The plastic Lionel Scout motor is legendary. I don’t mean in a good way. It worked well enough when it was new, but it didn’t age as well as Lionel’s other motor designs. And Lionel Scout motor repair is notoriously difficult.

The usual advice on Scout motors goes something like this. If it works, enjoy it while it lasts, but once one of them stops working, having a professional fix it costs more than the whole locomotive is worth. It’s nothing like the Marx motor it competed with, which is legendary for its simplicity, reliability, and being easy to fix. But while it’s certainly a hassle, you can fix a Scout motor that runs poorly, and you can do it yourself with household tools.

My experience with the plastic Lionel Scout motor

Lionel Scout motor

Remove the two screws to gain access to the brushes and commutator. That’s the easy part. Reassembly is the hard part, because only one of the eight ways to put it back together actually works.

When Dad unpacked his childhood Lionel trains and set them up, he had two engines: an entry-level 1110, and a nicer 2026 2-6-2. But in 1986, the 1110 2-4-2 steamer was the only one we could get running. The more esteemed 2026 steamer didn’t run. And when he got them back out in 1993, he bought a 2037 because he couldn’t find anyplace to fix the 2026 he had as a kid. When I unboxed them in 2003, guess which one ran after sitting for 10 years? Only the 1110.

The people who fix Lionel trains professionally hate that plastic body Scout motor because it’s hard to work on.

And I get that. Once that 1110 motor started making funny noises, I decided to take it apart to clean and lubricate it. I ended up with a motor that didn’t run at all and two hours of my life I won’t get back, repeatedly taking it apart and putting it back together every possible way.

Eventually I learned how to fix it. So I want to share what I learned with you, so you have a better experience than I did.

Of course, first you need to start by disassembling the locomotive. Then you can get on with the motor.

The motor even Lionel wouldn’t fix… except when it would

The prevailing wisdom is that Lionel themselves didn’t recommend trying to fix the plastic Lionel Scout motors, but rather recommended swapping the motor with a motor from a 2034 locomotive when they failed. I have seen that service bulletin and can confirm that is what it says. There have been copies of it floating around online for 20 years.

But there was an earlier service bulletin that explained the plastic bodied Scout motor, including how to put it back together. A reprint of the earlier bulletin appears in Greenberg’s Repair and Operating Manual for Lionel Trains. But online copies of that bulletin are far harder to find, so almost no one ever mentions it.

The problem with the Scout motor is getting it back together. It comes apart easily. But then four critical pieces go flying. And when you go to put it all back together after you clean it, I count at least eight different ways those four pieces can fit back together. Any of them look right. But only one of those ways works.

If you take a picture of the motor before you disassemble it, and put it back together exactly the way it was in the picture, it will work. Guess who didn’t take a picture? Me. Not only that, one of the crucial details is very easy to overlook, even with a picture.

So let’s talk about these little-known secrets.

Disassembling the Lionel Scout motor

On one side of the motor, there is a plastic housing with two slotted screws holding it on. This housing covers the brushes, springs, and armature. When you remove the housing, all the pieces go flying. So be careful you don’t lose any.

Lionel Scout motor inside

To service a Lionel Scout motor, clean the copper surface until it shines. Clean out the three slots (like the one on the right), then put one drop of oil on the axle in the center.

Remove the parts to gain access to the armature, then clean the armature with mineral spirits or contact cleaner and cotton swabs through the brush wells. The cleaner you get the surface of the commutator, the better it will run. It should look like a new penny.

When you turn the motor, you will notice slots in between the commutator plates. There are three of them total. Clean those slots out with a toothpick. Carbon dust in those slots makes the motor run weaker.

Clean the brush covers and the copper spring contacts. They all need to be clean, bright, and shiny for the reverse mechanism to work correctly.

Put a drop of oil on the axle. It probably hasn’t had any since the 1950s. And with that, the crucial part of the maintenance is done. Unfortunately, that’s the easy part. Next, it’s the part that everyone hates.

Reassembling the motor

Lionel plastic body Scout motor

This diagram shows the correct positioning and orientation of the gears that make the Lionel Scout reverse unit function. Swap the position or align the gears wrong, and the motor doesn’t run at all. The pointy gear goes on the right, and note how the pattern on the gears alternates between the two. Match plastic to brass, not brass to brass or plastic to plastic.

The weird reverse unit in these motors works by rotating the brushes with the geared assembly that covers them. It is an odd but clever electromechanical design that doesn’t work quite as well as the conventional e-unit, but it is super cheap. Unfortunately, it means there is only one way the motor goes back together and still runs. If you look at the two brush covers, they have different shaped gears. The one with the pointy gear teeth goes on the right. The one with the blunt teeth goes on the left. This detail is crucial.

I’ll repeat it. Pointy gear teeth on right, blunt teeth on the left.

There is one other crucial detail. The gears need to mesh in a certain way. The mechanism has insulated and conductive segments to cause the motor to sequence. When you mesh the gears, mesh them so the insulated and conductive segments alternate. It looks better when they match. But it doesn’t run if you put them in the way that looks right.

I lied. Don’t forget the copper wipers

There’s another problem. The copper wipers that go in the top and bottom of the motor have to face the correct direction. There’s a tab on one side of each wiper. The tab of each wiper needs to face the inside of the motor to make proper contact with the brush holders. If you reverse it on one or both springs, it doesn’t make electrical contact and the motor doesn’t run.

Reassembly from start to finish

So the trick is to put the brushes and springs back in the brush holders, then put the brush covers on the way I describe above. Then put the two metal wipers in place above and below the brush holder covers. There is a slot in the wipers that matches up with tabs in the motor to hold them in place. Make sure the wipers are clean before you put them back, then place the plastic cover back on the motor and replace the two screws. It’s a little bit fiddly but possible. And as long as you put the brush holders and wipers in right, the motor will run. And it will run better than it did before you maintained it.

If you have to fully disassemble one of these motors, I understand the consternation. But if the motor just needs to be lubricated and cleaned, it’s not that much worse than the more traditional Lionel motor that made the company famous. It takes maybe 15 minutes longer to service.

Since these engines were cheaper than the rest of the product line, I think they get less respect. And that’s a bit of a shame. I wonder how many of these motors have been needlessly thrown out over the years?

Lubricating the motor

Last but not least, lubricate the motor to make it run its best. We covered one lubrication point earlier because it’s inside the motor. All of the rest are externally accessible. Apply a drop of plastic-compatible oil to each visible axle on the geared side. Then apply some plastic-compatible grease to the gears. I use Labelle 106 and 107. Everyone has their favorites, but these work extremely well and don’t harm the plastic. On a metal bodied Lionel motor, you can get away with using almost anything, but the Labelle products won’t harm plastic and will last decades before drying out. On a motor that’s hard to service, not having to take it apart again for 30 years is a boon.

Conventional wisdom says Scout motors aren’t worth fixing when they break. It turns out they’re harder to fix, but a long way from impossible. Just like fixing O27 track, it’s up to you to decide if it’s worth the effort.

In my case, the motor had enough sentimental value to me that it was. I’m glad I serviced that against-all-odds Scout motor that once belonged to my dad.