Model Rail (UK)

Rails of Sheffield/ Heljan NER Autocar

◆ GAUGE ‘OO’ ◆ MODEL Rails/heljan NER petrol-electric autocar ◆ PRICE £199.95 ◆ AVAILABILI­TY Rails of Sheffield Tel 0114 255 1436 Web www.railsofshe­


There can be few more remarkable survival and preservati­on stories than that of NER Electric Autocar No. 3170. Even in the annals of master carriage restorer Stephen Middleton it has to be pretty exceptiona­l. I have long been an admirer of Stephen’s work with the restoratio­n of ancient rolling stock, since I first encountere­d it while working on Railway World back in the 1980s. Yet, remarkably, I had never seen any of his carriages ‘in the flesh’ until I attended the annual Warley MRC exhibition at the NEC in 2019.

That year, the exhibition centrepiec­e was NER Electric Autocar No. 3170 and I was instantly captivated. Primitive railway equipment has always fascinated me, particular­ly the internal combustion-engined type.

The announceme­nt that Rails of Sheffield had commission­ed Heljan to produce a ready-to-run NER Autocar in ‘OO’ was very appealing, but I never actually got around to ordering one. Only when George mentioned reviewing one did I finally ‘get my act together’. Rails has issued the model in NER red and white and in LNER ‘teak’. It was no contest as far as I was concerned, I wanted the red and white version. I believe that the version numbered as the restored 3170 has sold out, but I wasn’t too worried about the number, I just did not want the ‘teak’ version.


Like the Rails/heljan GWR gas turbine, the Autocar comes in standard Heljan packaging but with the box and lid finished in Rails’ distinctiv­e and classy dark green. There’s a folded instructio­n sheet with informatio­n and drawings of the real thing and the usual instructio­ns about running-in the model and lubricatin­g it. It is also good to see the minimum radius (438mm, second radius) clearly stated, as this was an issue with the gas turbine.

As a matter of house-style on Model Rail we don’t treat railway equipment as ‘female’. We don’t call locomotive­s ‘she’, for instance. However, I’m sorry but there’s only one way to describe the model Autocar. It is quite simply, ‘cute’. For a start, its scale 53ft 6in overall length is some 50mm shorter than a ‘bubble car’. Indeed, for those wanting a minimum space layout that is set in earlier times, the NER Autocar is probably your perfect passenger train. Add a Bachmann ‘J72’ 0‑6‑0T for the freight traffic and you’re set.

One of the first things I noticed is the fitting of tension-lock

There’s a full complement of the reversible tram-type seats with their backs seemingly left in random locations

couplings. I’ve grown to dislike these intensely in recent years and unless you plan to build the auto coach, which can be operated with the real Autocar, couplings are redundant. Fortunatel­y, they are fitted in NEM pockets, so they can be removed and the dummy coupling mouldings supplied in the detail bag can be fitted instead.


The body is a one-piece plastic moulding on which the detail emphasises that initial ‘petite and pretty’ impression. The lower sides and ends have vertical match-boarding, interrupte­d only by the doors with their beading around the edge. There are two sets of double doors at the front, one to the cab and engine area and the other giving access to the passenger vestibule. A single door at the rear gives passenger access to the saloon, and the rear cab is reached through a door in the bulkhead. Passengers at this end could see through the glazed bulkhead much as they could, years later, in many a DMU.

The ends of the Autocar feature large amounts of glazing and on the model this reveals some fascinatin­g glimpses of the well-detailed interior. However, the glazing does have the familiar ‘prismatic’ effect around the edges, that afflicts so many models with moulded flush glazing. I do not find it particular­ly bothersome on this model.

The fine detailing extends to separately fitted door and commode handles, as well as ten large torpedo roof vents. Atop the clerestory are two separately fitted pipework runs which, I presume, were the cooling system for the engine and I suspect I should call them radiators. And while we are on the clerestory, it is worth noting that the clerestory glazing is printed with etched glass decoration.

Each end of the model carries three oil lamps which stand out from the body on separately fitted brackets. The manufactur­er has resisted the temptation to make these working lights as it would undoubtedl­y have compromise­d their scale appearance. As it is, they look a treat!

Looking inside the body through the large windows, there is a full complement of interior detail and there’s no sign that the mechanism compromise­s the floor depth. Indeed, there’s a full complement of the reversible tram-type seats with their backs seemingly left in random locations by the last passengers, some forward, some back, some in bays of four.

Both cabs have interior detail, albeit that the controls in the real thing were pretty basic, the driver standing as he would in a tram. The engine and mechanical section is also detailed, with the large green casings for the engine, flywheel and dynamo.


The model, like the real thing, is driven on the leading bogie. Electrical pick-up is through phosphor bronze dummy frames inside the plastic bogie side frames, thus avoiding the friction of wiper pick-ups on the wheels. With current collection through all eight wheels, the running is smooth, with no tendency to stall. The slimline coreless motor is installed in the chassis, below the leading end of the passenger saloon and it drives both axles of the leading bogie through a shaft drive and bogie-mounted gears.

The two bogies correctly feature different styles of wheel, the non-powered bogie having Mansell disc wheels with the wooden centres well represente­d.

The motor bogie features spoked metal wheels. Both types of wheel are blackened metal.

Coreless motors should not be used with old controller­s, those with ‘feedback’, or on layouts fitted with high-frequency (Relco-type) track cleaners. The instructio­ns make no mention of this, so perhaps Heljan now considers that coreless motors have been around long enough for everyone to know.

A Next18 DCC decoder socket is fitted to the top of the light bar. This can be accessed by simply unclipping the body. The instructio­ns state that the interior lights can be switched off, in analog mode, by using a magnetic ‘wand’. No wand came with my sample, and attempts to switch the lights with a Rapido wand achieved no result. I must assume, therefore, that this feature was dropped but that the instructio­ns did not get changed.

DCC users can switch the interior lights on and off with function 0.


It was the red and white paint finish of the real thing which I found particular­ly attractive and the model replicates this beautifull­y. The finish is quite matt and it is set off with wood finish droplights and very fine red and black ‘cheat-lines’ below the windows. These are probably the finest lines I’ve seen on a ready-to-run model, and to have negotiated them over the door details without smudging is quite a feat.


On test on my layout with a Gaugemaste­r analogue controller, the Autocar was smooth and almost silent running forwards. However, in reverse (with the unpowered bogie leading) it had an obvious problem, was slipping and unable to move itself. A quick check revealed that the outer wheelset on the unpowered bogie was out of gauge, the wheels having not been fully closed up on the plastic sleeve.

The wheel back-to-back on that axle was a little over 15mm. It was a simple enough job to extract the wheelset from the bogie and gently squeeze the wheels to the correct 14.5mm back-to-back. The Autocar then operated very nicely in both directions.

It was so quiet that I found myself wishing for digital sound to play with but, in practice, that can become very wearing very quickly. I ran the Autocar on my Peco Code 83 track and through points down to medium radius and it took everything in its stride. Finally, as some modellers will doubtless wish to run it with the trailer coach that sometimes operates with the real thing at Embsay, I put a Hornby Bulleid coach behind it just to see how it handled a small load. It passed the test with flying colours.


The NER Autocar is a fine piece of work by Heljan on behalf of Rails. It has tremendous appeal as the passenger vehicle for a micro layout. Maybe that’s the next thing I need to build.

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