Collecting Tenshodo Passenger Cars

Collecting Tenshodo Passenger Cars

One of the unstated policies of this website is that while we talk about collecting model trains, the subject of “value” is not addressed.  That is, the subject of what things cost is not discussed.

There are a couple of good reasons for this, the first being that Value is in the minds of the buyer and seller at the time of a transaction.  There have been pricing guides published over the years, especially for popular brands such as Lionel, and they are purportedly based upon actual transactions. Suit yourself, but the Wall Street Journal does not publish model train prices, so the closest you can get to that sort of current information is on eBay.

Equally important is the fact that these web pages are written once and then are only infrequently updated unless an error or new information is discovered.  Pricing is a dynamic thing, and this site concentrates on providing new information about many brands of trains. Simply put, pricing is not the orientation of this web site.  And, if an item is truly rare, it is difficult to calculate the value of the item. Certainly one’s experience in the buying and selling of model trains is useful in this situation, but, in the end, it often becomes a best guess.

In terms of collector interest, there are apparently fewer people interested in collecting Tenshodo passenger cars than there are those who are interested in collecting Tenshodo locomotives. But, then again, there were more Tenshodo locomotives than cars produced over the years. So, in that context, consider the Tenshodo passenger car for what it is, a colorful curio from the 1950’s and 1960’s.  And, we love curios (“....a rare, unusual, or intriguing object”).

A Caveat

A goodly amount of the source information about the Tenshodo passenger cars is based upon the book which was compiled by Phil & Ruth Kohl.  “Pacific Fast Mail... 25 Years of Fine Models” is a compilation of the import data of PFM, gathered from the shipping tickets and customs declarations of that company. This is useful information, but it needs to be remembered that it is likely to not be 100% accurate.  There are other channels for Tenshodo items to have entered the United States. As a result, several small errors have been noted, but the book remains quite useful since it give the reader a general idea of what was brought in by a major Tenshodo importer.  So, the reader is advised to be just a bit skeptical.

Smoothside Passenger Cars

Tenshodo used the term “flush side” cars, presumably a translation matter.  The preferred term in the North American market is “smoothside” cars.  Regardless, there are general patterns to which Tenshodo passenger cars PFM were brought into the United States. Based upon the numbers published in the Kohl book, there were:

  • More smoothside passenger cars imported than corrugated side cars.
  • More cars in Great Northern green and orange livery.
  • More coach cars and fewer observation cars.

The “more coach cars” makes some sense in that while a typical modeler would want only one observation, dining car and combine, extra coaches and sleepers would built up to a respectable train consist.

The Great Northern livery preference can be viewed in several ways.  First, it makes for an attractive train. PFM was based in Washington State, and its original owner, Bill Ryan, was a Great Northern fan. Successive owners also were Great Northern fans.  So much so that a single year production run of Great Northern “Big Sky Blue” passenger cars was imported in 1967. Second in imported quantities was the red & orange livery of the Southern Pacific, followed by Union Pacific and Pennsylvania.

In looking at the various railroads represented, it appears that there was some consideration to geographic distribution.  The NE United States got two, Pennsy and New York Central. The NW got Great Northern. The West got Southern Pacific and Union Pacific.  Canada got Canadian National smoothside cars.  In part, this was done out of respect for the market, which wanted colorful liveries. Yet, other lines did not get covered; an example would be Illinois Central (brown and orange).

At the same time, other North American railroads were represented in the domestic Tenshodo line; Baltimore & Ohio, Chicago & Northwestern and The Milwaukee Road come to mind. Yet, they never made it to the North American market in significant quantities after the very early years. So, from a collecting standpoint, those cars are more rare than the other roads.

Corrugated Side Cars

The importation of the Tenshodo corrugated side cars is a different matter. These cars were manufactured in specific liveries for only a brief period between 1956 and 1960. After that point, the corrugated side cars were sold in “Painted, No Decals” condition. The premise of this was to make the corrugated side cars as attractive as possible to the model railroader.  In this way, the individual modeler could use decals to create cars for their specific railroad. 

In the period between 1956 and 1960, the largest number of corrugated side cars that were imported were in the New York Central livery, followed by Santa Fe. Fewer in number were the California Zephyr, Burlington and Canadian Pacific. 

The “Painted, No Decals” production for the balance of the years up to 1969 means that you may encounter these cars lettered for other railroads.  A number come to mind; Rock Island, Southern, Seaboard, Florida East Coast and so on. The selling point for the Painted, No Decals cars is also the complicating factor for the collector.  In short, what might initially appear to be a rarity is actually the result of after-market work by an individual modeler.

To our mind, there are several rarities with the corrugate side cars; California Zephyr, Burlington and Canadian Pacific. So, the potential collector is cautioned about the character of the corrugated side cars. On the other hand, they also can make for an attractive train:

Later in the 1960’s, a few more Canadian Pacific cars (nine each of most types) were imported.  These cars would be clearly identifiable since they would not only have Canadian Pacific lettering, but also a significant maroon stripe along the top edge of the car’s sides.

The CP cars are interesting in several different ways. One unique point was the dome/observation car. These cars were rare in the first place, but one of those “something for everyone” type of cars with both a dome section and an observation section. It was only natural for Tenshodo to manufacture these cars since the model railroaders like them.  In fact, however, the Canadian Pacific dome/observation car reflected reality:

As with the other Tenshodo passenger cars, there were some liberties taken:

The Rare Stuff

Which brings us to the few Tenshodo smoothside passenger cars that are probably here in the North American market.  In many ways, this is an intellectual exercise since you are probably never going to see them.  Or if you do see them, they will be either not for sale or impossibly expensive. There seem to be two paths that the rarities follow.

The first path is Japanese-market items which were brought into the American market very early. This would have likely happened in the mid-1950’s, and would have been passenger cars that were brought in as samples. 

The other path would have produced unique cars in very small production numbers. In that era, Tenshodo was willing to custom produce passenger cars in special liveries for those who were willing to pay extra and wait longer for delivery. 

Going back to the Kohl book, several examples of passenger cars in unusual railroad livery would be:

  • Atlantic Coast Line
  • Baltimore & Ohio
  • Canadian Nation (green & black livery)
  • Chesapeake & Ohio
  • Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific
  • Chicago & Northwestern
  • Denver & Rio Grande

Perhaps the rarest would be the baggage, coach and observation cars in Atlantic Coast Line livery; three cars in total. Also rare would be the single baggage car in Milwaukee Road livery that was presumably ordered to accompany Japanese-market smoothside cars from a D-1A set that had found its way to the United States.  Many of the rare items listed above would have originally been Japanese-market sets that found their way here.  The collector is again warned that there are also likely to be aftermarket cars, some of them possibly well done by skilled modelers.  “Rare” does not necessarily equate with “valuable”.

Other Passenger Cars

In addition to the streamlined passenger cars, Tenshodo also manufactured at least two “heavyweight” passenger cars based upon New York Central prototypes:

Note that the Tenshodo model numbers for these cars are 407 and 408, which would suggest that there had been other cars, too.

Tenshodo also produced a series of “Old-Time” car kits with plastic sides. These kits represented passenger cars from the 1870’s period of time:


The Japanese-market D-1 and D-1A sets also included track. At a distance, it looks like track that had been manufactured by the American company Tru-Scale.  Tru-Scale was available in the 1950’s into the 1960’s, but eventually fell out of favor. The Tru-Scale track was entirely made from milled wood, while the Tenshodo track has a milled wood roadbed with fiber cross ties.  It has sentimental value, but with brass rails and paper fiber cross ties, it is easily bested by any other unified track such as Kato Unitrack or Bachmann E-Z Track.

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