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HO - Transition from Varney to Life-Like 1960-1970

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HO - Transition from Varney to Life-Like 1960-1970
Posted by Shock Control on Sunday, August 18, 2019 8:58 AM

According to Wikipedia, "Varney sold his company to Sol Kramer in 1960, which became the basis for launching his own line of Life-Like Trains in 1970."

By the time I was buying HO freight cars in the mid- to late-70s, Life-Like epitomized the cheap glossy plastic HO cars that had become fairly ubiquitous.

But circa 1970 or 1971, I had received some Life-Like cars for Christmas one year, and they were much closer to Varney cars in terms of weight, materials (some metal), and detail.

So I'm curious what the Varney cars were like during that transitional decade of 1960 to 1970, and I'm wondering if remaining old Varney stock was packaged under the Life-Like name in the early days of the new company.  

I'm guessing that Varney and Life-Like were somewhat akin to Mantua and Tyco?

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Posted by BRAKIE on Sunday, August 18, 2019 9:31 AM

Varney was one step above Tyco although the Lil' Joe was a popular engine.

One could rightfully say Athearn BB and Roundhouse kits pushed Varney out the door along with Life Like and Mantua freight cars.

Oddily Mantua steam engines remained popular until the likes of PFM,United,Sunset and Balboa dominated the steam market. Yes,brass steam engines was very popular in the late 50s and well into the 70s.

The why is very simple..Brass prices was compatable in price with the majority of the steam engine kits and was superior in detail..

Larry

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Posted by RR_Mel on Sunday, August 18, 2019 10:04 AM

When I started out in HO about the only kits available were Varney, Labelle and Ambroid.  I stuck with them until I couldn’t get them anymore.  Back then they were wooden with thin metal or card stock glue on sides.
 
I kinda remember buying a couple of early Athearn and MDC kits maybe in the late 60s that were plastic.  Most of the MDC kits I bought in the 70s were MDC shorty hopper cars, still have them.  All of my old wooden cars were stripped then sent to the County dump in the 80s.
 
For some reason Life Like didn’t do much for me until the Proto line hit, I always put them in the toy category along with Tyco and Mantua.
 
I really don’t remember the quality back in those days, there weren’t many rivet counters back then either.
 
I never really got the bug of having a bunch of rolling stock, my model railroad thing has always been my layout as priority.  Even now after 68 years modeling HO I only have a total of about 80 freight cars, most are oil, logging cars, a dozen cabooses and a few box cars.
 
 
 
Mel
 
 
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Posted by MisterBeasley on Sunday, August 18, 2019 10:15 AM

I still run a few old Varney cars.  They have Kadees on them, metal wheelsets and new trucks.  They're OK for just populating through freights and filling yards.  No, they are not even up to Blue Box quality, but I'm not taking photos of them.

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Posted by dknelson on Sunday, August 18, 2019 11:05 AM

Varney went through so many iterations as a firm it is hard to keep track of.  The old old Varney lithographed metal boxcars, flatcars, and reefers (the metal was a sort of tin, with tab-in-slot construction) were (and remain) beautiful cars with nice painting and lettering.  They were also fun to build.  The underbody detail was simplified but at least it did not defy or frustrate added detailing.  And the couplers were scale sized dummy knuckle couplers with sprung draft gear.  In the style of the era, there were of course paint schemes on cars that never had those paint schemes.

And when Varney had those nice Lithograhed side cars they also had some really impressive metal steam locomotive kits.  They were generic like the Mantua steamers and the Bowser Mountain, but resembled locomotives from any number of prototype railroads, which made them useful and popular, as opposed to the very PRR specific steamers from Penn Line. 

Varney was a fairly early adapter of plastic for rolling stock, while their steam locomotives and diesels (an F3 and an SW switcher) remained metal, as did their shortened GG1 electric.  Eventually their Dockside B&O 0-4-0T became plastic, but not the other steamers that I recall.  One oddity is that Varney's plastic ore cars, gondolas and flat cars had been designed seemingly without regard to weight, with almost no place to put any weights either.  They were light as a feather.

And into the late 1950s, so while Gordon Varney was still in charge, the amazing Varney parts catalog was still available.  If you ever see one for sale get it - even though nothing is still available from it, you can see why it was treasured by guys who built their own steam locomortives from parts, or partly from scratch.  I suspect there are many modelers today who'd love to have such ready access to those parts.

