The Italian Job: Rivarossi French 4-6-2 Chapelon Rebuild

A special guest blogger to Quinntopia!  As some of you may know, I had a Rivarossi 231 steam engine, but with some of the changes and directions of my hobby, I decided to sell it on eBay last summer.  I was pleasantly surprised to hear from Terry in Delaware a few weeks ago who identified himself as the new owner and winning bidder of said eBay auction last summer!  Terry and I started a dialog about these neat little Rivarossi locomotives and he proceeded to share with me the challenges and discoveries he has made with this locomotive since it has passed to his ownership.  I was fascinated with his passion to restore this model (and somewhat chagrined to discover it was probably in worse shape than I even realized when I sold it) and his attention to detail in the process of restoring and describing the process.  I was so impressed, that I asked Terry if he would be willing to share his ‘story’ on my blog, and he agreed! So here you have Part 1 of the unfolding drama that is the interesting journey this little Italian model of a French steam locomotive!  Please feel free to post and ask Terry questions as well! – Jerry | Quinntopia
With apologies to The Italian Job and The French Connection.

Subtitle: Locomotive Repair for an N Scale circa mid-1980s Rivarossi French SNCF 231E 22 Class Chapelon 4-6-2 Nord Steam Engine and Tender 

While this essay does not have anything to do with these two classic movies, for some odd reason they came to mind when I made these repairs. And when I am referring to The Italian Job, I mean the circa 1969 version with Michael Caine, Noel Coward, and Benny Hill amongst others. The movie with the circa 1967 and 1968 Austin Mini Coopers. Well, that is another story. Let’s just say that I am not young, and I also have a fondness for British Cars.

Now - on to the real reason for writing this expose. Most of us recall, perhaps with a gentle smile, the often quoted saying: “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. Well I think I have a story for you.

I must disclose that had one of my local train shops in Delaware not been preparing a move in early 2014 this story might never have happened. But for those train purists and aficionados, I just had to look in the display case. You know, the locked glass one with many shelves loaded with the older, unloved N scale trains. Where the ones that no one wanted reside, one hidden under another. Glass shelves and cardboard boxes littered with all the ‘winners’ and ‘duds. The items where you have to ask for an attendant with a key to unlock the mystery. That is how this all started.

There it sat in its original Rivarossi (RR, or “Rivvy” as I like to say) polystyrene case, with nest, liner, and identification card. Complete…. And with the handwritten note on a little white paper sticker on the outer case lid: “Static Display - Does not Run ”. Well, I should have turned and run the other direction. Sadly, or perhaps poignantly, that is just not my nature. Nope, I just can’t pass the odd ball or unusual item. That is how this all started. The hook was in and set.

Anyway, that little ‘gem’ had a price of $40.00 for it. But I managed to do even better negotiating with the clerk and owner. Remember that moving sale. Well it moved into our basement.

That loco, in all its beauty, warts, uniqueness, and brokenness turned out to be an N Scale circa mid 1970s Rivarossi French Steam Locomotive 231E22 SNCF Class Chapelon 4-6-2 Nord brown color. The US item # (according to the case is 4091), and the production date was 8-75 based on the identification card. The Italian or EU Nord brown version is usually called 9181, Locomotiva a Vapore. It is also sometimes called the Flèche d’Or. (The numbering of these is a story in itself as far as I am concerned. I will save that perhaps for another diatribe.)

For the nice price I obtained it I decided I was up for the challenge. I got a good deal. Surely I could tackle this beast and get it to do something. How short one’s memory can be. (Remember the dates of the movies I like? And don’t forget that I am not young….. so it is easy to forget certain important things.)

Many of us will recall the metal amalgamation (a nice word for it that I can actually print for this public website) sometimes called ‘zamac’. You know, that flaky, silvery, metallic, off-colored sometimes putty soft or something less than solid casting that was used to make many of the chassis and frames for these vintage N scale locos? In the case of this model, it is tender driven or pushed. The steam locomotive, while perhaps beautiful is just a trophy pushed around by a tender. Not the best combination, but a little odd or unique. So for those fans of the Pacific Light and Heavy 4-6-2 N scale, we all recall that we should not look at the chassis under the shell crossly or say mean things. It will turn to dust. And don’t dare drop that 4-6-2 on the front snout. The shell will survive but that weak front nose – well. A nice clean break point. Now you have two locomotives and spare parts to use or sell.

