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Hornby's Modified Merchant Navy Class loco

Merchant navy

photograph by Graeme Pettit

The Clan Line model before the brake gear rigging, front footsteps and front coupling have been fitted.

In their 2000 catalogue Hornby Railways announced a "new generation of model steam locomotives for the Millennium" produced to super detail standard featuring blackened finish handrails and wheels with etched brass valve gear, detailed cab interior, and a five pole motor housed and driving within the locomotive itself. The first two locomotive types to this specification are both Pacifics, the LMS streamlined Coronation Class and the BR(S) rebuilt Merchant Navy Class. It is the latter which concerns our review here.

For their initial release Hornby announced three versions of the Merchant Navy: R2169 35028 Clan Line in BR green, R2170 35023 Holland Afrika Line also in BR Green and R2171 35005 Canadian Pacific in the experimental BR blue livery she carried briefly in preservation until early 2001 but never carried in service after being rebuilt. No doubt other members of the class will appear in the future though the options for livery variations, etc., are virtually non existent. Clan Line is the first to be available in the shops, and our review is based on early examples of this version with an update following the release of Holland Afrika Line.

First impressions:

The product comes in a version of the traditional long window box with opening flaps on the ends, but with an outer cardboard wrapper featuring colour pictures of the real locomotive whilst in preservation and a brief history of it. The model comes packed wrapped in waxed tissue paper within a moulded expanded polystyrene tray. Finger holes are provided to help remove the locomotive and tender which if done with care will prevent the delicate details from being damaged during this operation. However special care needs to be taken when placing the model back in the box as this proves to be more difficult. In addition to a brief operations and maintenance guide and separate diagram sheet illustrating how to remove the loco chassis from the body there is also a small sealed plastic bag of items to be fixed by the purchaser. These parts are the optional front tension link coupling, front buffer footsteps, loco brake connecting rods, tender brake assembly and two vacuum pipes.

First impressions are that this model is several orders of magnitude better than traditional Hornby production. In the past it seemed that Hornby had not been able to make up its mind whether it was in the toy market or the scale model market. Much of its past stock has had too many compromises taken for the sake of reducing production costs and commonality of parts with the result that the end products have been too crude to be classed as accurate scale models but too flimsy for the toy trade. Also quality control has been a problem. When Bachmann Branchine launched its new premium Blue Riband brand - and with a Southern loco (the Maunsell N Class) as the first in the range - new very high standards of accuracy, detail and finish for a mass produced ready to run model were set. When Hornby announced its new range many modellers' first thought was with their past record will Hornby be able to meet or exceed Bachmann's challenging standard? Let us see....

Separately applied handrails and pipework details, flush glazing etc, show just what a quality loco Hornby can now produce.

photograph by Graeme Pettit

Merchant Navy

Comparing the locomotive and tender to drawings in "Southern Locomotives to Scale" by Ian Beattie (pub. D. Bradford Barton Ltd) the locomotive to be spot-on in all major dimensions and placement and dimensions of individual fittings are accurate, although the front buffer casings seem a little on the thin side. The tender, which is of the correct 6000 gallon design that Clan Line hauled for all but 5 months in 1965, is generally accurate however the height of the tender cab top is about 1mm low compared to the drawing. Indeed when the tender is coupled to the loco it is slightly lower. Also the otherwise very finely modelled tender footsteps are protruding about 1mm too much on either side and again the buffer casings are slightly skinny.


The body is of injection moulded plastic with plastic and metal parts construction. The loco and tender have a mix of moulded-on and separately fixed parts. Generally this formula is a success although some modellers would prefer, and would be prepared to pay a higher price for, more separate parts. Items (this is not a total list) such as the smoke deflectors, loco nameplates, all handrails, smokebox opening handles, whistle, safety valves, speedometer cable (yes the speedometer cable - unimaginable on a toy-like Hornby production!), various bits of plumbing and ladders are separately applied. Very fine are these details and Hornby are to be congratulated and encouraged. However such items as the AWS battery box, smokebox number plate, cylinder drain cocks and certain prominent items of plumbing are moulded on which detract from the otherwise high quality appearance.

The major aspect detracting from the quality appearance is a horizontal castings join line running along both sides of the boiler in a position where it is not masked by either plumbing nor handrails. It has been noticed that the visibility of this line varies between individual examples of this model so if you can get the opportunity you are advised to view and pick the best sample before you buy. The smokebox door appears to have slightly the wrong profile which is particularly noticeable under artificial light. The model's door has a small radius curve at the edge and is relatively flat across the greater part of the face, whereas the prototype has a more even curve across the whole face. The smoke deflectors incorrectly slope in towards the top, only by about 0.75mm but it is noticeable. Also the top section of the handrails on the smoke deflectors are not quite parallel with the top.

Flush plastic glazing is fitted - even to the tender spectacles which shows how much attention has been paid to detail. Loco and tender internal details, except for the tender brake stand, tender fall plate and handrails, are moulded on to a high standard of detail. Lightly sprung buffers are fitted, as is a small tension link coupler to the tender, though the front coupling is left to be fitted to the front bogie by the purchaser if required (and on a top link passenger loco like this it shouldn't be needed except in exceptional circumstances!) The steam pipes to be fixed by the purchaser are far too toy-like so it is suggested you find scale replacements. The loco-tender separation looks over scale (but not hideously so) to accommodate sharp model curves.

