Making a Marx run like a Marx again

After a couple of marathon days at work, I unwound on Martin Luther King Jr. Day by refurbishing an old Marx Canadian Pacific-style tinplate locomotive.

At first, its problem wasn’t obvious.The usual prescription for a misbehaving Marx is to remove the motor from the locomotive frame, douse it in contact cleaner (I got some zero-residue contact cleaner from Advance Auto Parts for $1.99, which is the best price I’ve seen) to remove or at least soften the decades’ worth of grime and no-longer-effective aged lubricants, then conservatively re-lube, applying some sewing machine-type oil to the axles and bearings, and some light grease to the gears.

I did that, and the thing still would only run about three feet at best. It smoked better than most modern Lionel locomotives do, but the problem is, this particular train doesn’t have a smoke generator. Ahem. I get worried when a non-smoking locomotive smokes better than my smokers.

Since this CP came from a store, I took it back whence it came–to Marty’s Model Railroads in Affton. Lionel (the co-owner, not the train company) flipped it over, took one look at the wheels, and pointed. "That’s either steel wool or cat hair." Sure enough, there was lots of hair wound around the axles next to the gear-bearing wheels. Marty took a look at it and decided the wheels were too tight, so he broke out his wheel puller and pulled the wheels out a fraction of an inch from the frame. The locomotive mostly came to life. The e-unit still buzzed, so he grabbed a can of special lubricated contact cleaner and blasted a couple of squirts of that into the e-unit. He warned me to make sure I let it evaporate, otherwise I’d see a really big spark and maybe some smoke. Then he oiled the axles for good measure. It ran. Not like a Marx usually runs, but it could make it around the track under its own power for several minutes at a time.

The locomotive was still running hot though, so I attacked the hair wrapped around the axles with a #11 Xacto blade. I can’t really describe the process other than cut, pull, repeat. Work the blade until it feels like you’ve cut something, then see if you can use the side of the blade to pull it out. Lots of old hair came out. When I couldn’t get any more, I ran it on the track for a few minutes, first in forward, then in reverse. That would usually loosen things up enough that I could yank more hair out or at least cut some more.

After about half an hour of this, the locomotive was to the point where it could run on its own power for 10-15 minutes and only be warm to the touch afterward. That was a huge improvement; earlier it could only manage a couple of laps before the motor would be too hot to comfortably touch.

I ran it for about 20 minutes. At some point the locomotive suddenly sped up and didn’t slow back down. Some piece of debris had worked itself loose from the running, and suddenly it was running like a Marx again. The cheaper (or older) Marx locomotives were geared really high, and they basically only had three speeds: off, fast, and so fast it’ll fly off the track (and not pick up any speed from gravity while falling).

Most people who had Marx trains set the track up on the floor temporarily, ran the trains, then took the track back apart and boxed it back up. That’s why it’s so common to see 50-year-old Marx sets still in their original boxes. But setting the trains up on the carpet meant all sorts of stuff could find its way up from the carpet into the gears and wind its way around the axles. Some of my more experienced Marx buddies tell me almost every locomotive they buy has this problem.

So, if you’ve got an old train from your attic or basement and you’ve set it up and it just won’t budge, flip it over and take a good look at its axles under a strong light. What you find might be what’s keeping your train from running.

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