While cabooses don’t usually fall into the category of freight cars, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s distinctive N5c class is one of the most iconic Lionel prototypes of all time. Though Pennsy folks will be sure to tell you, it’s not a caboose – it’s a cabin car.
When the railroad found itself in need of more cabin cars to meet the increased traffic demands during World War II, restrictions caused by that same war had a profound visual effect on the design. Prior to the war, the railroad had built hundreds of class N5, N5a and N5b cabin cars. The N5c was similar in size and interior configuration but had two major external differences.
The most obvious and famous of these was the substitution of round porthole windows on the sides and ends of the cars. These were necessitated by wartime production standards and utilized glass from shops already set up to cut windows for naval ships.
The second feature improved comforts for the crew inside. The ends of the cupola on top of the roof were extended diagonally outward and the smoke stack from the coal stove was run through the cupola instead of directly out the roof. This provided extra heat for the crew in the cupola on cold days and also a more streamlined look on the exterior.
The Pennsy built 200 N5c’s before production ended. They certainly weren’t the last or most common class of cabin cars on the railroad, but they were the most unusual. And thanks to Lionel – among the best known caboose designs in the country!
While Lionel and other manufacturers have reproduced this car in many scales and many paint schemes, there was plenty of variety on the prototype as well. When built, the cars featured a rather simple paint scheme with a very brownish red paint and basic PENNSYLVANIA lettering. In 1954, the “shadow keystone” and brighter red paint scheme was introduced.
Red turned to orange in the 1960s, then Penn Central green and finally Conrail blue a decade later. But there were other variations as well. Five cars were painted brown by Penn Central and Conrail for dedicated service on Pennsylvania Power and Light unit coal trains. On the Pennsy, some cars were painted with yellow cupolas. These signified that the cars were in “pool service” and could be interchanged between divisions.
Some, but certainly not all, of the cars were equipped with the Pennsy’s distinctive Trainphone radio antennae. In the 1960s, more modern radios replaced these. Conrail further modified the roofs of all of the cars by removing roofwalks and lowering ladders. Cupola windows were also replaced and many had the distinctive portholes plated over.
The cars largely faded from the rails in the mid-1980s as cabooses overall were eliminated. Among the older cars included in the Conrail caboose roster, the N5c was an early casualty. During these retirements, dozens of the distinctive cars were purchased by museums, short lines, private collectors or communities looking for a landmark to place in a local park. And one certainly has to think that the high percentage of these cars in preservation may have just a little to do with fond memories of them running around beneath the Christmas tree.