The Aero Monorail Company of St. Louis

The Aero Monorail Company of St. Louis

The Aero Monorail was a futuristic monorail train that first hit the market in 1932. Manufactured in St. Louis by the eponymously named Aero Monorail Company, it was designed to suspend over Lionel standard gauge track and run  faster than the standard gauge train.

The stands came in two varieties: a pair of free standing towers, and a series of towers that slipped under Standard gauge track and used the same 42-inch diameter. The motor looked like an Erector motor and ran on 6-8 volts, either DC or AC.

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Repair a Marx reverse unit

Repair a Marx reverse unit

When it comes to Marx repairs, the reverse unit is the end of the innocence. Motor repairs are rather easy; reverse unit repair can be as hard as you want it to be.

I’ll share some things I do that seem to make it go easier.

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Aluminum paint is a cheap alternative to replating

Aficionados of old toys, particularly building kits like Erector and Meccano, or prewar tinplate trains made by companies like Lionel, American Flyer and Marx, know all too well that the tin plating on unpainted parts can wear off with time, and with it, bring unsightly rust.

When restoring a piece, they’ll often use a replating kit to apply a new coat of tin. But sometimes you want a piece to look better but can’t justify the expense of a replating kit, or the piece is too badly pitted to replate well and need an alternative.

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And now it’s Apple’s turn

It’s been a weird month for technology. And as always, Apple had a way to get people to stop talking about anything else, though it’s not the news Apple wanted do deliver this week. I can only think of one bit of news Apple would want to deliver less.

Steve Jobs is stepping down as CEO. He’s becoming chairman, but perception is everything. Especially with Apple. I don’t think any company in recent memory has leveraged perception the way Apple has.

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Where have you gone, A.C. Gilbert?

I bought an Erector set today. I’m not talking the stuff in the stores now. I’m talking a real Erector set, an honest-to-goodness Erector #7 1/2 manufactured in New Haven, Connecticut by A.C. Gilbert. The booklet in the set was dated 1951.A.C. Gilbert was the closest thing the 20th century had to a Renaissance Man. Gilbert paid his way through medical school (at a school you might have heard of–Yale) by working as a magician. He was an accomplished enough athlete to win a gold medal in pole vaulting in the 1908 Olympics. And for whatever reason, he decided not to pursue a career in medicine, instead founding what was one of the largest toy companies in the United States during the early and middle 20th century.

I owned an Erector set growing up, but now that I’ve seen the sets my dad’s generation grew up with, I see they just weren’t the same. The instruction manual started out with a signed letter from Gilbert himself, encouraging kids to learn about how things work, be creative, and have fun doing it.

My Erector set came with a lot of pieces so you could make a lot with it, but this set came with more, and more complex pieces. You could make a car with both my set and this set, but the car with the set I had was driven by pulleys. This set came with enough to make a full-blown gearbox.

It’s frustrating to me that we don’t teach our kids how to make anything anymore. I’ll grant that there’s something to be said for transferring manufacturing and manufacturing know-how to the developing world, but we’re doing it at the expense of knowing how to make anything ourselves. And when we don’t know how to make anything, we can’t really imagine what’s possible either.

Gilbert enjoyed science, and he wanted kids to enjoy it as much as he did. So he invented a series of toys–of which the Erector set was just one–that taught kids that it was possible to make and do fun things with science.

Going to school in the 1980s and 1990s, pretty much all I ever learned math and science was good for was blowing stuff up. I had some teachers I admire to this day (though I had some who weren’t good for much), but somehow they never really got through to me.

I’m not saying that if there’d been a decent, real Erector set on the market when I was a kid that I would have wanted to take physics, and even if I had, I know I wouldn’t have learned much from the physics teacher at my high school, but I definitely would have turned out different. Probably a little bit better. At the very least, Dad and I would have had something to talk about, since he had a degree in physics and would have been able to explain what was going on inside that gearbox.

I have no idea what they teach kids about science in schools now. I know they don’t learn much at home.

Gilbert was a good man in other regards too. When his competitors started unionizing, he didn’t have anything to worry about. He went to his employees and told them he could give them a better deal. Gilbert gave his employees benefits and took care of them, and for the most part they loved him for it.

