Many of us, certainly including me, tend to focus so much on individual freight cars that we can lose sight of the “big picture,” by which I mean the overall character of the fleet of freight cars. It’s the kind of thing you form an impression of, as soon as you walk into a layout room on a visit.
The impression I mean is whether everything you see, specifically including the freight cars, “looks right.” What does that mean? It mostly means “era consistent,” but it also means that there are not too many “circus” or “billboard” cars, even for the 1920s, and that the balance of car types is reasonable. It may also mean car color, and that’s the sub-topic of this post.
Some time back, in fact quite a few years ago, Rick Tipton had a short article in Model Railroader (June, 1977), entitled “Developing the freight car fleet,” page 94. Because it was in the back of that issue, probably many readers of MR even at the time didn’t really take much notice. But Rick put forth some very sound points, and MR did give him space for a nicely broad and complete article. For those with back issues, or who purchased the Kalmbach DVDs of all issues from 1934 to 2009, it's worth reading. (One important reason I bought the DVDs was to allow disposal of nearly seven feet of shelf space occupied by back issues!)
Now I have to quickly issue a disclaimer. A fair amount of Rick’s article, fully a third of it, is a simplistic, dated, and in places simply wrong summary of what prototypes were represented by the models of the day. For example, for box cars he discussed Athearn MDC, and Train Miniature. With the immensely better models of today, practically all of that discussion is moot, and as I said, riddled with oversimplifications and errors.
But the attraction for me, then and now, is his discussion of the impression you make with your fleet of freight cars. This part occupies about a fourth of the article. Here, Tipton emphasizes that black and boxcar red freight cars tend to be more “anonymous” in a train than cars of other colors (and of course yellow and orange reefers also qualify). In fact, his point was that trains of anonymous cars tend to look longer, a big plus on almost any layout, because you don’t perceive the train as separate cars, or notice the unusual or bright-colored ones. This is something you can readily see for yourself on any layout you visit.
Of course, plain colors, and lots of them, among your freight cars is entirely prototypical for the transition era, but Rick’s point is that there is a further benefit, the anonymity of such cars in trains. Weathering further enhances this effect, both in dulling lettering and heralds, and also in making cars look more alike. Creating the impression that trains are longer is obviously a plus, and the fact that a viewer doesn’t focus on a vivid paint scheme, but instead perceives each car as simply a player in the scene, also appeals to me.
I can’t claim to faithfully follow what Rick suggested, but I certainly lean in that direction. Here is a photo of Ten-wheeler 2344 switching at Shumala, which I think illustrates the general point.
The “hole” in the fascia at right is a recessed push-pull control for a turnout.
The key phrase which Rick used is, “cars should be seen, not counted,” and of course he means that in terms of their overall impression on the layout. It’s a good observation and one I still keep in mind, more than 35 years since the article was printed.