The Lionel Multi-control 1033 is a 90 watt transformer produced from 1948 to 1956. They are reasonably durable and were popular in their day, which means there are still a lot of them floating around so they tend to be inexpensive. I paid $70 for one about 15 years ago but the price has come way down; today you can get a serviced 1033 for about half that, and an as-is one for $20-$25.
Even someone who has a larger transformer or multiple larger transformers for the layout might be interested in a 1033 for the test bench, as it has all of the functionality someone would need for testing locomotives and whistling tenders.
Also, the 1033 is a good choice for running Marx or American Flyer trains. Those brands used a lower voltage than Lionel typically did, but the 1033 tops out at 16 volts while other brands topped out at 15. Some Lionel transformers could deliver 19, 20, or even 24 volts. If you’re going to use a 1033 with American Flyer or Marx, I recommend you measure the output with a voltmeter and mark the spot on the throttle that gets you 15 volts. On mine, it’s the spot right after the “S” in “VOLTS” on the legend printed next to the throttle.
There are four posts on the transformer. Post U goes to the center rail of your track; post A or B goes to the outer rail. Use Post A if you want 5-16 volts or use post B if you want finer control of the train’s speed and a much lower top speed. I recommend post B for small kids, or for people who want a slow train. Use post A if you want a fast train.
For accessories, connecting posts A and C gives you about 16 volts; connecting posts B and C gives you 11 volts. Many accessories have 14 volt light bulbs in them, so either replace them with 18 volt bulbs or use posts B and C for accessories. Using post A and U for the train doesn’t preclude you from using post A and C for accessories.
If any of the binding post nuts are missing, replacements are available on Ebay, but since the posts are threaded 6-32, so you can just use an ordinary household 6-32 nut if you wish. If you prefer a knurled nut and want to get something today, Home Depot has suitable replacements in brass (which are cheaper) or stainless steel (which match the transformer better), though neither of them match the appearance of the original Lionel posts exactly. Then again, they also cost half as much.
If you find yourself switching between post A and B for track power, you could add an ordinary 6-32 nut over whichever wire you use for accessories to hold it in place while changing power. This could save you some frustration.
Safety and Troubleshooting
I have covered basic transformer troubleshooting before in another post; everything there applies to the 1033. When it comes to repair, the two most common things it needs are a replacement power cord or a replacement circuit breaker.
Using multiple 1033s
You can team up 1033s for different loops of track on the same layout; just phase them first. As the cost of ZW and KW transformers has come down, this practice isn’t as common as it once was. There was a time when you could buy three or even four 1033s for less than a single ZW and end up with slightly more usable wattage. Today my recommendation for someone who can’t afford a ZW would be to spring for the KW and use the 1033 for lights.
The 1033 has two handles. The handle on the right controls the throttle. The 1033 doesn’t have a built-in voltmeter, so if you want to see how much voltage it’s delivering, you need to add an external voltmeter.
The handle on the left controls the direction of the train and operates the whistle. Flip the handle left to change the train’s direction (most Lionel trains cycle from forward to neutral to reverse and back to neutral). Flip the handle to the right to operate the train’s whistle. The 1033 lacks a bell/horn controller for modern Lionel diesel locomotives; to control a bell or horn, you’ll have to reverse the polarity to the track, which can cause complications in a multi-transformer setup, or add a modern horn controller. K-Line’s horn controller was much more reliable than Lionel’s.