Introduced: 1985 (Kato/Japan S-2), 2001 (Rail Baron/China S-2), and 2002 (Rail Baron GS-4 and war-time variants)
Con-Cor imported the Kato-made S-2 Northern starting in 1985. Unfortunately, Con-Cor and Kato went their separate ways in 1989, so the Kato-made S-2's are kind of hard to find these days (and command premium prices on eBay). In 2001, Con-Cor released a "slightly redesigned" S-2 Northern under their "Rail Baron" label (manufactured in China, but using much of the original Kato tooling). In 2002, Con-Cor re-modified the Rail Baron S-2 mechanism and used it to power a number of 4-8-4 variants.
The Kato chassis is coined brass and split-frame. Additional weight is mounted inside the locomotive shell. The motor is an open-sided 5-poler. Pickup is provided by the forward three sets of drivers (the rear drivers being equipped with traction tires). The outer wheels on each of the tender trucks also provide pickup (with current transferred to the locomotive chassis by way of stiff wires inside the plastic drawbar. The pilot and trailing trucks on the locomotive are electrically neutral. A PC board mounted directional headlight is attached to the front of the locomotive chassis (there is no backup light in the tender). A dummy knuckle coupler is mounted to the pilot. A Rapido-style coupler is mounted to the rear truck on the tender. Wheel flanges are reasonably sized, so no problems with Code-55 track. Apart from the worm, all gearing is plastic.
Performance on these Kato-made 4-8-4's is outstanding. They are absolutely smooth and deadly quiet. Pickup is flawless. No problems with narrow radius (9.75") curves. Plenty of pulling power. I guess my only minor quibble is with the motor (or maybe the gearing), as the starting speed is just a little bit high (and with the top-end speed being completely off the charts). But beyond that, these models are superb runners and a real joy to operate. They're quite gorgeous looking as well. In fact, if one were to time-travel back to 1985 I think one could make a strong case for these being the finest steam models yet produced in N scale (at least at that time).
This locomotive is prototypically accurate pretty much just for the Great Northern S-2 (although other roads supposedly copied the design to one degree or other). Naturally, Con-Cor (as is their wont) released it in numerous "fantasy" paint schemes. EG -
As mentioned previously, the original Kato tooling was eventually shipped off to China (with a few changes made along the way). And in 2001, Con-Cor released a new version of this model as part of their "Rail Baron" collection. The boiler and domes (and possibly the smokebox) are new- a one piece casting instead of the individual interlocking sections of the original.
The new chassis/mechanism is virtually identical to the original Kato version. However, there are a few differences. The motor is new (a little smaller), and consequently the chassis has been modified slightly to accommodate it. The chassis itself is made of zinc alloy (as opposed to the brass used by Kato). The PC board for the headlight is also different (as is the way it's mounted to the chassis).
The really good news is that Con-Cor added full DCC support to the Vandy tender (in the form of an NMRA-style 8-pin DCC socket). Unfortunately, the back-up light is still non-opertional (no bulb). Two wires run from the tender PC board to the engine for motor control. There is no wiring for headlight control (IE, the headlight is always on when operating in DCC mode) -
Overall performance of this newer version is quite excellent. It's every bit as smooth and quiet as the Katos, and the new skew-wound motor is definitely an upgrade over the one Kato used. Slow speed creepability is much improved, and the top-end speed (though still high) is at least a little more realistic. And I love having the ability to simply plug a decoder into the tender - a very nice feature.
A number of variations on the original Rail Baron 4-8-4 were released in 2002 - namely, an SP GS-4 and two different "war-time" versions in various road names. These feature new locomotive and tender shells -
The new tender comes with a working backup light. However, like the headlight, it is only directional when operating in DC mode (IE, with a decoder installed it's simply "on all the time"). I'm still scratching my head over that one.
The basic internals are the same as the Rail Baron S-2, with one noteable exception - bushings (aka bearing blocks) were added to the drivers -
Unfortunately, the addition of these bearing blocks completely ruined these locomotives (at least as far as their ability to negotiate narrow radius curves is concerned). Robbed of their ability to move around laterally, the drivers on this version will pop off the rails on any curve sharper than 19" radius. So, people operating large layouts with really broad curves will enjoy these models. As for the rest of us? Total shelf queens.
I guess the purpose for adding the bushings was to save wear and tear on the chassis and ultimately extend the life of these models. And I have to say, mission accomplished as far I'm concerned. Since I can't run mine at all, I imagine it'll last quite a long time.
To remove the locomotive shell on the S-2, slide the shell forward a bit to clear the headlight LED board. The shell should lift off readily at that point. For the GS-4 (et al) simply spread the sides apart down by the cab and then carefully lift the shell off.
Grade: A (for all, although "F" for the GS-4 and war-time 4-8-4's if you have 11"-radius curves or narrower)
Kato version reviewed: 4/86 Model Railroader ("The Con-Cor model, manufactured in Japan by Kato, closely follows the scale proportions of the real locomotive. It is available painted and lettered with a Glacier green boiler and cylinder jackets, silver smokebox and firebox, black frame and Vanderbilt tender. The numbers and lettering are silver, and the herald is red and silver. The lettering is crisp and sharp. The model is also available in a black GN scheme, and undecorated.... This model is a few feet longer and higher (in the scale length and height dimensions) than the prototype, but the proportions have been maintained.... The model appears to have the details faithfully reproduced.
