Sunday, October 4, 2015

Poor Man's MLW M420 Kitbash - Part 1

Last Thursday, Jérôme and I discussed a lot about the iconic MLW M420 locomotive, which was a staple on Murray Bay back in the 80s until 1993. I was basically telling him that it was the very first locomotive I saw in real life and that it made an enduring impact.

Meanwhile, we powered up a nice Atlas C424 equipped with sound. The locomotive performed very well and the LokSound decoder is a marvelous piece oftypical Alco weird engine sounds. The discussion continued as I told Jérôme I built a M420 out of a C424 shell back in my late teenage years. It wasn't accurate, but most distinctive features were done as correctly as I could, including the cab and ends.

As you can suppose, it wasn't long before Jérôme and I started to say IF we only had to run a few locomotives on the layout, it would be M420s. Thus we stepped on a slippery slope...

A few minutes later, I was discussing using the brand new Atlas C424 chassis to power a kitbashed M420. Then, I started to see if I could get such locomotives at a good price. In the end, it would cost a lot for a foobie. Almost as much as buying outright a correct Kaslo Shop shells plus suiting frame and motor.

But not all hopes were lost... If I could find my old kitbash, restore it and merge it with the sound-equipped M420, that would be a zero dollar working M420 for the layout. Not the most prototypical unit out there, but still better than nothing.

In fact, our idea is simple. Make a working kitbash so the industry will announce a RTR model a few weeks or months later. Who didn't work on a special prototype just to find out a manufacturer decided to make it broadly available later. We are gonna take advantage of this insidious model railroading law to force some businessmen out there to open their eyes to the truth!

They say there's nothing more frightening than a desperate man... let's revisit my original kitbash which I dug out from a box of unused rolling stock.

This particular bash as quite an history. It was built based on a 1974 Model Railroad Craftman issue publishing M420 drawings. Back in 2001, I graduated and entered college. I was still a optimist man then and didn't know life would throw a monkey wrench into things I thought were never-changing. A few month earlier - during 2000 Christmas vacation - I started to build my first realistic layout on a 4' x 4' plywood sheet. The track plan was a folded eight figure, but scenery was quite good: ballasted track, realistic plaster road and all structures were scratchbuilt (I still own most of them and I'm impressed how I could be dedicated back then). Most were real structures from my area. I had a lot of fun building this layout .For the first time, it looked like those attractive Model Railroader and Model Railroad Model Craftsman covers I loved.

One day,  between classes, I went to a local hobby shop located nearby the college with a good friend of mine. There was an Atlas/Kato C424 on the shelves at discounted price. Full of ideas, I told my friend: "you know, I'm sure I could turn this out into something else". I checked out at the counter... and bought also a resin wide cab. I was only a matter of time before I started to bash during Spring break.

Quickly, I came up with a somewhat believeable model. It wasn't perfect, but it wasn't bad at all. The Atlas ran fine. But since the Atlas plastic stanchions didn't fit the new cab, I kind of never finished the model thought it did pull a few trains. That was my best running locomotive.

May 3rd or 13th 2001 could be the day I painted the model.

Later, this project was forgotten and, about 5 years ago, I decided to rebuilt the original C424 since the kitbash was no more to my level. Most brass detail parts had already been scavenged for other projects. I bought a new C424 shell and rebuild everything. But I kept the older shell... just in case.

Now let's look at this first kitbash of mine.

Back then, I only used CA glue and didn't know about styrene solvent-based glue. It made a mess. I was also not familiar with putty and didn't use it. I would fill gaps with glue as best as I could and leave it dry. I didn't use files, sand paper. My trusty #11 blade was used to cut, scrap, etc. I used a large metal saw to cut the shell and used a sanding machine to finish details here and there. If my memories as right, I was also starting to experiment with my Dremel tool. Finally, I didn't have an airbrush, so everything was handpainted as smooth as I could. On this particular project, my cab didn't turn out well as I found out painting Floquil CN orange was both impractical and highly toxic.

Styrene sheet was rare in my junk box, so many scratchbuilt details were made out of soft wood sealed with CA glue. Honestly, theses parts are far to be bad. If I would have used a file or sand paper, they would have been quite neat. Custom made grabirons were made out of staples (you read me well, staples!). Piping was done using fine brass wire. When I needed particular castings, I would cut parts from the junkbox and build up something suitable. My Zero Weigth Transfer (ZWT) truck prototype is a testimony to that.

Finally, my last material of choice was kitchen grade aluminium foil. I would emboss louvers and thread plate in it by rubbing the foil on other shells with correct details I wanted to reproduce. I was clumsy, but I still see relevance in that technic.

It's crazy to think the model was almost completed when I gave up on it. As I previously said, I didn't know I would be caught in the most crazy storm I ever saw in a matter of months. It wouldn't be until 2007 that I would come back to model railroading when things would settle down again.

All in all, I still like what I did with the C424. The cab was almost right, the rear end was as prototypical as I could, wood diesel tanks were doing the job and the new hood top sculpted out of a wooden venitian store even mermerized people at my local hobby shop. Should I stress than in the late 90s and early 2000s, I was the only teenage boy in Quebec City area doing kitbashing and scratchbuilding. Store owners were always enthusiastic to give me tricks and encourage me to continue on that way... which I did. Even if the project "failed" in the end, I learned a lot from it. For the first time, I knew I had the skills to do what pros did in magazines and books. Nowadays, at least 50% of my rolling stock and locomotives are bashed in a way of another. It is now a normal thing to do and no more a chore.

So now, you probably can hear the mantra in my head (and which Jérôme heard all night long on Thursday's evening) : "M420, M420, M420, M420..."

Let's start restoring that junked model into a shining and hardworking MLW M420!


  1. This model of train also holds a very special place in my memory. I grew up in the shadows of a CN line in northern NH and would hear and see that model of engine twice a day. I loved its compact powerful toughness. The engines on the old BM line didnt do much for me - but those MLWs - loved them.

    1. They were impressive! Their brute and bulky appearance was hardly comparable with anything else. I can assure you it was very impressive in the mind of a 3 year old boy!