Friday, April 8, 2011

Choosing a model car fleet-8: gondolas

Gondolas pose a more complex problem in the far West than in other parts of the country, due to the substantial fleets of drop-bottom gondolas (AAR Class GS) used for bulk cargoes like coal and gravel, in addition to conventional tight-bottom (AAR GB) or mill gondolas. This is certainly true of the SP. Accordingly, my gondola plan has two parts, separating GS and GB car types.
     Traffic on the Coast Line in gondolas was heavily slanted toward sugar beets, mostly in SP composite gons. But the usual pipe, poles, and structural steel loads, along with crated loads and, many times, lumber loads, are also evident in period photographs of both GB and GS cars, and I intend to model them.
     Gravel, sand and ballast was also shipped in GS cars, as was coal. California is not a coal state, but as late as 1953 SP still relied on coal for fuel in section houses, depots, roundhouses and other on-line structures, as well as for use in caboose stoves. Accordingly, I will model some coal deliveries. This is the other part of the traffic discussed in the post on my plan for hopper cars (
     Mill or GB gondolas. These are largely free-running cars which could be and were used all over the U.S., often confiscated as needed for local loading. This in turn means that the Gilbert-Nelson hypothesis would be expected to apply: their representation should be in proportion to the national fleet of GB cars. Specially equipped cars or unusual cars such as 65-footers were exceptions, often in assigned service.
     As with other free-running cars, I expect around 30 percent of GB gondolas on my layout to be SP cars, with the remainder being a Gilbert-Nelson fleet. By far the largest gondola fleet in the U.S. was the Pennsylvania Railroad, followed by the New York Central (including such subsidiaries as the P&LE), so cars of those roads will be evident. I already have three PRR gondolas and two NYC cars, along with two P&LE cars, so probably I have enough of those. Others already rostered include Reading, B&O, DT&I, Erie, Southern, and EJ&E among eastern roads, and ATSF, CB&Q, UP and WP among western roads. These are balanced between 40-foot cars and cars of more than 50 feet; by 1953, the latter size predominated in the U.S. car fleet. I only have two 65-foot cars, as these were relatively rare; one is PRR, the other SP.
     This photo shows a “signature” SP gondola, Class G-50-13, in the form of the fine Speedwitch kit (an SPH&TS convention car a few years ago).

     Another distinctive GB gondola among the SP fleet was the War Emergency design of World War II, purchased by T&NO and obviously liked, as several postwar repeat orders were placed. Here is the Funaro & Camerlengo version of this car, which makes up into a nice model.

     Drop-bottom or GS gondolas. Here the percentage of SP cars is greater, because large numbers of GS cars were purchased after World War II, especially for sugar beet traffic, which was important on the Coast Line. I already have several of the superb Detail Associates SP GS gons and am adding a few Red Caboose cars. These are all of the post-1940 Enterprise gondola design. I also have a number of old Ulrich cast metal gondolas, typifying the 1920s Enterprise design and very visible on SP throughout the 1950s. The 1920s cars were all steel, but the later cars are a mixture of all-steel and composite designs.
     Here is one of the Ulrich cars, with added brake rigging. It is numbered for Class G-50-12 and thus has Dalman trucks (from Tahoe Model Works). The Ulrich models are often available at swap meets and may show up in some on-line auctions. One of the post-1940 all-steel GS cars, a Detail Associates model, was shown in one of my waybill posts (

     Other western roads with GS gondolas on my layout will include ATSF (Caswell design), Colorado & Southern, D&RGW, NP, Utah Coal Route, and UP. Here is one of the Ulrich models decorated for UCR (though a stand-in, as the real UCR cars did not look exactly like this) and, sure enough, carrying coal.

     For sugar beets, after 1948 SP moved the traffic almost entirely in composite GS gondolas. In addition to the Detail Associates and Red Caboose versions of these cars, Precision Scale did them in HO brass, and for variety I show one of those cars here, representing Class G-50-20.

     The sugar beet cars which preceded those GS gons were Blackburn patent beet racks on flat cars, racks which could be removed and stored outside of harvest season. Pat Bray scratchbuilt such a rack, and the model has been passed on to me. Even if slightly anachronistic in 1953, it’s such a nice model that I’ll have to include it in some beet trains:

     To recap, fully 20 percent of SP’s freight car fleet in the early 1950s was gondolas, coincidentally about the same percentage as in the national freight car fleet, so I am attempting to create a realistically large gondola representation among my own freight cars.
Tony Thompson


  1. Tony,
    I own 3 Detail Associates GS gondolas. One is a steel side and 2 are composite side. All are undecorated so I need decals. I can't find any. Will the Microscale 87-1314, sugar beet set work?


  2. I don't have this sheet, but judging by what is on the Microscale website, it is oriented to post-1956 cars (probably parts of it can be used for earlier cars). All the class numbers, at least as well as I can read them on the web image, appear to be for composite cars. Your best bet by far, if you can find it, is the old Champ Super Set 144. Older hobby shops are worth browsing for decal stock like this.

    Sorry I don't have better news. The DA kits make superb models and they deserve good lettering.
    Tony Thompson

  3. I recently acquires a Union Pacific car diagram for N.C.S. gondolas that covers the Utah Coal Route cars mentioned by Tony in his post of April 8th, 2011. The cars do not appear to have bottom hatches, or any form of 'patent' bottom drop doors common to GS-types of cars. I'd like to post a scan if that can be worked out- and I'd like to see photos of the cars in late service, if any are available to share. ed hopson

  4. I would be interested to know the car numbers involved. Most of the early UP steel gondolas, later classified as N.C.S. (Not Common Standard), did have drop doors, so I would have the check the information I have. I can certainly post a scan if you like.
    Tony Thompson

    1. The diagram is a vintage original white-on-blue page, UP drawing number F-8-2 and dated 7-12-41. Road numbers are UCR 20000-21999 and LA&SL 201000-201099. It may be as simple as a complete lack of understanding on my part; but other GS-type gondola diagram pages from the same lot/era all refer to the bottom door detail in the text fields- & have sufficient line detail to clearly define the cars as drop bottom types.
      I've seen many pix of the UCR cars in passing trains, so I'm superficially familiar with them, but a posed 'roster shot' type image would be nice! ed hopson

    2. The 1929 _Equipment Register_ shows all these cars as either drop-bottom or dump cars, so yes, they did have bottom doors.
      Tony Thompson