Review of Des Plaines Hobbies 52-ft Gondola

Des Plaines Hobbies S Scale America has just released a new S scale freight car, and a modern one at that. The car is the Thrall 52-foot gondola in five road names, each name with a choice of three road numbers. The gondola is a ready-to-run model with high-rail wheels and American Flyer compatible couplers. It is relatively easy to change the wheels for scale wheels and to change the included couplers for Kadee couplers, although there are no instructions included with the gondolas. Scale wheels and scale couplers would be extra cost items not included with the model.

The gondolas are nicely packaged in a cardboard box containing two clear plastic holders that snap together in a way very similar to Lionel’s recent rolling stock packaging.  The gondolas come wrapped in clear plastic film and are safely held between the clear holders.

I noticed right away that the gondola was very lightweight. The design suggests some sort of load should be added to the car for two reasons: 1) to add weight for better tracking (the coupler spring itself is quite stiff), and 2) to cover the plain interior floor. Unlike the American Models’ 50-ft mill gondola and S Scale America’s USRA gondola, the Thrall gondola has visible mark from the sprue gate as well as visible screws holding the truck supports to the bottom.

The paint and the application of decals are at the same high level as Lionel American Flyer and previous S Scale America products. My sample, however, indicated that the assembler had a problem with one of the metal grab irons, leaving smudges of glue on the side while still not getting the grab iron straight. This should have been caught and rejected in quality control.

The detail is quite good, as one would expect from S Scale America. Some compromises are obvious. The underbody detail is good but not as thorough as on the USRA gondola.  There are no brake lines, for example, as there were for the earlier gondola.

The trucks are 100-ton versions with triple springs. The springs are molded versions rather than individually inserted springs for equalized trucks.  Although this is a design compromise, it does make it much easier to swap out the wheel sets for scale wheels without the frustration of spending an evening or two on the floor searching for errant springs.

Despite the lack of instructions, anyone familiar with S scale products, particularly Kadee couplers ,should figure out how to modify the gondola. For the novice wanting to add scale couplers, however, the replacement may take some study. To access the coupler, one must unscrew the trucks with the single screw holding them on. Two more screws must be removed from the truck support, which is fit very tightly onto the body. I gently pried them off with small flat blade screwdriver.

Flipping the coupler over reveals another small screw holding a cover to the coupler shaft. The design of the American Flyer compatible couplers is identical to that of the Kadee couplers. After removing the coupler cover, gently lift out the AF coupler, careful to save the heavy duty spring that realigns the coupler itself. The Kadee 802 or 808 couplers simply replace the AF-compatible coupler, using the same spring and coupler cover. The Kadee springs, screws, and draft box are not used—only the coupler itself.  The spring is never easy to insert according to the Kadee instructions, but I have found that running a small thread through the spring makes things much less frustrating because it reduces the chance of the spring’s jumping out and disappearing. Once the spring is in place and covered, I simply pull the thread out and then secure the cover with its screw.


The new coupler design is very sturdy, and the Des Plaines Hobbies spring is much stiffer than Kadee springs. This means much less slack compression when pulling the gondola, but it also means a bit more resistance on tight curves, so a freight load such as St. Charles Model Works inserts can be helpful.

Once the cover is screwed onto the coupler, the entire assembly is screwed back onto the body. The trucks come next, and I found that their screws cannot be tightened enough to keep the body from wobbling a bit on the track. The screws do not have the reach into the body to make a tight connection, and it would be very easy to strip the plastic by attempting to get a tight fit.

The gondola is not inexpensive, but S Scale America is the only supplier of “modern” rolling stock these days. The rolling qualities are superb—I had a hard time trying to keep the trucks from rolling themselves off what I thought was a flat table—and the paint and decals are crisp and clear. The coupler design is excellent: extremely sturdy construction, and the alignment of the Kadees matched the NASG coupler gauge perfectly. Plan on adding some freight weight to the car if you intend on adding it to a long string of cars.  


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