Model Engineering Works was founded in the fall of 1945 by Dick and Hannah Wheeler in Niagara Falls, New York.
Richard O. 'Dick' Wheeler (1916 - 2009) was a development engineer with the Carborundum Company. Dick
was trained as a mechanical engineer at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, and graduated in 1936.
He had also been a model railroader for many years. He was given the opportunity of creating two railroad
displays at the 1938 New York World’s Fair. One was called 'Railroads at Work' and the other was
'Building a Railroad.' He was also interested in manufacturing processes. The inevitable intersection
of all these pastimes was what led Dick into the manufacture of model trains and kits. The company, and its
owners, eventually moved to Monrovia, California in 1949. Model Engineering Works was a pioneer in the
field of reproduction train parts having produced many reproduction parts for vintage US made trains
including pre-war tinplate Lionel, Dorfan,
Ives and American Flyer, in 'O' and standard/wide gauge.
The MEW replacement driver sets and die-cast wheels were heavily relied upon by many operators
and restorers of the tinplate trains of the pre-war era.
The first Model Engineering Works (MEW) product was a ground throw switch stand.
It was cast in a hand mold on Dick's kitchen table. Then came other accessories, kits for rolling stock,
and finally detailed locomotives, mostly in HO and OO gauge. MEW grew to include enough
products in its line to issue a catalog. Dick Wheeler eventually added die casting, centrifugal casting,
lost wax casting, plastic molding, stamping and printing equipment, and a complete machine shop to
produce tools and dies. Dick supervised the development and tooling of new products as well as production.
Hannah handled the office and shipping departments. People that knew Dick Wheeler have shared stories of
visiting the Model Engineering Works shed located behind a drive-in dairy in Monrovia, CA. It was not a
sophisticated operation. Most of the cast parts were made by Dick himself. In the wave of his successful HO
modeling business, the nostalgia of larger toy trains and the Standard gauge tinplate toy trains of his youth
returned. In 1949 Dick bought an old Ives #3243R locomotive for $10 and so began his toy train collection. He had
received one just like it for Christmas as a child in 1922.
In the late 1950's/early 1960's, Model Engineering Works offered a reproduction
Lionel Standard gauge #2 trolley in brass that was manufactured and imported
from overseas. Fewer than 100 of these trolleys were produced. One specimen was on display in
Dick Wheeler's collection for over 50+ years.
MEW engaged in the importation of mostly HO gauge limited run brass models of steam and electric locomotives,
interurbans and gasoline motor cars that were custom built in the orient by the likes of Katsumi.
Other items offered included large scale flat car and 1890 wood gondola kits and cast Diamond Archbar
railroad car trucks mounted to a piece of track that were sold as paperweights. Mantel Piece Models was
a division of MEW that issued 7/16" full scale models designed for display on mantel pieces, bookcases,
coffee tables or desks. The gauge was actually 2⅛" or what was more commonly known as Standard
gauge. The Mantel Piece Models had insulated wheels for 2-rail operation on solid track such as Gargraves
Standard gauge T-rail. These trains would not operate on tinplate tubular track because of the use of scale wheel flanges.
The most notable model in this line was the Colorado Midland #25 4-6-0 loco created in 1965, whose prototype
was built by Schenectady Locomotive Works in 1887. The model came in unpainted brass. It was equipped with a
12 volt DC permanent magnet 'O' gauge motor with worm drive and featured details including brake shoes on all
wheels, and chains on the tender trucks. The loco with tender sold for $225. Plans for this 1887 ten-wheeler
originally appeared in the February 1964 issue of Model Railroader magazine. The front drivers of the first 25
locos ordered had no flanges, and their minimum operating radius was approximately 5'. On the second order of
25 locos, the center drivers were blind in lieu of the front pair. In addition, there were smaller-diameter
pilot wheels, permitting the pony truck to swing under the frame, thus achieving a 3½' radius.
Model Engineering Works catalogs advertised a 44 Ton Diesel Electric switcher kit, a
GE Steeple Cab electric, an operating powered log loading crane, a log buggie, 12 yard side dump car, double
truck shortie caboose, a passenger caboose, high-ball period passenger cars (baggage, mail, combine and coach),
New York Central 'T' class heavy electric locos, and a Baldwin-Westinghouse 49 ton box cab electric, all brass
imports in HO scale. Also carried were Iron Horse miniatures which consisted of various trackside accessories
including a railway mail crane, Hayes derail set, scale Ranapo switch stands (both high and low), ground throw
switch stand, harp switch stand, and removable marker lamps. The company was well known among HO layout builders
for its Hi-speed HO Tracklayer tool and their Gold Medal Tracklayer spikes. The High Speed Tracklayer tool
was utilized to fasten HO track to wooden roadbed and was much easier to use than the standard method of
inserting individual spikes one at a time while maintaining the track gauge. The company motto was 'Unique
Miniatures', and this appeared on the cover of the catalogs and below the company name.
The Monrovia Northern Railroad was a Standard gauge Garden Railroad run by Dick Wheeler on his elaborate
terrace pike in Monrovia Canyon from the early 1960's to about 2000. He started building it around 1958.
He ran Standard gauge Lionel, Ives, and American Flyer trains as well as a variety of custom-built
equipment centered on the brass 4-6-0 Colorado Midland #25 that he designed and imported from Japan
for Model Engineering Works (MEW).
Dick Wheeler was a longtime and charter member of the Train Collectors Association and was one
of the organizing founders of its first division, the Western Division, in 1954. The organizing meeting was
actually held at Dick's home at 801 Oakdale Road in Monrovia CA. In 1967 he served as president of the division.
In April 1976 Dick was one of the participants in the TCA National Headquarters and Museum ground breaking
ceremonies in Strasburg, PA. In 2010, selected items from Dick Wheeler's 500-piece collection of antique tinplate
toy trains and hand built HO brass models were displayed at the California State University's C.E. Smith Museum
of Anthropology. Dick’s son-in-law George Miller was a professor at Cal State University East Bay in Hayward, CA.
Professor Miller never had much interest in toy trains until his wife received their inheritance of trains after
Dick’s passing. George said it was Dick Wheeler’s blessing to him. The exhibit was titled 'All Aboard! The Impact
of Trains on American Culture.'
Not much is known about the fate of Model Engineering Works after Dick Wheeler's
passing. At one point the parts business operated out of Kansas City, MO, and then out of Prescott, AR.
MEW's line of parts for classic tinplate trains remained available over the years through eBay.com and more
recently via Henning's Trains
of Lansdale, PA, who purchased Model Engineering Works in late 2015.