By Tony Cook
American Car & Foundry’s (ACF) series of CenterFlow hopper cars answered a need for transporting select bulk commodities and became a classic freight car of the 1960s. Descendants of the original design CenterFlow hoppers remain common on today’s rails. The HO-scale model presented here is equally a classic of the 1960s. This plastic reproduction of ACF’s 5,250 cubic foot capacity CenterFlow arrived in 1968 to Athearn’s line and is itself a classic in the hobby. It’s an easy bet that nearly every modeler pursuing the 1960s and newer eras of North American railroading has at least a handful of these models.
Production of the 5250 CenterFlow spanned many years and there are variations in their appearance. Following ACF’s building, similar CenterFlow hoppers have been part of Trinity and other car builders in more modern times. At a glance, these CenterFlow hoppers can all appear the same. Once you start inspecting them more closely, you’ll find a myriad of differences in their look and capacity sizes vary.
ABOVE: Both samples presented in this review include round roof hatches applied as separate details, as is the walkway surrounding the hatches on the roof. This is a basic freight car reproducing a common prototype introduced in the 1960s to North American railroading.
Athearn’s model was designed with the ability to provide rooftop hatch variations. These two review samples sport eight round hatches. The other style presents four trough hatches (two longer ones on the outer ends and two shorter hatches near the center of the roof).
It’s my understanding that round hatches denote loading of pellet-type cargo, for examples small plastic orbs used in production of a variety of molded items. The trough design is used for loading grain-type loads in the bays of this type of hopper car. Additionally, I believe the gate style on the bottom of the bays relates the hatch design. Though they are basic in appearance, the tooling presents the nozzle outlet on the bays for unloading pellet-type cargo.
ABOVE: While several “blue box” era toolings have received upgrades with screws securing coupler pockets, this hopper retains the classic metal clasp securing the McHenry knuckle coupler to the body.
This was a kit that I built several times when I was a kid. This Athearn model was also the subject of a simple kitbash that my dad did, while painting and decaling these CenterFlows. The three-bay CenterFlow is a very common and Dad would cut up the underframe and discard one of the bays and space the remaining trio of bays to generally match the appearance of this style car. This was one of those simple and easy ways to get a desired model when today’s variety of prototypes offering in HO was unthinkable. Athearn brought this 55-foot CenterFlow hopper to its Ready To Roll series in the last 20 years and fully assembled offerings have been part of the company’s line on a regular basis. In more recent times, this model moved to the Athearn Roundhouse brand name (without modifications to its contemporary appearance and features).
After seeing these hoppers displayed on the “Athearn Train Tuesday” live stream (presented Tuesday afternoons at 3:30pm Central on the hobby company’s YouTube channel and Facebook page), I got a hankering for a couple of these hoppers from this production delivered in early 2021. I picked up the green Penn Central car you see in this review at Show Me Lines Model Railroad Company (showmelines.com) in Grandview, Mo., on the southeast side of the Kansas City area. That same day, I was at Midwest Model Railroad (midwestmodelrr.com) in Independence, Mo., and added the gray Rock Island example shown in this review to my collection. It is great to be fortunate to live in the Kansas City area and be able to decide in the morning over coffee that you’ll go hunt CenterFlow hopper models and return home successful, thanks to well-stocked hobby shops.
The models come wrapped in thin film and placed in a two-piece inner tray and all that is inside a cardboard box with a sheet showing an exploded parts diagram.
The samples were free of defects and paint and lettering made this vintage tooling look remarkably good. The hopper weighs 3.8 ounces, which felt a touch light to me. I measure this car to be 7.5 inches and according to NMRA Recommended Practices, an HO car of this length should weight 4.75 ounces. The wheels were all in gauge and the coupler height checked out fine. I ran these hoppers around a test loop of Code 83 track with 24-inch radius curves (Athearn recommended this model for use on curves of 18-inch radius and wider) and had no operational issues. The models navigated turnouts of No. 4 and No. 6 size without troubles, so the light weight did not pose a concern from my experience.
This is a basic plastic freight car model. Looking at the exploded parts diagram, I count about 20 plastic pieces make up this CenterFlow (not counting the metal weight, couplers, and trucks). As great as today’s high-end HO replicas are, there’s a place for offerings like this CenterFlow hopper. It’s a great model for a serious operating layout, as there’s little concern for damaging or losing fine detail parts during use. This level model is ideal for entry level hobbyists. It looks good, runs well, and presents a common prototype that someone learning about railroading will see and appreciate having a sample in miniature on their own railroad.
This recent Athearn Roundhouse production provided a mix of lease fleet decorations and railroad road names in multiple road numbers for each look. Carrying ACFX reporting marks denoting being owned and leased by American Car & Foundry, this run has a familiar white CenterFlow with blue arrow-like bands. Other non-railroad paint schemes include the bold Glasshopper II livery with large lettering and multiple color bands, a white POOL decorated car with FURX reporting marks, and a gray MWCX car with yellow reflector panels for a contemporary appearance.
Three railroads in this run include Canadian Pacific (gray with red “CP” centered on the sides of the car), and the review sample Penn Central and Rock Island cars.
ABOVE: The contemporary edition of this model is fully assembled and equipped with scale-head McHenry knuckle couplers, improved appearance plastic truck sideframes, and 36-inch metal wheels. In addition, these Athearn Roundhouse offerings feature state-of-the-art paint and razor-sharp graphics far superior to earlier efforts.
Athearn recently announced another production was coming for March 2021 arrival. That collection will present three lease service fleet CenterFlows with ACFX reporting marks and varying shades of gray coating the body shell. One ACFX release will come lettered for Archer Daniels Midland Milling Co. with “molecule” logo; another release will include a yellow and black Kodak logo with chemicals, plastics, and fibers labeling; while the third lease car will feature a white panel with Rohm Haas, Plexiglas, and Pioneer LaserDisc logos. Those releases are 1970s and 1980s prototypes.
The railroads coming in the next group will include the familiar Mineral Red with large Santa Fe in white Cooper typeface CenterFlow, a gray Western Pacific with “Feather River Route” square herald, yellow Seaboard Coast Line with black Family Lines System lettering, and Union Pacific with “Building America” slogan, small shield herald, and CNW reporting marks. The coming Union Pacific CenterFlow will include yellow reflector panels and will represent an early 2000s prototype. The other railroad schemes are 1970s and 1980s examples. As stated, this model provides a good out-of-the-box runner for your model railroad. At its price and with its solid looks, it is also a excellent specimen for a project, whether its a simple weathering attempt or making revisions to the car, such as removing a bay.