We don’t have a lot of athletes worth admiring anymore, and we don’t have a lot of businessmen worth admiring either. I can’t think of a single example of someone who was accomplished in both fields.

I think if we had an A.C. Gilbert alive today, we’d be in much better shape as a country.

I bought that Erector set with resale in mind. I got a good deal on it and was pretty confident I’d be able to flip it and make a quick 25 bucks from it. But now I wonder if I should keep it. If I have a son, I’ll want him to have it.

But even if I never have a son, maybe I should keep it purely on principle, to remind me of what we used to be, and the potential we threw away.

Recapturing the charm of someone else’s dad’s American Flyer train

My buddy Todd brought over his dad’s American Flyer train today. It had been a gift from his dad on his first Christmas. It was from 1938.

That was a peculiar year, because it was the first year that A.C. Gilbert, of Erector fame, built American Flyer trains. Previously American Flyer had been an independent company in Chicago.

This model was a Gilbert design, and at most produced from 1938 to 1941.Late last year, Todd had asked our mutual friend Tom about how to go about getting the train repaired. Tom referred Todd to me, since 3-rail O gauge isn’t Tom’s specialty. Of course Tom knew the answer: Marty Glass, of Marty’s Model Railroads in Affton.

So Todd took it to Marty earlier this year, once the Christmas rush had died down. Todd called me yesterday and said Marty had finished it. He brought it over.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but he brought out an intricate 4-6-4 Pacific. It had far more detail than anything Marx ever made, and far more detail than any O27 locomotive Lionel ever made too. It had an intricate set of linkages, which turned out to be its downfall because they got bound up on us once. Marty had run the train for Todd when he picked it up–I suggested Todd have him do that, since 68-year-old trains always need some adjustments after they’ve been repaired. It ran fine on Marty’s layout.

Before we ran the train, I fixed the light in the Pullman car Todd brought over. He hadn’t taken that to Marty. The wire had come loose from the pickup on the underside of the car, and the light bulb was rattling around inside. I fished the bulb out, examined it (it looked fine; the old light bulbs in these trains is almost always fine, even after being shipped across the country), put the bulb in the socket, and re-soldered the wire to the pickup. I solder like a plumber, but judging from the pickup on that train, so did the Gilbert employee who built it.

With the car ready to go, I put it and the locomotive and tender on the track. We quickly found that the oddball American Flyer link and pin couplers didn’t line up right. Time for some more adjustments. I finally got the coupler heights adjusted correctly, then I hit the power, expecting since it had run in the store, it would run just fine on my layout.

Not so much. It ran for a few feet, then stopped in a shower of blue sparks, leaving a buzzing sound on the layout that I’ve come to associate with a short circuit.

The handrails were the biggest problem. There are two holes in the cowcatcher assembly that the handrails are supposed to slide into. Had I been doing the design, I would have made the rails longer, so they could be bent further underneath. But that’s irrelevant now. With the handrails not in the holes, they were pushing the cowcatcher down low, there it could short out the third rail. S gaugers can gloat that this wouldn’t be a problem on 2-rail S gauge track, but they really ought to respect their elders.

So I fixed the rails, and put a dab of solder on the underside to hold them in place (solder won’t stick to the zamac boiler). I noted the Phillips head screws Marty used to put it all back together. I’ll have to give him a hard time about that the next time I see him. Phillips screws didn’t come into widespread use on toys until the ’50s.

With that problem taken care of, it ran, but then it locked up hard. I gave it another thorough examination, and found that some of the intricacies on the drive rods had come misaligned, causing it all to bind up. I had to take it apart to free up enough space to realign everything. I took off the front truck, then the cowcatcher, guided everything where it was supposed to go, and reassembled everything.

And what do you know… It ran. It was a bit herky-jerky at first, but in my experience, old motors are always that way when they’ve been sitting for decades. They seem to need to get some running time in before they get used to running smoothly again. Todd told me that Marty said the motor was fine; the only problems he found were structural. From the sound of the motor, Marty obviously had lubed it–they tend to squeal a lot after 50 years, let alone 68, and this motor sounded like new–but I guess that’s all it had needed.

