(With acknowledgement to Rev W Awdry, whose ‘Henry the Green Engine’ still has a place on my bookshelves)
It may be the romance (if that’s the right word) of the associated workings, with rakes of, ahem, aromatically-enhanced wagons careering along the main lines at dead of night, but the BR 12T Insulfish van is proving to be a particularly enduring and much-modelled vehicle. Fish was once a widespread rail traffic of course, with thousands of vans of all sorts of designs running at one time, but it’s this one that’s probably foremost in the minds of most. Probably this is because of the frequent (but only half-correct) labelling of them as a ‘Blue Spot’ and the fact that half a decade ago, the said Spot formed part of the Hornby Dublo ‘Super Detail’ range, passing in due course to Wrenn and later Dapol.
Much more recently, Parkside Dundas introduced a kit for the van and this has now been duplicated in ready to run form by present-day Hornby. This effect now seems inevitable, as manufacturers look for new subjects to sate the large part of the market that seemingly won’t even attempt to build a simple wagon kit. As also seems inevitable, the renewed interest in the type has highlighted a degree of misunderstanding and repeated misinformation on the part of modellers. For the benefit of anyone that’s actually bothered, here’s a rundown.
BR plywood bodied 15 foot wheelbase Insulfish vans
The earliest of the series of vans were given the LNER diagram number 214. Although these vans didn’t appear until after Nationalisation, in 1949/50, the design lineage and asymmetric triple-hanger vacuum brake rigging is nevertheless unmistakeably LNER in origin. By the mid-’50s, they’d been followed by a batch of vans to BR diagram 1/800, but which were to all intents and purposes identical. The well known ‘Blue Spot’ designation came later, around 1957/58, when 275 of the 1/800 vans were retro-fitted with roller bearings to assist fast running on the long Aberdeen – Kings Cross run via the ECML. The nickname came from the marking applied to the side of the van, in order to designate the upgraded running gear and keep the vans on the Aberdeen circuit.
The later diagram 1/801 vans are often purported to be a development of the design, but in truth they have very little in common other than having four wheels at the same distance apart. The body is slightly different dimensionally (admittedly only by inches), but all of the ironwork is different. The wheelbase remains at 15ft but the brakegear, although still an 8-shoe clasp arrangement, is a lengthened version of the late 1950s BR pattern as fitted to other wagons. All of this type had roller boxes from new and the more modern types of buffer that went with the BR brakegear. All in all, it’s probably more correct to consider them as two different vans built to fulfil a given specification, rather than as one being a development of the other; the detail differences then become a matter of contingency, rather than being a design evolution as such.
LNER dia 214 E75000 – 75599
BR dia 1/800 B87000 – 87499
BR dia 1/801 B87500 – 88057
Going back to the models, slightly annoyingly, all three of them are that first diagram (214 or 1/800), and neither Parkside nor Hornby have chosen to fill the gap that is the 1/801. More annoyingly, Hornby used at least two publicity photos which clearly showed the 1/801 type, getting a few folk excited before issuing model shots that confirmed it was the tired old 1/800 they were actually going to model. Ah well; whilst it’s a bit of a lost opportunity, we’re no worse off than we were a year ago.
The Hornby model is now in the shops and whilst reports suggest it’s selling pretty well to its target market, for the finescaler it’s most kindly described as a curate’s egg, summed up perhaps by this closeup shot of one corner. The Rail Blue SPV livery is well up to Hornby’s usual standard (don’t mind my slight blurring from holding the camera in a cold garage), and parts of the underframe show a nice finesse. The moulding of the axleguard, roller bearing and spring are set off here by the Gibson wheelsets I slipped in, but dear oh dear, what on earth happened to that brake lever guide! Similarly, the solebar is much enhanced by the gussets joining it to the body – then you take in that clumsy gap along the body bottom… The buffers also show a rather obvious lack of care in assembly, and I don’t believe my one example is untypical.
