The subject for this week’s post is a very obscure prototype that actually found its way into the Lionel product line in the 1970s. Although only 60 of the prototype cars ever existed, they have been reproduced by the thousands in HO scale by Lionel and other manufacturers.
Steel coils are a challenging load. They are heavy, shift or topple easily in transit and often require protection from the elements and careful handling to avoid scratches and dents that will incur costly claims on these expensive loads. Car builders, railroads and steel companies began looking for more efficient ways of handling steel coils in the 1960s. Traditional gondolas offered easier loading but lacked the restraints necessary to support the coils or protection from the elements. Boxcars were difficult to load and presented a poor car weight / capacity to load-limit ratio.
Evans Products would emerge as a leader in coil car design and production, but all of their designs weren’t as successful. Evans’ first coil cars came in 1964. In 1967, they produced an experimental car which more closely represented a traditional gondola. This single 42′ prototype led to slightly larger 50′ cars that same year.
The inside of the gondola held a wooden trough which ran the length of the car to support the sides of the coils. Adding to the load protection were large cushioned coupler draft gear boxes on the ends of the car. But the cars’ most distinctive feature was the large retractable steel canopy which could be closed over the load in transit. The distinctive roof gave the cars the nickname “breadboxes.”
Unlike other cars whose covers were separate pieces, the integrated design of the breadbox was conceived as a way to correct the problems these covers caused at the mills. Separate covers required additional storage space. They were frequently mismatched with other cars when being replaced which led to some colorful cars but an accounting nightmare. The hoods were also subject to rough handling by crane crews this damage could cause the covers to leak or not fit properly on the car.
The breadbox hoods were designed to be manually opened and closed by a worker at the end of the car. This eliminated the need to use cranes and, since the open hoods stayed attached, also eliminated the need to store and sort the hoods. The potential for reduced damage claims was enough for the steel hauling-giant Pittsburgh and Lake Erie to lease 50 of the cars in 1967. Bessemer and Lake Erie took another 10.
While the cars were designed so that no mechanical assistance was needed to open or close the lids, hasty mill workers often used overhead cranes to do so anyway. This damaged the closing mechanism so that when the hoods were reopened again, instead of a controlled and gradual opening they came crashing apart as soon as they were unlocked. The resulting clash of steel on steel inside a mill had to be not only deafening but put the worker on the car’s end platform at extremely high-risk of injury.
In 1973, the P&LE sent all the cars back to Evans and terminated the lease. The hoods were removed and the cars were used for transporting hot coils which did not require protection from the elements. P&LE bought the reconfigured cars and used them through 1990 when the remaining cars were purchased by H & S Railroad. Bessemer also removed their covers but did supply their 10 cars with new removable hoods. Despite the changes up top, the old breadboxes always stood out in a train with their cushioned draft gear, fishbelly side sills and a pair of large, curved side posts which once supported the opening doors. Most remained in service into the 2000s.
Although their time in the spotlight was brief, these cars commanded a lot of press and promise at their introduction. P&LE featured a rendering of one of the cars on their 1968 Annual Report. With the distinctive look and added play value of the opening hood, Lionel included these cars in two sets in the 1976 HO Catalog – one in P&LE and one in B&LE lettering. Cars were also sold separately. The tooling for the models has since been used by other manufacturers and collectors can still easily find these cars at shows and online auctions.