The Varney freight cars I bought in the early 1960s (when I think Gordon Varney himself was out of the picture, perhaps even deceased).  The cars were plastic and came in cardboard boxes with clear celophane windows (that was common for trainset rolling stock, even Athearn if I remember right, and thus the packaging did double duty: individual and trainset sales.  What was odd even to my youthful and ignorant eyes was the trucks - very peculiar looking things, somewhat like early T section Bettendorf trucks but somehow squished looking.  Earlier plastic cars from the "real" Varney which I bought used at swap meets were reasonably good looking trucks, even sprung if memory serves, so perhaps these strange trucks were signs of cost cutting by the new owner.

In general the lettering was sloppy looking - the dimensional data was an unreadable set of little blobs of paint, and nothing was crisp.  Rubber stamped perhaps, and not very well at that.  Most Athearn Blue Box of the time, and even Mantua/Tyco, was a bit better, even if they too were rubber stamped. But the general detailing from the old Varney tool and die work was still considered OK by the standards of the time, although the Kurtz Kraft PS1 boxcar and the Pacific HO 50' mechanical reefer made folks realize that plastic was capable of more than was being asked of it by most manufacturers. 

The Varney tank car and gondola (whether original "real" Varney or the post-Gordon Varney "new" Varney) remain valued as kitbash/detailing fodder.  I think the amazing Doctor Wayne has shown photos of some of the magic he has performed with those cars.  The ore cars provide some variety in the offerings for those who need and want that kind of car.  And the plastic flatcar was, unlike their metal flatcar, of a straight side silled prototype that differed enough from the Athearn and Mantua/Tyco offerings to make it useful long after the Varney boxcar and cabooses were relegated purely to the trainset crowd.  I think the Train Miniature flatcar superceded the Varney for that kind of flatcar, at least it did for my purposes.

I bought some Varney "shorty" passenger car shells purely to experiment with kitbashing.  No floors or trucks.  They might still be around here somewhere.  Not the worst but not so good that I feel like spending any effort on them.  They can be part of my huge estate sale (start forming the line now, and I hope you're good at fixing stuff).

I do remember buying a LifeLike reefer and upon inspecting it at home, realizing that it was exactly the same tooling as my Varney reefer.  I do not recall if that was late 1960s or early 1970s  The wood roof hatches are the giveaway, as is the slightly blunt nature of the plastic overall detail.

LifeLike also had the plastic Dockside 0-4-0T but they managed to lower the quality even further in the way of drive rods, side rods and motor. 

The "new" Varney issued a few new locomotives in the 60s; I recall an Alco RS11 in plastic with a not-so-wonderful motor.  By that time the parts catalog and larger steam locomotives were long gone.  I do think the F3 became plastic, and with a much less impressive motor, underframe, and drive train than the old all metal one.  I don't think Varney ever did correct the wheelbase error on their EMD Blomberg trucks, even after it became plastic.  It was the same wheelbase as for their SW switcher drive train.

In general I'd say that the Varney tooling that the "new" Varney, and then LifeLike, kept using and selling was used appropriately: it might have been about as good as you could get in 1955, if never top of the line, and a decade later was trainset quality.  A lot of water had done over the dam in that decade when it came to tool and die work, and buyer expectations for detail and accuracy had changed.  And the market expected trainset quality trains to be very cheap, and LifeLike knew how to do that.  

Dave Nelson

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Posted by csxns on Sunday, August 18, 2019 12:12 PM

RR_Mel
Life Like didn’t do much for me

The only thing Life Like had back then that i liked was the All Door Boxcars.

Russell

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Posted by doctorwayne on Sunday, August 18, 2019 10:36 PM

I received some HO trains for Christmas in 1955 or '56, and there were some Varney cars among them.

I still have the plastic hoppers - one was an open car, the other had the optional roof with moulded-on hatches.  I still use them on the layout, as I updated some of the details a bit...

...removing the cast-on grabirons and ladders.  The new ladders are from Tichy, the grabs phosphor-bronze wire, also from Tichy, while the trucks may be from Train Miniature.  Both cars, however, retain their original cannonball-size rivets.

Also included in the Christmas gift was a Varney boxcar, lettered in NYC's Pacemaker scheme.  I later painted and lettered it for the CPR, and later still decided to upgrade it a bit.
This was one of the all-metal cars, with wire grabirons and sill steps, and cast plastic ladders which plugged into holes in the sides and ends.  The running board was cast Zamac, with tread detail...all-in-all, a pretty nice car.
The underbody was also cast metal, so I started by adding brake rigging...

