There have been a couple of different versions of this model (not to mention numerous production runs). And, not surprisingly, the newer the model, the better it's going to perform (a shocker, I know).
The first version (often found in boxes labeled "Premiere Edition") came equipped with Rivarossi's notorious old "can" motor (used in their old 4-6-2, 2-8-2 and 0-8-0 models as well). And as such, they are prone to the same problems - IE, melting down without warning. These early runs are also a notoriously noisy bunch- making use of a two-piece plastic driveshaft / U-joint assembly to spin the front set of drivers. Also, these first run Big Boys had a lot problems with the metal top plate on the chassis warping, cracking, and generally falling apart (as you can see, mine has broken in two). Once warped or otherwise damaged, there is no longer sufficient downward pressure to engage the worm with the driver gears. One fix for this problem is to sandwich a small piece of cardboard between the top plate and the motor. This will push the motor back down and put the worm back in contact with the drive gears.
Both versions lack tender pickup. Also, both versions derive their pickup solely from the drivers (four of which are equipped with traction tires). However, given the enormous overall size of the locomotive, limiting the pickup to just(!) twelve drivers has never really been an issue for me. Both versions have a non-directional headlight mounted on the forward pilot assembly. Unfortunately, due to the large wheel flanges, none of these models (regardless of version) can handle anything like Code-55 track.
Despite the top plate issues (along with the noise issues), my Premiere Edition Big Boy runs pretty well. It can be a bit hesitant at times (probably due to age), but overall it's a decent enough performer. Thanks to the pivoting drivers, it can handle very narrow (9.75" radius) curves without much difficulty (although it does tend to slow down and growl a bit through them).
In 1988 these models received a new open-frame / skew-wound three-pole motor along with a new drive shaft (the plastic forward drive-shaft being replaced by a piece of surgical tubing for quieter running). The flakey metal top plate was also replaced by a plastic one. This resdesigned mechanism, in addition to being much more reliable, runs extremely smoothly and quietly (in fact, it damned near makes no sound at all). Slow-speed creep is exceptional and the top-end speed is quite reasonable. Overall, this (revised) Big Boy is one of the finest looking and running steam locomotives ever produced in N scale.
Due to the bankruptcy and subsequent liquidation of the Rivarossi Company in February of 2006, this model is no longer in production. Here's the manufacturing history (through 1995) -
1979 - #4005
1981 - #4013
1984 - Undecorated
1988 - Undecorated
1988 - #4005 (2nd time)
1988 - #4013 (2nd time)
1989 - #4010
1989 - #4014
1991 - #4010 (2nd time)
1991 - #4014 (2nd time)
In the mid-to-late 1990s, Con-Cor started reissuing most of their Rivarossi steamers with blackened wheels. And since I actually have a Big Boy so equipped (#4004), I'm assuming the final production run was sometime around 1998. Con-Cor did announce a new run in 2003, but this was during Rivarossi's "death throes" and apparently never came to fruition (Con-Cor eventually issued a news release lamenting the fact that Rivarossi had completely stopped responding to their inquiries).
Rivarossi also sold some of their late 1990's / early 2000's production in Europe (packaged under the "Minitrain" label) -
Circa 2008 Arnold-Hornby announced that they would be releasing a new version of the Rivarossi Big Boy (with DCC support if I'm not mistaken). However, I'm told that that deal fell through in the planning stages. I'm also told that some of the non-trivial Big Boy tooling wound up getting lost in all the bankruptcy reshuffling, so chances are we've seen the last of this venerable steamer.
To remove the locomotive shell, first unscrew the screw inside the smokestack. Then, pry the shell away from the two pins holding it to the chassis (near the rearmost set of drivers). As for the tender, the top, bottom, and sides are all a single casting and the ends are firmly glued in place. Consequently, opening one up without damaging it is virtually impossible.
Grade: B (for the Premiere Edition) and A (for the revised version)
Reviewed: 8/80 Model Railroader ("The Rivarossi N scale model imported by JMC/Con-Cor is a fine one and does justice to its famous prototype. It is very accureately scaled, checking out either exactly or within a few scale inches when compared to (prototype drawings)... The proportions, especially, seem just right so that the N scale engine looks more like a Big Boy than do many larger-scale models. The only dimensional discrepencies worth mentioning are the driver and pilot-wheel diameters, which are under-scaled to accommodate over-scale flanges. Having drivers that measure 59" instead of 68" does allow the model to have driver wheelbases that are exactly correct, and so contributes to the overall good proportions. Some details, particularly free-standing piping, have been simplified in deference to the model's small size. The designers have been careful, however, to retain enough detail to portray the busy, dense look of a modern steam locomotive...
The model is finished in an overall flat black, with sharp and opaque white lettering. The molded-on boiler handrails are picked out in silver, and wire handrails on the pilot platform and tender are of bright silver metal. A more realistic scheme would be to have all handrails (and wheel tires) in black, with a medium-gray graphite color on the smokebox and firebox. Although generally well-cared-for, the Big Boys were to allowed to become heavily weathered in their later years.
A cylindrical motor encased in die-cast metal frames drives all 16 drivers. The motor has a double-ended shaft, and brass worms at each end mesh with brass gear trains carried in pivoting towers rising from each engine frame between the third and fourth axles. On the prototype the rear engine was rigid beneath the boiler, and only the front engine was hinged (articulated). The N scale Big Boy, like other Rivarossi articulated models, has both engines pivoted around the gear towers to allow it to take sharp model curves. Electrical pickup, from the right side of the front engine and the left of the rear, is all in the locomotive.
Performance is a little disappointing. I obtained a minimum speed only by backing the throttle off from the starting voltage - between 5 and 6 volts - and even then a bind in the mechanism kept the locomotive from moving smoothly. It did run smoothly at higher speeds, but the maximum speed is altogether too fast... The model's realistic control range is thus limited to between 5 and about 8 volts... I did give the engine a break-in run to see if it would make any difference. After two hours of running the midrange and maximum speeds were higher, indicating soime freeing of the mechanism, but the low speed was the same and the bind was still present... Apparently a modern pulse-power pack will compensate for some of the model's weaknesses.
The Rivarossi double articulation allows the Big Boy to take very sharp curves, but it is a long engine with lots of overhang and looks better on curves of 12" or larger radius. The drawbar pull, assisted by two traction tires on each engine, equals 66 average freight cars. The headlight is illuminated by a bulb concealed in the pilot platform, but the light shows only at high speeds. The driving wheelsets all fit the standards gauge. The truck wheelsets were all too narrow, but they are not hard to adjust. The locomotive and tender coupling is a snap fitting; to join or separate them grasp the locomotive trailing truck and the tender leading truck, and push or pull in a straight line. There is a Rapido-type coupler at the rear of the tender, but no coupler on the locomotive pilot...
The JMC/Con-Cor Big Boy is excellent in appearance, and its mechanical deficiencies can be overcome by careful control with modern equipment. It might inspire some Sherman Hill layouts taking advantage of N scale's possibilities for modeling wide-open spaces, and we'll surely see it pulling long trains on modular N scale layouts. Undec, UP. $189.98")