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Troubleshoot your locomotives on the floor!

I’m not going to write up a comprehensive tutorial on troubleshooting old Lionel, American Flyer, Marx, and Ives trains just yet. But I’m going to present a hard-learned lesson.

When troubleshooting a locomotive, set it up on the floor, not on a table.I was working on an Ives locomotive this evening. A lot of Ives frames were made of cast iron, where Lionel and American Flyer had a tendency to use pressed steel, or when they were feeling saucy, brass. And Ives locomotives were top heavy.

Now that I’ve totally trashed Ives’ quality, let me say that their lithography was gorgeous and their motor design is absolutely brilliant and so simple that anyone can understand it, and therefore, has a chance of fixing it if something goes wrong.

Lionel was afraid of Ives. Very afraid. Ives was the most trusted toymaker in the United States at the turn of the previous century. When Ives decided to start making electric trains instead of just windups, Joshua Lionel Cowen approached Ives & son with an offer. He wanted to sell out.

The elder Ives wasn’t impressed and said no.

That was the wrong thing to do because J. Lionel Cowen was a very ruthless man. He soon took out advertisements comparing his quality with Ives’. He always compared his priciest offering with Ives’ cheapest, but that didn’t matter. In one of the ads, Lionel showed what happened when both an Ives locomotive and a Lionel locomotive fell four feet off a table.

The Ives broke into a large number of pieces. I don’t remember if it was 17 or 24. The Lionel suffered dents and paint scratches.

There was an upstart called Dorfan whose locomotives would usually survive without a dent if you threw them, let alone if they fell, but Lionel prefered battles he could win. Dorfan went bust when impurities crept into its alloy and caused it to crumble. So time could do what throwing a Dorfan across the room at a concrete wall would not. But I digress.

I now know from personal experience what happens when an Ives locomotive of that vintage falls to the floor.

Mine’s only in four pieces. Today we have glues that can put such problems back together. Those didn’t exist in 1920. We also have putties that can fill or disguise any seams or gaps that result from gluing it back together. Those didn’t exist in 1920 either.

If we have to, we can even cut a length of brass to fit and cover it with putty textured to look like cast iron if we can’t find one of those pieces, which is what happened to me.

Fortunately for me, this Ives locomotive had virtually no collector value because it had been repainted, badly. Its only value is to someone who wants to run it, and a reconstructed frame isn’t going to affect that at all.

Even still, watching an 85-year-old locomotive tumble to the floor isn’t an experience I wish on anybody. Even if you have the ability to fix it up like it never happened. And even if the locomotive you’re working on is a Marx 490 that’s worth about $7.

So, as you’re doing your preliminary break-in after cleaning the driver wheels and the commutator and applying a bit of light machine oil, run it on the floor. Once it’s running smoothly as Phil Hartman’s Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor again and can pull some cars, then it’s safe to put it on the table.

Fascination with old technology

I found this New York Times story on retro technology today. I have my own take on retro gaming.

My girlfriend tells me the 1980s are terribly hip with her students. As she was grading papers last night, I noticed one student had doodled Pac-Man on a paper, the way I remember my classmates and I doing in 1982.

I dig it.I was feeling nostalgic in the summer of 1996 when I started visiting old 8-bit oriented newsgroups on Usenet. Someone wrote in with a question about an Atari power supply, and I happened to have a Jameco catalog in my hands that was advertising some old surplus Atari boxes.

That led to me meeting Drew “Atari” Fuehring, who along with his brother had accumulated one of the largest collection of retro video game consoles in Missouri. Atari 2600, 5200, 7800; Vectrex; Colecovision; Intellivision–you name it, they had it, and if they didn’t have every cartridge and accessory that came with each, they had more than 75 percent of it.

I did a feature story on them for the Sunday magazine of the newspaper I was working at the time. It was easily the most enjoyable story I did during my time at that paper. Maybe the most enjoyable story I ever did.

I didn’t take up video game collecting, but obviously I never forgot that article. (I’d link to it but the database seems to be down forever.)

Those of us in our 20s (I’ve still got 3 1/2 months left of my 20s) grew up around technology. We’ve watched it grow up with us. So why does it seem so odd for us to think of older technology as something other than inferior? Isn’t that like saying that once you’ve heard rock ‘n’ roll, you have to give up jazz and blues?