I removed the ladders and grabirons, then, after stripping the CPR and NYC paint, plugged all of the holes in the body.  This was accomplished by using contact cement to affix .060" sheet styrene to the car's interior behind every area where there were holes in the body.  I then drilled through the existing holes and then through the styrene, following-up by using styrene rod slightly larger in diameter than the drilled holes...the end of the rod was dipped in solvent-type cement for a few seconds, then forced into the holes.  Once hardened, the excess was sliced off, leaving flush, solid plugs...

Where new plastic ladders were to be installed, I added small bits of styrene strip material to the plugs, as mounting points....

...while the grabirons were relocated to more prototypical positions...

The doors are from, perhaps, McKean or Front Range, while the new "wood" roofwalk is built-up from Evergreen strip styrene....

With some paint and some C-D-S lettering, the car doesn't look too out-of-place, and that dent in the side would have been harder to do with a styrene car...

Also amongst the Christmas goodies was a Varney tank car, lettered for SHPX, I think.  It got some metal grabirons and sill steps, plus some added brake gear and I then re-lettered it for a freelanced industry...



A few years ago, I picked up a Varney tank for free at a train show, and just happened to have, in my "parts department", a Tichy kit for a tank car underframe...

However, the tank was a couple feet too long for the frame, so I had to shorten it...

Here's the finished car, with trucks from Tangent and lettering from Black Cat...

I had always wanted some Varney reefers, but eventually bought some Athearns instead.
Later, I picked-up several LifeLike (Proto-no-thousand) reefers from the "used" table at my LHS.  None of them cost me more than a dollar.

Here's two of them, with the original too-thick paint stripped off, and a few details added...

While re-working a couple dozen Train Miniature cars, I decided to upgrade the LifeLike cars again, as I didn't like the cast-on bunker hatches and platforms - on cars downgraded to ice service, the hatches and ice bunkers weren't needed.  I didn't care for the cast-on running boards either.
Here's the re-re-done versions...

...and a third one, rescued from the "parts department"...

I'm not suggesting that these older cars can match recent releases or even cars a decade or two newer, but they can be made to fit in quite unobtrusively.

Wayne

 

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Posted by Eilif on Monday, August 19, 2019 9:44 AM

I love seeing the work folks have done with some of these old Varney pre-proto Life-Like cars. Great work gentlemen.

 

As for Varney vs Lifelike, I can't speak to the earlier metal offerings but I've got some plastic varney rolling stock.  In a couple cases I've got the Varney and Life-Like versions of the same car.  They are mostly identical or nearly so, even down to the printing. In some cases the Varneys have body-mounted couplers though it's cheaply done with a melted plastic post to hold the cover in place.

I think the perception about quaity difference is is mainly that what was probably "pretty good" when it was introduced by Varney was outdated by the time Life-Like was producing it. 

Varney tooling was Life-Like's first foray into locos and rolling stock and formed the basis for much of Life-Like's basic line for decades. I'm pretty sure that my first train set (a Life-Like Toys R Us set from the mid 80's) was entirely made of formerly Varney tooling and/or designs.

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Posted by SeeYou190 on Monday, August 19, 2019 6:36 PM

I just realized that I do not have any Varney cars in my fleet. I need to pick one up and rework it in the style of Wayne for my layout.

.

-Kevin

.

Wink Happily modeling my STRATTON & GILLETTE RAILROAD. A Class A line located in a personal fantasy world of semi-plausible nonsense on Tuesday, August 3rd, 1954.

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Posted by Shock Control on Wednesday, December 4, 2019 6:03 PM

First, I apologize for the late reply.  I started this thread a while back and have been involved with other things.

I appreciate everyone's thoughtful replies and helpful information.  Wayne, those are great pix, and Dave, that was really great information.

I have a Varney Erie flat car that dates from the 1960s, and it is comparable to a Mantua/Tyco from that era.  The Life-Like car that I got circa 1970 was a Texaco tank car.  It has a metal base, and the later Life-Like tank cars were plastic.  I assume my 1970 car was a leftover Varney in a new box.  

Thanks again, all!

