Living Legends…. The History Of The 86-Foot Boxcars

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No other piece of railroad rolling stock is more popular or better known (except maybe the caboose) than the boxcar. The typical boxcar is an enclosed car that is lockable and used to carry general freight. They have side doors of varying sizes and operation and some even include end doors and adjustable bulkheads to load large freight. Prior to World War II boxcars were the most predominate cars in a freight train but loading and unloading was done by hand and was very time consuming until forklifts came along and changed all of that.

So with the forklifts the times changed and with them, so did the boxcar. No longer just for general freight, boxcars were modified to carry a range of specialty commodities. One such commodity was auto parts and the change was to 60’ and 86’ lengths exclusively for the auto industry.

Most of these cars were built in the 60s and 70s with the 86 footers coming in 4-door and 8-door designs but the genesis of the modern day auto rack is at the Ford Motor Co….

In 1962, Ford asked American Car & Foundry (ACF), Greenville, Pullman-Standard, and Thrall to develop the prototypes. All four did although ACF dropped out and never built any production models. The first 193 cars were delivered by March of 1964 and went to 10 different railroads with another 600 cars on order.

General Motors and Chrysler were close behind and by 1964 some 2,900 cars were either built or on order for the industry. And although it’s debatable as to which cars served which automaker, some facts have been documented:

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Chrysler-service cars had two 10-foot doors, side-by-side, on each side of the car, for a single 20-foot opening. GM-service cars had two pairs of 9-foot doors on each side, and each pair was centered 20 feet from the car’s centerline. Some standard features on all of the cars, no matter which automaker they served were that the doors closed flush and could be opened from the inside or the outside of the car. The doors were opened by an improved rotary wheel instead of a lever and maybe most important historically, these were the first cars to be built without catwalks on the roof. The additional height was painted white on the ends, with mandatory lettering that warned, “NO ROOFWALK” and “EXCESS HEIGHT CAR.” The Excess Height lettering and white ends are still standard to this day.

As I’m told, the 8-door cars were assigned to General Motors and the 4-door cars were assigned to Ford and Chrysler. And while the 8-door cars were built for service at GM plants, they were originally assigned to Chevrolet service exclusively. However, Chevy itself did not use only 8-door cars, hi-cubes of both types could be seen at the Chevy plant in Janesville, Wisconsin when it was still open.

Adding a little more to their story…. During their heyday, Flint, Mi. was the home to two major GM production plants. One for Buick and the other was for Chevrolet. The Buick plant was served exclusively by the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O), with the Chevy plant being served by the Grand Trunk Western (GTW). And since the C&O never had any eight-door hi-cube cars on its roster (though the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) did) and the GTW had plenty of them, it makes sense as to why each served the differing plants.

The 80s brought a whole new generation of challenges to the American automobile industry and Detroit which seriously affected the railroads that served it. Downsizing became the name of the game and once they were no longer needed in the automobile business, the 86’ cars went on to lead varied and interesting lives as they were diverted to non auto parts use.

As the rumors go, some went into cereal hauling and some hauled scrap paper. Some may have hauled tires and some were said to haul tissue paper for companies like Kimberly-Clark. Because of their massive size it makes sense as to why they would be better suited to hauling light-weight freight.

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Many of the surviving 8-door cars were rebuilt with four doors and are fairly easy to spot (if you know what you’re looking for). For example, Union Pacific did a large number of conversions with cars that had operated on many different railroads. Ironically, many of those conversions ended up on Norfolk Southern‘s roster.

These days it’s hard to find the iconic 86’ boxcar but it’s not impossible. It would seem that UP, Canadian National, CSX and NS own most of what’s left of them (which isn’t much). BNSF and Kansas City Southern have none and Canadian Pacific has only a handful left…. Maybe.

CSX has rebuilt some ex-Conrail hi-cubers (now lettered NYC) and made them even taller. Back in 2000, a series of 66 ribbed-sided hi-cube box cars (NKCR 860000-860065) was built by Trinity Industries and a tall, skinny experimental car was built for NS sometime after that (but hasn’t been repeated since to my knowledge).

More and more by the day, the “boxcar” as we know it is morphing into general boxes that can be loaded by the customer at their facility, locked and then transported by a truck, a train or a ship. The loads are totally secure from the shipper to the consumer. These new 21st century “boxcars” are now called ISO containers and their size and shapes are defined by the International Standards Organization. (hence the “ISO”).

These days the entire transportation industry is signing up to be compatible with these standardized “boxes” and although containers have risen very fast in the past few decades, the old fashioned boxcar isn’t going anywhere any time soon (that’s the good news). It’ll be around for a long time to come…. Don’t believe me, just check out my other article on the subject….

NOTE: National Steel Car makes a 90-ton, 86-foot boxcar with the following specs:

6-inch inside length, 8-foot, 4-inch inside width (between rub rails), and 15-foot, 4-inch inside height auto parts box car is equipped with four rows of rub rails, seven adjustable rack spacers at one end and double 8-foot top hung sliding doors that have 14-foot, 11-inch clear height, and 16-foot clear width, which include improved weather resistance. This car also features double skylights at each end of the car for improved loading visibility, 60,000 pound steel floor and 13-inch by 2-inch active draft end of car cushioning, the company says. NSC box cars are available with a variety of options and can be tailored to suit specific shipping needs.


The History Of The 86′ Boxcars

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Author:Railfan AC

AC is a U.S. Air Force Veteran, a long haul trucker, a transportation enthusiast and a lifelong lover of trains. AC's mission is to travel America documenting American railroading in the 21st century while educating those who want to know about the importance the railroads play in our daily lives including, but not limited to, the movement of goods, services and more.

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