Heljan’s ‘O2’ enters the big freight league of 2-8-0s, but is it consistently good enough to be premiership material? RICHARD FOSTER finds out.
Heljan’s ‘O2’ 2-8-0 is the star attraction this month, while a narrow gauge offering is examined by our experts.
Most football fans will recognise how painful inconsistency can be. You can hammer the league leaders one week, only to be thrashed by a team you really ought to have beaten the next.
Heljan feels very much like an inconsistent football team. Its early ventures into ‘OO’ were generally very good, but there was always that one area that stopped it from getting top marks. Its early mechanisms were problematic, but have since gained a reputation for reliability. Recent models, such as the Class 05 and Metropolitan electrics showed real flair.
Then the ‘O2’ arrived. We waited ages for an LNER 2-8-0 in ‘OO’ and the Bachmann ‘O4’ and Hornby ‘O1’ turned up in quick succession. They seemed to be the ‘in thing’, so Heljan got in on the act with the Gresley ‘O2’.
At first glance it seemed like an odd choice. Nigel Gresley’s powerful freight slogger was hardly top of most enthusiasts’ wishlists, but it was a logical choice. The class owed its origins to pioneering three-cylinder 2-8-0 No. 461, and it was the LNER’S standard 2-8-0 for over 20 years. It was a powerful beast and deserves to rank alongside the LMS ‘8F’, GWR ‘28XX’ and BR ‘9F’ as one of Britain’s best freight locomotives.
It’s also Heljan’s first conventional ‘OO’ gauge steam locomotive and, as such, warrants close scrutiny.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, here’s a short history lesson. The first ‘O2’ was No. 461, built in 1918 for the Great Northern Railway. A further ten appeared in 1921, built by North British, but with a revised valve gear arrangement.
After the Grouping, 15 more were built. They weren’t identical to the GNR machines as they were built to the LNER’S 13ft 1in ‘Composite Loading Gauge’. This meant that they had a revised cab profile and shorter chimney.
The ‘O2’ was chosen as the LNER Group Standard design, which meant that it had to fit within the 13ft loading gauge on ex-great Eastern routes. A total of 41 were built to this specification, easily identified by the side window cab. No. 461 became ‘O2’, GNR machines were ‘O2/1’, Composite Loading Gauge were ‘O2/2’ and Group Standards were ‘O2/3’.
Still with me? Well, one further tweak came when Edward Thompson started to fit Diagram 100A boilers (essentially ‘B1’ boilers) to both GNR and LNER ‘O2s’. These became ‘O2/4’.
‘O2’ TIMES TWO
We received a pair of ‘O2s’ for review: ‘O2/3’ No. 63954, in unlined black with British Railways lettering and ‘O2/4’ No. 63983 with the pre-1956 emblem. Both feature side-window cabs and LNER Group Standard 4,200gal tenders (albeit one flush and the other with flared raves). GNR style cabs and tenders are set to follow.
Pre-production samples suggested that Heljan had got the distinctive Gresley shape right, and the good work has definitely found its way onto production models. Heljan has done its homework too, for the detail differences between the boilers are clear to see.
This truly is a fine model in most cases and it’s difficult to decide where to start with initial observations. Firstly, the face looks great. The dishing of Hornby’s smokebox doors is always first class, but the Danes have given Margate a run for its money in this case. The dart is a particularly fine separate fitting and Heljan has created the 5ft ¼in diameter door ring, with ¾in asbestos-
packed recess. Unfortunately, No. 63983 has a ring of rivets around the door, which pictures of real ‘O2/4s’ in both Brian Haresnape’s Gresley Locomotives and Part 6B of the RCTS’S Locomotives of the LNER series don’t seem to show.
Usually it’s something up top that catches the eye first, but apart from the face, it’s actually below the running plate where we go first. The motion is blackened, but it’s really fine and looks the part. The wheels are also really good-looking and the flanges are also commendably thin.
The pony truck deserves comment, for not only do the wheels look just like the real thing but the ‘O2’s’ frame arrangement means that you don’t get the huge gaps above it that you often get in model form. The splash guards and guard irons are all present and correct and combine to make the ‘O2’ look like the real thing.
DESPITE THE REALLY GOOD WORK IN SOME AREAS, THE ‘O2’ WAS LET DOWN BY A LACK OF FINESSE IN OTHERS
As well as the smokebox door, Heljan has done a decent job of those all-important LNER styling features: the graceful curves on the running plate, the round-topped firebox and the cab with its two side windows.
