Volume 1 No. 2, The PRS Story

The S Scale Journal

The Online Journal of the S Scale SIG
Volume 1 No. 2, January 18, 2012

The PRS Story

by Ed Loizeaux

PRS LogoPACIFIC RAIL SHOPS is a familiar name to S scale enthusiasts everywhere.  In the late 1980s, PRS produced and marketed a line of injection molded freight car kits of the highest quality.  Today, over 20 years later, PRS kits remain respected and sought after.  While ready-to-run has become popular these days, the PRS kits of yesterday enabled easy modification to create detailed models with many variations.  PRS kits frequently show up on eBay and at model railroad conventions and can still be obtained.

PRS cars can be grouped into four basic categories — 50’ box cars, grain car, 40’ box cars, and 40’ refrigerator cars.   One interesting aspect of these kits is the multitude of variations possible through the use of different doors (single & double), ends (square post & W post), roofs (Viking & Murphy), door types (Youngstown & Superior), ladders (7 & 8 rungs), trucks (Bettendorf, National B & ASF ride control), roof walks (wood & metal), car height (10’ & 10’6”) and other details.  All PRS kits came painted and lettered with a wide variety of road names representing a long span of years and many locales.  The level of detailing and authenticity was exceptional and represented a major step forward in the state of the art for model railroad manufacturing.

This historical recollection of PRS was sparked by an e-group question from a newcomer to S scale.  His question asked about the beginnings of PRS and a variety of answers sprouted forth – none of which were completely accurate.  Knowledge of PRS’s history was lacking — even by hobby industry insiders.  Interviews with founder Jerry Porter were conducted to learn the complete story of this interesting business venture and significant part of S scale history.

In 1985 at the NASG annual convention in Sacramento, California, John Verser and Jerry Porter were introduced to each other by a mutual friend.  They enjoyed a 3-hour breakfast meeting while discussing the model railroad business, S scale in particular, goals and aspirations.  At the end of breakfast, they decided to proceed, shook hands and PRS was born as an equal partnership.   Jerry originated the company name and John’s wife created the smoking PACIFIC RAIL SHOPS logo as her contribution to the effort.

PRS’s first S scale project was planned to be a PFE reefer, but this decision was soon changed to a 10,000 gallon tank car.  Grandt Line was contracted to make the tooling and financial deposits were made.  Unfortunately, the primary tool making employee for the PRS project at Grandt Line soon left to form his own company.  Grandt Line refunded PRS’s deposit money.  However, a new S scale A-B brake set had been completed and was simply added to Grandt Line’s catalog.  Thus, the Grandt Line A-B brake set was, in effect, the first S scale product created by PRS.

John and Jerry then set about to locate another firm to make tooling and manufacture S scale cars under contract to PRS.  Eventually they discovered FRONT RANGE PRODUCTS in Colorado and visited FRP in person.  They obtained a quotation from FRP for a 50’ box car, but it was very expensive and PRS did not proceed with FRP at that time.

Several months later, it was noticed that FRP had released several new products in HO that would be popular in S.   FRP was revisited and the tooling costs for an S scale 50’ box car were now significantly lower.   Tooling for this car had already been designed for HO, the computerized tooling CAD file already existed and converting it to S scale was much easier than creating everything from scratch.  PRS decided to accept the new lower bid and FRP began work on the 50’ box car.

Later, while inspecting a test shot for the 50’ box car, the primary tooling person at FRP let John and Jerry know he would soon be leaving FRP.  Somehow, his home phone number mysteriously ended up in the hands of PRS.  Eventually, he was on the PRS payroll.

While waiting for the completion of tooling for the 50’ box car, it was decided that Jerry would relocate with the assignment of establishing a genuine in-house tool making and manufacturing capability.  Jerry closed down his high-end stereo shop in Walnut Creek, California and soon found himself looking at the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and breathing smog-free air.

Jerry found a facility to lease and was in the process of making the final arrangements.  Unexpectedly at the last minute, the realtor approached Jerry with the news that the owner really wanted to sell the building instead of leasing it.  It turns out the building was a bank foreclosure, the seller was desperate and the bank cooperative.  Jerry negotiated a negative down payment with the bank and moved in.  Yes, the bank actually paid PRS to buy the building.  PRS now had their own 5,000 square foot structure which was literally across the railroad tracks from FRP.  A good baseball pitcher could have hit the FRP facility with a fast ball from the PRS building.

