By Tony Cook/photos by the author
I’ve been immersed in the history of General Electric (GE) Universal series (“U-Boats”) recently. Over at Model Railroad News, I have a new HO scale Atlas Master U30C model decorated for Chicago & North Western being reviewed that started me down the six-axle U-Boat path. For Diesel Era’s 2nd Quarter 2022 edition, I surveyed Burlington Northern’s 1972 group of U30Cs and looked at four U30Cs acquired by Burlington subsidiary Colorado & Southern in 1968. While not high in the diesel fandom hierarchy enjoyed by Alco products, GE’s U-Boats have their fan base and it’s a solid one. Greg McDonnell’s hardcover “U-Boats: General Electric’s Diesel Locomotives” (1994, Boston Mills Press) will easily convert those not infatuated with this series that launched with the landmark U25B around 1960 and concluded with the arrival of GE’s “Dash 7” series in the mid-1970s, ending the U-Boat reign.
Are U-Boats underserved in the hobby? As I state this, I’m conjuring up images of that classic HO-scale Rivarossi U25C produced for AHM in the mid-1960s, Minitrix’s U30CG introduced in N scale around 1970, Lionel’s famously fat-bodied U18B of the mid-1970s, and more recently the much-anticipated Rapido Trains’ U25Bs due in the near future, as well as many others in between. Maybe this conception that GE’s U-Boats are not represented well enough in the hobby is Athearn-influenced? If you look over the list of HO diesels in Athearn’s line, General Motors’ Electro-Motive Division (EMD) is the obvious leader. Athearn doesn’t ignore GE prototypes, but the comparison between the two is staggering. In the current Genesis series from Athearn you’ll find GE delights like the slab-side Turbine and mighty U50, but the EMD enthusiast is served many more options in the product line.
ABOVE: This dummy U33B decorated as Seaboard Coast Line 1776 may look mint — wire ties did serve to secure models in the box — however, the installed handrails and black plastic details tell the collector this has been assembled. The model did correctly come fitted with Blomberg truck sideframes, and amazing road-specific detail for 1972!
Back in 1970, Athearn strayed from its EMD efforts in HO to provide the hobby with Alco PA-1/PB-1 diesel locomotives. Then in 1971, news appeared promoting not one but six GE U-Boats due from Athearn. The group of U-Boats added to Athearn’s locomotive offerings in the early 1970s represents the largest number of new toolings to debut from the manufacturer at one time including the U28B, U28C, U30B, U30C, U33B, and U33C.
Hobby manufacturers have always been partial to producing a die-cast metal frame that lends itself to utilization across multiple plastic body shells. This group of Athearn four- and six-axle U-Boats allowed for excellent economy, creating two underframes and two sets of trucks (AAR Type B sideframe for the four-axle and General Steel sideframe for the six-axle; no six-axle Adirondack sideframe was created). Additionally, the wire handrails and other elements including cabs, window section, brake wheel on side of nose, air horn, and bell details saw repeated use across the series. The hobby gained six new options for HO scale diesels, while Athearn made it happen with a good deal of component sharing.
ABOVE: Athearn U-Boats in Illinois Central and Southern Pacific.
The U-Boat design followed the manufacturer’s well-established approach to HO motive power. The mentioned die-cast frame included tabs on each end for a plastic cover to snap under and secure a provided plastic horn-hook coupler to the underframe. The fuel tank was the same size and design across the four-axle platform and same again across the six-axle series (4,000 gallon).
Holes appeared on the underside of the frame between the trucks and fuel tank to allow for inserting two-piece plastic air tanks. These two die-cast metal frames served for powered and non-powered/dummy offerings. Athearn’s truck sideframes were still die-cast metal at this time and this style would remain in place until the early 1980s and the coming of the company’s SD40-2/SD40T-2; then slowly most, but not all, sideframes saw revision to plastic renderings with much enhanced detail.
With the coming of these U-Boats in the early 1970s, Athearn’s blue-box drive mechanism received a flywheel upgrade. This smoother-running motor would see application across the line with a few exceptions in the years that followed. The motor mounted via pads into four holes in the bottom of the fuel tank with metal clips serving to handle current over the drive and to the small incandescent bulb illuminating the front end of the unit’s innards…