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…

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