Introduced: 1969 (Kato version), revised 1975 (Kato again), re-issued 1994 (Chinese version)
The venerable Con-Cor Hudson has been around for decades and is generally considered to be one of the classics of N scale steam. As such, it has a long history of changes and variations.
The first version (manufactured in Japan by Kato) is just a so-so performer. Mine (admittedly 30-some years old as of this writing) is a fairly herky-jerky runner and will only make it through obstacles such as turnouts at full-throttle. The main problem with this release is that it didn't offer tender pickup. On the plus side (and like all subsequent releases), pickup on the locomotive is provided by 4 of the 6 drivers (the other two having traction tires) and both the pilot and trailing trucks. And although the motor is a 5-poler (very rare for that era), it's a pretty cheap one and has a well-deserved reputation for melting down with little or no provocation. This first version can be identified by its metal valve gear, lack of brake hangers between the wheels, and no wires running from the tender to the motor. Also, the weight on top of the chassis is screwed in place (as opposed to subsequent versions where said weight is a free-floater). This first release also has a fairly lame "bent hook" coupler on the pilot (later versions would have dummy knuckle couplers).
The second Kato version came along circa 1975. Issues of Model Railroader from that year carry JMC advertisements referring to the "all new mechanism NYC J3a 4-6-4". The 1/76 issue of MR carries another JMC advertisement detailing said improvements as including a new 5-pole motor, tender pickup and extra detail. The improved version is stamped "Con-Cor Japan" on the driver retainer plate, and comes with plastic valve gear and brake hangers between the drivers. Wiring between the tender and the motor is another spotting feature of this model.
This second version is a very nice looking and extremely fine running locomotive. Even by today's standards it is smooth, quiet and responsive at all speeds. It has great pick-up and very good slow-speed capability. And man, these things last forever. I've tried out a half-dozen of these old Katos (all at least twenty years old), and they all perform just as flawlessly now as they did back in the day. OK, sure, the starting speed is a tad high, but considering how old the design is (not to mention the motor), that seems like a minor quibble. On the down side, neither of the Kato versions have any lights (go figure!)
When this locomotive was first unleashed in 1975 people must've just flipped their lids. It's simply head-and-shoulders above virtually all of the other N scale steam locos available at the time. I tell ya, between this model and Kato's ground-breaking PA-1, there is no question that Kato has always been in the vanguard when it comes to N scale locomotives. It is difficult to imagine where N scale might be today without their influence.
Sometime in the mid-1970s Kato started making these available in a wide array of streamlined permutations (see below). Kato (aka Sekisui) continued producing all of these models for Con-Cor until 1987 (at which point the two companies went their seperate ways). After the split, Con-Cor reclaimed their tooling and re-released a new Chinese-manufactured version with various improvements starting in 1994 (sold under their "Rail Baron" label).
Now, I've read various reports that these Chinese-made Hudsons are vastly inferior to the Katos. However, this may just have been QC problems with the first run. The ones I've test-driven, though not quite as nice as the Katos, are excellent performing locos in their own right - quiet, smooth and with little or no jerkiness or hesitation. Yes, once again the start speed is a little high, but that's a minor complaint. This new model has a different motor (still 5-pole, but now skew-wound). It also has an ugly snap connector between the loco and tender (eliminating the free-floating wire problem), locomotive headlight and tender reverse light, plugs inside the tender (so you can disconnect it without screwing up the wiring), blackened wheels, various improvements to the decoration and imprinting, and (get this) a do-it-yourself flywheel! I'll let Con-Cor themselves explain their reasoning behind the latter:
"We originally advertised the new version of the J-3a with a flywheel on the motor. Handmade pre-production samples ran fine, but when we went into mass production we found that the flywheel added quite a bit of noise to the running locomotive. Upon inspection, we concluded that the single flywheel hanging on the back end of the motor caused an eccentric vibration to the motor. Some of this we could quiet down by insulating the motor with a little RTV caulking compound between the motor and the die-cast housing, but this did not totally eliminate the noise. (The RTV can be removed easily with a razor knife).
