James was designed by George Hughes and built at Horwich Works in 1912/13 as an 0-6-0 with wooden brakes. Sometime after his build, but before going to Sodor, James was experimentally rebuilt with a pony truck, making him a 2-6-0. In 1923, James was sold to Sir Topham Hatt for mixed traffic duties. After his first accident, he had his front sandboxes removed, was rebuilt with proper brakes and a Fowler tender, and repainted red with gold stripes and blue lining. He was troublesome when he returned, ruining Sir Topham Hatt's new top-hat with his steam and jarring his coaches so much that a brake pipe leaked. He was threatened to be painted blue (which James detests), but later promised to be useful again and made the line's worst trucks behave after being given a second chance.
James is very proud of his splendid red paintwork. He hates pulling trucks, and believes that he should only pull coaches. He thinks himself superior to the others, and can be shallow, boastful, and vain, particularly to those who appear old-fashioned, weak, slow, or dirty. This has caused him to have somewhat of a rivalry with Toby. However, on a number of occasions he has found himself in need of help from those he has insulted, and is, in the end, apologetic.
James was the last engine to retain a prejudice against Diesels. However, after stalling on a cold day, he was rescued by the Works Diesel, and James had to admit that nothing was wrong with Diesels. This appears to be one of the few lessons that has stuck.
In The Island of Sodor: Its People, History and Railways, it was claimed that James is based on a rebuild of a L&YR Class 27 locomotive from the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway and designed by George Hughes, who added a Belpaire firebox and a Schmidt superheater and extended the footplate and sandbox. However, as with most of the early Railway Series characters, this information was purely retcon.
Sodor "historian" Martin Clutterbuck has pointed out that James strongly resembles an G&SWR "Austrian Goods" 2-6-0 from the Glasgow and South Western Railway, but with the addition of a Belpaire firebox. At any rate, the Reverend W. Awdry used an engine of this class to represent James on his model railway. It is possible that he rejected this prototype for James' official "biography" on the grounds that an English locomotive would be more likely to end up on Sodor.
James was originally painted black with red lining before his accident and was given his red coat with yellow stripes and black lining to cheer him up. Sometime during the 1960s, James' black lining was repainted blue and gold. James has the number "5" painted in bright yellow with a blue border on his tender sides.
In the television series, James has always been red with gold stripes and black lining, except in the tenth season episode The Green Controller, when he was painted yellow and black, like a bumblebee, on Percy's orders. Then, in the thirteenth season episode, Tickled Pink, James was painted in a pink undercoat.
In the Railway Series, he carries two builder's plates on the sides of his cab.
The Mid Hants Railway repainted a Southern Railway N Class 2-6-0, No.31874, into the livery of James. The engine retained this colour scheme for many years, and participated in the Railway Series Golden Jubilee celebrations at the National Railway Museum. However, following the withdraw of the N Class in 1998, the Mid-Hants Railway quickly repainted its cousin-engine, a Southern Railway U Class 2-6-0, No.31625, into James for the 1999 season. After the withdraw of the U Class, the N Class reprized its role as James, only wearing a face during Thomas events. However, due to the fact that both of these engines are privately owned, they'll be leaving the Mid Hants Railway in 2014.
The repainting of the engine, however, created a stir among railway enthusiasts who felt that it was wrong to paint a historic main line locomotive in such a garish livery. Nevertheless, the locomotive was popular with the railway's younger visitors.
On the East Lancashire Railway, unrestored LMS 2MT 2-6-0 No. 46428 has been painted as James, although his face only appears during Day Out with Thomas events.