Collector Consist: “Shorty” Heavyweights with a Long History

From its first plastic incarnation, Hobbyline’s Erie coach (left) shows off that company’s automatic knuckle coupler of the mid-1950s. The most common example of any of these shorty heavyweights is likely the yellow with orange Life-Like combine (center) from the early 1970s. From the late 1980s and Life-Like’s introduction of the Scene Master name comes this New York Central dining car (right).

Collector Consist: “Shorty” Heavyweights with a Long History

March 2021By Tony Cook/photos as noted

A seemingly unwritten rule in the hobby is that no tooling ever goes away forever. For the collector, this enhances the fun and presents challenges, too. Following a model or series of models from one company to another is entertaining and interesting: who produced the model first, where did it go after that, and then you must examine and compare to see if changes or revisions were made to molds. 

One model in particular has graced hobby shop shelves for generations, dating back to the earliest days of injection-molded HO scale models. Most recently offered by Life-Like, the “shorty” 60-foot heavyweight coach has a long and colorful history of passing from one hobby manufacturer to the next. 

Tracing the tooling for these HO scale passenger cars, I thought they originated with Penn Line, an early manufacturer based in Boyertown, Pa., whose line was later picked up by Bowser. However, during investigations for this article I read in Greenberg’s Guide to Varney Trains (1991, Greenberg Publishing, Inc.) reference to these models (and a series of shorty fluted-sided streamlined passenger cars) coming from John A. English. Those English/Hobbyline passenger cars crossed my mind, but I was thinking of the company’s streamliners and not our subject heavyweights. I didn’t put it all together until I read that reference; there’s a dot I hadn’t connected and failed to see all these years… the fun of discovery!

Crediting John A. English and his Hobbyline product line, that places the introduction of these models in 1954, according to my research. There is a pre-history to the plastic releases to note. In the early 1950s, I found Hobbyline catalogs with the combine (no. 4100) and coach (no. 4000) heavyweight passenger car models in a die-cast metal version that include the essentially the same tooling as the later plastic. The models were promoted as featuring “snap-together construction” and “scaled down to 60 HO feet.” No road names are mentioned for these metal models, which are listed as coming without trucks and couplers and retailing for $2.95.

Bernie Paul always knew a good deal when he saw one and his Associated Hobby Manufacturers or AHM took inventory of Penn Line items. Penn Line went out of business and a bankruptcy auction sold off tooling and stock. Varney landed with the shorty passenger car tooling, but AHM purchased a selection of cars it sold as “Penn Line Economy Car Kit” offerings around 1965.

Why produce a “shorty” 60-foot heavyweight when real heavyweight passenger cars of the day were 70 or 80 feet long? Even with the popularity of HO scale, not everyone had room for broad curves and sweeping vistas filling a coveted basement or spare room. These shorter models were able to navigate the sharp 18” radius curves that were common to most starter sets and sectional track offerings at the time. While lacking detail and a specific prototype, the generic heavyweight cars could be offered in a number of road names and still look at home on most layouts. 

Hobbyline was a pioneer in plastic models and seems somewhat forgotten in our hobby’s history. The company’s Alco FA and Fairbanks-Morse diesel locomotives are among the earliest plastic efforts in HO scale. The line skewed more toward the “train set” or downmarket “toy” end of model railroading from what I make of it by the mid-1950s, when it was largely converted over to plastic. The heavyweight combine and coach becameinjection-molded plastic body shells, and ready-to-run versions are listed for $3.95 with Erie, Lehigh Valley, and Pennsylvania Railroad road names offered. These mid-to-late 1950s Hobbyline releases also came equipped with the company’s unique oversized (even by that era’s standards) “automatic” knuckle couplers. These large plastic claw-like couplers are interesting and make for a spotting feature for collectors finding these models without packaging. If you can locate one, I’m still searching, Hobbyline offered several train sets with its passenger cars included in the consist. Especially interesting is Hobbyline’s “The Wall Street” (no. 411) with a Lehigh Valley F-M diesel switcher pulling a heavyweight combine and two coach cars. There’s also a pair of Erie Alco FAs in charge of Hobbyline’s “Lake Cities Express” (no. 451) with a combine and two coach cars. The other cataloged set with heavyweight cars is “The Train-Maker” (no. 430) with a Pennsy 0-4-0 steam locomotive pulling a combine and pair of coach car models. In 1961, English purchased the assets of Bowser Manufacturing, moved the operation to Pennsylvania, and adopted the Bowser name for their own releases from then on.

