Loco Look back 3: PRR S1 6-4-4-6s by Sunset Models (1999) and MTH (2004)

Posted by Bob Keller
on Thursday, May 24, 2018

The raised lines on the front, especially around the headlight, suggest wings ready to life the train into orbit!
The 3rd Rail version features brass construction and impressive size. The sound system was by QSI

If you had to pick a single locomotive that I would have bet never would have been made in 3-rail, it would be the Pennsylvania RR S1-class 6-4-4-6. Size wise, it was pretty impractical and during its brief operational life, it was exiled to the flatter and straighter lines of the Pennsy in the Midwest. But that was okay, the locomotive was designed to be a test bed for some advanced steam locomotive concepts and designs.

The S1’s first notable accomplishment was wowing the crowds at the 1939 New York World Fair operating at some speed on rollers. Wouldn’t that have been something to see? But then this locomotive wasn’t just a show pony, it was designed to really hustle, rolling down the line with 1,200 ton passenger trains at 100 miles per hour! The S1 remained in service until 1944 and then sat in a dead line until it was scrapped in 1949.

 We had the chance to review two models of the S1, the first was a brass model from 3rdRail/Sunset Models in the November 1999 issue. The second was a die-cast version from MTH Electric Trains in the January 2004 issue. 

3rdRail’s version (November 1999 CTT)

Taking it out of the box all I could think of was this looked like it would have been driven by Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers. I’m convinced that kids in the 1930s would have bet that all locomotives would have looked like this in the year 2000.

In my review, I called the 3rdRail version “an esthetic masterpiece.” The model was sleek, with its bullet shaped nose, very effective streamlined striping, and partially concealed running gear. It was classic "Future as seen from the past."

Unlike most brass steam locomotives I’ve reviewed, this was unusual in that there were virtually no delicate add-on details for my fingers to bend or snap off! There were both skirted and unskirted versions offered.

Operational notes were that the 13 pound locomotive’s low speed average was 12.7 scale mph, high-ish by today’s standards, but this was pre-speed control. The high-speed average was 79 miles per, and drawbar pull was just under 2 pounds.

The model did have two problems I noted. First was a tender coupler that kept opening. Normally I’d have just slapped a rubber band on it and pressed on. The fact I contacted 3rdRail suggested (nineteen years later) that there must have been a problem unrelated to the armature. 3rd Rail sent us a replacement that went on easily, and that ended the trouble.

Also, the drawbar also regularly uncoupled from the locomotive on O-72 curves. The answer was to slightly bend the drawbar upward. Since it wasn’t our engine, I contacted 3rdRail before attempting it, and that was the fix needed. 

The original price of the 3rdRail S1 was $1,495 and this might be a tough one to track down. Just 350 were made and they were close to a sell-out at the time of the review. A check of eBay didn’t turn up any in recent completed auctions, you may need to scope out high-end collection auctions.

The 3rd Rail S1 was a remarkable model and was the first of three models run in O gauge (the third was by Lionel).

MTH's version had impressive heft with its die-cast metal shell

Note the drop coupler and the Trail Blazer name plate on the pilot of the MTH model.

MTH’s version (January 2004)

The Pennsylvania’s S1 6-4-4-6 weighed in at a million pounds and when I lifted this out of the box, I wasn’t sure if the die-cast metal shell wasn’t trying to mimic it. Suffice it to say, if you have one and are in a zombie apocalypse, the shell would be a good backup weapon!

The model has the same rocket to Mars look of the 3rdRail version and the superb striping. Of note is that most of the striping wasn’t just painted on a flat surface, they were actually raised surfaces. 

The front skirt differs in that it is open and you can see the drop coupler. There is also a red and gold Pennsy name plate on the pilot for the Chicago-to-New York train the Trail Blazer. 

The Trail Blazer was an all-coach express with a tight 17-hour schedule. The train began in 1939 and was consolidated with the train The General in 1951 and the Trail Blazer name was dropped altogether in 1959. The S1 would, most likely, have handled the train between Crestline, Ohio and Chicago.

The massive 250-P-84 tender was impressive. Just below the name “Pennsylvania” on the tender is a circle with a keystone logo. This looks great.

Operationally the low speed was 12.9 scale miles per hour and had a high-speed average of 125 scale mph. It was able to pull a 25-car-plus train of mixed make and vintage freight cars at 76 scale mph.

Both of the S1s that we reviewed were notable in that there was a fantastically designed, one-off, long-departed, one-of-a-kind streamlined steamer that nobody expected to see in O gauge, let alone multiple versions. Yes, high-end in the price range, but if you had a great Pennsy passenger consist and O-72 track, wouldn’t you want to open the throttle onthese babies? I sure would.

The original price of the MTH S1 was $1,299. A recent check of eBay showed just one completed auction of a new one. If you are just into jumbo Pennsy steam, there are several Premier T1s and one Q2 currently on eBay at list or close to list prices.

For further reading, check out Eric Hirsimaki’s Black Gold and Black Diamonds, discussing the Pennsy’s transition from steam to diesel. Of course, the late Al Staufer’s classic Pennsy Power, is an amazing work on all aspects of Pennsy locomotion. I own both books and Hirsimaki's text is enjoyable, but covers a painful period in Pennsy history (forsaking steam). Staufer's book is a celebration of all locomotives Pennsy, and is a go-to reference for staffs of all the railroad titles of Kalmbach Media. It has been so heavily used that a few years back, our library copy had to be professionally rebound.

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