Lionel’s e-unit is the most common cause of trouble in vintage Lionel trains. Sometimes people bypass them or remove them entirely to avoid dealing with the problem. Or maybe someone attempted a repair in the past and you just bought the remnants. If someone did that and now you want to replace or rewire it, you need a Lionel e-unit wiring diagram.
At the last train show I attended, I bought a Marx locomotive that lacked a reverse unit. I found a mess of wires in its place, and of course it didn’t run. So I had to figure out how to wire a Marx motor without a reverse unit. When I wired it up to run correctly, it surprised me. It ran really nicely.
If you want to fix a Lionel train, what you probably really need to do is repair a Lionel train motor. There isn’t much to the rest of the train.
The motors tend to be pretty rugged and they’ve held up over the years. Most “repairs” are really more of a clean and service job, not unlike taking your car in for an oil change. Here are some general principles to follow when you clean and service a Lionel motor.
Disassembling a Lionel 1001, 1060, 8902 or 8302 locomotive isn’t too difficult. The biggest problem is knowing where the three screws are that you have to remove.
These particular locomotives weren’t really designed to be repaired, but there’s some basic work you can do on them with household tools. The 8902 and 8302 locomotives can be cheap sources of a motor for other projects.
Ives-branded track clips for Lionel O27 track are relatively common, and although they are often mistaken for pre-1933 items, they were actually manufactured for several decades after the Ives brand name disappeared from the marketplace, and by Lionel, not its erstwhile rival Ives.
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.
Someone asked (not me specifically) whether it’s possible or desirable to run Marx and Lionel trains as part of the same layout, what the caveats are, and how to do it.
It seems to be a pretty dark secret. The answer is, yes it’s possible, and yes, it might very well be desirable, but it’s possible to run into some pitfalls.
Let’s talk about it.Marx and Lionel competed in the 1950s. While Lionel strove to be a status symbol, Marx had a product for every niche. Anyone could afford a Marx train. And since Marx track and accessories were compatible with Lionel, sometimes they got mixed.
Is it desirable? Sure. Both Marx and Lionel made things the other didn’t. For example, Marx made a nice Missouri Pacific cattle car. Lionel made a Missouri Pacific box car. (The Lionel MoPac car wasn’t as nice as American Flyer’s rendition of the same car though.) And if you’re not a high roller, you can buy Lionel O27 cars (which was Lionel’s cheap stuff) and Marx 3/16 scale O27 cars (which was Marx’s expensive stuff). They’re the same size and look fine together. And both can be cheap. I pay between $5 and $10 apiece for Lionel “Scout” type cars from the late 1950s or 1960s. It’s easy to pay $50 apiece for modern O scale cars.
Lionel and Marx used incompatible coupler designs, but that’s easy enough to fix too. Take your most beat-up Marx car and your most beat-up Lionel car, and drill out the rivet that holds one of the trucks in place on each. Then put a Lionel truck on the Marx car and vice-versa, secured with a nut and bolt. Swap the wheels around if you need to in order for both cars to sit flat. Now you can run Marx and Lionel not only together, but even as part of the same train.
The problem is that a lot of Marx engines–basically everything but the Marx 1829 and the Marx 666 (I’ll just call it the sixty-six from here on out) locomotives had what they call a “fat wheel.” The gears that drive the wheels on most toy trains are in the side of the wheel. On Lionels and the aforementioned Marxes, those gears are smaller than the diameter of the wheel. On all other Marxes, those gears are nearly the size of the wheel.
So what? Well, it’s no big deal if you have a simple loop or figure 8 of track. But if you want your track to have branch lines with switches (also called turnouts), where the train can go off in another direction on a different stretch of track, and you use a Lionel switch, the cheap Marx engines like the 400, 490, and 999 will do crazy things when they hit it. Hopefully they won’t fly too far off the track.
Marx switches are designed for Marx locomotives, of course. The problem is, most Lionel locomotives can’t maintain electrical continuity while they go over a Marx switch. Lionel spaced its electrical contacts differently from Marx. Sometimes momentum will carry the Lionel through the switch and it’ll go on as if nothing happened. But sometimes the momentary loss of power is enough to engage the Lionel sequencer, causing it to either go into neutral (in the case of expensive Lionels) or reverse (in the case of cheap ones).
Flip the switch on the top of a Lionel locomotive to disable the sequencer (also known as an e-unit), and you can run Lionels through Marx switches all day.
You can also modify a Marx switch by inserting some track pins strategically to close down the gap that impedes the Lionels. Simply insert track pins where indicated in the diagram below.
The downside to this is that it limits you to O27 track, but that’s not really a downside–you can get wider-diameter O27 track. Use wide diameter track and then your trains will run just as well, or better, than they would on the costlier O31 track.
You can even go outside of O gauge for rolling stock. If you run across a postwar S gauge American Flyer car and like it, it’s possible to adapt it for use with Lionel and Marx. O27 is supposed to be 1:64 scale, just like S gauge is. So if you run across some Flyer cars and the price is right, consider changing its trucks out for Lionel and adding still more variety to your fleet.