O gauge RailKing Imperial J-class 4-8-4 from MTH
Price: $459.95 (no. 30-1674-1) Min Curve: O-31 Cmd Low: 2.4 smph Cnv Low: 2.8 smph High: 64.5 smph Drawbar pull: 1 lb., 8 ounces Features: Die-cast metal construction, can-style motor, ProtoSound 2.0 command and sound system, remote coupler on tender, directional lighting, die-cast metal trucks and couplers Current road names: Norfolk & Western (cab number 611)
The Norfolk & Western J-class 4-8-4 from MTH is a blast from the past. The first MTH run of the J-class model was also the first MTH locomotive I reviewed way back in the November 1996 issue. I dusted off my copy of that issue to refresh myself on what I wrote back them. My, how far we have come in 20 years!
The Norfolk & Western’s J-class locomotives were built to handle the N&Ws premier passenger traffic through the railroad’s mountainous terrain. A modest 14 were built between 1941 and 1950 and their performance was exemplary. The rising tide of dieselization meant that the locomotives were bumped from the line’s top chores, though they enjoyed popularity through the Norfolk & Western’s Farewell to Steam tours run with no. 611 in 1959. No. 611 is the only surviving member of this engine class and it is currently in excursion service.
The bullet-nose of this model is instantly familiar to most railroad enthusiasts. Raymond Loewy designed the streamlining for the J-class. Loewy was a master of industrial design in general, and transportation streamlining in particular. Stating the obvious, the vibe being sought was of a locomotive being shot like a bullet through the air, speeding the train’s passengers to their destination.
The model has a no less notable history in O gauge, with Lionel offering the first three-rail model of the J in 1956, and which has revisited the subject many times over the years.
Firms offering the J-class in O include Lionel, Williams (brass and die-cast metal), and MTH (in both RailKing and Premier lines).
While I was impressed, overall, with the 1996 version, the 2016 model has some worthy improvements. The obvious things are the accents on the nose: bright frames around the engine number board and headlight frame. I don’t recall if the grab irons under the headlight were cast-in or not, but the new release has it as an add-on feature. There are also add-on marker/classification lights on the nose, where the original had none. MTH added a nice builder’s plate on the smokebox side.
The cab has yellow accented window frames and crew figures that the original lacked. The major difference is the tender. The original run had a tender that mirrored Lionel’s postwar no. 2671 body. Well, what they now pair with it is instantly recognizable as a Norfolk & Western tender.
The differences on the inside were pretty stark. I tested the version with the digital whistle. However, there was a ProtoSound version (the original now-not-very-well-liked version by QSI) available. It would have sounded better at the time, than it would today.
I remarked about the smoke unit of the older version, “Good ventilation is essential when running this baby.” With the development of smoke unit technology, I imagine today, that output would be like an e-cigarette compared to a Havana! The speed range was very good for the day: 13.6 to 163.6.
Dare I mention the advances in speed control and the options of ProtoSound 2.0 and later? On the original model, crew chatter was simply talking to yourself!
The model at hand
The weight is still the first thing that caught my attention. It is an impressive feature, feeling solid and well assembled. The locomotive’s color was second. I want to say that the new version has a more luxurious tone of black, but my memory of the earlier engine was that it was more of a flat black.
The tooling produced an excellent shell – rivet, seam, and boiler band detail were great. The nose was smooth and free of imperfection. The roof of the boiler was interesting, even though you can’t see anything from the side. The functional bits (okay, cast-in representations) are there, but you can’t see it unless you look down into the cavity. I still think that the topside streamlining makes any streamliner look futuristic!
The detailing beneath the running boards is cast-in, but very clear and distinct. The running gear is natural metal color (not chemically darkened) and looks eye-catching when rolling along.
For some reason when I saw the tender, the first image popping into my mind was “Norfolk & Western.” It mirrors the tender the current no. 611 hauls about same general lines but not appearing quite as long. This is a stellar improvement on the postwar look favored by the 1990s version. The tender’s coal bunker looks huge (the original J tenders could hold 26 tons and they were later enlarged to hold 30 tons and additional water). This is a major selling point when compared to earlier versions of this model.
Paint and decoration were excellent. The two-tone striping was skillfully applied and on the body of the locomotive and tender we didn’t see any overspray.
On the test track
With the sound off, operation of the no. 611 was smooth and quiet. Crank up the volume and the sound package offers no comparison to the 1990s version’s digital whistle. You get all the chuffs, ker-thunks, and creaks you could hope for. The deep, throaty whistle will make you smile, too. No corners are cut simply because the sound system is on a RailKing model.
Our low-speed average was 2.4 scale miles per hour while our high-speed average was 64.5 scale miles per hour. Drawbar pull was 1 pound, 8 ounces.
The RailKing Imperial J-class 4-8-4 Northern is a wonderful model of a locomotive recently returned to operational service. Motor performance is great and the sound package is outstanding. If you like streamlined steam, or are a fan of eastern coal-hauling roads, you might want to check out this model at your MTH retailer.