Thursday, January 2, 2014

Choosing vehicles in HO scale

Scale automobiles and trucks on a layout play a very important role, sometimes not fully appreciated by modelers. Of course they are needed to make roads, parking lots, and industrial shipping docks realistic, but I’m referring to their role in helping set the era you are depicting. As I have remarked before on this topic, visitors who know little about railroads will nevertheless be knowledgeable and critical observers of modeled highway vehicles, which after all they have known all their lives. That post was about way you can avoid having to “explain” your layout (here’s a link:
     The present post, however, is about the choice of vehicles that are needed for their various on-layout roles. I will only describe what I am doing for my own modeling year of 1953, but the my approach may suggest ways to deal with any era. First and foremost, in my opinion, are automobiles, as many visitors to the layout, whether model railroaders or not, do know auto model years. If, like me, you are trying to model any particular year, it is really “playing with fire” to include any model autos from model years later than your declared model year. For me, of course, “too late” would mean 1954 or later.
     What about cars which are much older than your modeled year? In many parts of the country, cars did not live to ripe old ages in those days, because harsh winters and highway salting took a heavy toll. But my layout, set in California, is far less subject to that limitation, and period photos bear out the idea that fairly old autos, from back into the 1930s, visibly did survive into the 1950s. So I need a mix. The same is even more true of highway trucks, since commercial needs often keep trucks in service for substantial numbers of years. But in this post, I focus on automobiles.
     Before I start on vehicles themselves, let me make what I think is an important point: license plates for those vehicles. First, all autos and trucks obviously had them, so if your models don’t display plates, something is missing. Second, your license plates could conceivably be little rectangles of indeterminate color, serving as place holders, but in most eras states issued distinctive plates. This is an opportunity to capture an accurate detail. I discussed this aspect in an earlier post, and mentioned a California example of the kind of internet resources out there which can make your research easy (see: ).
     I have used a variety of on-line images to make correct plates for my 1953 era in California, as I have described previously (here’s a link to that post: ).
     A car which would be brand new in my1953 era is, of course, the 1953 Chevrolet. I used a Magnuson Models version, molded in clear resin, and painted it in the two-tone green and yellow which was on my father’s 1953 Chevrolet four-door Bel Air. This was the first car I drove alone (beyond driver training). A personal connection like this makes extra fun. The car is shown on Chamisal Road in Shumala.

     The “Mini-Metals” (Classic Metal Works) vehicles have been a godsend for transition-era modelers. I especially like their 1941-46 Chevrolet trucks, but they have also done 1950 Dodge and Plymouth sedans and 1953 Ford models, among others. Below I show them both, first the 1953 Ford Country Squire wagon passing the Shumala depot.

A red 1950 Plymouth is shown at about the same location, stopping for an approaching train. (A photo like this unfortunately emphasizes the lack of a driver in these vehicles! Perhaps she has run into the depot to pick up a ticket.)

     These are only a few examples, but they do demonstrate what I mean about era consistency. Some modelers don’t worry about the vehicles on their layout, but I think it is an important part of the image that the layout projects.
Tony Thompson


  1. Only one thing Tony: If you are modeling fall of 1953, you may see the town doctor, bank president, etc, in a brand new 1954 model, perhaps an Olds or Caddie. New models are always released in September!

    1. You are of course right about the '54 models arriving in September -- how well I remember as a teenager rushing down to dealers to see the new cars -- but the last thing I want to do with layout visitors is to "explain" why there are 1954 cars on my 1953 layout; and in any event, most of the year I am modeling the corresponding part of 1953, thus no '54s yet. I might keep a couple '54 vehicles in reserve for this use, but certainly not most of the time.
      Tony Thompson

  2. Gotta love that split window Kafer!

  3. I'm the same way. I only have one exception, I model the pre and early WW2 era but in my Chevy dealership on the showroom floor I have a '48 Tucker hidden in there. I'm still waiting for someone to call it out.

  4. For September, how about a '54 model either in a showroom or in front of one, with a sign that the new models have arrived. A similar idea to that posted by Anonymous above but perhaps a little easier to explain. I'd also note that my grandfather owned a Chevy/Olds dealer in a small town in central Kansas and had a new car each year, which I believe was used for test drives as well as to show off the new model.