Fruit Growers & Western Fruit Overhead Bunker Reefers—was WFEX 1201-1202 freight reefers

Bill Welch

If Athearn has produced an accurate model of a Fruit Growers Express “Overhead Bunker” or “OB” car, it is one of the best-kept secrets in the history of the world. Likewise if they have lettered one of their existing models as a FGE “OB” car, it is one of the biggest FOOBIES in the history of the world.

FGE built their first OB types in 1940 at the Indiana Harbor Car Shops. There were only ten of these all-steel cars built to load frozen foods, then still a relatively new product. These cars had ten ice bunkers under the roof—these were really trays—that were used to hold a mixture of salt and ice that could produce a temperature of 28° F. It is unclear whether FGE intended to build more of these only to be interrupted by WWII. These ten cars were heavily insulated and the door and safety hardware had to be inset into the steel side panel sheathing to allow them to meet clearance standards.

In 1944 again at Indiana Harbor FGE began to build a very different looking Overhead Bunker refrigerator car with a heavy Fishbelly centersill, 4/5 Dreadnaught ends, and plywood sheathed sides with steel panels on the ends and doors to again permit their respective hardware to be inset. These were the first cars to be designated and stenciled “FOBX.” These cars used the same basic roof hatch design as the 1940 built OB cars. Their roof hatch covers were hinged perpendicular to the running board. They also had permanent Charcoal heaters slung under the floor. These were in the FOBX 4000 series.

In 1946 FGE built more of these types in the FOBX 700 series with a new hatch cover design hinged parallel to the running board. These hatches had a much more pronounced rectangular shape then the previous design. These too had underslung charcoal heaters. Then in 1950 Indiana Harbor built 150 new all steel overhead bunker reefers, FOBX 600–699 and WOBX 501–550 for Western Fruit, their first and only such types. (The earlier 600 series had been previously scrapped.) The new cars used the same roof and roof hatch cover design from the 1944 group of cars. Because of the tray type brine storage, these OB types required much more care and thus time when re-icing so as not to breach the waterproof lining: This meant no pointed tools.

Because brine could only achieve 28° F the shippers of frozen foods pressed for methods to get to 0° F. Truckers could get to Zero with the new Mechanical systems manufactured by Thermo-King, who perfected their innovative mobile refrigeration system on the battlefields of WWII. Fruit Growers especially felt the competition from truckers and thus FGE and their partners WFE and BRE began to research and test various powered and unpowered refrigeration systems capable of producing much colder temperatures and by 1949 had both one diesel and one gasoline powered 40-foot Mechanical reefer being tested shipping frozen foods. By 1957 the FGE-WFE-BRE System had some 1,200 40- and 50-foot Mechanicals in service.

Despite the large number of Mechanical reefers available by 1957 the OB cars continued in-service into the 1960’s. By that time the plywood sheathed cars had their sheathing replaced with T&G boards.

For anyone interested in modeling I am working on the End Pattern for the FOBX 4000 group as part of a collaborative effort to create model.

Bill Welch

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