It has been more than a year since Intermountain first announced it would be producing an all new 89' autorack it was an announcement worthy of note. Two things jumped off of the innitial announcement: the new level of detail and the asking price. The question most modelers asked, "Will they be worth it?"
With a manufacturers asking price of $68.95, these new autoracks have a lot to prove. The first release has just hit hobby shop shelves and is availible in four numbers for ATSF, BN, BNSF, CR, CSX, NS, SP and UP. The paint schemes range from the 1980s to today. A second run has already been announced including CN, CNW, CP, D&RGW, FEC, GTW, SOO, and UP (MP).
The modern autorack emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Multi-level steel racks were semi-permanently mounted on a flatcar. Often, the railroads owned only the rack, leasing the flatcar from Trailer Train (later TTX) corporation, but some roads owned the flatcar as well.
The autoracks came in two major variations. Bi-level racks had only one additional deck above the flatcar. Taller trucks and vans rode in these. For shorter cars, tri-level racks accomodated an extra level for more efficient loading while staying within clearance restrictions on most lines.
Through the 1980s, autoracks underwent an evolution from open-sided multi-level cars to fully enclosed versions with side walls, roofs and end-doors added to protect the valuable loads from the weather, theft and vandalism. Although larger and taller cars have since been introduced, cars of this design remain among the most common in use today.
The Intermountain model is based on a bi-level rack. The rack is placed on a Bethlehem Steel-built flatcar. Over the years, numerous different types of flatcars have been used beneath these cars.
Intermountain has always been a leader in well-detailed scale models. The new autorack carries on that tradition and is clearly the most finely-detailed autorack model on the market today.
The most prominent of these details is the see-through metal side panels. These perferated panels feature thousands of small holes (used for ventilation for the freshly-painted cars.) The effect of holding the car up to the light and seeing through the carbody with its interior floor to the other side is very nice. Modelers could even add a load of vans, trucks or SUV's to the interior.
Unfortunately, these panels are also the car's biggest weakness. Both on the car I purchased and other samples seen at the hobby shop, there is a lack of consistency in the assembly of these models. Most of the panels on my sample car are bowed inward in the center. A few are also bowed out away from the supporting frame. This is very noticable and while there are only a few small problems on my car, others seen on the shelves were very warped.
Looking more closely at the car, not all of the perforations are equal. Some panels have holes roughly one third the size of others. There are different types of panels used on these cars, and sometimes replacement panels have a different pattern so this is less objectionable than the bows and distortions in the metal sheets themselves.
Another nice feature, these cars also feature working end doors. This is a nice feature if you want to have a few cars in the train with an open door (sometimes seen) or in auto yard scenes with loading ramps. Opening, and especially closing, the doors is not very easy however.
Turning to the flatcar, the model features full underbody brake detail, and the ends have coupler cut levers. Air hoses are not provided, but this is probably a wise concession to the swinging coupler pockets which will allow the car to negotiate a tighter curve.
Paint and Lettering
Overall, the paint and lettering on this model are very good. I purchased a Conrail sample for this review. The colors were a good match for Conrail autoracks and the TTX flatcar. The brown rack in particular is much closer to the prototype shade than competitors' models.
The lettering is very crisp and opaque, including the white-on-black TTX lettering.
The only issue I've found with the lettering is the position of the Conrail Quality logo on its panel. On both sides of the car, the logo appears to have been placed above center and slightly tipped upward to the right. Certainly there were many prototype slips of a similar nature, but this printing error is distracting nevertheless.
Operations and Conclusions
There is no information included with the car or on Intermountain's website about the minimum operating radius for this car. Like other long cars, operation on tight curves could be a problem. The car does have swinging coupler pockets which should help.
My home layout has a rather generous 40 inch minimum radius curve restriction. I did test the car through a No. 6 crossover while coupled to other cars including other manufacturers' auto racks, 89' flatcars and conventional length cars. The Intermountain car had no trouble through the crossover.
The car also features metal wheelsets and metal scale couplers. I found all wheels and couplers to be in gauge.
So, now that I have one in hand, is the car worth the cost? Honestly, I have mixed emotions. It is an absolutely gorgious model. However, the many assembly flaws are very distracting. In fact, under normal operating conditions, the flaws are more apparent than the benefits of those perferations. A little bit of CA glue may be able to fix some of those problems, but at nearly $70 per car, it's work I'd really prefer not to have to do. There is also a rather large scratch on the roof. Again, nothing that can't be touched up or hidden with weathering, but still not what you'd expect on a car of this quality.
Comparing this bi-level car with the latest bi-level enclosed autorack releases from Walthers, I'm convinced that a little weathering will make both look equally as good. But with a list price $20 cheaper than the Intermountain, the Walthers car is worthy competition even with the solid plastic body.
I will wait to see if some of these assembly problems can be corrected on the upcoming release. If so, I may well go back for a few more of these cars. (I may not have a choice as the first runs of these highly anticipated cars are selling out quickly at stores.) Still, I don't think you'll be seeing a run on older Walther's cars on the used train market anytime soon. Check one out for yourself and see what you think!