I found out the hard way that this locomotive (an American Flyer 531) really hates O27 curves. It derails every time, even on curves where you lead into the O27 and back out with a wider curve. So we moved it from my inner loop to my outer loop, which is mostly O42 except in one corner, where I had to do O34 to make everything fit. It made me nervous on O34 curves, but it did manage to stay on the track. It was much happier on the O42, which makes sense, because American Flyer O gauge track was 40 inches in diameter, just like its S gauge track.

Once we were confident it was running, we packed it back up. Todd was going to go surprise his dad with it. It’s been a long time since its last run. I hope he’ll enjoy seeing it roam the rails again.

Now that I’ve seen some of the late prewar 3/16 scale American Flyer up close and personal, I have a new admiration for it. I own a number of the Flyer freight cars from that period, but none of the locomotives. The detail is very good, and they run smooth and are geared low, so they have plenty of pulling power.

I’m sure Todd’s dad will be happy to see it running again. I know I sure enjoyed fine-tuning it.

Excuse me while I go check eBay…

Lionel filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy yesterday

It was all over the various news sites, but Lionel, the train maker, filed Chapter 11 yesterday.

A lot of the news stories got a lot of details wrong.This is the first time Lionel, LLC has filed for bankruptcy. The original Lionel Corporation, which is the company that made the trains your dad’s and grandfather’s friends had, if not the trains they had, in all likelihood, filed bankruptcy three times. The first time was in 1935, when the Great Depression had wiped out most of Lionel’s competitors and the aristocratic J. Lionel Cowen kept on making trains for millionaires’ kids when there weren’t any millionaires left.

Lionel emerged from bankruptcy with a two-pronged approach. On the low end, they started selling $1 windup handcars featuring cartoon characters like Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Today’s hirailers do everything they can to argue that Disney didn’t save their beloved Lionel, but at the very least it made a significant contribution.

Lionel also started paying more attention to hobbyists, making diecast trains that were modeled after real trains, rather than hiring Italian designers to design elaborate, ornate, and some would say gaudy toys that looked like trains. Hirailers say this was what saved Lionel. Whatever.

At any rate, Lionel emerged from bankruptcy and survived the Depression, something only one of its other competitors from the 1920s managed to do. That competitor was Hafner. Heard of it? Probably not. Hafner made cheap windups. Attractive windups, but basically forgotten today. The American Flyer brand name endured, but only because the Coleman family gave it to A.C. Gilbert, of Erector construction toy fame, in exchange for a royalty against future sales. There was also that upstart Louis Marx, who actually made money during the Depression and used some of that money to buy a toy train line, but that’s another story.

Toy production of almost all kinds stopped during World War II because the metal and the production capacity was needed for the war effort. Those who couldn’t make war munitions and other such things made things like bottlecaps. Lionel made nautical equipment. They sold a paper foldup train one Christmas because they were still allowed to do that, but it required the patience of a saint and the coordination of a surgeon to assemble, and once assembled, it served only as a reminder of what kids wanted in the ’30s but the parents couldn’t afford and now that the parents could afford it, it was next to impossible to get (unless you happened to live in New York City and knew about Madison Hardware, which, again, is another story).

So the pent-up demand for toys exploded after the war, and toy trains became a huge fad, giving Lionel, Gilbert, and Marx a license to print money until about 1956, after which the general public decided slot cars would be the next big fad and the people who really liked trains decided they wanted to go to HO scale because they were a lot cheaper, a lot more realistic, and in some cases took up less space.

J. Lionel Cowen decided to retire in 1959 and sold out his share of the company to his grand-nephew. He didn’t mention this to his son, who was only on board because Dad wanted him to be anyway, so he sold his shares too, while they were still worth something. Ray Cohn sought to diversify and make the trains less expensive by using more plastic and less metal, but at best he only slowed the bleeding. By 1967 A. C. Gilbert was being liquidated. Cohn bought the American Flyer brand name and tooling but didn’t have the money to do anything else with it. Later that year, Lionel Corporation filed bankruptcy itself.

Two years later, Lionel decided its chances were better selling toys rather than making them. It sold its train line to General Mills, the cereal people, who also had some toy companies. Lionel opened a chain of toy stores on the east coast, and for a time was the second largest toy store chain in the United States, behind the behemoth Toys R Us.