In some regards the old stuff’s better. Hold up that original fake wood-grained Atari 2600 alongside my GPX-branded DVD player. Hold both of them up and then ask any person which of those two things originally cost more money. Even if they don’t have a clue what the two objects are, they’ll know.

There was a time when things were built to last and they weren’t rendered obsolete in two years or six months just to force us to buy more stuff.

Take the guy in the article who bought a 15-year-old Motorola cell phone. I’m sure some people think he’s nuts. The new phones have all the functions of a Palm Pilot in them, and you can play video games on them (funny, they’re old video games–I hold out hope that the people who make these gadgets have some clue) and you can take pictures with them and you can program them to play annoying songs when people call you, and I think some of them even do septuble duty as an MP3 player. But have you ever tried to talk on the phone with one? Or worse yet, talk with someone who’s talking on one? They’re terrible! They cut out all the time and the conversation sounds robotic, so everyone talks really loud trying to make up for the terrible quality–and succeed only in annoying everyone around them–and if you drive under a bridge, forget it. You’ll lose the connection.

I remember all the promises of digital. I’ll tell you what was so great about digital: It allowed the phone companies to cram a lot more conversations into a much narrower frequency range. It saved them a buttload of money, and we get the benefit of… ever-smaller, costlier phones that are easier to lose, along with an endless upgrade cycle. Trust me, next year the annoying salespeople in the mall will be asking you if you can watch movies on your cellphone, because you can on this year’s model.

Eugene Auh says he bought the phone to impress girls. Maybe he did, but he’ll keep the phone because it works.

I spend my day surrounded by technology and by the time I manage to get home, I really want to get away from it. My sister asked me a few months ago where my sudden fascination with trains came from. I think that’s exactly it. The first time I saw a train with onboard electronics that ran by remote control it really wowed me, but I’m constantly drawn to the old stuff. The older the better. I have a lot of respect for the 1950s units that my dad played with, but for me, the holy grail is an Ives train made between 1924 and 1928. In 1924, Ives came up with a technological marvel: a train that could not only reverse when the power was cycled, but added a neutral position to keep the train from slamming itself into reverse and doing a Casey Jones maneuver, and could keep the headlight lit at all times.

Trust me, it was a big deal in 1924.

Besides that, those oldies were built to be played with hard and built to last. And they were built to look good. Remember that picture I posted this weekend? That’s nothing. The electric units were gorgeous, with bright, enameled paints and brass trim and the works.

Why should I settle for a hunk of plastic made by someone who gets paid a dollar an hour whose electronics are going to fry in a year, rendering the thing motionless?

Nope. I like old stuff.

Next time I’m at a flea market and I see a Betamax VCR, I might just buy it.

An easy coupler height fix for prewar American Flyer

So I picked up this oddball car at Marty’s Model Railroads a couple of weeks ago. It’s a Lionel/American Flyer hybrid: A Lionel 807 cattle car on a prewar American Flyer 8-wheel frame. It has the awful prewar Lionel latch coupler on one side and the oddball AF hook coupler (with the funny-shaped tab) on the other. It’s compatible with everyone else’s hook coupler, fortunately. The Lionel coupler is compatible with nothing.

It was intended as a conversion car, but it rides too high, so the Lionel coupler won’t connect with a Lionel car. Bummer.Marty and I came up with a couple of possible remedies. I could replace the Lionel coupler with one that has a longer shank. I could replace the Lionel coupler with one that attaches with a screw or rivet, and make a bearing with a piece of brass tube to lower the coupler, and attach all of it with a long bolt.

I came up with another solution that doesn’t require any disassembly of the car. That’s good, because these prewar cars weren’t intended to be disassembled, and generally you can only disassemble and reassemble once. Obviously, this car got its second disassembly and reassembly when it was put on the Flyer frame. I could probably get by with just removing the roof, but the paint’s in pretty good shape and I’d rather not mar it.

American Flyer copied Ives’ oversized wheels. I happened to have the car close to a 6-wheel Marx car, and noticed the difference the smaller Marx wheels made in the car height.

