Friday, June 3, 2022

Mechanical reefers in 1953?

 I had this question arise in an operating session awhile back, and thought the background might be interesting. Before World War II, experiments in mechanical refrigeration were tried by a number of car owners, but none were very successful, either mechanically or economically.

After the war, however, small diesel engines had been proven in many wartime environments, and refrigeration development work resumed with a dependable power plant. There was also a considerable growth in frozen food consumption, all but necessitating mechanical refrigeration for shipment.

I’m not sure that all the chronology is known. But certainly Fruit Growers and Santa Fe were working in this direction, as was Pacific Fruit Express (PFE). There is detailed background on this topic in the PFE book (Pacific Fruit Express, 2nd edition, Thompson, Church and Jones, Signature Press, Wilton, 2000). 

To summarize briefly, Santa Fe was first out of the box, with a single car, SFRD 12000, shown below (Santa Fe photo). It had a Sheppard 3-cycle diesel engine, and entered service in December 1949.

This car, rebuilt from a standard ice car of Class RR-46, was not too successful as a prototype. After three years, it was rebuilt back into a conventional ice-bunker reefer. But a great deal was learned from it, in a four-year testing program. 

Meanwhile, Fruit Growers Express had been not only testing, but creating a sizeable fleet of mechanical cars. Already in January 1952, they had 175 cars, with a variety of mechanical equipment. Several refrigerator car-owning companies, including PFE, assigned engineering people to be stationed at the FGE shops (with FGE permission, of course), to observe developments and learn. Santa Fe, however, did not participate, and in later years, often chose mechanical features that no other reefer company used.

In March 1953, the first SFRD mechanical reefer class, Class RR-54, began to be built, in the amount of 30 cars. These introduced the familiar blue door paint, with the initials MTC, for “mechanical temperature control.” (For more about all this, I recommend John Moore’s excellent book, Mechanical Refrigerator Cars of the Santa Fe Railway, 1949–1988, Santa Fe Railway Historical & Modeling Society, 2007.)

A few months earlier, PFE had begun to build its first mechanical class, Class R-70-7, a batch of 25 cars. Though the class was entirely designed by PFE, it shared a number of mechanical approaches with the FGE cars. Below is shown (PFE builder photo) the first of these cars, also introducing a new number series in the 300,000  range.

In January 1953, with construction of Class R-70-7 barely underway, PFE began work on a follow-up 100-car class, Class R-70-8. They began car construction during 1953, but design modifications and slow delivery of refrigeration equipment pushed back completion of the first cars to March 1954. Below is a photo (PFE) of the first car of Class R-70-8.

So what about modeling? As a modeler of 1953, I ought to model Class R-70-7. But a number of differences in detail from later cars, particularly the louver pattern on the engine compartment, would make that a challenging project. 

As I described in an article in Railroad Model Craftsman (“PFE’s mechanical reefers,” January 1988, p. 78), I chose instead to model the following class, R-70-8, using an old Lima model produced in Italy and imported by AHM and others (the Athearn 50-foot mechanical reefer could also be used).  Below is a photo of my model, which does occasionally appear in an operating session.

Note the paint scheme, introduced with Class R-70-8: silver roof and black ends, even though ice cars would continue to have boxcar red roofs and ends until 1960.

So the answer to the question posed in the title of this post is “yes,” though not easily achieved with a correct model. I compromise with the Class R-70-8 model you see above.

Tony Thompson

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