Introduced: 1969 (by MRC/Rowa), upgraded & re-released in 1977, 1988 and 1997 by Con-Cor/Rivarossi
Back in the late 1960's, a German company named Rowa tooled up a couple of classic N scale steam locomotives - this Berkshire and a 2-8-8-2 Mallet. Both turned out to be tremendous locomotives, and both remained in continuous production for decades.
MRC was the original importer for these models. Unfortunately, MRC's commitment to N scale was fairly short-lived and they wound up dropping this loco (along with their entire line of N scale models) after just a few short years (around 1972). Circa 1977, Rivarossi acquired the tooling for this model and took over production (with Con-Cor as the importer). These models ultimately vanished around 2006 when Rivarossi went bankrupt and was subsequently liquidated (although the last production run was well before that).
The original MRC 2-8-4's came in plastic boxes with the locomotive sitting upright on a purple piece of pseudo track. The first Rivarossi runs came in the traditional Rivarossi "clear plastic box with blue plastic insert" (either with Con-Cor stickers slapped on the outside, or with Con-Cor listed as the importer somewhere on the interior paperwork). Later runs were packaged in cardboard boxes with foam inserts (either red Rivarossi boxes or yellow and orange Con-Cor boxes).
All versions derive their pickup from four of the drivers (picking up one rail) and four of the tender wheels (picking up the other rail). Current is transferred from the tender to the motor via a stiff wire on the drawbar (a notoriously unreliable scheme). Tender pickup is (unfortunately) provided by axle wipers (another notoriously unreliable scheme). Two of the four non-pickup drivers are equipped with traction tires. Both the pilot and trailing trucks on the engine are electrically neutral. A non-directional headlight is mounted in the front of the chassis. The wheel flanges are quite huge, so forget about running these on anything like Code-55 track. The pilot has a small (non-operational) knuckle coupler, whereas the tender has a truck-mounted Rapido-style coupler. Despite the various mechanical changes over the years, the actual shells (locomotive and tender) remained the same throughout.
The MRC version has plastic running gear, plastic gearing and a three-pole "can" style motor -
The first Rivarossi run (1977) included a new, smaller motor (the notoriously unreliable Rivaorssi "can"). Also, the running gear (as well as the internal gearing) was changed from plastic to metal (and would remain so for all subsequent runs) -
The second Rivarossi version (circa 1988) features a new open-sided / 3-pole / straight-wound Sagami motor. Con-Cor's boxes for this run actually say "improved motor" on the label. The paint was also improved (at least insofar as the molded handrails on the locomotive shell were painted silver) -
A third Rivarossi version was run in 1997. Like the 1988 run, these also say "improved motor" on the box (this time a Sagami with a 3-pole / skew-wound armature). The other new feature on this run was the introduction of blackened wheels -
Like all locomotive models that have been around for decades, performance on any particular 2-8-4 is ultimately going to boil down to how well it has aged. Overall, these are superb running models, but obviously the newer (or better maintained) ones are going to run better. I've tried out many of these and have found them to be extremely smooth and quiet runners. Pickup and throttle response are great, slow speed creep is quite good (especially with the newer skew-wound motors), and pulling power is excellent. However, given the vaguries of some of the more "primitive" features (can motors, axle wipers, drawbar wiring, plastic gearing), it's certainly possible to encounter a 2-8-4 that simply doesn't run very well. Overall though, these are excellent locomotives and definitely worthy of their revered reputation as a classic of N scale steam.
One noteworthy problem that I've run into with these models involves the little plastic needle that provides tension on the pilot truck. Some of them are bent such that they will actually push up on the pilot truck instead of down. Needless to say, this will result in nigh endless derailing. The suggested solution (which worked out like gangbusters for me) is to warm up the needle with a hair dryer and then rebend it so that it pushes down on the pilot instead of pushing up.
Removing the locomotive shell is quite easy. Spread the shell apart back by the trailing truck to free it from the two metal studs in the chassis. It should then lift right off.
Reviewed: 5/69 Model Railroader ("This model is an authentic reproduction of a class S-3... The body and tender shells are highly detailed polystyrene plastic with all details cast on... The engine is driven by a 12-volt motor through a worm and gear set... Spur gears connect all drivers in proper quartering relationship... The neat drivers have plastic centers with metal tires... The wheels have good looking flanges about .030" deep... The rods and eccentrics are plastic... We experienced some trouble with the valve gear. The eccentric rod connects to a lever which is hooked into a slot in the simulated Baker reversing gear. On our test test sample this lever was too easily dislodged... The tender has excellent rivet detail... Like most n-scale locomotives, the model has a tendancy to leap into action, although this model starts more smoothly than most... Once moving, the control is very smooth and the engine runs extremely quietly... While the top speed is excessive, the overall control is good... This is a very fine model with excellent detail and running qualities; it is priced at $29.95)
Reviewed: 10/97 Model Railroader ("Con-Cor's "new" Berkshire is actually made with tooling that goes back nearly 30 years, to when Rowa first made the engine for MRC. There've been some changes and improvements, though, most notably in the motor. Also, those early 2-8-4s had plastic running gear; these parts are nickel silver on the present version, built for Con-Cor by Rivarossi. The new model also features blackened drivers and an improved drawbar to conduct current from the tender... This model matches well with drawings and photos of the Nickel Plate 2-8-4... The one-piece shell is crisply detailed and easy to remove from the mechanism... A cast-in boiler backhead hides the motor. The frame is a single-piece casting which doubles as a weight and fills the body cavity fairly completely. The open-frame motor is sturdily built and features a three-pole skewed armature... The first and fourth drivers on the left side are both equipped with plastic traction tires... The locomotive picks up current using the right-side drivers and left-side tender wheels. Our sample engine ran fine but did have a slight hitch in its motion at slow speeds. The performance should improve as the gears and valve gears become broken in... I checked the wheels with an NMRA standards gauge and found the second driver set, trailing wheels, and some tender wheels to be just a hair tight in gauge... Only the PM, NKP and C&O had these particular engines. All in all this is a nice model of one of the most handsome and best performing steam locomotives ever built. It's good to see it available again. AT&SF, C&O, GN, NKP, PRR, PM, SP, UP. Price: $199.98")