That rather visible gap is caused by the bottom edge of the body actually being part of the chassis moulding. I can only think that this has been done so that the false floor thus created could form the step in front of the inset sliding doors; a poorly thought out solution as it then compromises the greater part of the body. The Parkside kit manages this by having the floor moulding shaped with a tab that fits into the doorway; it’s simple and sensible, and why Hornby couldn’t have followed suit is anybody’s guess.
All of this is to some degree fixable or overlookable though; the killer fault to me is the roof profile, which would be completely unfeasible to correct. Some time before getting one in my mitts, I was reasonably convinced by available photographic evidence that the roof arc was going to be noticeably too prominent. Not the end of the world of course, and I’m sure the target market will still be happy with it, but it’s a tad disappointing to those who appreciate the nuances of wagon design for their own sake as well as wanting convincing looking models. This is also particularly relevant in the context of quality RTR being seen as a timesaver, because it means that for anyone who already has a few kitbuilds and would like to augment their fleet, the new RTR vans won’t happily mix with them. Still, like I said, we’re no worse off than we were a year ago!
Oddly, the Hornby van doesn’t seem too far out when a rule is run over it. The biggest discrepancy between it and the kit is about 1mm in height at the apex; the sides are fractionally lower where they meet the roof and it’s also very slightly narrower. Yet add all three together and they obviously accumulate enough to have a visible effect, suggesting that the roof arc has simply been drawn to ‘fit’ once other basic dimensions had been laid down, and nobody has looked hard enough at whether it actually looks right:
Part of the reason I bought the van and set up this comparison shot was to convince myself how wrong it was, because this is one of those situations where simple measurements don’t tell the whole story. The Parkside is at left (in about my fourth attempt at an Ice Blue that I’m happy with!), the Hornby in the middle and for completeness, I’ve also included a Wrenn van on the right. I’ve read one forum post that states the Parkside roof radius is 35mm whereas the Hornby is only 25mm; I’ve not checked it myself but looking at this I wouldn’t doubt it. The incorrect position of the transverse strapping, together with the roof edge being rather thinner than it should appear, also probably don’t help the overall impression.
The pic is clickable for larger sizes, at which you’ll be able to see how well I’ve done at getting a consistent level for the comparison. To assist this I subbed the Hornby wheels for Gibsons and put Jacksons in the kit, but the former still sits a bit higher. The Wrenn sits tallest of all, but some of that is in the chunky chassis and that the body isn’t sat properly on it. Nevertheless, and despite being about a mill and a half too wide as well, it still manages to look proportionately more right overall than the new model.
So there you have it; fifty years of progress. Or not 🙂
This particular Wrenn body is one of a handful I have from many years back, but which I’d still like to make something usable of. Whilst the finish is maybe a little unsubtle in places (mostly where I’ve attacked the ‘Findus’ lettering!), it’s good enough to stand a little extra work and warrant the fitting of a better chassis at some point. It’ll probably also acquire one of the ‘I am not a fish van’ -type brandings that were applied when transferred to other uses. As stated above, the Dublo-originated body is slightly overwidth, but that’s something that can be said of many RTR wagons. The main thing that makes it look a little distorted compared to other wagons is the odd way that HD designed the chassis, with the entire solebar stepping out almost to the edge of the body.
For anyone starting with a clean slate though, the Parkside kit still stands up as the logical way forward without either aggravation or compromise. Like all later Parksides there’s not a lot to say; it’s pretty much faultless as it stands and builds up as easily as any of the firm’s more recent offerings. In my opinion, it simply isn’t worth investing even a tenner in the Hornby van when it’s actually less work for any reasonably skilled modeller to get the kit looking acceptable.
Back in the RTR fishing grounds, Bachmann’s forthcoming 10 foot wheelbase LNER van is due next Spring and is I believe based on LNER diagram 83, a wooden underframe, non-insulated type. I’d imagine that not many of these got far into the 1960s so only a token purchase is likely in this household, but by comparison, I’m expecting a rather more satisfying experience. And looking ahead, I’m more intrigued by what else they have planned for that wooden underframed chassis…