In 1958, Lionel purchased the Hobbyline tooling for the famous toy trainmaker’s first foray into HO scale. The early years of this run of Lionel HO saw Rivarossi-made trains initially, followed by Athearn-produced models, and finally the Hobbyline tooling went to work for Lionel in the early 1960s and on through their exit from HO in 1966. The apparent holdout in the collection of models Lionel purchased from John English is the passenger car models; this includes the heavyweight pair and Hobbyline’s streamlined coach and boat-tail observation car. Those HO passenger car models remained in Hobbyline’s home state of Pennsylvania and were acquired by Penn Line. 

The last round of revisions and most recent changes known for this tooling come in the late 1980s. Life-Like introduces the Scene Master name and brings to market five heavyweight body styles (combine, dining car, coach, Pullman, and observation) in five road names. The models receive vestibules on the ends, additional weight, and lost the printed figures in the windows.

Early Penn Line appearances showed a combine and coach. In a 1960 catalog, the two passenger cars appeared with $5.95 suggested retail pricing and were promoted as “plush, rail travel of a by-gone era” with “Even-Glo lighting and silhouetted passengers” and “heavy die-cast trucks.” For 1962, Penn Line added a baggage car (no. 362), diner (no. 366), Pullman (no. 361) and open-platform observation (no. 369) to its catalog. In addition, this listing included the previously produced combine (no. 365) and coach (no. 360). 

Road names included Baltimore & Ohio, Great Northern, The Milwaukee Road, New Haven, Pennsylvania Railroad, Rio Grande, Santa Fe, Southern Pacific, Union Pacific, and Wabash. This was maybe the most colorful these heavyweight cars ever got with New Haven cars featuring “McGinnis” treatment with white bodies and red/orange roof and ends. Union Pacific and Milwaukee Road models are Armour Yellow with gray roof and ends, Southern Pacific are gray with red window band, and Wabash releases are blue with gray roof and ends. Nothing drab about those releases!

Varney reintroduced Penn Line tooling in the mid-1960s. Gordon Varney’s hobby company, which helped establish affordable 1:87 scale modeling in the 1940s and 1950s, came under the control of Lou and Sol Kramer by the time these old Penn Line models made their way into Varney boxes. As a side note to collectors, as Penn Line sought bankruptcy its remaining inventory went in many directions. A 1965 Woolworth’s ad stated, “HO Model Railroaders Penn Line Goes Bankrupt” and the discount store chain was selling passenger cars for 44 cents and locomotive shells for 58 cents. I frequently encounter Penn Line-packaged passenger offerings that consist of the plastic shell and underframe only. These often include instructions (which include a crude reprint of the silhouetted passenger figures) and call the model a “Penn Line Economy Passenger Car Kit” and include Associated Hobby Manufacturers’ (AHM) logo and Philadelphia, Pa., address as Bernie Paul’s AHM acquired stock in Penn Line’s bankruptcy auction.

The late 1960s Varney line includes a mix of models the company created in the 1950s, including the well-known Dockside 0-4-0 steam locomotive and various plastic freight cars, as well as many Penn Line refugees, including our shorty heavyweight passenger cars. There’s a 1966 Varney train set with an F7A and F7B (of Penn Line heritage) with a heavyweight passenger train consisting of a baggage, Pullman, diner, and observation. Varney also cataloged a trio of sets with the shorty streamlined passenger cars, including one with a GG1 electric locomotive.

Separately sold passenger cars from Varney included heavyweight coach, Pullman, dining car, baggage, and observation. The assembled examples (equipped with then-hobby-standard X2f couplers) sold for $4.98 each; a kit release was offered for $2.98 per car. Varney cataloged Baltimore & Ohio (gold lettering on a blue car with gray roof and ends), Pennsylvania Railroad (gold lettering on a Tuscan Red body with black roof and ends), and Southern Pacific (gold lettering on a gray body with red window section).

Famous for its Lifoam styrofoam products and a producer of model railroad scenery materials in the 1960s, Lou and Sol Kramer acquired the Varney line in 1960 and rebranded it as “Life-Like” in 1970. Life-Like’s product line of the early 1970s expanded as the company that had made foam layout bases, lighted accessories, lichen, and other ancillary items for miniature railroads suddenly had a complete line with locomotives and rolling stock, including passenger cars.

