
See Railroad Prototype Cyclopedia Vols. 18 & 24 for more prototype details.

Red Caboose 42-foot, steel, fishbelly side sill flat car

42-foot Steel, Fish Belly Side Sill Flat Car
Railmodel Journal January 1997 – USRA-Design 42-foot Flat Cars

Red Caboose SP stock car

S-40-5 Southern Pacific Stock Car

R-30-12 Reefer – Mostly follows a PFE prototype class.
Railmodel Journal April 1997 – PFE Wood Reefers

Red Caboose Mather refrigerator car

Red Caboose had also produced models of a 37-foot wood-sheathed, Mather refrigerator car but these models are not currently listed on their website.

Tichy Train Group

Tichy USRA single sheathed box car

Tichy USRA single-sheathed box car

USRA 50 ton single-sheathed box car – 25,000 prototypes built under USRA control from 1919 to 1920 and assigned to 22 different railroads.
See Railroad Prototype Cyclopedia Vol. 17 for more prototype details.

Tichy USRA hopper

USRA 55 ton twin hopper – 25,000 prototypes built under USRA control from 1919 to 1920 and assigned to 23 different railroads.
Railmodel Journal May 1995 – USRA Twin Hoppers

Fishbelly centersill flat car – Follows an NC&StL prototype and is close to a few other prototypes.
Railmodel Journal June 1993 – Tichy’s HO Scale 41-Foot Flat Car

Tichy PFE refrigerator car

Tichy R-30-13 Reefer – Mostly follows a PFE prototype class and can be use for R-40-2, R-40-4 and R-40-8 classes with some modifications
Railmodel Journal April 1997 – PFE Wood Reefers

Tichy low side gondola

Low Side Gondola – Follows an Atlantic Coast Line prototype. If this model is built without the gondola sides, it closely resembles some flat cars built for the Akron, Canton & Youngstown, Chesapeake & Ohio, and the Denver & Rio Grande Western.

True Line Trains

Canadian Pacific Minibox – A steel sheathed box car introduced in June 1929. 7,500 were built over the next year.

36-foot Fowler/Dominion box car – Between 1910-1915, 33,000 box cars of this design were built for the Canadian Pacific. Another 40,000 box cars of a similar design were built for Canadian National, Grand Trunk and a handful of US railroads.

36-foot Fowler/Dominion stock car – Beginning in 1919, more than 5,000 of the Fowler design box cars were converted to stock cars for Canadian Pacific and Canadian National.

Walthers/Proto 2000

P2K Type 21 tank car

P2K insulated tank car

Type 21 American Car & Foundry (AC&F) tank cars

These are among some of the finest tank car models available. These cars have been produced with a couple of different size tanks, as well as the insulated tank version in the image above. Not all Walthers/Proto paint and lettering schemes are proper for a 1920s era freight car. Brake systems on nearly all of these Walthers/Proto models will need to be backdated by installing a KC or KD system. Some of these tank car models were produced with the older KC or KD brake systems. Each of the following articles contain a wealth of prototype details.
Railmodel Journal November 2005 – AC&F 10,000 gallon Type 21 insulated tank car
Railmodel Journal January 2000 – AC&F 10,000 gallon Type 21 tank cars
Railmodel Journal February 1998 – AC&F Type 21 tank cars

Walthers Mainline

Walthers USRA Mill gondola

USRA Drop End 70 ton Mill Gondola – 5,000 prototypes built under USRA control from 1919 to 1920 and assigned to 5 different railroads.
Railmodel Journal July 2002 – USRA 70-ton, 46-foot Mill Gondolas

Walthers USRA composite gondola

Proto1000 WKW USRA composite gondola

USRA Composite 50 ton Drop Bottom Gondola – 20,000 prototypes built under USRA control from 1919 to 1920 and assigned to 25 different railroads.
Railmodel Journal February 2000 – USRA 50-ton, 41-foot 6-inch Composite Gondolas

USRA 55 ton twin hopper – 25,000 prototypes built under USRA control from 1919 to 1920 and assigned to 23 different railroads.
Railmodel Journal May 1995 – USRA Twin Hoppers

Walthers also lists the X29 Box Car, a stock car, and a XM-1 single sheathed box in their line. These are former Trains-Miniature products and have some resemblance to freight car designs used in the 1920s, but some modifications and detail work will need to be done to make them better resemble a prototype.

Final Notes
Intermountain also offers some of the Tichy models as painted and lettered, ready-to-run products.

Many thanks to Ray Breyer, Dave Campbell, Ben Hom, Dan Merkel, Harold Oakhill, Dean Payne, Mark Plank, Steve Sandifer, and Dennis Storzek for the discussions, tips, and suggestions that have moved this freight car guide to reality. Thanks to Dean Payne and Ray Breyer for some model extra images.

This guide is probably missing a handful of appropriate models that did not come to mind. Additions are welcome but please keep them as currently available injection molded plastic models that need little bashing to be appropriate for a pre-1930 prototype freight car design.

Please leave a comment below. All comments are reviewed and approved before they appear here.

4 comments on “A guide to 1920s era HO scale plastic freight cars

  1. Don Valentine on said:

    The “40-foot Pflauder milk car” shown in this list is a GPEX car by acquisition only. It is in fact a model of an MDT constructed car, many of which were later acquired and operated under lease by General American – Pfaudler Corp. just as their own General American constructed cars were. These cars from the Athearn “Roundhouse” line are, however, accurate to model from the mid-1920’s on into the early 1950’s.

    Cordially, Don Valentine

  2. I just got back from my trip to Wheeling, WV and Baltimore and Roanoke yesterday. Saw lots of things in two museums and several layouts. I spent some time on the actual area you are modeling and took some photos of the old Pennsy station foundation just north of the long gone B&O freight house you are modeling. I also took some photos of the plaques in the area as well as several photos of the locations where the tracks crossed the creek and ran to the various buildings. The rails are still visible to the entrance of one of the buildings and in the civic center parking lot from one of the bridges to the point they crossed main and 16th street. I’ll post pictures after I upload them and send you some via your blog that you might be interested in. I also took photos of all the remaining bridge structures crossing from the old grocery district to the freight house and station areas. It is amazing how much the place has changed.

    Really nice models Eric. I also took lots of pictures at the B&O museum in Baltimore. Got some shots of a few cars that might be suitable for your era. When I get the chance I try and send some to you.
    Rob in Texas

    • Eric Hansmann on said:

      Good to hear from you, Rob. it sounds like you enjoyed a nice trip back east. I’d enjoy reviewing the Wheeling images you took. I’ll drop you an email. – Eric

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