The On-Line Magazine of Rideable Model Railroading
© April 24, 2011
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The Bill Conner Advantage
Written by Bob Winkel
How did so many of us get involved in 1:8 scale railroading? Everyone has their own story. Many were already running smaller scale railroads or had visited a large scale track, which triggered the enthusiasm and interest for the big trains. I stumbled onto the local 7.5" gauge track one summer many years ago and was suitably impressed by the hobby. I particularly remember a beautiful new Shay that John Truesch had just rolled out that year. But, honestly, how would a non-machinist be able to get into this hobby - they don't sell these things at Sears, you know.
Well, it turned out there was, and still is, a large network of suppliers building and selling locomotives for our hobby. My enlightenment came from the December 1996 Modeltec article about "Bill Conner and His Abundant Beamers" by Rich Hayes. These little beam engines looked so interesting! I contacted Bill immediately and asked if he had any of his little locomotives for sale. He told me he was in the process of building three more during the winter months and one could be mine. Thus began a great experience in large scale railroading. But little did I know how many advantages would be forthcoming by choosing to purchase one of Bill's engines as a way of getting into the hobby!
Bill said to plan on coming down to the Mid South Live Steamers in the spring of 1997 and he would have the engine and tender ready for pickup. He advised joining the local club as soon as possible (good advice) and gave a couple of names of people to contact in the area. During the winter we conversed by letter, he explained his progress and sent pictures of the engine during construction. He even asked what color to paint the locomotive.
When the time came to go to Tennessee, Bill invited me to come to his home before going to the track. There I met him and his wife Jewel. We toured his shop where #17 was just about ready to go. Perhaps more importantly, Bill helped rig the necessary gear to safely transport the engine and tender, which was a big advantage for a neophyte.
When we arrived at the Mid South track, Bill patiently explained every system on the little 0-4-0, including the controls, fuel and lubrication. When we got it steamed up, Bill ran it for a few minutes then put me in the engineer's seat and rode with me all day, offering instruction on the proper operation of the engine and, just as importantly, how to navigate the train-filled track. The next day I was on my own but Bill was there to answer any questions and check on the performance of the locomotive. By the time the engine came home, this beginner engineer was well schooled in the basics of operating a steam locomotive. It was a huge safety advantage for someone new to the hobby.
Bill is a smart and practical designer and his machines have a reputation for running well. Also, this was his 17th beam engine so the bugs were worked out. By following his simple suggestions, the engine has run reliably, with only a couple of concerns, for the last 14 years. Having such a reliable machine for my first steamer has been a great Conner advantage. The vertical boiler is easy to steam and the control mechanism Bill designed allows operation without gloves, which is a nice advantage for my guest operators. Experienced steam engineers, like Lee Wehlann, often comment about what a pleasure it is to operate. Another recent advantage is the complete print set that is now available from Dave Phillips.
Even Bill's riding cars have a special advantage. Bill devised a truck stabilization system that uses tension rods between the two trucks. If the car tilts one way in front, the rear trucks are biased to resist the tilt. His gondolas are some of the most stable cars at our track and derailing virtually never occurs. I think we'd all agree that is a safety advantage.
Perhaps the best advantage is how unique the engine is. It's fascinating to watch. Even after all these years the Conner Beam Engine never fails to get attention from the rail fans and bring smiles to their faces. The kids point, the dads ask questions, the moms take pictures, and railfans ask if it is a Grasshopper (it's not). But it certainly has the flavor of the earliest days of locomotion and it's fun and easy to drive, too. I don't think I could have done much better than that for a first steamer!
Written by Bob Winkel
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The On-Line Magazine of Ridable Model Railroading