Life-Like (China) EMD GP18 / GP9-R

Introduced: 1994 (Plastic-Chassis GP18), 1995 (GP9-R), 1996 (low-nose GP18), 2004 (Metal-Chassis GP18), and 2007 (DCC-Ready GP18)

Life-Like has obsessively upgraded their GP18 over the years. But from the first version to the last, they're all fine models - both in terms of looks and performance.

The first in the line (the 1994 GP18 release, pictured above) was the sixth (and last) in a series of nice looking, decent running and (most importantly) affordably priced Life-Like locomotive models (all manufactured in China). Throughout the 1990s, the same basic chassis design employed in this model would eventually be recycled (more or less) in numerous other "wallet friendly" Life-Like models - GP38-2, F7, F40PH, FA-2/FB-2, and BL2. It was a good niche for Life-Like at the time - filling the void between Bachmann's line of cheapie trainset junk and the nice-but-expensive offerings from Atlas and Kato.

The chassis is all plastic and quite light. Ala-carte weights plunked atop each of the truck towers provide most of the model's weight. The motor is an open-sided, skew-wound, 5-poler. All eight wheels are geared and provide pickup (no traction tires). Current is transferred from the trucks to the motor via miles of wiring (two wires per truck). Apart from the brass worms, all the gearing is plastic. The driveshafts are plastic with springs in the middle. Couplers are truck-mounted Rapidos (open pilots). The wheels are blackened. They're also low-profile, so no problems on Code-55 track. A non-directional headlight is wired to the motor.

Now, I'm not going to blow smoke up your skirt and try to tell you that these models run as well an Atlas or a Kato locomotive. But for what they are (affordable), they're quite respectable. They're not noisy, throttle response is smooth, pulling power is good, pickup is great (no stalls), and slow-speed creep is nice (although the top-end speed is off the charts). Shell detailing and paint are actually quite respectable, and for what they cost (about a third of the cost of an Atlas or Kato model of that era), they were an exceptionally good value (especially as compared to the godawful offerings from Bachmann and the like).

Ironically, these models employ virtually the same chassis/mechanism design used by Model Power/Mehano in some of their late 1980s diesel models (C-420, et al). Not surprisingly, performance is quite similar.

1995 saw the release of a so-called "GP9-R" (rebuilt GP9) model. These locomotives were the brainchild of "Life-Like Canada" (aka "Hobbycraft Canada", aka "Trueline Trains"). Anyway, whatever they're calling themselves these days, they had/have some sort of manufacturing relationship with Life-Like and specialize in Canadian livery locomotive releases -

Despite the fancy new name, these models are identical to the first-run GP18 models in every way (both inside and out). I guess the only thing that makes them GP9-R's are the road names and numbers.

A low-nosed GP18 was released (without much fanfare) in 1996 (and at least of this 2011 writing, has yet to be re-run) -

The mechanism on the low-noser is virtually identical to that of the first-run GP18 (with the only discernable difference being the shape of the forward weight) -

In 2004, Life-Like re-issued the high-nosed GP18 under their "Proto 2000" banner. The basic shell is virtually identical to the original GP18 model - the noteable upgrade being full pilots and shell-mounted Accumate couplers -

The chassis/mechanism was completely changed - now incorporating the basic guts of Life-Like's 1999 GP20 model. However, the GP20 chassis had to be slightly modified to allow for the new (smaller) fuel tank. Beyond that, the only other internal change was the addition of a "stretch" headlight (to get light over to that high nose).

With the exception of DCC-readiness, this model has pretty much every feature we now associate with "modern" diesel models - IE, all-metal / split-frame chassis, skew-wound 5-pole motor, dual flywheels, low-friction drive/pickup, bi-directional LED lighting, low-profile blackened wheels, shell-mounted Rapido-style couplers (easily swapped out for MT's), fine shell detailing, crisp paint, etc.

As far as performance is concerned, well... there might have been smoother and quieter N scale locomotive models than this one, but I sure can't think of them.

The GP18 was redesigned yet again in 2007 - the major change being a revised DCC-Ready chassis (IE, the chassis was altered to allow room for a full-length lightboard - one that could be popped out in favor of a drop-in decoder). Unfortunately, Life-Like didn't bother changing the packaging to reflect this change in DCC-Readiness, so you're basically on your own as far as identifying the 2007 (and later) runs from the non-DCC 2004 version.

The initial production run of the new GP18 mechanism, although every bit as smooth and responsive as the 2004 version, runs quite a bit noisier than said previous version. Whereas the 2004 ran virtually sans sound, the initial release of the new DCC-Ready mechanism has a very noticeable buzzy whine to it. Worse still, pulling power is somewhat reduced as compared to the previous design (presumably due to the same glitches that cause all the noise). No, it's not so horrible that you should take yours and toss it into the nearest landfill (or even close to that). But no matter how you slice it, it was definitely a minor step backwards for the line. The good news is that in subsequent production runs Life-Like was able to address the performance issues of the first run, and they now run basically flawlessly.

Trivia - with a little work, the high nose GP18 shell can be mounted on an Atlas GP7/9 chassis (some grinding may be required to get a good fit).

Grades: B (for the plastic-chassis versions) and A (for all the rest)

First-run GP18 reviewed: 4/94 Railroad Model Craftsman, 3/94 Model Railroader ("Life-Like's stable of inexpensive N scale engines has a new addition, a GP18. It's the first time this all-purpose hauler from the '60s has been offered in a mass-produced N scale model. The engines feature handsome and authentic paint schemes for 6 different railroads. Externally the GP18 was virtually identical to the earlier and legendary GP9... Life-Like's GP18 is made in China... The engine has the same style of mechanism that was used in Life-Like's BL2. The frame is plastic and gains its strength from interlocking with the body. Two big metal weights give the engine plenty of heft. The motor is a basic double-ended, open-frame type with a skewed 5-pole armature. The drive shafts are springs and connect to the truck/gear tower assembly at each end. A brass worm drives the plastic gears in each truck. The wheels are chemically darkened... and they're all powered and pick up electricity. They check out fine against the NMRA standards gauge. There are no plastic traction tires. The pickup wipers rub against the backs of the wheels... The wires are attached to the centers of the wiper strips are subjected to less flexing than is typical. The body shells struck me as nicely molded, and they checked out fine against prototype drawings. Particularly nifty is the bell casting. One excellent feature is that the decorated engines come with or without a dynamic brake housing, depending on whether the specific prototype had it (it's a snap-in casting)... For those modelers who are more particular, the fans are a flat-top style that appeared on later, low-nose GP18s. The early high-nose "Phase I" units, represented by these models, came with "pan-top" fans like those on GP9s... The painting on our locomotive was well done with crisp color breaks and clear, sharp lettering. I... found it's a good runner, although it had a slight wobble and was a bit noisy at the higher speeds. Its drawbar pull is equivalent to about 17 freight cars... I'm afraid Kato has spoiled us as most N scalers tend to compare all other engines against Kato's, even those that cost only half as much. The new Life-Like GP18 is a good engine (except for its difficult interior access) and a welcome addition to the N scale fleet, especially as it gives us some fresh road names. We need more lower-priced engines in the hobby shops, particularly if we hope to bring newcomers into model railroading. CRI&P, MP, NYC&SL, IC, N&W, NP, SAL, Undec. Price: $37.50")

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