Sunday, June 28, 2015

Impression-izing Bachmann's N-scale TTC PCC the Jedi way

Which leads us to the moral of this story - don't wait for perfection - just do the best you can NOW, with what is available NOW - that is the real way to progress.
Vane A. Jones, publisher of Traction and Models, dispenses some sage advice in the Office Car column of the September 1970 issue.

Do. Or do not. There is no try. 
Yoda, Grand Jedi Master, The Empire Strikes Back

Awhile back I bought a Bachmann N-scale TTC PCC streetcar. It ran quite well, but I wasn't satisfied with the way it looked. It seemed to ride too high - actual TTC PCCs look more low-slung - and the wheels didn't line up under the openings. I thought I'd have a go at trying to fix those issues.
[The door side of the out-of-the-box model]

And although I'm certainly not worthy to doubt the sage advice of one of cinema's greatest fictional characters, this project was all about trying. Maybe not in the half-hearted way that the Jedi of all Jedi was telling us to avoid, but in the more clear minded Jedi Jones, 'trying as a way to make progress', way. I knew this was new territory for me, and even though I wanted to get it right, this whole thing was likely going to be a learning experience whose lessons might be better applied to the next member of my miniature streetcar fleet.
[This photo of the real McCoy was sourced from John Chuckman's excellent blog, Lost Toronto. I won't try to say what version or iteration of a 1970's TTC PCC this is other than it's this sort of image that my mind says, "that looks right".]

I also realized this wasn't doing to result in a high-fidelity replica of any PCC. For that, a complete from scratch effort with a 3-D printer is likely the way to go. I was going for an impression of correctness, so that when the car went by on the track, it wouldn't trigger thoughts of how terribly deficient it was, but would pass-by without disturbing the force.
Here's what's inside the body shell. The interior is more-or-less completely filled with two chunky blocks of metal, which are screwed together and are used to provide weight and distribute power to the motor from the truck pickups. I had hopes of grinding or cutting down the height of the metal blocks, but no dice, the motor is flush with the block tops. However, those little tabs that hold the shell to the blocks were cut off with a Dremel cutter. I thought that they keep the body too high on the chassis, but once removed, they only drop the shell a little bit, but with them gone, I filled the corresponding slots on the shell so the body looked a little more real.
This is the back end of the body block unit. I cut off those end tabs to try and get the shell to slide further back and help right the wheel / body alignment problem. It helped a bit. What actually needs to be done is the blocks need to be unscrewed, taken apart and about a 1/4 inch needs to be cut off. Yoda would be hanging his head in disgust at this point because I chickened out on that step. I wasn't sure if I could re-assemble it and get it to work again. Even though this one runs well, when I bought it, of the three for sale, this was the only one that ran smoothly. The others hesitated, stuttered and needed prodding to get them to go. I wanted to make sure that at the end of this little expedition in streetcar customizing the patient still ran without issues. I was going to save radical surgery and running-gear tuning for another project. 
Well, after lots of attempts and tries, this is the finished mechanism block before re-installing it in the shell. All side and rear body tabs were cut off, the passenger images were painted over with black, and the trucks were painted with a loose mixture of Model Master Acryl British Crimson and Tamiya acrylic Deep Green. You can see I had a go at cutting back and shortening the back-end of the metal block, but stopped when I realized I should take the thing apart before going farther.
For completeness, this is the other side.
Since I couldn't reduce the height of the metal block housing the drive mechanism, I thought I'd try lowering the body a bit. I glued strips of 0.040 in. x 0.040 in. styrene around the shell's lower perimeter. I was cautious here as I thought if the strips were too big they would wreck the streamlined shape and make the shell too boxy. After making this modification, I think 0.040 in. x 0.060 in. strips instead of the 0.040 x 0.040 would give a better look, but I wouldn't go any further than adding a 0.060 in. wide strip. You can also see in the photo that filler was gooped into the slots for the side body tabs.
I did the same thing to the other side. You can see that if the strip gets too wide the step down from the doors will seem too great, so I think this approach of adding a lowering strip is limited.
The front of the out-of-the-box shell has a section scalloped out. It struck me as too deep, so I filled it as I wrapped the styrene strip around the front.
Wrapping the strip around the back completes the process. I let the strips dry for a couple of days and then proceeded to sand and shape them to get them to conform to the contours of the shell and look blended in. I think I only did a so-so job as I was too cautious. I'm still not confident working in this small scale and need more practice. Although, I was happy on the blending job on the T'rantula as it was the first built-up body shell I've made that looks more-or-less seamless, so I figure with some practice, these N-scale shells should get better.
The final step was to paint the smoothed styrene strips with a mixture of Model Master Acryl British Crimson and Model Master Acryl Stop Light Red and get the colours to blend with the rest of the shell. The windows were glazed with Micro Kristal Klear. Some loose washes of thin flat black and Tamiya Smoke were brushed on for a little weathering. I think the doorless side needs an advertising billboard, the black destination board needs a destination lettered on it, and the trolley pole should be some sort of non-black metallic colour to help with the overall impression, but those should be relatively easy things to add.

At this point, it was time to take the thing for a spin around Tor-N-to to see if it still ran.
I breathed a sigh of relief.

Tor-N-to is still more-or-less just a collection of Kato Unitram track pieces I've been playing with. The idea behind Tor-N-to is a work-in-progress from thinking about omni-circulatory layouts, and reading lots of old model railroad magazines. 

