MRC / Model Power / Ajin (Korea) 2-8-2 USRA Light Mikado

Introduced: 2004 (original Model Power version), 2006 (Vanderbilt Tender version) and 2015 (Revised MRC version)

This was the second in a line of Korean-made steam locomotives from Model Power. Said line would eventually include (along with this Mikado) a 4-6-2 Pacific, a 4-4-0 American and a 2-6-0 Mogul. All of them have nice looking, finely detailed metal shells. Similarly, they all share the same basic internal design characteristics. And unfortunately, the entire line was (for the most part) a hugely mixed bag in terms of their quality.

In 2014, Model Power went out of business and was subsequently acquired by MRC. In 2015, MRC released revised versions of these models (still in the old Model Power packaging, but with MRC mentioned on the back of the box). These new models are a considerable upgrade over the original version (and available with DCC-Sound), but before we discuss those let's first take a look at the older ones -

The shell and mechanism are a total Chinese puzzle box of interconnected parts and, as a consequence, extremely difficult to disassemble. To separate the shell from the chassis, unscrew the trailing truck screw and the screw underneath the pilot truck. The boiler section should separate from the chassis at this point (although, since there are wires running from the driver wipers to the drawbar, you won't be able to move it very far). The motor, flywheel, driveshaft and worm all live up inside the boiler. To access the motor (and beyond) you first need to completely remove the cab (held to the bottom of the boiler by a couple of plastic clips). Next, remove the boiler backplate "detail" as well as the round plastic "thing-a-ma-dealie" clipped to the motor. The motor and worm should slide out of the back of the boiler at that point (in theory, anyway - I've never actually tried).

The chassis and shell are both metal. The motor is an open-sided / skew-wound 3-poler. As alluded to above, the driveshaft includes a flywheel (and a rather large one at that). Three out of the four axles are geared (the frontmost driver set is turned solely by the cranks). With the exception of the brass worm, all gearing is plastic. A non-directional filament headlight bulb is mounted to the chassis (a piece of light-conducting plastic inside the boiler routes the photons up to the headlight). The pilot coupler is a dummy (non-operational) knuckle - although it does pivot. The tender coupler is a truck-mounted Rapido (easily replaced by a Micro-Trains coupler assembly). An ala carte knuckle coupler for the tender was also included in the box for those interested in making the switch. One end of the plastic drawbar hooks to a post inside the tender, whereas the other end is simply sandwiched between the locomotive shell and chassis. The four wires for track current and motor control are pressed inside the drawbar and held in place with a metal clip. All wheels are blackened and low-profile (no problems on Code-55 rails).

This model was originally released without any sort of traction tire assist on the drivers. However, once its anemic pulling power became obvious, Model Power starting offering after-the-fact TT-equipped driversets (to be installed by the modeler). Unfortunately, installation of said ala carte drivers turned out to be a nightmarishly diabolical operation (and definitely not for the faint of heart). As a consequence, Ajin eventually started installing the traction tires at the factory.

Pickup is provided by all of the drivers (or at least the ones that don't have traction tires). The pilot and trailing trucks are electrically neutral. Four of the eight tender wheels provide pickup as well (with the forward truck picking up one rail and the rear truck picking up the other). Unfortunately, current is transferred into the tender by way of flimsy axle wipers (an archaic and notoriously unreliable scheme). As noted above, current reaches the motor by way of a couple of wires inside the drawbar.

The kinda/sorta good news is that this model is kinda/sorta DCC-Ready. Ajin has provided color-coded wiring leads in the tender for track current and motor control (unfortunately, there is no wiring for headlight control). So, no, not a simple plug'n'play decoder install. But still, about as painless as it gets otherwise -

These original Model Power models are difficult to review, as my experiences with them have varied wildly. In general, they look sharp and (when they run) run very well. The good ones are reasonably smooth and reasonably quiet, perform well at slow speeds and don't have any pickup problems. On the other hand, the less good ones are louder and more herky-jerky. And the bad ones? Well, they tend to fall apart before your very eyes (before ultimately seizing up). And none of them pull worth a darn unless they have the traction tires.

The two main problems with this version are both pickup related. First off, those axle wipers on the tender - an extremely inefficient and unreliable scheme that should've been retired back in the 1970s. If you de-box one of these things and find that it's stalling out every few inches, go check out the axle wipers on the tender trucks (the most likely culprit for pickup problems). A common solution to the issue is to simply replace the tender trucks with all-wheel pickup trucks from Kato or Bachmann.