At this point, a business reorganization took place.  A new company, named INTERMOUNTAIN, was formed to design tooling and manufacture products.  Jerry Porter was in charge of IM with the charter to design and make tooling, inject molten plastic, paint, pad print, and ship parts (not kits) to PRS in Oregon.

John Verser managed PRS which was operated from his home in Oregon.   The PRS charter was to handle sales, marketing, advertising, accounting, packaging and shipping of kits (not parts) to customers.  This was the concept for the future in the minds of these two entrepreneurs.  A totally integrated model railroad company, with all functional areas under in-house control, was the ultimate objective.  Quite a vision to say the least.   PRS was equally owned by Jerry and John at this time.  Decisions regarding which prototype to model were made jointly.

The PRS 50’ box car tooling was manufactured under contract to FRP.  The tooling was then moved to IM for the injection molding and painting processes.  Jerry himself loaded the tooling into a pickup truck and drove it across the tracks to IM.  Finished painted parts were then shipped to PRS in Oregon for packaging and shipping under the PRS label.  At this time, PRS owned no factory, machinery or anything tangible except for the hard tooling for a 50’ box car.

PRS AdOne interesting story regarding the 50’ box car NYC Jade Green paint scheme pertains to a very enthusiastic modeler who was fanatical about color accuracy.  This person, who shall remain unnamed, found a brown NYC box car and climbed inside to inspect the underside of the roof.  Paint shop practices, at the time, were such that insides of roofs were frequently sprayed with excess/surplus paint where the color did not matter.  In this instance, he found genuine original NYC Jade Green paint in mint condition – unaffected by sun, rain, dust, soot or anything else.  Needless to say, the paint samples were soon in the hands of IM.

Another decoration story regards a fellow who took large sheets of tracing paper to a real box car, taped it to the side, and traced the exact outlines of the lettering and logo for IM’s use.

The experience with FRP and the 50’ box car was illuminating.  It was soon realized that computerized tool design enabled the conversion from one scale to another quite easily.  Thus, tooling designed for an HO model could be converted to an S model or O model at much less cost than ever before.  Also, it made technical sense to initially design tooling in S scale since subsequent conversion rounding errors would be minimized when converting to HO or O.

John and Jerry also made the fundamental decision to create extremely accurate and authentic models.  Their goal was to create exceptional mass-produced plastic models that would look right at home being pulled by expensive brass imported locomotives.  Eventually, they would “raise the bar” for models in all scales.

Up to now, the only S scale kit produced was the 50’ box car.  It was time to get on with the next S scale project which would be designed and manufactured in-house by IM.  Jerry and John both realized a competent computerized tooling design person was a critical need for IM.  A qualified person was recruited to join and was offered a share of ownership in IM to insure his retention.   At this point, some business reorganization took place.  Jerry sold his share of PRS to John and retained a smaller share in IM in order to make this new arrangement possible.  Now IM has three owners (with unequal amounts of stock) and a dependable qualified tooling design person.

The first IM product was a highly regarded O scale box car which was very successful.  The choice of paint for this product was thought to be rather straightforward, but disaster struck.  The first O scale box car was painted with a well-known brand of model railroad paint.  Days later it had not cured and questions were asked of the paint manufacturer.  Upon investigation it turned out the fellow mixing the paint batch forgot to add the hardener.  Groan….   From that point on, IM standardized on color customized automotive lacquer paint which matched prototype paint chips submitted by museums and modelers alike.

But what about S scale products and plans?  When would they get off the ground?

IM was interested in doing the PFE reefer in S scale.  But a persistent fellow from Minnesota kept calling and asking for a grain car.  Eventually, Ken Zieska offered to buy 300 grain cars and PRS/IM decided to consider that project.  But the quantity was not sufficient to change their plans from tooling a PFE reefer.  As time went on, Walt Danylak in Syracuse, NY learned of Ken’s interest in the grain car and contacted PRS/IM.  Walt was a NYC enthusiast and, coincidentally, the NYC was the first railroad to use these grain cars.  After some discussion, Walt offered to buy 1,000 grain cars and the deal was sealed.  Naturally, the first paint scheme out of the IM shop was the NYC version.  The grain car was sold under the PRS name, but was designed and manufactured by IM.   PRS paid for and owned the tooling as a matter of policy.

Jerry eventually hired an accountant to maintain financial records for IM.  Prior to the start of the next S project, Jerry bartered his interest in IM back to the firm in exchange for tooling and manufacture of an HO car and some cash.  Jerry then started his own new firm, INNOVATIVE MODEL WORKS, and began working on an HO project.