At first I was reading that old stuff just for the E. L. Moore articles, but I soon became interested in the other things those old pages had on display. It seems that every so often in the ‘50s and ‘60s articles were written to try and convince readers that trolley systems were good things to model, if not in whole, at least as an adjunct to their main layout. Frankly, as a streetcar enthusiast, even I didn’t find those articles convincing. Their arguments were marginal at best.

My interest in streetcars, especially the TTC, is laced with generous heapings of nostalgia, which is also the driving force behind many mainstream modeller’s pet obsessions. You’re either interested in them, or you’re not. There’s no case to be made based merely on the technical attributes of the prototype or models. People might develop an interest from seeing streetcar layouts in action, from photos, or their own memories, but it’s not a case that can be argued. I grew up riding TTC buses, streetcars and subways in order to get around Toronto. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Toronto had the most extensive and still operational streetcar system in existence in either Canada or the US, and it was used by a wide swath of socio-economic classes. I’m not suggesting it was some golden age of candy, rainbows and unicorns, no, merely that it was, and is, a unique urban transportation experience in North America, and has left me with generally pleasant memories of a certain time and place. That strikes me as a sounder basis for a layout than an argument that trolley systems are more suited to modelling rail transport than other subjects because they can handle tight radii track or really do run on electricity.
Even so, it’s still not possible to build the whole thing. Judicious choices are required. Maybe a particular street or run. For me, I’m looking to replicate some sort of feeling or impression. Some sense of the place. Some things that interest me. Some things that should be idealized. I think streetcar layouts, especially a TTC or Toronto inspired one, are tricky because they involve lots of buildings and urban scenery. And not the usual rundown, wrong-side-of-the-tracks material. We’re talking more every day, commonplace, well maintained stuff that most people would encounter in their day-to-day activities. A Toronto inspired layout  wouldn’t be well served by an over reliance on Walthers, DPM, or Woodland Scenics products, so considerable scratch building and kit bashing might be called for. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that most streetcar layouts might be more oriented to building and structure modellers who like that sort of thing. I think a key distinguishing feature of a model streetcar layout is that it’s place oriented instead of rail vehicle oriented.

Speaking of streetcars, I shy away from the word traction; trolley and tram aren’t too bad, but I’ve never heard TTC streetcars referred to as trolleys or trams, just plain streetcars, and most civilians have no idea what traction is other than a state you’re put into after serious bodily injury :-)

I might go out on a limb and propose that model streetcar layouts are radically different from model railroads. Sure, there are similarities much like there are similarities between automobiles and motorcycles, but it might be more productive to think of model streetcar layouts as being a separate breed instead of a poor relation to model railroads. So, instead of trying, as those old articles did, to convince model railroaders to take up model streetcar systems and argue about what makes them worthy of their attention, maybe it’s better to abandon that approach and think of model streetcar layouts as their own class of thing. I haven’t gone too far yet with this line of thinking, but I think it might be an interesting path to walk along for awhile.
Possibly the term ‘model railroad’ is one place to start. Looking at a phrase and teasing out what it means by interrogating individual words seems like a turn away from pleasant adult conversation into the pit of nerdish quibbling, but such a brief detour might be useful at this point. Today, the mainstream use of ‘model’ in ‘model railroading’ is meant to imply that the thing in question is a small scale representation of an actual railroad, either currently existing or historical. It’s something that captures the detail and sense of a real railroad and can be operated as the real thing might have operated.  This is an excellent goal and many important innovations have been achieved as a consequence of its pursuit. But, sometimes I wonder if it might lead to point where progress is no longer possible. At that point there will be lots of fascinating layouts, incredible feats of technique and creativity, but this might be a point where surprising and delightful developments no longer occur. That path, the path that model railroading is on as presented by today’s model railroading press, might not be completely the right direction to follow for a model streetcar system. For example, the detail and density and energy of the streetcar’s ‘natural’ environment might not be well represented. Maybe some mix of impressionistic plus abstract plus realistic modelling is needed to capture those traits and keep the artifact doable. And a model streetcar system might blend in one of the other meanings of ‘model’; namely, the one that suggests that the artifact is something to be used as an example to follow or imitate. As cities can be crucibles of new ideas, a streetcar layout might represent things that could be as well as things as they are, since cities are often also mixtures of old and new and future side-by-side.
Did the streetcars and subways of the TTC drive and determine many of the unique characteristics of Toronto, or was it the reverse? It’s a point I can’t answer, but it would be key to developing a layout that has the feeling of the city. Can that feeling survive in the current era? I don’t know that one either.

Omni-vagancy is another unique characteristic of a model streetcar layout. This aspect alone makes it fundamentally different from a modern model railroad design. There are likely other unique concepts to these types of layouts - it'll be fun figuring them out.

Model streetcar system? Is that a good name for this new thing? It doesn’t roll off the tongue like model railroad or model railway does. Some thought is needed. Well, lots of thought is needed on this whole idea. For now it’s back to the damp and musty pages of Dagobah in a model railroad galaxy far, far away :-)


  1. You don't need to cut down the whole top of the block, just bevel both top edges by grinding to 45 degrees. The body will sit lower now.
    Also, just FYI, those Bachmann N scale PCCs are a little over-sized for North American/European N Scale. They measure out to 1/150 - Japanese N Scale.