"Also, due to the high quality of the basic mechanism, we found that the flywheel added only marginally to the running of the engine. The slow range was almost the same, the high range was slightly slower with the flywheel, and stopping was a bit smoother with the flywheel in place.
"Thus we decided the following. To leave the flywheel off the model as delivered to you, but include it in the box. If you wish to add it, you may do so by... (instructions deleted)."
Removing the shells on these is ridiculously simple (at least as compared to more modern steam locos). For the locomotive, simply unscrew the top screw (inside one of the stacks) and the shell pulls right off. For the tender, their are four little hooks that connect the tender shell to the base - pop these with a small screwdriver and off comes the shell. For reasons I cannot explain, all of the various streamlined versions lack the locomotive shell screw, and as a consequence said shells tend to pop off when you least expect it (Kato apparently relying on nothing more than friction to hold them in place).
As mentioned above, this locomotive has been available in a myriad of permutations, the most basic of which being the "Non-streamlined, Non-Deluxe" version (pictured above). Available as Undec, Pennsy, NYC, UP, PRR, CB&Q, CNW, DRGW, GN, LACK, and NKP
Then you have the "Non-Streamlined, Deluxe" version (same shell, fancy paint job), available in GN, SP, B&O, SR, MILW, UP, and D&H:
Then there is the "Bullet Nosed With Fin On Front Smoke Box" version, available as Undec and NYC:
And the "Bullet Nosed New York Central With Scullin Drives" version, available as Undec and NYC:
And the "Bullet Nosed With No Fin On Smoke Box" version, available as Undec, ATSF, GN, N&W, UP 49'er, PRR, SP, and SR:
And the "Shovel Nose" version, available as Undec, CB&Q, NYC, and Milwaukee Road -
From the "obscure trivia" department, Charlie Vlk (former Con-Cor employee) tells me that there is also a "Black Market" version of the Con-Cor Hudson floating around out there somewhere. According to Charlie, it was only sold in Woolworth's stores (and only for one year). It came in Sekisui Kinzoku (aka Kato) packaging, and without any reference to Con-Cor. The locomotive was a curious blend of the original Con-Cor/Kato Hudson and the newer Chinese-made version. It featured the newer Chinese drive, but lacked full step detail and had the old pilot with the Rapido "hook" coupler. Interestingly enough, it was the only J3a Hudson ever to be released with spoked drivers (as opposed to the normal "boxpok" wheels). Said drivers consisted of a non-see-through disc with molded-in spoke detail). I've personally never come across any of these, so they must be pretty rare.
And then there's this thing...
Charlie Vlk surmises that this was an intermediate version between the first and second Kato releases (and probably only sold in Japan). The only difference between this release and the first version is that it has the second version's revised pilot/step assembly.
Grade: A (excluding the first Kato release, which I can only rate a "C")
Reviewed: 6/69 Model Railroader ("The ready-to-run model closely follows the scale dimensions and proportions of the prototype, although there are the usual deviations to allow for oversize model wheel flanges... Wheel diameters are close to scale size... While the model measures 2 feet too long, and the width over cylinders is about 12" oversize, these discrepencies are not apparent to the average viewer... The model has excellent detail which, with the exception of a brass bell, is molded in... All major piping is included... All drivers are geared through a combination of worm-and-gear/ spur-gear drive... a five-pole 12-volt DC motor is used... A split metal frame with the halves insulated from each other is used... The drivers are axle-insulated so that the drivers on each side contact the respective frame half... All drivers are therefore contributing to excellent electrical pickup... The pilot truck wheels pick up from the left rail and the trailing truck wheels the right. With this arrangement, no electrical connections between engine and tender are needed... Has a rather high minimum speed and excessive top speed... Control is fair through the other speed ranges... Our test sample ran smoothly, although it was a bit noisy... Has a friction tire on one driver... While the model will take small-radius curves, it looks best on 15" radius or more... Supplied with three road names: New York Central, Santa Fe and Union Pacific (and undecorated)... Price $32.98")