Wither Proto:87?

A couple of weeks ago, Chris Mears pointed out a couple of Proto:87 threads and stories about Proto:87. Of course that really perked my ears up, but unfortunately, between work and other things I really haven’t had time to respond.

One of the threads that Chris pointed out was on rmweb, and related to the question of Proto:87’s popularity. Simon Dunkly summed it up well: what is required is for someone to do a decent layout, nicely, and share it.  This is one of my principal reasons for sharing Pembroke on the web (for better or worse, it may never be exactly inspirational).

However, Proto:87 has two further challenges that Proto:48, Scale 7 and Proto 4 don’t have, and I believe that these are the real reason Proto:87 hasn’t taken off in the 10 years since the NMRA blessed the standard.  One of the reasons is surprising, while the other is almost crippling.

The surprising reason why Proto:87 hasn’t taken off is the emergence of Code 88 wheels.  On the face, these seem like an obvious blow to Proto:87 as North American modellers in particular find the Proto:scales first by looking at wheels, as I did.  However, these wheels are not only pretty good, they are also accidentally confusing. 88 is close to 87, and there are modellers who slip some Code 88 wheels under a piece of equipment and believe they are doing Proto:87.  The fact that sometimes Code 88 wheels derail on standard HO track only reinforces this belief!

The crippling reason that makes Proto:87 a true niche option in North America is that standard HO is not that bad.  OO and O gauges, both in North America and Europe, use the wrong gauge.  HO, on the other hand, uses the correct gauge, and frankly looks quite good, especially with carefully laid track and Code 88 wheels.

Even so, I am optimistic about the future of Proto:87.  Again, there are two reasons.  Firstly, there is a growing cadre of serious modellers, lead by the likes of Lance Mindheim and Trevor Marshall, who are building smaller or simpler layouts, not because they are constrained by space, but because they choose to.

The second reason for optimism about the future of Proto:87 is that people are starting to think of track as a model.  As with the rest of the hobby, we are starting to realize that you build convincing models by looking at the prototype, not at others’ models, and when you look at prototype track, you see that it is not only sprinkled with joint bars and other details, but that it also has a different geometry than HO track.  As modellers discover this compromise that is enforced by the HO standard, they will also find Proto:87.

Meanwhile, I intend to continue plugging away with Pembroke.  Perhaps one day it will be an inspiration to others.  I may have found Proto:87 through wheels, but I’m hooked on track as a model, and don’t intend to go back to coarse scale HO.

The SW1200 RS 1352 is from my teens.  With the help of my friend Kevin Knox, I converted it to Proto:87 in the mid ’90s. 


4 thoughts on “Wither Proto:87?

  1. I’d agree that HO scale is not as bad as O scale (in terms of standard to ProtoXX). I don’t really have any experience with OO, but I don’t see many O scale models that “look right” to my eye.

    I feel like Proto87 is something you should slowly step into. I’ve dipped my toe in to start with track as a model and Proto87 spikes and tie plates. If I’m honest it’s been a frustrating process, but a good learning experience. I’m glad I didn’t jump in and build a full Proto87 layout from the start because it would have only ended in failure or frustration.

    If I can’t master the P87 tie plates and spikes, oh well I’ll just have to admire the works of others (with an added appreciation for the skill level needed). If I can master them though, it’s a building block for the next project where I can take things even further.

    As an example, a couple years ago I scratch built a simple car shops flat car (I don’t know much, it appears the DMIR turned an old worn out ore car into a small flat car, you can see my project here if interested https://bestsnowman.wordpress.com/tag/car-shops-1-flat-car/). It wasn’t much, and extremely simply built. But it was the first building block, yesterday I started a Thrall flat car which will be much more detailed model. Maybe someday I’ll make it up to building a locomotive (I hear someone wrote a book on it :)).

    1. There’s a lot to unpack out of this comment, Matt, and it’s making me reflect on my own journey through this hobby. How, exactly, did I get to a level of confidence where I could conceive of tackling a layout in Proto:87 like Pembroke? Surely there were flat cars involved.

  2. Thanks for the shout out and, more importantly, taking the time to respond. I agree with your point about standard HO. N faces the same problem. Neither are that bad.

    One point that Simon has made that bears repeating is that these finescale movements really are an ethic that extends far beyond just track and wheels. It’s a way of thinking. As we were talking about previously, it’s in the way that the models become a working discussion that can be tweaked and improved upon in time. Certainly Lance and Trevor’s work stand as terrific examples of this approach in practice and I’d just as quickly cite your work and approach as the same kind of inspiration and proof of how good it could be.


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