The other problem (vis'a'vis pickup) relates to the flimsy metal wipers behind the drivers. Said wipers are extremely prone to becoming bent and mangled by the drivers themselves, basically causing the locomotive to seize up entirely. And once mangled, they are not easy to de-mangle. And mangling aside, they're total dirt magnets (and not particularly easy to access and clean).

Beyond the basic design flaws, there are also just all sorts of QC issues with these things. Common maladies are misaligned cranks and rods, out-of-quarter drivers, out-of-gauge wheels, etc (and with the end result being a lot of wobbling, binding, derailing, and out-and-out seizing up). So, definitely a mixed bag here (and hence, the "C" rating).

As noted above, revised versions of these models were released in 2015. And I must say, although not the total "do over" that we might have hoped for, the handful of minor tweaks executed by Ajin were certainly sufficient enough to move these models up into the "A" category here.

On the engine side of things, the chassis-mounted filament bulb for the headlight was replaced by an LED lightboard mounted inside of the boiler. Better still, said lightboard receives its current by way of a pair of wires running back to the tender. IE, yes, the DCC guys can now use their decoders for headlight control. As for the analog crowd? Sorry, it's still non-directional (go figure!)

MRC advertised the driver wipers as being "improved", but as near as I can tell the only difference is that they are silver in color (as opposed to the earlier wipers, which were copper colored). So, although the composition of the metal changed, apparently the design remained the same -

On the tender side of things, the trucks received the same axle wiper upgrade that was first introduced on the Micro-Trains / Ajin 4-4-0 - namely, stiff metal wipers with insulated mini-wires running directly into the tender -

Coupler-wise, the old Rapido on the tender was replaced with a truck-mounted McHenry-style coupler. A nice enough upgrade, I suppose. Although I must say, they're kind of klunky looking (not to mention prone to falling apart - when I pulled my brand new 2-8-2 out of its box, the coupler was left behind in several pieces).

Oddly enough, pilot truck pickup was not added to these models (despite the fact that MRC touted that as being one of its new features). MRC also advertised "notched driver axles" as being a new feature. However, it turns out that this didn't mean what pretty much everyone in the world assumed it would mean. What Ajin did was notch the axles where they insert into the axle gears (as opposed to where they insert into the drivers). Now, I don't know if slipping axle gears was ever a big problem with the original design, but slipping drivers certainly was (at least for some people). Unfortunately, this remains a potential source of trouble on the revised version. As you can see, the axles are simply round spindles that plug into round holes in the drivers (thus allowing the drivers to work themselves out of quarter if the axles ever slip) -

Despite the somewhat misleading advertising, I can't really argue with the results of what they did change. My 2015 Mikado is just one flat out amazing performer. It runs smoothly and quietly at all throttle levels. No shimmying, shaking, wobbling, binding, stuttering or stalling whatsoever. Excellent slow-speed creep and a nicely reasonable top-end speed. And wow, you want pulling power? I swear, I ran out of freight cars (40+) before coming anywhere near this thing's limit! Overall, just a superb runner, and certainly good competition for Kato's 2-8-2. Now, let's just hope that Ajin has put their QC problems behind them and that they're all as good as the one I tested.

As noted above, MRC also sells DCC-Sound equipped versions of these models (where basically all they've done is soldered up a sound decoder inside the tender) -

I'm told that the decoder is an MRC 1961 (specifically designed for use on these MRC steamers). The speaker is glued to a foam ring, which is in turn glued to the inside of the tender shell (sloppily removed here for photographic purposes). The tender itself was not modified for sound (IE there aren't any speaker holes in the chassis or anything like that). The sound is somewhat underwhelming to my ear, but since I remain unimpressed by N scale sound in general you're going to have to take my opinions in that regard with a grain of salt.

In 2019, Heartland Hobby purchased the tooling for the old Model Power line of N scale locomotives from MRC. It's anyone's guess what (if anything) they plan on doing with it, but it's entirely possible that we've seen the last of them.

Trivia - Circa 2012, Micro-Trains started including Model Power 2-8-2's as the motive power portion of some of their circus train sets.

Grades: C (for the original Model Power version, although F without the traction tires) and A (for the revised MRC version)

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