The Lionel e-unit was a wonder of ingenuity in the 1930s. But how does a Lionel e-unit work?
I get a lot of inquiries about “the copper piece on a locomotive.” They mean a toy train locomotive. Depending on the make of the train, there may be one copper piece on the motor, or there may be two.
Here’s what those pieces are called, how to find them, and how to care for them.
If you have vintage tin lithographed train cars made by American Flyer, Bing, Dorfan, Ives, Lionel, Marx, or another make I’m forgetting and some of them are worse for wear, there are a few things you can do to improve their appearance.
Keep in mind these won’t make them new, and they won’t fool anyone. One reason collectors like lithography is because they can easily recognize a touchup. But you can make beat-up cars look better, and that’s what I’m going to talk about today.
Tin train cars had a variety of methods to couple them together, but by far the most common method was a coupler commonly called tab-in-slot. The tab from one car mated with a slot in the next. All of the train manufacturers used a variant of this method at one point or another, and all of them would be able to couple together, if not for one nagging detail: height.
For most of the 1930s and 1940s, Lionel used a latch coupler that was incompatible with the others–Lionel liked doing things like that–but they made a combination coupler for a while that had a slot in it to accommodate tab-in-slot couplers. Reproductions are available on Ebay. Get one of those for this car, and something that couples with the other cars you like to run, whether that’s an Ives snakehead coupler if you’re lucky enough to have a spare one, a generic tab-in-slot coupler, or another Lionel combination coupler.
But even when you change the couplers on the car, you’re still likely to have height issues. Here are some approaches to solving the height problem so you can run various brands of vintage trains together almost as effortlessly as people pick and choose between all brands of modern trains today.
You may have heard to never use steel wool to clean electric train track, especially Lionel, but you may have never heard the reason why.
There is a good reason.
This past weekend I scored a poorly repainted Lionel #602 baggage car (made from 1915-1923) and an Ives #71 passenger car (made 1923-25) at an estate sale. The Ives was in good shape and original, but one of the Lionel’s trucks was detached and one of the hook couplers was broken. Fortunately I was able to find the loose truck, and the repair was as simple as you can get.
I wrote a few weeks ago about finding a scarce Marx windup train at an estate sale, but I actually went a good couple of years without finding a train worth buying until recently. The train that broke my slump was at a sale close to home, and I actually didn’t even set out to buy a train that day.
It was a cold and rainy morning in St. Louis. It was Friday, and I was in between jobs. The estate sale was close, so I went. Otherwise I would have had no reason to go. I don’t remember exactly what I was looking for, but I didn’t expect to find a train.
Hafner was a Chicago-based maker of clockwork-powered O gauge trains during most of the first half of the 20th century. The trains were inexpensive but durable. William Hafner developed the clockwork motor as a hobby around the turn of the previous century and put the motor in toys. Eventually he decided to make a train–perhaps he thought his two sons would like one–and he did. He even sold a set or two, but didn’t have the facilities to mass produce them, or the money to buy such a facility. So he approached William Coleman, who had an interest in a struggling farm tool company, and after Hafner secured an order for $15,000 worth of trains, Coleman agreed to use the company’s excess capacity to produce the trains.
And so began American Flyer, the company that battled Lionel for the hearts and minds of train enthusiasts for about sixty years, until 1967.
But for reasons that Coleman and Hafner took to their graves, the partnership dissolved in 1914. The sons didn’t know exactly what happened. John Hafner said Coleman had promised his father a larger share of the company if the trains proved successful, then broke his promise. John Hafner said the two families had animosity afterward. But Robert Hafner recalled receiving wedding gifts from the Colemans in 1917, and said the dissolution was purely for business reasons. Going it alone, William Hafner formed his own company, rented factory space for $50 a month, and started a product line that would last into the 1950s.
Unlike his erstwhile partner, Hafner didn’t have to deal much with Lionel. Hafner’s greater concern was with this upstart named Louis Marx.
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.
Lionel stamped the Ives name on track clips to protect the trademark. If you don’t use a trademark for several years, someone else can apply for it and start using it. Lionel didn’t want that.
If you’re a tinplate fan like me, it would behoove you to make a trip to Big Lots sometime this week. Big Lots has a selection of building-shaped cookie tins priced at $5 each. The buildings include a town hall, post office, bakery, and general store. Additionally, my old friend Radio Shack is selling a building tin full of AA and AAA batteries for $10 until December 10 (it’ll be $20 after that).