The paint finish is a pleasing semi-matt and all lining, numbering and lettering is well done - especially the fine lining along the sides of the running plate and on the boiler bands. The orange/black/orange lining on the cab and tender sides is over-scale but no more so than leading ranges of transfers. The printed loco nameplates (with the correct red background) are very presentable and you may choose not to bother to get etched brass replacements. However the smokebox number plate is incorrectly proportioned - either the raised moulding is too long or the printed numbers are too close. Hornby have stated they were aware of this on pre-production samples and it would be corrected, but clearly not on this first batch. On the subject of poor - another bad aspect is the moulded on coal in the tender, which as on many other Hornby models is stacked too high, especially if you want to disguise it with real coal on top. The reason for doing this in the past was to allow space for a tender drive mechanism to be fitted but since the drive is now in the loco there is no excuse. However there IS a prototype for everything - see, if you can, a photo of 35026 Lamport and Holt Line at Stockport Edgely shed whilst working a railtour in the north of England on page 88 of "Bulleid Pacifics at Work" by Colonel H.C.B. Rodgers OBE (pub. Ian Allan). This photo proves that you can fix real coal over the tacky moulded version and still keep the resulting pile prototypical!

Merchant Navy The cab backhead and tender detailing.

photograph by Graeme Pettit

Chassis and motion:

The loco chassis appears to be of a metal alloy with plastic parts fitted. The loco weighs 325g (11.25 oz) and the tender 120g (4¼ oz). The five pole motor drives the middle driver axle. On the loco only the drivers provide electrical pickup. On the tender all wheels have auxiliary pickups and the power is fed to the loco by the drawbar and by wiper contacts onto the underside of the cab floor. Brake gear is fitted on both the loco and the tender though the connecting rods are parts that have to be fitted by the purchaser. There is quite a bit of sideplay on all axles as befits something that is perhaps expected to run around trainset radius curves. The front bogie and rear truck have vertical play, and the rear driver also has vertical springing.  On some samples this springing has been found to be too weak leading to a slight pitching motion. On the tender the middle axle has vertical play. The front bogie extension (that is not on the prototype) designed to take the optional front coupling is the obvious.

Note the combination of separately applied and moulded-on details, plus the blackened etched brass motion. Note also the visible castings join line.

photograph by Graeme Pettit

Merchant Navy
The wheels - all of BFB pattern, correctly including the tender wheels - all look to be of the correct diameter. All drivers are flanged and the flanges are of a much finer profile than in the past from Hornby. Good! However the back-to-back dimension on all axles measured about 1mm narrow in gauge - but consistently so. The good news seemingly that Hornby's factories in China appear to be able to construct a chassis to a standard, but the specified standard appears incorrect. The etched brass motion, which is blackened, is an extremely fine piece of construction and the cylinders are even moulded with drain cocks - again all this pleasurably most unlike Hornby's past production. The driving rods are bent on all samples viewed, though this is not very noticeable from a side view. This is presumably for clearance reasons. Also on some samples the slidebars have a very pronounced downward slope towards the rear and this could be due to the cylinders not being fitted quite correctly. The speedometer crank is not centred over the axle so the speedo cable oscillates backwards and forwards as the loco moves. This is not thought to be prototypical.
Merchant Navy The bent driving rods.

photograph by Graeme Pettit

Running properties:

On comparing individual samples in a shop a member has discovered that some either waddle whilst running and/or the motion clicks, however it is possible to find examples that run sweetly so try before you buy if possible. It is fair to assume it will improve with running-in especially at slow speed. The loco and tender run forward and back over code 75 and code 100 trackwork happily - even with the brake gear properly fitted (be careful here when you fit it - soak it in warm water to make it flexible enough to bend into place, and don't force it!). In both directions it runs round 16" radius curves, but grunts a bit at anything less than 20". It deals with poor pointwork and dirty track exceptionally well. It does not foul a correctly dimensioned cosmetic third rail, an important consideration for any piece of Southern rolling stock. In terms of haulage capacity it can pull 12 free-running Bachmann coaches on the flat easily and will take at least 7 from a standing start uphill at 1 in 100.


Hornby have produced a very fine model locomotive. Have they out-Bachmanned Bachmann? Regrettable lapses in quality of design and control during construction (resulting in for instance the under-gauged wheels, the incorrectly proportioned smokebox numberplate, the obvious castings join line along the boiler, the slightly low tender, the toy-like vacuum pipes and the moulded coal) cause us to judge not - but they are very very close to being equal. Pernickety modellers might still want to replace some of the details which are still moulded on with separate parts and this will further enhance the models appearance.

However praise where praise is due: Well done Hornby - models of this standard can be taken seriously and be considered accurate scale models, but please keep working on improving your standards and accuracy. Initial prices varied from the mid £60s from the discount merchants through to the low £80s, with mid to high £70s being typical. At this price range a model of this quality is excellent value for money. More Southern locos (not just more versions of the MN) of equal or better quality would be most welcome in the future.

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This page was last updated 5 January 2009

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