General Mills kept the Lionel train flame alive, selling O and HO trains branded with the Lionel name throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. In 1979, it even located the old American Flyer tooling and brought those trains back as well. But in the early 1980s it tried to move manufacturing the Mexico, which angered a lot of Lionel fans. It reversed the move, but started looking for a buyer, shuffling the company around within itself and then palming it off to Kenner Parker, and then, in 1986, a Lionel collector who had made his fortune selling real estate in Detroit bought the company and started operating it as Lionel Trains Inc.

Back to Lionel Corporation. Remember them? In 1991, Lionel Corporation found its toy store chain just couldn’t compete with Toys R Us’ economies of scale, and filed for bankruptcy. Starting in 1993, it liquidated. It sold the trademarks to Richard Kughn, the owner of Lionel Trains.

Kughn sold controlling interest in Lionel Trains in 1996 to Wellspring and Associates, a holding company. Rock star Neil Young also purchased a 20 percent share. The new company was called Lionel LLC.

In the late 1990s, Lionel LLC started using Asian subcontractors more and more. Its biggest competitor (and former partner) MTH Electric Trains had been doing the same thing, and undercutting Lionel in price. By 2001, Lionel was manufacturing none of its own trains, and even outsourcing the design of some of them.

In 2000, MTH sued Lionel for misappropriation of trade secrets. A designer who had worked for MTH’s subcontractor did work for Lionel’s subcontractor as well, and the result was what some call an uncanny similarity between some of Lionel’s and MTH’s locomotives. Not having seen them myself–just like many of the people who call the similarity uncanny, no doubt–I don’t know. What I do know is that MTH and Lionel have had bad blood since the early 1990s, and that Lionel’s executives and financial backers conduct themselves in a much more professional manner in public than their MTH counterparts. That may or may not say something.

At any rate, the jurors who saw the evidence agreed with MTH and awarded it $40.8 million, which was more than MTH had sought. Then, on November 1, a judge upheld the jury’s findings and ordered Lionel to stop production of certain locomotives. Lionel then filed bankruptcy two weeks later. Looking over the filing, it’s easy to see why. They have $43 million in assets. They have substantial debt–including $30 million to what appears to be a South Korean subcontractor, not a financial institution like some news reports are saying.

MTH owner Mike Wolf and his buddy, Washington D.C. trash hauling magnate Tony Lash are hopping mad and accusing Lionel of trying to dodge justice by hiding behind Chapter 11. Considering the amount essentially amounts to the corporate death penalty, one would expect them to do whatever they can to appeal. It’s silly to expect a company to not want to stay in business.

In case you haven’t figured it out, my sympathies lie with Lionel. But it’s more out of a dislike of MTH than a love for Lionel, which has basically reduced itself to an importer. It farms out design and manufacturing to the lowest bidder, slaps its name on it, prices it for trial lawyers and heart surgeons, and wonders why nobody buys its stuff.

But MTH is the Rambus of the train industry. Or SCO. Take your pick. Starting in the 1970s, train enthusiasts started using electronics to control them. Eventually these efforts got combined and led to the creation of an open industry standard called Digital Command Control (DCC). Every major maker of HO and N scale trains uses it, and has been using it for years. MTH came along, and while it was developing its own proprietary train control standard called Digital Command System (DCS), patented some elements of DCC. Then it started suing selected companies who made use of DCC.

J. Lionel Cowen was a ruthless businessman and made a lot of enemies, but he had ethics and was proud of them. Not that that’s relevant because the Lionel he founded went out of business in the 1990s and has no direct connection to Lionel, LLC, as much as Lionel, LLC tries to make it look otherwise.

I’d like to see Lionel, LLC survive but I won’t lose sleep over it. Anyone can contract with Asian firms to design and manufacture trains, and to slap the Lionel name on it, all you need is the trademark. If someone other than Lionel, LLC ends up owning that trademark, I don’t see that it makes one iota of difference.

Unless that person happens to be Mike Wolf.

But Mike Wolf isn’t going to steal my hobby away from me. I buy mostly old stuff anyway. Why should I let the Rambus of Trains ruin my fun?