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Posted by doctorwayne on Thursday, December 5, 2019 2:26 AM

Back in the '70s, I was buying a lot of train stuff from Hobbies For Men and SMC via mail order, and when I saw LifeLike RS-11s at, if I recall correctly, $15.00 apiece, I quickly added two to my latest order. (I later learned to call them Proto-No-Thousand).

They had truck-mounted motors and occasionally ran, although not very well. Not too long after that, Atlas came out with their version of the same locomotive, and I sprung for two of them.
Not wanting to let the two LifeLike locos go to waste, I removed the motors and decided to let them run as dummies, each paired with the smooth-running Atlas versions.  However, the LifeLike locos had handrails cast as part of the locos' chassis, and their bulkiness really stood out alongside the Atlas diesels, so I decided to tweak the LifeLikes with some improved details.

Here's one of the LifeLikes, with custom-bent handrails supported by Athearn stanchions....

  I added some grabirons and a few other details, and on the layout, they weren't all that noticeably different from the Atlas versions.

Here's the other LifeLike, leading the two Atlas diesels and, out of the frame, the 602...

Other than the paint jobs and the similar added Detail Associates parts, the Atlas units are pretty-much stock - I didn't even redo the cast-on grabirons. 

The four units were later sold, as powered/dummy combinations.

Wayne

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Posted by Eilif on Thursday, December 5, 2019 3:14 PM

Wayne, your work on those LL locos is spectacular.

As it happens, I'm working on a blog post about the evolution of the Varney 40' Gondola and I found some information that might be of interest to this topic.

The TCA Western site has some great information about Varney

http://www.tcawestern.org/varney.htm

and Lifelike.

http://www.tcawestern.org/life.htm

They say that Varney released it's "new" line of plastic rolling stock in 1955 and that the line was simultaneously sold by Varney and Gilbert.  After LifeLike purchased Varney in 1960, LifeLike continued to sell the Varney line under the Varney Name for 10 years until 1970.    Gordon Varney passed away in 1965.  

in 1970 LifeLike lauched a RTR train line under their own name, mostly based on a combination of Varney and Penn Line tooling they had acquired.   I think Penn Line was the source for the near-ubiquitous-at-train-shows LifeLike passenger cars.   The Varney tooling is particularly impressive in that it survived from production in 1955 to the retirement of LifeLike by Walthers in 2016.  That's 61 years and perhaps some of it is still in production in some form?

I'll post a link when the Blog post goes live.

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Posted by doctorwayne on Thursday, December 5, 2019 4:01 PM

Your kind words are much appreciated, Eilif, as is the additional information regarding both Varney and LifeLike.

Wayne

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Posted by Eilif on Friday, December 6, 2019 12:58 PM

Just put up the blog post tracing the evolution of the Varney 40' Gondola.  Also included are pictorial comparisons to it's LifeLike and Walthers descendents and one of it's more interesting clones from "Crown".

https://chicagovalleyrailroad.blogspot.com/2019/12/evolution-of-humble-varney-40-gondola.html

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Posted by wjstix on Friday, December 6, 2019 3:15 PM

Some folks might remember that John Allen created a lot of photos for Varney ads in the early 1950's....

http://gdlines.org/GDLines/GD_Galleries/Books_and_ads/Varney_ads/slides/VARN_AD-19530100-000-300_70.html

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Posted by dknelson on Friday, December 6, 2019 4:40 PM

Very interesting.  A couple of points.  First while the tooling may well have been done by Varney for Gilbert, note that the gondola pictured in the Gilbert ad has 11 side panels - or if you prefer, 10 side ribs.  The "famous" Varney/LifeLike gon by contrast has 8 side panels, or 7 ribs.  So that aspect of the tooling is different assuming Gilbert wasn't using some other line's photo for their catalog!  

The old Mantua plastic gondola from the 1950s also had 11 side panels/10 ribs and has been kitbashing fodder for decades.  Oddly by the 1990s the Mantua plastic gondola had 10 side panels/9 ribs! But the original Mantua plastic gon looks very similar to the picture from the Gilbert ad or catalog page that you show.   

There was a time when "Mantua" meant kits and "Tyco" was the same stuff only RTR.  So Tyco also had an 11 side panel/10 rib gondola into the 1960s and beyond.  