For those not familiar with this model here are pictures of a few nice examples. This model came in a couple of different colors: Nord (brown), Black, and Green (with matte black boiler front and baffles). They really are exquisite looking visually, at least in my opinion, Kind of like an early E type Jaguar convertible. Even when sitting still and not running, it is quite a beautiful car. The following pictures are actually from a Rivarossi Memory‘IT’ (Italy) website with HO details for this locomotive class, but they show the livery and details of them I believe I recall reading that for certain European train designations, the “231” (as ½ of a 4-6-2) is their way of calling out the drive wheel configuration.

The unusual aspect of this Italian made N scale French 231E Chapelon with the tender pusher is that the frame and mechanics of the locomotive are unique. In the case of this modelling the steam locomotive is ‘saved’ from the ‘zamac’ deterioration. That luxury is instead reserved for the tender. The tender drive has the ‘zamac’ housing that contains the motor and drive gears. And thus, it is the tender that has the crumbling, exploding, deteriorating, metal amalgamation that can turn to dust or a pile of Fool’s gold at the drop of a hat. (I will delve more into that in a later writing.)

But I was determined and set out to work on this one. And as I studied the tender carefully, it was apparent that the all-familiar ‘metal’ cracks, hairlines, expansions, crumbling were present. But I was kind of lucky. It had not gotten to the point that it exploded the thin tender polystyrene shell or case. No this tender shell got lucky. Somehow it had escaped. But not the softer styrene truck carriages and motor drive gear support housings. They were getting pushed out of alignment and breaking too. Yep, she was in bad shape.

With time it became apparent that ‘static display’ was correct. No, I was not the lucky one. So I set on a quest to find a couple (how about one!) of these that was in good shape. Running and not going all to metal dust. It would be the holy grail of N scale Italian made French 231E locomotives. There must be one somewhere! Right? Surely this would be a short quest.

Over the next year or so I explored and found a few of the Rivarossi French SNCF in N scale. Some decent, some not. Interestingly the best one thus far is the version in black livery. It is exquisite and runs quite well. It came from a fellow train enthusiast in Germany in an original plastic soft shell case. But like those British cars, this pristine example is really a trailer queen. You know, not used, nor driven, instead only to be looked at. To take up space in a garage or basement. (As I write this, I jokingly wonder: maybe that soft shell outer case was to accommodate the expanding tender in case the metal started to swell, at least it would not crack the polystyrene outer jewel case.)

One of my recommendations if you have one of these models: if the tender has not exploded or crumbled yet, and the tender shell is in good shape - buy a spare jewel case. Carefully remove the tender motor housing from beneath the tender shell. Store them separately. (My other belief, not at all substantiated, is that some of the early lubricants, or cutting fluids if used as a lube, are based not just on petroleum hydrocarbon cuts, but may also be vegetable or fatty acid or ester-based lubricants. If true, I suspect those can deteriorate with heat, age, and oxidation, possibly even forming other chemical species that can further deteriorate the metal. Just a theory and no proof.) So the inherent caution, be sure to use good lubricants. And as one of my friends likes to say, the original grease turns to ‘peanut butter’. And that sure is true. I suspect that all the ‘light end’ or low boiling petroleum constituents evaporate leaving the ‘sludge’. And that poor crumbling locomotive or tender has to crawl through all that with only 12 volts, and on a dirty track. Perhaps that is not a good combination.

And all that brought me to the version that I write about today. This particular SNCF 231 (4-6-2) was offered. And like many it had its shortcomings. But it ran. Visually it was another story. No this one would not be going to the prom. Someone had gotten carried away with superglue and in a not so good way. Anyway, at least it did not say static display. And its early bid prices were not that unreasonable for a runner. Time cured some of that, and I was hooked again.

So I conquered it and it was mine. This one moved into our basement to sit along with the others. And after about 6 months I decided to look at it closely. Here is a picture of it as received. It is a circa 1980s vintage, 10/1980 production according to the case identification card.

Yes, this poor old girl had had surgery. But the qualifications of the doctor were uncertain. In short: i) the upper air tanks were dipped in cyanoacrylate (CA) glue and then placed on top of the boiler shell. It seems excess CA was dribbled on for extra measure to be sure they were attached. ii) the front smokebox had a light bulb sticking out of it; iii) it appeared the front boiler smokebox cover was gone; iv) the locomotive would only move in jolts and kept jamming. But the tender would ‘light’ with 12 volts (used sparingly) and sounded good. So it was a start. At that point my biggest fear was where would I find a front smokebox cover or how would I fashion one and from what?

This winter I set about taking this one apart. I gained a little confidence from a friend near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania who has been my go-to on these things. We met recently and he has been a remarkable resource and guide. He suggested I get a lit loop which I did. It is only 3 ½ inch LED lit but it works nicely. He also has instilled in me wisdom and confidence with sound advice on working with these things. I think he could repair and get these N scale locos running with both hands tied behind his back and blindfolded. Graciously he did look at one of the other French SNCF 4-6-2 locomotives I have cleaning, adjusting, and lubricating it and got it running like a Swiss watch. It works nicely, and his advice once he returned it to me was “sell it”! I love a good chuckle or laugh.

