Monday, March 21, 2022

Getting the car you want

 As you can likely guess, I am of course referring to model railroad freight cars. Occasionally one sees a need for something that isn’t quite available. This may call for scratchbuilding or kitbashing in many cases, but in response to several previous requests from readers, I am going to illustrate a simple example. 

In 1936, Pacific Fruit Express was ready to build its first all-steel refrigerator cars. The design process had begun at least as early as 1932, since some of the parts drawings for these cars are dated that early. And PFE definitely needed new cars, with a long gap since the previous new ones, and still a lot of pre-World War I cars on the roster.

As Earl Hopkins, retired Chief Mechanical Officer of PFE told me in an interview, PFE had intended to buy 5000 cars, an order that would have been second only to the 6000-car order when PFE began in 1906. But prices had crept up, and the money authorized for these cars  by UP and SP wasn’t enough for the full 5000. PFE had to settle for 4700 cars, car numbers of which began a new 40,000-series. They were numbered 40001–44700, Class R-40-10.

Here is a photo of the original paint scheme on these cars, a Wilbur C. Whittaker photo on the Embarcadero at San Francisco on July 2, 1941. Note the low angle of the open hatch covers, open as far as the latches permit, and the hatch plugs underneath. The car is relatively clean, though five years old; this was in the era when PFE washed cars regularly.

(This history and more, as many of you know, can be found in the book, Pacific Fruit Express, 2nd edition, Thompson, Church and Jones, Signature Press, 2000. Chapter 8 is about PFE’s steel ice cars.)

InterMountain Railway Co. has produced an excellent HO scale model of these R-40-10 cars, and I already have several of them in my fleet.  Looking at my fleet balance, I could use one more car of this class, and I had a goal as to car number. But first, let me comment on paint and lettering.

In the 1940s, PFE standards for car painting called for repainting wood-sheathed cars every 4 to 8 years, and steel cars every 8 to 10 years. By 1946, when PFE adopted a new paint scheme with both railroad emblems on both sides of the car, the R-40-10 cars would have been due for repainting. Accordingly I wanted to model a later paint scheme on my car. Here is an an example of an R-40-10 car, freshly repainted into the 1946 paint scheme, shown at Roseville in the summer of 1946 (PFE photo). These hatches are also partly open, and the car still has the original wood running board.

I have a few InterMountain R-40-10 kits in my stash. Most of the cars produced are in the 42,000-series within the R-40-10 number group. I have renumbered several of my models to get outside that subset of the car numbers. But one I don’t have is an example of the last 700 cars, 44001–44700. I decided to renumber one of the 42,000-series kits accordingly.

I simply painted out the kit car number, using Star Brand STR-27, “S.P. / P.F.E. Daylight Orange” (the correct PFE orange). The remaining lettering is fine.

With this in hand, I can proceed to kit assembly, with most of it straightforward and not calling for any description here. But two issues do need addressing: trucks and hand brakes. The specialties on large PFE car orders were usually distributed among different suppliers, so if one wishes to assemble an accurate model, these parts have to correspond to the car number.

Luckily, these specialties are called out in some detail in the PFE book (cited above), in the table on pages 434 and 435.  I will return to this research and these modeling issues in a future post, as building of the kit progresses.

Tony Thompson


  1. You are killing my budget! First the caboose article, now the PFE comments. I have started looking for an acceptable SP caboose. Since my PFE reefer roster is just two cars (30127, 61743), I have decided to look for a R-40-10 too.

  2. Hello Tony- you have the original image so it's probably clearer, but given that the car is stenciled "VENTILATED REFRIGERATOR" between the medallions, isn't it likely the date is 7-46 and not 7-48? I think by mid-48 the "VENTILATED" had been dropped, correct? Cheers, Ted

    1. You are right, Ted, and the 1948 date in the previous text was a typo by me. The lettering on the car clearly says 1946. I have now corrected the text. Thanks again.
      Tony Thompson