At this point, IM was jointly owned by John Verser, the original tooling design person and two new ex-FRP employees now on the IM payroll.   IM had recruited a second tooling person and a pad printing employee and wanted to insure their retention with stock ownership.   Over the next few years, IM’s day-to-day operations were managed by several other paid employees since Jerry was no longer a part owner.  At times, the accountant, and later his son, ran the plant.

PRS AdBy now, John was an absentee partial owner of IM and the accountant did not have S scale enthusiasm in his blood.  S scale gradually drifted to the back burner over time since the profit potential in HO and O was so much larger.  IM was willing to rerun existing S scale products, but had little interest in tooling up for new S scale products.  Profits were slim and the future was becoming less attractive.  John bartered his interest in IM back to the firm in exchange for tooling and manufacture of the PRS 40’ box cars.  As usual, PRS owned the tooling.  Eventually, the accountant had majority ownership of IM.

The PFE reefer was the final S scale product financed by and marketed under the PRS label.  This project utilized several tooling people and production companies in various locations.  The tooling and plastic injection for the body was handled by Randy Wilson in southern California.  The roof and hatches were designed and shot by another company also in southern California.  Various detail parts were created and shot by a former Grandt Line employee located in northern California.   Interestingly, this was the same person who created the original PRS/Grandt Line A-B brake set in S scale.  Several different people, including Jerry Porter at INNOVATIVE MODEL WORKS, painted and pad printed the reefers over the years.  INTERMOUNTAIN was not involved with the production of PFE reefers in S scale.  As normal, PRS owned all the reefer tooling.

PRS considered other S scale projects, but none ever quite materialized.   One potential concept was for a flat kit of a Fowler box car which would have been a dramatic departure from the usual one-piece-body-casting type of kit.  Tooling for the Fowler box car was very close to completion, but was never quite finished.  There was also thought of doing a hopper car after the PFE reefer, but that project never got beyond the contemplation stage.

Considerable thought was given to locating a Chinese firm to take over the design and manufacture of S scale products for PRS.  For a variety of reasons, a Chinese connection was never concluded.  The cost of new tooling continued to rise as time went on.

PRS continued to subcontract future production runs of existing S scale kits to IM.  Eventually that activity dwindled and John sold PRS to DES PLAINES HOBBIES several years ago.  DPH now imports ready-to-run PRS-created freight cars assembled in China under the name of S SCALE AMERICA for both the scale and AF-compatible segments of S.  The original PRS kits are no longer available except when found on eBay and other aftermarket outlets such as swap meets and conventions.

John Verser created a new company called GOLD COAST MODELS for the purpose of importing Korean-built brass models of SP cabooses.  Some of the original PRS kits were later sold under the GCM label for reasons not fully understood even to this day.

In later years, John Verser’s son, Felix, began selling his personal collection of PRS kits on eBay.  At first, the kits were brand new and complete.  Later, the trucks were not included.  Still later, the various part sprues were of different colors.  Sometimes the color of the doors did not match the color of the body.  Much later, the “last one” was up for bid.  The infamous “last one” was sold many times over much to the amusement of those who knew Felix.  Over time, this personal stash of PRS kits was reduced and depleted.

Complaints about PRS products were darn few.  One fellow up in Canada lived near the tracks and complained there was no such thing as a white maple leaf on CN box cars.  He claimed only the green leaf was correct.  After some research, PRS concluded the white leaf was indeed correct, but was only used for a couple of years by the CN before being replaced with a green leaf.  Even after this information was communicated, the complainer still maintained the white leaf never existed because,  “I have never seen one.”

Other complaints were minor and included comments about the end stirrup steps being too fragile, the brake wheel shaft being too long, grab iron holes being staggered (asymmetrical) and the box being too small to hold a finished car with couplers attached.  No matter how much effort is made, there is always something not quite right.

The PRS enterprise operated from 1985 until about 2005 – a 20-year lifespan.  During this time, tens of thousands of S scale kits were produced and sold to S enthusiasts all over the world.  John Verser personally inspected every single part and packaged every single kit during the entire lifespan of PRS.  In John’s mind, quality control was not something to be delegated.

The PACIFIC RAIL SHOPS experience is an amazing story and tribute to two ordinary fellows with a dream and a vision and the willingness to devote their time and resources to actually make it happen.  As a result of their efforts and adoption of new computerized tooling technology, the accuracy and authenticity of railroad models in all scales was vastly improved.  S scale modelers everywhere owe a huge debt of gratitude to John Verser and Jerry Porter for their accomplishments and contribution to S.

I am proud to know them and be their friend.

Ed Loizeaux
December 2011