So I grabbed my X-Acto knives, jeweler screwdrivers, cigar and candy boxes and started at it. Back to that surgeon…. For some odd reason, the center boiler shell top screw was so tight I needed a ½ inch drive socket to get it loose. (Just kidding – but it was close.) And just when I thought I was clear, it became apparent that the right side boiler tube down through into the valve piston box (or whatever it is called) had been glued. More CA and lots of it. So I had to carefully cut through the pin that protrudes down into the piston box. That was difficult. And unfortunately there was no way not to carve it up a little bit. Thankfully only the right side was glued. Not the left. Whewwwwww it had escaped that doomed fate.  Note this picture shows in the background the bulb still attached to the cut headlamp bulb support bracket.

So I got the boiler shell up off of the apron or lower chassis.

And then the strange brew of the rewired headlight became clear. To make matters worse it was soldered and barely fit within the housing. Silicone had been used. The headlight bulb mount post had been cut about halfway up. About the only good news was the front smokebox boiler cover was still there. It had been installed in backwards. And it had a hole drilled in it, embedded brass tubing, and a light bulb sticking out through it. At least I would not need to fashion a new one. Or so I hoped. Here are more pictures of some of the progress.  

A brief digression for a moment. Here is some advice that I have received and I pass along. I also learned this working on British cars. The early to mid-1970 chrome bumper MGB and MGB GT are two of my favorites. Remove pieces carefully, photograph, document, and understand their removal and installation carefully. Do not throw anything out. I repeat - don’t throw anything out. Ever. (Even after you have completed the job. You may need that spare someday.) And better yet, have a spare for comparison. You know, what good is one MGB? No have two. One you can disassemble and the other as a reference point. I am only half joking. I still own two MGBs. Of course you may need your wife’s buy-in on this point.

Back to the Rivvy, careful work with a fine point X-Acto knife and I was able to free the boiler shell from the CA glacier. I also got the air tanks free and cleaned them. The biggest decision now is whether to attempt to repaint them and the upper boiler shell, or just consider it the results of a bad weathering job. I think less may be more. I invested in a couple sets of wire gauge drill bits. And I used them to clean the holes for the air tanks.  The latter two pictures still show the front smokebox cover inverted and inserted into the front of the boiler. They are actually from an earlier portion of this rebuild.

Next I set to tackling the chassis. I was not sure how much time I wanted to invest in repairing it if it would not move smoothly. After careful realignment (and extra bending) of the side rods and valve gear, and spreading the valve gear vertical alignments it began to move better. I then removed the front and rear trucks and cleaned and straightened the axle wiper blades. (Power from the right rail is carried through the conventional ‘drive’ right side wheels ( the ‘-6-‘ in this case) which is carried up through the chassis apron via a front metal contact plate and to the headlight mounting post base. The other (left) rail current is carried through the left drive wheels and tender draw bar needle and pin post to the rear of the loco chassis and a rear metal contact plate beneath the boiler. Sort of an ‘iffy’ arrangement but once repaired it has worked. And how they got all of this crammed into the small space of these N scale locomotives is a marvel unto itself.

Weight in the locomotive shell comes from a steel rod secured inside the shell. The bottom has a screwed spring clip that contacts the chassis rear metal contact plate. From the top front of the rod protrudes a soft metal spring that contacts the center post of the lightbulb when it is placed in its mount and the boiler shell carefully lowered over the chassis apron and its workings. The other line to the bulb comes from the bulb support post that is riveted to the chassis front metal contact plate. I decided early not to drill rivets and attempt to replace them. The geometry would call for very fine rivets and long nose rivet gun and points to get that done. And I feared it would be fatal to drill the rivets.

My next challenge was to rebuild or remake the headlight bulb support mount. Upon getting it apart it was apparent that the CA surgeon owned a Dremel or perhaps a large chop saw or grinding snips. Now a dilemma. How do I rebuild that? I had already determined I could remake the mount. But how to attach it? I suspected that soldering could melt the chassis apron if not done carefully. And if I decided to drape the remaining carcass with wet cloth while soldering that would probably pull too much heat from the attachment point, rendering a solder attempt futile. Maybe I could use a metallic epoxy and solder thin wires to connect the points. That was what I decided to do. First I would make the replacement piece. Then solder thin wires to it. Attach the new post support to the remaining base with epoxy then solder the wires to it. For the wire I used very thin gauge stranded wire intended for illuminating N scale passenger cars with LED lights. So I set out to make the missing headlight support mount top post.

