Most of those cars were built by General American, most with a round roof to fit into the appearance of passenger trains, and accordingly the express cars of many owners can be modeled with a single car body. That is what a number of manufacturers have taken advantage of. For the PFE modeler, historically, there are three modeling avenues: Athearn, that in the “Blue Box” days, offered an approximation of the GACX car; Walthers, in more recent years; and brass.
I will start with the Athearn car. Is it a reasonable starting point for upgrading to a PFE express car? Yes and no. The Athearn roof curvature is somewhat too great (hardly correctable unless the roof is replaced). Shown below is a drawing of the car end from the PFE book (Pacific Fruit Express, 2nd edition, Thompson, Church and Jones, Signature Press, 2000). It was drawn by Ed Gebhardt directly from the PFE blueprint.
The Athearn car has a number of differences from this drawing. The photo below has the Athearn car on the right, and the recent Walthers GACX model on the left. Walthers, of course, was repeating the obvious choice of this prototype, because it can be lettered for numerous owners.
Note that the Walthers car has the correct curved end fascia (and lettering), on which Athearn obviously punted. That already makes the Walthers car the better choice for upgrading.
The PFE cars never had a “steering wheel” brake wheel on the end, as Athearn provided. They originally had lever-type handbrakes, as shown in the drawing above, and during the 1930s were gradually all converted to geared handbrakes with conventional brake wheels (as on the Walthers model). This change is easy to make. In addition, you may also notice how much thicker is the Athearn running board, compared to the Walthers model, and again, Athearn replacement is easy.
Several other shortcomings can be fixed, too. Athearn provided an express-type (outside equalizer) truck with a short wheelbase, 5 ft. 8 in., whereas the PFE cars (and cars of most owners) had 8-foot wheelbase trucks. These of course can be replaced. The photo below shows a stock Athearn car body with paint revised below the fascia, and with Central Valley 8-foot wheelbase trucks substituted.
The original Athearn underbody detail is pretty primitive, but can readily be improved with the addition of Cal-Scale or other passenger brake gear details and some brass wire. The photo below shows such an underbody upgrade on an Athearn model.
Finally, Athearn provides no ice hatch platforms around the hatches. That isn’t all bad, because most of the GACX cars were built that way, and cars of some owners continued that way for many years. PFE, however, modified the cars in the early 1930s to have ice hatch platforms. Those would need to be added to any upgraded Athearn car intended to represent post-1935 PFE, and likewise for the Walthers model, which also has no platforms. At some point, I will return to the subject of adding ice hatch platforms, in an additional post.
The PFE paint scheme for these cars hardly changed from 1930 to the 1950s. For good information on the paint scheme before the 1954 rebuilding, here is a photo taken at Eugene, Oregon around 1950, obviously a car freshly painted with Dulux Gold lettering. (J. Truman Boyd photo, Milton G. Sorensen collection). You can click on the image to enlarge it, if you wish.
Noteworthy here is that all the side and end hardware is black; and that the corner posts also appear to be black. The hatch plugs must be recently renewed too, as the canvas around the plug looks clean. There are good decals available for this lettering.
Although I did some of the upgrades seen above on the Athearn express reefer, nowadays I think it makes little sense to do so. You still end up with a roof that is wrong, and cast-on ladders and other poor details. The Walthers model is a far better starting point. It mainly needs ice hatch platforms. On the brass front, I do have some of the WP Car models of PFE express reefers, which are quite nice, but none are presently in service on my layout.
As I continue to improve my fleet of passenger equipment, including express reefers, I am finding a number of cars of all types that need upgrading or replacement. The express reefers are just one group, and I will return to the PFE express cars in a future post.