Monday, August 13, 2012

Upgrading old models -- Athearn reefers

One feature of my previous layout was that I had extensive staging and could stage fairly large trains, and inasmuch as the layout setting was SP’s Coast Line, where there is a lot of produce traffic, I needed not only refrigerator cars for local industries, but entire trains of them to run as “Salinas vegetable blocks” eastward, and so on. It’s hard to remember today, but back 20 or so years ago, the Athearn steel reefer was the most prototypical thing out there. So you can guess the situation. Yep, I built whole trains of them.
     Now I didn’t just “shake the box”and put ’em on the track, I did various detail upgrades. The dreadfully thick and minimally rendered Athearn running boards and brake wheels went straight into the bin, and the grotesquely sized Athearn ice hatch hinges and latch bars followed right behind. I applied wood or etched metal running boards, wire grab irons, and Walthers white-metal brake wheels, along with cleaning up the ice hatch area, and painting the over-door roof-interlock piece orange. This did make them visually much better. To show the ice hatch treatment, this roof photo should be illustrative. I’ve pulled off one hatch to show the filler in the former hinge holes, and you can see the small styrene patch over the latch-bar hole.

     I also renumbered most of those Athearn cars, since I had far too many more cars than Athearn’s limited range of PFE car numbers, and also wanted to suggest a range of car classes. Unfortunately, just as there weren’t better models available, the best decals of the day were very much not correct PFE lettering. Still, with a bit of weathering, in a passing train they made a decent impression. This one had decal additions as a post-1951 repaint, and obviously still has its original sill steps.

     Here’s one example of a disappointing result. It’s been renumbered as Class R-40-10, though of course the ends are wrong--at the time there weren’t correct ends available that would fit--and the added digit “3” is clearly different from the rest of the car number. But as I said, these served as kind of “mainline” cars which filled out trains which ran from staging to staging.

     Today, of course, we have superb PFE models in HO scale in abundance. The InterMountain R-40-10 and R-40-23 are extremely well-done models, the Red Caboose wood-side cars are not far behind, the Tichy R-40-4 kit is excellent, and with outstanding parts from the late, great Terry Wegmann, InterMountain has been able to bring in ready-to-run cars of classes R-30-18, -19, and -21. The Sunshine resin kits for a whole range of PFE classes also make excellent models, as do some other conversions such as Wegmann’s R-30-16.
     I have been sampling all of the above myself, replacing old models right and left, and usually selling off the discards. One project, building the Wegmann R-30-16 conversion, was the subject of a prior blog post, at: . So what about the remaining Athearn cars in my storage boxes? They are actually not too bad a representation of PFE’s Class R-40-23, but certainly they can’t begin to compete with InterMountain’s version of the same class. Could they have any use?
     One possible use relates to the “missing classes” in the foregoing list of current models: PFE classes R-40-14 and R-40-20. There were 1000 cars in each class. These classes were built in 1941 and 1945, and thus had W-corner-post ends, which are different from either the -10 or -23 ends. Such ends are not offered on any commercial reefer kits other than Sunshine resin. I remembered that Richard Hendrickson’s long-gone Westrail company had made a resin W-corner-post end to fit the Athearn body, and was able to acquire two pairs of these ends. Fitting these to the Athearn bodies, the roofs and sides of which are very close to R-40-10 and -23, along with further detail upgrades, would be a reasonable use for a couple of cars in my Athearn roster, and at the same time would dispense with one of those cars’ drawbacks, the cast-on end ladders and brake staff.
     The process is simply to disassemble the Athearn car, and saw the ends away from the roof. (The roof shown in the first photo in this post is in fact separated from its former ends.) The roof still will be automatically centered on the body when reassembled with its interlocking over-door center piece. The new ends can be built and painted as separate parts, then glued onto the body.
     Another feature to be modeled is placard board position. As I showed in a post mostly about route cards, but clearly showing placard boards also (see it at: ), the R-40-14 and -20 classes had distinctive placard board locations as delivered, but if repainted later, the boards were often moved to whatever was the current location. Accordingly, I added placard boards to one of the cars shown above, PFE 43702, in the original R-40-20 locations, and oversprayed it (and another car destined to be an R-40-14) with Floquil’s SP Lettering Gray, both to cover the old lettering and serve as a primer. This car will have to have its as-delivered paint scheme, because of the placard board location. Built in 1945, it’s reasonable that by the year I model, 1953, the car might well still have its original paint.

Note that I have already added the Westerfield grab irons to this car. Since these cars were built without fans, there is no need to add fan equipment.
     With this primer coat completed, my next step would be to spraypaint the bodies Daylight Orange. I use Floquil, not generally known for consistent color, but I checked the current bottle I have of this color against the PFE drift card, and the match is all right, so I am okay for now. Some Floquil colors seem pretty close from bottle to bottle, others, well, look out. You just have to check.
     Building and painting the ends will be covered in the following post on this topic, along with lettering and weathering of these cars.
Tony Thompson

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