Aboard America's private railcars: nostalgia trips and sales pitches

''These were the Lear jets of another age,'' says Dewitt Chapple Jr. of Chapple Leasing Company in Middletown, Ohio, referring to the old railway ''business car'' he owns.

Mr. Chapple often uses the railcar to entertain customers who rent office furniture, small fleets of automobiles, or other equipment. He says it was built by stockbroker E. F. Hutton, reportedly for his honeymoon with Marjorie Merriweather Post. ''It is something different to do,'' he says. And his railcar is tax deductible.

Mr. Chapple is one of about 600 on this continent who possess private railroad cars. Some 275 belong to the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners, whose president is C. Victor Thornton, chairman of Thornton Industries in Fort Worth, Texas.

Noted Mr. Thornton of his association: ''We are growing. There has been a tremendous amount of interest.''

Many of the railcar owners are well-to-do individuals with a nostalgia for trains. But some, like Mr. Chapple, have not only such a soft spot but a hard nose for business. An increasing number use the cars for marketing their products, or they hire them out for meetings of corporate executives or boards of directors.

Chapple also leases his car out - at around $2,000 a day. Irving Trust Company in New York, for instance, chartered five such cars to take customers from New York to Lake Placid for the Winter Olympics a few years ago. American Express also leased it and some other such cars for some special travel tours across the country.

Another user is Alexander McIntosh, chief executive officer of Melco Labs Inc., of Bellevue, Wash. When he came to Boston recently to sell his wares, he had something novel to draw customers and distributors: His sample showroom was two old railroad cars parked at South Station.

The chairman of this telephone equipment manufacturing company commented, ''I don't think we would have got a fraction of the turnout without them.''

Besides, he joked, it would be difficult to get a salesman to lug around the small PBXs, amplifiers, intercoms, and other equipment his privately held firm manufactures.

Mr. McIntosh bought his cars relatively cheaply two years ago. The Ft. Benning, a streamliner that includes three bedrooms, a galley, an elegant dining area with antique chandeliers and mirrors, a lounging area with plush black leather sofas and red flock walls, and carpeting, cost $66,450. It was a tavern/observation car owned by the Central Railroad of Georgia, but serves now as a hospitality suite.

The second car, the Ft. Monmouth, cost only $22,372. It is less fancy and serves as the display center for the company's line of telephone products and a classroom for distributors. This car was previously owned by Seaboard Coast Line Railroad and Amtrak.

Mr. McIntosh's company used to sell almost exclusively to the Bell companies. But with the forthcoming breakup of AT&T, McIntosh figured it was necessary to broaden his customer base. The railcars were part of that effort and have helped keep company sales at about $20 million a year.

Richard Horstmann, a political and public affairs consultant in Syracuse, N.Y., leases his Lehigh Valley 353 car a dozen times or more a year to cover expenses. A textile company, for instance, is holding a meeting on it this summer while the participants travel from New York to Boston. A swimming equipment company is going to take customers and reps from New York to a trade show in Atlanta. A real estate company will be picking up directors in Boston, New York, and Washington for a meeting in Williamsburg, Va. Mr. Horstmann is also making a few luxury pleasure trips for travelers, such as a one-way trip from Syracuse to New York Sept. 2 for $100 each for the 20 riders.

The car, with its brass fixtures, leaded glass appointments, mahogany paneling, and polished service from a trained crew, offers ''an informal elegance, an ambiance, something especially gracious,'' Horstmann says - at a basic rental starting at $1,000 a day.

Other than commuter cars, private passenger railcars are no longer built nowadays. So they must be bought from Amtrak, Via Canada, or present owners. An old coach car might be picked up for several thousand dollars. Some have been converted into a boutique or even a bank branch - but not moved about. A sleeper/lounge may run $10,000 to $25,000 depending on condition. A classic car with a platform on the back, built for a railroad executive or some other top executive, might sell for $50,000 to $150,000 or more. There are apparently only 48 of those left. Many cars will cost much more than their purchase price to put into shape. Melco Labs, for instance, spent some $153,000 on renovation.

Richard Aichele, of Eastern Railcar Services Inc., Hillside, N.J., warns: ''Buying a car is the cheapest part of it.'' He should know, since his company puts private railcars into shape. A ''complete job'' could cost anywhere from $ 70,000 to $170,000. He owns three cars himself, bought for $2,000 to $10,000.

Then running the cars can be expensive. Melco spends $6,000 to $7,000 a month on being towed around by Amtrak (90 cents to $2.25 per mile), switching, parking , fuel, heating, insurance, and so on.

And most important, a buyer must have a secure place to store the car, or it could soon be vandalized. Mr. Thornton keeps his car at the company plant, protected by a cyclone fence, an alarm system, and Great Danes.

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