Friday, September 22, 2023

Re-purposing an MTH reefer

As most readers likely know, “MTH” are the initials of Mike’s Train House, full name MTH Electric Trains, founded by Mike Wolf. Just as background: I greatly admired Mr. Wolf’s guts when he took on the mighty Union Pacific and its misguided effort to charge model manufacturers use fees for the names of all its predecessor railroads, went to court, and won (2006). But the many legal entanglements and business practice controversies surrounding MTH were a different matter, and I’ve avoided purchasing MTH products. (For background, you may consult Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.or/wiki/MTH_Electric_Trains ). 

Today, Scale Trains has acquired all the HO and S scale tooling formerly used by MTH. For HO scale at least, a model originally made by MTH now has that designation only historically. Why might I be interested?

A few years ago, as was widely recognized at the time, MTH produced an HO scale ice refrigerator car model, that they called a “steel” car. Why that term was used is quite unclear, because the model is obviously not a steel-sided car at all, but a rather accurate representation of one of Pacific Fruit Express’s plywood-side rebuilt cars, from Class R-40-24. 

[This interesting PFE class happened to be the concluding class of PFE rebuilds of older cars, largely because essentially all the older cars had been used up. The plywood-side experiment, initially successful, began to fail in a few years, and tongue-and-groove siding, not fresh plywood, was used for replacement. For much more on these cars, see Chapter 7 in the PFE book: Pacific Fruit Express, 2nd edition, Signature Press, 2000.]

These models are readily available on-line these days for prices around $10, well below their new price. (For the current model version from Scale Trains, you can visit their site: .) I decided to buy one on-line and see about upgrading to a model of PFE Class R-40-24. Since I knew I would want to apply all new and correct PFE lettering anyway, the road name purchased wasn’t important.

The first step was to remove the MDT lettering and its 1964 reweigh date. My first try at removing the lettering worked nicely: puddle Walthers “Solvaset” over the lettering for five minutes, scrub each area with a Q-tip, repeat until lettering is gone. It didn’t take long, and the paint was unaffected. The two colors on the body, by the way, are quite decent versions of the PFE colors, so no repainting is needed.

Next I chose the PFE paint scheme I wanted to apply. The plywood sides began to be applied in 1947, and PFE liked to repaint wood-sided cars in four to eight years. So by the time I model, 1953, odds are not bad that a car like this would have been repainted. Those odds are increased by two factors: first, the original paint scheme at rebuilding, with full-color UP emblems, had been superseded by black-white ones, and PFE liked in those days to keep paint schemes current; and second, shops were very busy in the late 1940s and early 1950s, handling above-average numbers of cars.

For lettering this car, I could once again enjoy using one of the great decal sets in the hobby, Microscale 87-501, with the superb Dick Harley lettering features and details, beautifully arranged for the convenience of the modeler and extremely complete and accurate. What a pleasure to use!

To guide the lettering, photographs are always good, but in the case of PFE cars, we have a superb authority, the Southern Pacific Historical & Technical Society book,  Southern Pacific Freight Car Painting and Lettering Guide (Harley and Thompson, SPH&TS, Upland, California, 2016), which contains an extensive section, nearly half the book, about PFE, with Dick Harley’s excellent lettering research. I chose the 1951 scheme on page 145 as a likely repaint scheme for this car.

With lettering applied and a protective coat of flat finish, here is the right side of the car at this point. I have even included the reservoir stencil, taken from a Sunshine repacking decal.

Next I wanted to add light weathering, mostly on the roof, which got dirty sooner than the sides. The photo below illustrates that even light roof weathering, seemingly changing the appearance little, nevertheless does create a definite contrast to the original color. Compare the color here of roof and end.

And lastly, I weather sides and ends and, after a protective coat of flat finish, add a few chalk marks with a Prismacolor pencil, and route cards. This car is ready for service.

I always enjoy projects for PFE models, particularly when it includes working with the superb Microscale decal set 87-501, as this one did. Operators on my layout will be seeing this car around the packing houses soon!

Tony Thompson

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