A brief word about the cab: there’s firebox backhead detail, but it’s mainly moulded and looks pretty convincing. Maybe it’s not up to Bachmann or Hornby standards, but it does the job - except that some areas look a bit plasticky and there’s no regulator handle.
Post-grouping built ‘O2s’ initially came with a 3,200gal tender, but the 4,200gal Group Standard was introduced later. Heljan has modelled both the flush-sided and flared rave types.
It looks convincing too, with some neat curves and some nicely moulded underframe detail. Only the moulded coal and slightly bare, plastic nature, lets it down. Bare plastic is also a criticism of the area behind the smokebox saddle where there should be some representation of valve gear.
Chris Leigh tested the model on his home layout. He says: “The ‘O2’ has far less ‘play’ in the chassis than we might normally expect on a 2‑8‑0 with all RP‑25 flanged wheelsets. As a result, it may well highlight any defects in your track. When first tested, it stumbled at one spot on my layout and the leading wheel set would derail - except, of course, when it was being closely watched! By careful driving over the joint that it did not like, I ran it in for an hour with five coaches in tow.
“Several days later, when I performed the tests for Model Rail, it seemed to have freed up slightly and did not derail once. It was smooth and quiet and it has that elegant, ‘casual’ gait that is a feature of many 2‑8‑0s. It looks really good, with its fine flanges and delicate, scale size outside motion.
“I added coaches, two and three at a time, until I had 18 mixed Hornby, Lima and Bachmann bogie coaches behind it. At between two and three wagons to one coach, I reckon a 45‑50 wagon train would be within its capabilities, depending on how heavy the wagons are and how tight the curves. On my 2ft 6in-plus radius curves, the 18 coaches stretched well over halfway round the layout. Impressive performance by Heljan’s debut steam model.”
WARTS AND ALL
But remember what I said about inconsistency? Well, if you believe that the model press receives models that have been tweaked to garner a better review, then think again.
The only area where Heljan hasn’t got it quite right is the chimney, which is too tall and doesn’t match the shape of the prototype. But the rim had traces of flash on it, with No. 63983 being worse than No. 63954. In theory, this should be quite straightforward to rectify with a sharp blade and abrasives.
The impact of No. 63983’s ‘face’ was spoilt by the poorly proportioned smokebox numberplate, whereas No. 63954 didn’t have one. According to the RCTS, the real No. 63954 was ex-works in May 1948 with 12in plain numerals and a smokebox plate.
Despite the really good work in some areas, the ‘O2’ was let down by a lack of finesse in others. Wipers collect current from the wheel backs but the contact strip has been left shiny and not blackened and this really stands out against the fine wheels and motion.
KID GLOVE TREATMENT
The thing to bear in mind most is the need to handle it gently - the ‘O2’ is extremely fragile. No. 63983 was better - only the injector pipework came away - whereas No. 63954 lost this, plus its smokebox and rear tender handrails. Gripping the model firmly by the running plate, I accidentally caught the boiler handrail and one of the knobs sheared off. This happened days before our studio shoot, hence no pictures. Careful handling is definitely required. The most worrying problem was that No. 63954’s tender was only attached to the locomotive by two fine wires. Four wires are required to make the join, but two had snapped. As I feared, No. 63954 didn’t work. The screw to hold the drawbar in place was in the bag of separate fittings rather than securing the tender to the locomotive. Thankfully,
THE MOTION IS BLACKENED, BUT IT’S REALLY FINE AND LOOKS THE PART.
THE WHEELS ARE ALSO REALLY GOOD-LOOKING AND THE FLANGES
ARE ALSO VERY THIN
No. 63983 didn’t have this problem.
One can put up with the few questionable areas, particularly when other areas are strong - such as the finely turned sprung metal buffers and exquisite front coupling chain - but to find handrails falling off and snapped wires on a model that’s just £15 away from £200? That might make you think again.
Of course, the build quality issues we suffered on No. 63954 might just be limited to our sample, and we hope that’s true. However, it might be worth inspecting your model before you part with your cash.
Heljan’s ‘O2’ isn’t exactly like the famed curate’s egg, of which some parts were excellent. In this case, the majority is truly excellent. It’s just disappointing when one or two loose passes and mistimed tackles spoil the result.