"The engine and tender superstructures are cast plastic. Metal weights in the boiler bring the weight of the engine to 4.5 ounces. Some of the details are cast right on the boiler; other parts, like pop valves, bell, and air pumps have been added. Of particular note this model are the small (comparitively) cast plastic handrails. The trucks on both engine and tender are also cast plastic. The engine mechanism follows a typical Kato design with cast metal frame-and-gearbox halves separated by plastic spacers. The gears are a combination of slippery plastic spur types with a brass worm. All the drivers are geared, and the metal side rods are attached to the first three driver sets. All four sets are kept in quartered synchronization by the spur gears. A five-pole DC motor sandwhiched between the frame halves is used to drive the mechanism. The side and main rods (fluted), eccentric cranks, eccentric rods, and reverse links are metal. The remainder of the rod and valve gear assemblies are cast plastic. These parts are mostly scale proportions, and the fine detail adds greatly to the model's appearance. Plastic driver centers, valve gear hanger, and cylinders insulate the metal rod and valve gear parts...
"The 4-8-4 tender is an entirely new GN Vanderbilt welded type, complete with Commonwealth six-wheel trucks. The tender has a Rapido-type automatic coupler, and the engine a scale dummy... All the wheels are slightly smaller than the correct scale diameter, but with the proportionately large N scale flanges the overall appearance is visually correct. All the wheels on both sides of the engine and tender, except for the four pilot wheels and the rear driver set (equipped with friction tire treads), are used for electrical pickup (11 wheels on each side). An ingenious wire and plastic drawbar is used between the engine trailing truck and front tender truck to transfer power from the tender wheels to the engine frame halves. The engine has a working headlight with diode direction control. All the wheelsets on the model were slightly under-gauged, but this appeared to cause no problems on the commercial track on which I ran the model... One thing about a long, rigid-wheelbase engine with narrow gauged wheelsets is that it permits the model to negotiate very small-radius curves... Our test locomotive was the sample model that Con-Cor had received from Kato. It ran smoothly and flawlessly... Realistic scale speeds are obtained in the lower third of the control voltage (4 volts)... I was able to pull a 20-car passenger train... and a 40-car freight train... with ease on my home layout. This is one of the best-looking and smoothest-running N scale steam locomotive models I've seen. Green GN $139.95. Black GN, Undec. $129.95")
Rail Baron version reviewed: 08/02 Model Railroader ("Con-Cor's newest N scale model is a well-detailed version of the Southern Pacific's GS-4 class 4-8-4... Con-Cor's model, which is made in China, uses the same mechanism as its GN S2 4-8-4. The model's overall wheelbase, at 50'9", is longer than the prototype's 47'8". However, the model's driving wheelbase is almost dead on at 21'6". This extra length provides clearance for the lead truck beneath the cylinders on sharp model curves. The model's lead truck is mounted farther forward than is prototypical and its axles are spaced on 8'3" centers instead of the prototype's 7'4" centers. The Daylight's had inside-frame lead trucks instead of the GN style outside-frame version on this model. This can be easily corrected by carefully cutting off the sideframes.
"A five-pole, skew-wound motor is mounted at the cab end inside a split cast-metal alloy frame. Electrical pickup comes from the drivers and the tender trucks. Pickup wires from the tender are soldered to the motor brush caps. The motor turns a steel drive shaft with a brass worm. A metal worm gear drives metal spur gears on the last three driver axles. The front driving axle is not geared. The wheels are chemically blackened, and all met NMRA standards, as did the coupler height. Aside from the wheelbase, the model closely matches prototype drawings. The drivers are a scale 76" in diameter, whereas the prototype's are 80", but the discrepancy is difficult to discern in N scale. Several crisply molded plastic castings comprise the locomotive shell. These include the boiler top, the pilot, the smokebox door, the running boards, and the running board skirts. The throttle linkage and handrails are made from acetal plastic.
"The boiler shell also contains a cast-metal weight for added tractive effort. The shell comes off by removing the screw that attaches the pilot to the frame. Simply lift the front of the shell up and slip the cab end off the frame. The enclosed cab is missing details such as a rear ladder and access door latches. And viewed from the top the back walls also appear to break toward the cab sides at too shallow an angle. The GN trailing truck doesn't have the GS-4's slight step-up at the front and it's missing the characteristic brake cylinder on each side. The tender is a nicely detailed model of the SP's 235-R-1 class, which is correct for the GS-4. It features accurately reproduced truck, and the end ladders properly angle inward at the bottom. Lettering on the tender says it carries 23,000 gallons of water. However, the real ones carried 23,500 gallons and up to 6,000 gallons of oil. The rear deck should have individual boards rather than a one-piece wood platform. Inside the tender is an 8-pin socket for a decoder. The shell easily slips off by prying the sides from the frame. There's plenty of room for a decoder...
"Our sample came equipped with a scale dummy pilot coupler and a truck-mounted Rapido-style coupler on the tender... The paint and lettering on our samples were crisp and even... The model started a bit roughly and was fast in the lower voltages, but these mechanisms commonly smooth out some with use. There's no flywheel to help smooth out the motion... Our sample's drawbar pull of just over three ounces is very impressive and should be good for 72 cars. Traction tires on the rear driver contribute greatly to this figure. The locomotive will negotiate a 9 3/4" curve... Overall this colorful GS-4 is a visually attractive model with excellent pulling performance. As the only mass-produced Daylight on the market, this model's price is likely to make it a hit with many N scalers. $298.98")