So I pulled out some spare Marx wheels and swapped them in for the Flyer wheels. As I suspected, the car started riding lower. It wasn’t quite a perfect match for the height of a Lionel, but it was close enough. The Lionel latch couplers have enough play in them to make a secure connection.

Of course, the height was no longer a perfect match for American Flyer either. But these couplers have lots of play in them too, and that oddball AF design gives a more secure connection than the more traditional tab-in-slot couplers used by everyone else, so the cars connect and stay connected there too.

Marx wheels are cheap, because the standard Marx wheel stayed in production for almost 40 years, and Marx sold millions of train sets. So lots of parts survive to this day.

They\’re just toys

I saw someone get up in front of a crowd with his new O gauge model trolley, based on a prototype from St. Louis, manufactured by MTH Electric Trains, that he had ordered a couple of years ago and had finally arrived this year.

He proceeded to tell us everything that was wrong with it. It was a long, long list. I started wondering if he regretted buying it.

And I started wondering what difference any of it made anyway, seeing as the biggest detail was already wrong: It runs on non-prototypical track with three rails and the outer rails a 5 scale feet apart!Tom Gatermann and I talked about it last night. He’s had HO-scale layouts since childhood; now he and another friend have pooled their time and money to build a bigger, badder N-scale layout.

They and I are on polar opposites. They like modeling rural settings; I’m trying to build a city. They like scale models; most of my stuff is semi-scale, and at times I’ve been known to clear all that off and run a bunch of toylike Marx trains and prewar stuff from Lionel, American Flyer, and Ives. Aside from scenery, they’re almost exclusively RTR models and kits for buildings; I enjoy scratchbuilding. (Yeah, I’m a strange, strange mix.) They’re runners; and while I run my trains, I’ve got a lot of collector in me too.

The main thing we have in common is that none of us could care less if our model has 133 rivets and the real-world version had 139. Without a magnifying glass and way more time than we’re willing to spend, we’re not going to be able to tell the difference.

I wonder less now whether the person who bought the trolley regrets it. I read in a book that a lot of hobbyists relish finding and pointing out the inaccuracies in their toys. I guess I have something in common with them too. I want to learn as much about something as I can, and so do they. I guess pointing out every detail that was wrong (besides that pesky third rail and wide track) is a way of demonstrating how much you know; much like artists of old painted people in various stages of undress in order to demonstrate how much they knew about anatomy.

Too bad it comes off as stuffy and, well, just plain geeky. This stuff is supposed to be an escape from the real world. It’s supposed to be fun.

And besides, why get so uptight about the realism of the train? I can find all sorts of inaccuracies if I look elsewhere on the table. See that hill on the layout? What’s its real-world prototype? Do you have the right kind of trees on it? Did you count them? What about that road? Is the width right? Why hasn’t that 1946 Ford pickup truck on that road ever moved? The train moves, why don’t the cars? Why do the people look like department store mannequins? Why are there two Walgreen Drug Stores across the street from each other in your town? (Well, actually that last question might have a real-world prototype…)

A Bing in Marx clothing

The sign said "50% off all items $25 and under. Other items, make offer." I spied a table full of beat-up Marx trains. I picked through them. There were two 3/16 scale tinplate boxcars and cabooses, paired with a Marx Commodore Vanderbilt locomotive, marked as a "set." Price: $79. At least two of the cars were missing wheels and the loco had bad paint. Heaven only knew if it ran. The bundle wasn’t worth $20. Likewise for a six-inch bundle. Two common six-inch cars, rusty and one missing a coupler, paired with a locomotive with no wheels or engine or paint–about 90% naked, except for rust–for $65. I’d have been willing to pay $7.

I almost overlooked the three six-inch passenger cars that were almost completely devoid of paint. It’s a good thing I didn’t.At first glance, they looked like Marx 6-inch passenger cars. I don’t do 6-inch passenger cars. I don’t know why; I just don’t like ’em. Then I noticed that one of the cars had wheels that were too big for Marx. I picked it up and flipped it over. It had an uppercase "B" and the words "Made in Germany."

I looked at the price. "Set of 3. $39."

