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The California Zephyr - History and Modeling

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  • The California Zephyr - History and Modeling

    This is a repeat of what I posted at Atlas, but once again with feeling for Rio Grande fans:

    This is my favorite passenger train and was representative of America's finest streamliners during the post war streamline era, and with good cause. It was a classy looking, all silver, sleek train which ran through some of the most scenic parts of America between March 1949 and March 1970. It was pulled by the CB&Q to from Chicago to Denver, by the Rio Grande from Denver to Salt Lake City, and by the Western Pacific on to San Francisco (later Oakland). A variant of it continued between Denver and Salt Lake City from 1970 until April 24 1983, and was called the Rio Grande Zephyr. It ran without sleepers after 1971.

    After the 1970 discontinuance of the CZ, Amtrak picked up where the original train left off using heritage equipment inherited from various RR's, but the route was altered west of Denver and the train was renamed to San Francisco Zephyr. It headed north from Denver to Cheyenne Wyoming and traveled the UP westward. It traversed the Sierra Nevada via SP's Donner Pass rather than the traditional WP Feather River Canyon route. I rode this train twice.

    In 1983, the successor to the CZ was rerouted over the Rio Grande again, and renamed back to Calfornia Zephyr, yet it still travelled SP's Donnor Pass over the Sierra's. The heritage equipment was replaced with Superliners around 1979, so the Amtrak Calfornia Zephyr was so equipped when it began traversing the Colorado Rockies in 1983, where it continues to this day.

    In 1983 the newly renamed California Zephyr was actually 3 named trains combined from Chicago to SLC Utah - the Calfornia Zephyr, the Desert Wind, and the Pioneer. The latter two were split off in Utah, given their own power and the Desert Wind ran southwest to LA, and the Pioneer went northwest to Seattle Washington. The CZ westcontinued with it's equipment, usually 2 F40PH's, headend cars (baggage and/or MHC cars, dorm-coach, and 5 Superliner I cars, including 1 sleeper, two coaches, 1 lounge and 1 sleeper.

    Prior to Amtrak in 1970, the California Zephyr was made up of 6 matched sets of 12 Budd built, stainless steel, fluted passenger cars. There were originally 11 cars in each set, but in 1952, a 5-6 sleeper was added to each set. Additional 10-6 sleepers were purchased by CB&Q to be optionally rotated into the CZ sets. One sleeper from each set was removed from the train and sent east to New York City, so one could get in a sleeper in San Francisco, and not have to leave it until they arrived at NYC, travelling fully coast to coast in the same train car!

    Modeling the CZ in HO:

    Brass that I'm aware of:

    Generally the newer the make, the better the accuracy and detail is.

    The Nickel Plate Product cars were probably made in the 70's, and I think those were the cars Brian Holtz used in his articles on his Rio Grande layout in the late 70's and early 80's. These came 2 to a box. I've seen these price at under $200 for boxed sets of 2.

    Then in the early to mid 1980's, Kumata made several runs which were imported by Challenger, High Country Brass and Oriental Limited. These are all in a gold box. You can mix and match these and they are all alike, regardless of importer. I have these and they are pretty nice. They do require some finishing like windows and decals for lettering, diaphrams and couplers. Some of the sample's I've seen or even purchased had numerous surface scratches, and apparently many came from the factory this way. I returned some and kept looking when I got ones with too many obvious scratches. These generally range from $169 to as high as $250 each, but the average price is around $185. Here is an example of an attractively priced Kumata run 48 seat coach which ran on the Rio Grande Zephyr:

    Then about 4 years ago, Challenger and Shoreham Shops both imported CZ cars - I believe these were made by separate manufacturers in asia. The Challenger cars were only offered in a completed form and were expensive (~$350/car). They are gorgeous! Shoreham Shops offered both completed and unfinished cars at two different price points. The completed cars were priced similarly to the Challengers cars. The uncompleted cars were like the Kumata cars from the 1980's, and required the finishing I mentioned above, for a lower price, maybe $50 or so cheaper.


    There isn't any way to build an accurate CZ in plastic, however, you could build something of a "stand-in". All the plastic cars have wheel wells - the CZ cars have full length skirts - so that is one compromise off the bat. Concor makes a 10-6 sleeper (each CZ set had 3) which has the correct window configuration. The Walthers 10-6 sleeper is NOT correct for the typical CZ sleeper, but rather is only similar to a CB&Q 10-6 sleeper which was occasionally rotated into the CZ trainsets. The prototype for the Walthers car is a UP 10-6 sleeper, and it is deskirted. I have one of the CB&Q 10-6 sleepers in brass made by Kumata and imported by High Country Brass. The Concor Budd domes are not a good match for the CZ, but only approximate the look. The windows have a different layout than the CZ budd domes. The Dome-observation is the other Concor car which is a good match for the prototype, and has the correct window layout. Nothing else Concor makes comes close to CZ cars. You could use the baggage car, but that is a Santa Fe baggage car.

    Another option in plastic is to use cars made by Marklin of Germany. They made "shortened" versions of some of the CZ cars in plastic. The diner, sleepers and dome cars qere modeled after the prototype, but obvious compromises were made to shorten them, so there are missing windows etc. Basically, in plastic, the best you can do is a train which has the "feel" of the Calfornia Zephyr, pre-Amtrak.

    Power for pre-Amtrak CZ:

    CB&Q F3ABBA set were used at introduction of the CZ on the east end, but were quickly replaced by E7s and E8s. Proto2000 makes good candidates for CB&Q power.

    Rio Grande used F3ABBA sets until the end of 1965 when they were retired. The only correct F3's available for Rio Grande are brass imports costing around $1600 for a set. Rio Grandes F3's had an atypical set of phase details which make it hard to model "off-the-shelf". Single stripe F7s and F9s were used after 1965, and can be modeled with Stewart Hobbies and Athearn Genesis. F7A units are yet to be produced in single stripe paint in plastic. To get F7A's, you will need to paint them yourselves until Stewart, IM or Genesis offers them prepainted in single stripe.

    Western Pacific used F3ABB sets at the beginning, but added FP7A's within a year of the introduction of the CZ. Brass FP7A, F3BB sets where imported by Oriental Ltd a couple years ago. Plastic FP7A's were made by Atlas years ago and can be found at Train shows but are not up to modern tooling levels. Stewart Hobbies and Athearn Genesis make F3ABB units in plastic. The Genesis units are newer and have better detailing, but the Stewart units are still nice. The typical WP power set was an FP7A and 2 F3B units. Some F7B units were used also.

    Post Amtrak:

    We now have all the correct equipment available to correctly model a plastic Amtrak California Zephyr:

    F40PH - typcially phase III paint. Walthers or Spectrum.

    Baggage - Phase II or III, Athearn or Riverossi.

    Material Handling Cars I (MHC) Concor

    Material Handling Cars II Walthers

    Dorm-coach (ex Santa Fe El Capitan hi-level) Train Station Products

    Superliner I Concor or Walthers

    Typical 1980's Amtrak CZ had phase III power pulling a mix of phase II and III cars.

    Rio Grande The Action Road

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