This was much more fun that I thought. Because I got to head out to one of our local True Value hardware stores. I knew deep in my mind they would have what I needed. So I set out with my youngest daughter after her swimming lessons for the True Value. (P.S.: I have learned the knack of convincing my daughters that they will find something (that I like) really interesting. This technique has worked well, and so they frequently enjoy watching ‘their shows’ which in some cases are actually ‘my shows’. Dual Survival, Pawn Stars, Counting Cars, Fast and Loud, Swamp People, and Alaskan Bush People are good examples. This is particularly useful when I would like to watch my own TV in the house. I don’t know how long this trick will work but I am enjoying while it lasts.)

Sure enough True Value had a nice assortment of various thin gauge metal strips, rods, and threaded rod. So I bought a strip of ¾ inch wide 0.016 inch brass and another of 0.018 inch steel ½ inch wide. And a few of the smallest brass screws and washers just in case my solder and epoxy effort headed south.

I took apart the companion locomotive, a good shape green version that I obtained from a train enthusiast in Italy. I made some measurements and then began to prepare the brass (The reference factory NOS locomotive assembly is to the right in the picture.) 

Things did not turn out too bad as evidenced by the accompanying photos. 

After several scribes with a knife or awl, cuts with a hacksaw, snips with sharp tin snips, drilling through the brass clamped to hardwood, filing, bends in a vise, more nips with a sharp pair of nips it was getting close to finished. Fitting it within the narrow confines of the boiler shell and able to still stay forward of the steel rod (the other rail’s current) was a challenge. I also decided to place a few pieces of clear thin tape on the front of the steel weight rod just in case the tolerances are tight. This part of the rebuild took many fits, adjustments, refits, filing, clipping, etc.

Then I again pondered the best means to attach it to the post. I initially planned small brass screws and washers. I even drilled a few (not quite centered) holes in the new bracket for the screws. But I again noticed the tolerances were tight and that might not work. (But I also drilled those holes knowing that if need be they could be solder channels.) I finally returned to settling on using wires and epoxy. My concerns were the heat needed to get a good solder joint could wreak havoc on the plastic apron or lower chassis structure, as well as the small clear polystyrene headlight ‘tunnel’.

This model has an interesting light tunnel to transmit the light bulb’s illumination to the two small front headlamps that reside on the front apron. (Perhaps this caused an earlier owner to deviate to a new bulb configuration? I do not know, but I hoped to return it to its original configuration.) The original design is a small polystyrene piece of plastic that sits below the bulb, fits forward of that area and resides above a metal lower panel on the chassis bottom to hide the light. It travels further forward to the two narrow light channels. In this photo the rearmost portion of this polystyrene light tunnel sits just forward of the base of the headlight bulb vertical support post. This is sort of like the earliest days of fiber optics. And actually it works fairly well. But, maybe the cost or difficulty in finding a new bulb caused a change of course for a prior owner. The final configuration for the replacement bracket piece is lower left center just forward of the loco chassis. 

I was still convinced that too much heat and flux could warp and melt the entire jumble. So I set about attaching the very narrow stranded wire. I first thought I would place the wires at the upper ‘head’ of the new bracket piece aside the bulb, but concluded it was too narrow in the boiler shell. I decided to place the strands on the bottom reverse side of the new bracket.

So I set about cleaning, sanding, and using 0000 steel wool to clean and roughen the pieces to attach the wires and epoxy. I had also determined that I could place toothpicks below the remaining bulb support base and that would raise it just enough to not touch the plastic headlight tunnel piece. And I then began soldering the wires to the bracket. And as I did that I convinced myself that soldering would be best. Good old impulses. If I could just do it quick, hot, and neatly. So I used an alligator clip to hold the new bracket support piece to the remaining post. I placed toothpicks to raise the metal bracket off of the light tunnel. And pondered a little more. Now what project is fun without being dangerous or unhealthy?

My last challenge was having only two hands. And I was not going to go and buy a positioning vice. Nope, not me. So I got started and quickly found my limitations. And so, with hot soldering iron, smoking flux – what else – yes I pulled a three foot strand of my 60/40 rosin core solder and clipped it. One end in the mouth between teeth, and worked quickly. I was able to get a decent joint. And I then attached the other ends of the stranded wire for good measure. It turned out fairly well. And the plastic light tunnel was only slightly melted or altered by the dripping flux. Ok, so I am not perfect. A perfectionist yes, just not perfect. Darn it.

To be continued in Part 2...