Now let me tell you the significance of the words "Made in Germany." Before World War I, most toy trains were made in Germany. The market leaders were Bing, which was the world’s largest toy company, and Maerklin, which was the company that everybody copied. The biggest U.S. maker was a company called Ives. Some upstart called Lionel was giving all of them a run for the money, but it was an also-ran. After the war, Ives and American Flyer lobbied successfully for protection, essentially pricing the Germans out of the U.S. market.

So this Bing car probably dates back to before World War I.

I picked up the other two cars in the set. "Made in U.S.A. The Lionel Corporation." Ah, so they weren’t a set. I double-checked them to make sure they would couple together. They weren’t a perfect match but they fit. And the wheel height was right.

Well, like I said, I don’t do six-inch passenger cars. Especially six-inch passenger cars that have no paint or have been badly repainted. But these weren’t just any six-inch passenger cars. And even though they were almost completely devoid of paint, amazingly they had little or no rust anywhere on them.

I hesitated. Then I ran through in my mind the value of the cars as parts. The wheels and axles were all in good shape. The couplers were all usable. The roofs were all nice and straight and even had decent paint jobs on them, considering their likely age. The frames were pretty straight. The bodies weren’t perfectly straight but they also weren’t dented, and they were rust-free. They were easily worth $20 as parts, I figured.

So I offered $20. The cashier looked at the price tag, then accepted without hesitation.

Still, it took me a while to justify my purchase. Call it shellshock from looking at Marx priced at 10x book value.

I explained it to my girlfriend this way. Yes, a Standard Gauge Lionel locomotive–the big mamas with the wheels 2 1/8 inches apart–is worth a minimum of $500 if it looks decent. It doesn’t even have to run. Cars are also worth a couple hundred apiece. Some rare sets go for five figures. Lots of people know this, so they automatically assume that any toy train is worth a small fortune.

Reality check: Lionel quit making those trains in 1938 because nobody could afford them. They’re worth that kind of money because they’re old and rare. And they look really cool. But Lionel made millions of trains in the 1950s and they ran forever. With few exceptions, they’re common and cheap. Marx made even more of them. You could buy Marxes anywhere with the change in your pocket. They’re even more common and even cheaper.

It’s like baseball cards. A 1910 Honus Wagner baseball card is worth a million dollars in best-possible condition. But that doesn’t mean my 1983 Johnny Bench baseball cards are worth even $100. They’re probably not even worth $10.

Back to the trains. What else can I tell from looking at them?

I found traces of red paint on the two Lionels and a slightly larger remnant of yellow paint on the German car (I’m guessing it’s a Bing, since the largest German makers were Maerklin, Bing, and Fandor, and only Bing starts with a "B"). I suspect the Lionels were red with black doors, roof, and frame, and the Bing was yellow with black doors, roof, and frame.

As for their age, no doubt they’re pre-War. Only Marx bothered to make six-inch tinplate cars after World War II. And since Bing had difficulty selling trains in the United States after World War I, the Bing might predate World War I. Lionel didn’t catalog O gauge trains until 1913 and they weren’t widely available until 1915. So maybe these are the same age as the Bing, or maybe the Bing is slightly older.

I set them up on a piece of display track. They looked pretty good there. Definitely rustic, but not bad.

But toy trains are meant to run. Even 90-year-old ones. I checked the coupler height against my postwar Marx 551 tender ($4 at Marty’s last week). It fit. I put the three cars on my track on my layout behind the tender, and lashed the tender up to my Marx 490 locomotive ($12 off eBay a few months ago). It looked good. I applied power. The Marx strained, but it pulled them.

After a few laps, I realized those cars probably haven’t seen oil in a good 70 years, maybe more. So I oiled the wheels and axles and spun the wheels to make sure they turned freely. I ran the Marx again, and it pulled them without difficulty.

I probably have no choice but to restore the cars. I expect they’ll rust quickly in my humid house, and chances are what paint remains on them is lead-based. I don’t want toys with lead-based paint in my house. So I’ll strip them down–I hear a long bath in a bucket of generic imitation Pine-Sol is all it takes–and repaint them after I manage to research how the cars were originally painted and lettered.