Although not on topic to this particular discussion it is relevant to the theme of your blog post - the old Revell gondola from the 1950s was picked up and sold by ConCor for years, and I think they're still selling it - another example of every penny of cost of expensive tooling being wrung out of the tooling by someone in the model train business.  It was a long gondola, about 55' and had I think 13 ribs.  That tooling might be 65 years old.  

The original Varney plastic gondola of which I have a few is remarkable for weighing nearly nothing and with very little space available to add even modest weight.  One LifeLike modification to the tooling was to the floor.

As for "Crown," which was a Hong Kong based bargain line of imports that Mantua/Tyco seemed to own, to my knowledge all of their models were clones or copies of someone else's stuff.  The four truck flat car for example is exactly like Athearn's (although MDC had a simialar car for a while), and the three dome tank car is also a copy of Athearn's, down to the Deep Rock paint scheme.  The packaging looked cheap: a sheet of cardstock and a clear plastic bubble and at most shops the cars cost 99 cents each - I think that was list price.  What's funny is that back then an Athearn freight car kit usually cost somewhere between $1.38 and $1.79.  So the excitement over Crown's low cost was basically over the chance to save around half a dollar.  And the Crown trucks, although sprung, were subpar.  

Dave Nelson

 

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Posted by Eilif on Friday, December 6, 2019 8:20 PM

Good point on the Gilbert. I didn't even bother to look that close, I just grabbed the correct year's pic.  I'll remove that from the post.  It's not really necesssary to the Varney gondola narrative anyway.

You're right about the weight. The only way to add weight to the Varney Gondola is with a load.

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Posted by doctorwayne on Friday, December 6, 2019 10:14 PM

wjstix
Some folks might remember that John Allen created a lot of photos for Varney ads in the early 1950's....

I have that catalogue, unfortunately minus its front cover, and the John Allen photos are one of the main reasons I've kept it.

I never really cared for the appearance of the Varney gondola.  It looked rather plain to me, with not enough ribs.

I didn't mind the gondola from Mantua/Tyco, though, and recently bought quite a few of them for about a buck each.  I removed the Talgo-style horn-hook couplers and repaced them with body-mounted Kadees, but kept the original trucks and most of the original wheels too.  After adding some underbody brake gear and wire grabirons and sill steps, they're not all that much of an eyesore when run with some more recent offerings.

Here's one of the Tycos...

...and one of the Mantuas, with its metal underbody...

Other than the oversize rivets on those older cars, they're dimensionally very similar to the much newer Accurail gondolas...

dknelson
...Although not on topic to this particular discussion it is relevant to the theme of your blog post - the old Revell gondola from the 1950s was picked up and sold by ConCor for years, and I think they're still selling it - another example of every penny of cost of expensive tooling being wrung out of the tooling by someone in the model train business. It was a long gondola, about 55' and had I think 13 ribs. That tooling might be 65 years old.

I picked up one of those ConCor gondolas from the "used" table at a nearby hobby shop.  It also cost a buck.
Following an article in the June 1995 RMC, I modified it to better represent one of Pennsy's G31 gondolas, which involved modifying the shape of the car's sidesills and ends.  I added metal grabirons and sill steps, too...

...along with some additional weight...

I later bought four more of those ConCor cars, each for a buck or less, and without doing the Pennsy modifications, simply added the metal details and lead weights, then lettered them for one of my free-lanced roads...

Wayne

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Posted by dknelson on Saturday, December 7, 2019 12:54 PM

doctorwayne
I never really cared for the appearance of the Varney gondola.  It looked rather plain to me, with not enough ribs.

Yes, given the number of 7 ribbed 8 panel 40' gons that Varney/LifeLike, Bachmann, and Rivarossi/AHM must have sold, I have to think a 7 rib 40' gon was by contrast somewhat rare as a prototype.  The Southern Pacific steel gons G50 classes of sugar beet service gons were 7 ribs and about 40'.  

A quick check of my own resources shows a 7 rib/8 panel Nevada Northern gondola pictures in Robert J. Wayner's "Freight Car Pictorial" book -- but it is a 29 footer!   And adding to the fun, one truck is archbar and the other is T section Bettendorf.  The ends look like flat slab steel.  A bit of internet searching shows that the Western Pacific also had some 7 rib/ 8 panel gons with drop ends and roller bearing trucks - but were also 29 footers.  

https://www.wplives.org/sn/gon.html

So maybe the problem with the Varney gon is not too-few ribs, but too much length!   Wink

Dave Nelson

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