In Life-Like’s 1972 catalog you’ll find a pair of Penn Line-tooling F7s pulling a “Coastal Express” set with shorty streamlined dome, coach, and observation cars (offered in Chicago & North Western and Santa Fe liveries), but the heavyweight offerings are down to a single model. In Life-Like’s circus-themed “Big Top Special” train set, an 0-4-0 steam locomotive had  the heavyweight combine in its consist decorated in yellow with red roof and ends and labeled for “Life Like Combined Shows.” It was produced in Taiwan and may be the first injection-molded model railroad production done outside the U.S. 

A look at the packaging these cars came in from Life-Life in the 20th Century. 

As a kid growing up with model trains in the 1970s, this gaudy circus combine car was likely my initial exposure to these long-serving heavyweight passenger car models. Officially listed in a 1976 Life-Like catalog as a Circus Performers Car (no. 08585), the model makes its last appearance. This is not to be confused with a listing for a Circus Car (no. 08580) presented among “Action Cars” with the other circus-themed models in the line; that model is a flatcar with two circus tableau wagons with animal figures.

While 1976 was the final year I find for this combine offered as a ready-to-run model, the shell survives in Life-Like’s line in a new offering: Myrtle’s Whistle Stop Diner (no. 8707). Look closely at this “Action Accessories” release introduced in the mid-1970s and you’ll spot a combine car (complete with silhouetted passenger figures) serving as the basis for a rolling passenger car turned static restaurant offering. The action part of the release was a whistle feature. This diner accessory appears to remain in the line into the 1980s.

About the time Myrtle’s Whistle Stop Diner disappears from Life-Like’s line, the company introduces a new brand name. While the Proto 2000 line was still a few years off in 1989, in the late 1980s Life-Like debuts its Scene Master series. Billed as “craftsman quality” with “extra care in painting, detail and quality,” the Scene Master name is new in 1986 and applied to scenery materials, signals, bridge kits, and (somewhat surprisingly) to a new production of our heavyweight shorty passenger car models. For this Scene Master return, the toy train-like printed black-&-white silhouetted passengers in the windows are gone and decoration follows a traditional Pullman Green-inspired finish with black roof section. Gold lettering in a Railroad Roman typeface is replicated across all four road names: Baltimore & Ohio, New York Central, Southern Railway, and Union Pacific. 

You can see the common features of the underframe for this series of heavyweight passenger cars across the various production efforts. The plastic base snapped into two slots on each side of the plastic body shell. On the bottom is a 1950s version with Hobbyline’s name, a Penn Line edition is center, with a Life-Life Scene Master version on top (with the Hobbyline/Penn Line name scratched out in the area by the brake cylinder). Note the variations in the design for the truck to be secured to the body. Also note the original Hobbyline steps were closer together; Penn Line appears to have revised the steps farther out (likely to provide more swinging room for the coupler in operation around tight curves).

Life-Like promotes the models as “double weighted for extra smooth running,” though plastic wheels with metal axles and Talgo-style couplers serve on these “craftsman quality” releases. The new exterior feature was the addition of vestibules on the car ends. In a press release, Life-Like refers to this passenger cars as “Pullman type” and lists the four body styles (combine, coach, dining car, and standard Pullman) as being 60 to 80 feet. Perhaps the reference to 80 feet relates to prototypes that models are meant to replicate. With respect to prototype, the press release notes “all cars have been carefully researched for painting and detail accuracy.”

The most recent offering for these heavyweight passenger cars shares Life-Like’s line with impressive Proto 2000 releases. Carrying 8000-series stock numbers, you’ll find these models available in the 1990s to around 2000 from Life-Like in red, blue, and yellow packaging and no longer carrying the Scene Master name. Those models came in a generic green (Pullman and coach) and Tuscan Red with gold lettering and black roof lettered for Pennsy in combine, diner, Pullman, coach, and observation body styles. The assembled models retailed for $11.50 in the late 1990s. 

 From metal originals in John English’s line on to Hobbyline plastic versions using the same tooling, on to Penn Line in the early 1960s with a near-miss appearance in Lionel HO of that same period and closeout offerings via AHM, on to Varney in the late 1960s, and Life-Like beginning in the 1970s through that brand’s ownership by Walthers in the mid-2000s, these passenger car models indeed have journeyed through the hobby’s history! I thought I knew this story and was delighted to learn of the Hobbyline origin. I’m sure long-time Railroad Model Craftsman readers have their own memories of these models and I invite them to share those remembrances and any part of this story missed in my survey. 

Tony Cook is editor of White River Productions’ Model Railroad News magazine, and co-editor of HO Collector quarterly.

March 2021This story appeared in the March 2021 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman! Subscribe Today!

This article was posted on: March 15, 2021