Saturday, May 25, 2013

Correcting a brass model of a PFE car

Back in the 1990s, Challenger Imports brought in a brass version of the PFE Class R-40-26 in HO scale. (This was the first PFE class with sliding or plug doors, as shown in some detail in the PFE book: Pacific Fruit Express, 2nd edition, by Thompson, Church and Jones, Signature Press, 2000.) I helped Al Ichelson at Challenger with information for these cars, and he was kind enough to send me a free car when they arrived. At the time, this was a big deal because there were as yet no resin kits or other routes to straightforward modeling of an R-40-26.
     Perhaps you can imagine my shock when the car arrived, because not only was the color of the sides a pretty reddish orange, but the lettering was really poor. (I show both color and lettering below.) I immediately picked up the phone and called Al, who said something like, “What are you talking about, it’s not wrong,” and I could hear him fumbling around to grab one of the models and look at it. Meanwhile I explained that the type “font” used was way wrong, and about that time he evidently got ahold of the model, and there was a pause, then he just quietly said, “Oh.” Then he went on to explain he had entrusted the lettering to the builders of the car in Korea (FM Models), and he hadn’t looked the result very carefully.
     Let me illustrate. Here are both halves of one car side. Note that a black dummy “fan plate” was not shown on this side, only on the other side, which is incorrect; fan plates were on both sides of the cars. The location of the plate is shown in the prototype photos below.

In addition to the poor railroad emblems (the UP one should have a white border, and the SP lettering is way too fat), the lettering overall is poorly applied. But what had caught my attention first was the type face, which has heavy serifs and a very heavy vertical stroke. And by the way, this is not a slam at all of Challenger’s products, because they imported any number of outstanding other models.
     Here are prototype photos of both sides of an actual R-40-26 car, from my own collection of PFE images, to show what this lettering should look like, as well as the black fan plates on each side. First, the left side, which was the sunny side.

Second, the right side, obviously the shady side when this was taken. The railroad medallion positions obviously are reversed on each side. Note here that although there are black fan plates on both sides, there is only a fan control box below the side sill on the left side. The model has control boxes on both sides.

    What to do? The obvious solution is, repaint the sides only, and re-letter with some of the decals available, especially the appropriate Microscale set (of which more in a moment). So I went ahead and masked all of the car body except the sides (here you see the side with the black fan plate). As I normally do, I used drafting tape rather than masking tape for this job, and here you can see the roof and ends are masked in preparation for airbrushing. I simply hold a 3 x 5-inch card in front of trucks while airbrushing.

This masked body was then airbrushed with Floquil Daylight Orange. It might have been a good idea to start with a light gray overspray to hide the Challenger lettering, but a couple of light coats of the orange did suffice to cover all the old lettering. Compare this color to the Challenger color, above.

This is the left side, which will keep its fan control box; the one on the other side was cut off with a Dremel cut-off disk and the side sill contour corrected with jeweler’s files.
     Now I was ready to letter. Probably the best available decals today are in Microscale set 87-501, which I used for the medallions, and set 87-414, which I used for most other lettering (dimensional and capacity data groups in 87-501 are severely undersize). If you haven’t seen the current version of either set and are remembering them from 20 years ago, you will be surprised to find that, despite upgrades, they still have the badly undersize data lettering. But the black and white UP medallions are good, and some other items are usable. Both sets are scheduled for an upgrade, but not until late summer or later. I understand the new versions, using artwork prepared by Dick Harley, have not only the correct sizes and prototype content in groups of data and lettering, but a more correct typeface than the old version. In the meantime, I muddled my way through both sets, with a few items from the old Champ SHS-190 “superset.”
     Here is the completed car, showing the right side where I removed the fan control box. Weathering remains to be done, and I have not yet added the route card board on the left bolster (see prototype photos above). You can click to enlarge this photo, to compare to the original Challenger lettering.

I was now ready to weather the car, and since it is less than two years old for my modeling era, I weathered moderately. This is also the right side.

     While on the subject of Class R-40-26, I should mention a prior post about the possibilities of kitbashing a version of an R-40-26 from the recently introduced Accurail kit for a plug-door ice reefer. That post can be viewed at: That is probably the most straightforward approach to a non-brass version of this car, without resorting to resin. But in resin, Sunshine Models has long offered a very good R-40-26 kit, and in terms of both accuracy and refinement of detail, is a superior model to either the Accurail kitbash or the brass car discussed in this post.
Tony Thompson


  1. Well, now you did it. I'll have to get the Sunshine kit to see how it stacks up against my Accurail "kitbash" (more like a redetail).

  2. Arved, there is another option, based on the Athearn reefer body, which I will be posting in a few days. But it is not the equal of the Sunshine kit.
    Tony Thompson